Forming with a Faith that Promotes Justice

By Ann Marie Jursca Keffer

Ad majorem Dei gloriam – a familiar yet powerful phrase for those of us in Jesuit institutions today. The centrality of working all things for the “greater glory of God” is at the core of educating for faith-justice. It directs the Ignatian way of proceeding, informs pedagogy for developing the whole person, and embodies a spirituality that discerns the needs of present times and our individual and collective calls to respond.

Reflecting on the world today, we are ever more in need of forming faith-filled women and men who live lives of solidarity; women and men who understand, practice, and share their skills and talents with and for others to transform society; women and men who are compelled by their developed sense of authenticity and integrity to passionately and compassionately lead and influence their communities. As Fr. Peter Hans-Kolvenbach, S.J., writes in Ignatian Pedagogy: A Practical Approach, “Our goal as educators (is) to form men and women of competence, conscience and compassionate commitment.”

When Jesuit institutions combine academic inquiry and personal value formation contextualized by our mission, we open the doors to the transformative power of education to which Fr. Kolvenbach refers. Intentionally designed community-based learning programs are a model of this. Such courses challenge students to build relationships with people living at society’s margins, to understand factors underlying systemic social injustice through their respective disciplines, and to discern personal meaning while contributing to the community. At Saint Joseph’s University (SJU), service-learning courses require critical reflection so students have structured opportunities to process their beliefs, values, and academic content in hopes of moving from mere experience to action.

Alumnus Julian Phillips (’11) notes, “often it [service-learning] takes you out of your comfort zone, and it puts you in the place where it challenges different conceptions you have, mainly about yourself. Not only in an academic environment because you are learning but also in a place where you are forming relationships with people – that’s something that has continued to shape how I interact with the world.”

Another model, without the experiential learning component, occurs in our faith-justice studies courses and minor program. The interdisciplinary minor, rooted with a Catholic social thought requirement, challenges students to consider existing social values and structures that systemically contribute to modern- day social problems. Students engage the sufferings of those who experience injustices and personally reflect on faith-based traditions as related to social justice. At a crucial time of faith development, discussions and assignments informed by faith traditions offer undergraduate students the space to discern personal meaning and vocation so they can, as Ashley Hyman (’18) states, “apply our faith to do justice in this world for groups who are marginalized, for groups who don’t have a voice in this world.”

Saint Joseph’s University and Fe y Alegria – Bolivia partnership and past delegates.

Saint Joseph’s University and Fe y Alegria – Bolivia partnership and past delegates.

Faculty and professionals too need to remain attuned to the voices at the margins. Mission development programs, like faculty and staff immersions, offer direct contact experiences. When they are designed in sustainable reciprocal partnership, a limited experience can give rise to collaborative, community-based research, professional development capacity building, and more. As Dr. John Neiva reflects, “When one is in another country, the noncognitive aspects of learning are multiplied exponentially. Seeing, breathing, and sharing other people’s realities in person introduces a sensorial aspect that informs both the heart and the mind, perhaps not unlike what St. Ignatius referred to as ‘tasting’ an experience. This contributes to a deeper understanding of others’ realities. Witnessing and participating in Fe y Alegria – Bolivia’s work in loco – was a true inspiration. It provided avenues for me to link my research to real community needs in a humble attempt to support their work in an ongoing way.”

As Ignatian faculty, students, and professionals, we share in the call to shape a more just world. Ad majorem Dei gloriam can animate, direct, and sustain our efforts in forming a faith that promotes justice.

Ann Marie Jursca Keffer is the director of the Faith-Justice Institute at Saint Joseph’s University. She is an alumna of The University of Scranton (’97).