Cura Apostolica Revisited

By Stephanie Russell

The title of the Atlantic article was arresting– “Trust Is Collapsing in America” (Jan 21, 2018). While its content was interesting, it was not new. Wading into the body of the story revealed yet another in the long line of surveys that support essentially the same conclusion: Public trust in the institutions that have girded the substructure of our society is crumbling, and they have brought much of the dissolution on themselves.

Large American institutions are losing favor with those they serve. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll (NPR, Jan. 17, 2018) “shows that Americans have limited confidence in … public schools, courts, organized labor and banks – and even less confidence in big business, the presidency, the political parties and the media.” Institutions have drifted from their aspirations; only the military escapes the sweep of dissatisfaction. Though higher education rarely emerges as the least trusted institution, Gallup reports, “Just under half (48 percent) of American adults have ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in higher education. … That figure is down from 57 percent in 2015 and represents a larger than typical decline in confidence in a relatively short time period.”

In this context of the loss of trust, focusing attention on cura apostolica or “care for the work” can seem an anachronistic exercise in propping up the very structures that are in dire need of reform and reconstitution. Yet bold strides in the care of Jesuit institutions are essential for their authentic mission and renewal. New understandings and expressions of cura apostolica are emerging in our schools- not by fiat, but organically, within and across the universities.

On its face, cura apostolica can be perceived as way of sidelining compassion in lieu of preserving an enterprise at all costs, and it is undoubtedly true that some decision makers have distorted it in this way . But an authentic embrace of cura apostolica should, instead, bring us to a deeper level of humanity and mission commitment. Expressed organically, rather than by fiat, it upends our glib assumptions and reveals that the work we are truly caring for is bigger than any one institution. It is one portal to trust.

A Harmony of the Two

In the vernacular of Jesuit ministries, cura apostolica is integrally related to the better-known idea of cura personalis, the “personal care” (or, interpreted loosely, “care for the whole person”) that a Jesuit superior extends to each member of his community. By showing concern for all dimensions of a fellow Jesuit’s reality – spiritual, familial, physical, intellectual, emotional, and so forth – the superior is better able to serve him and help him live a fruitful, generous life. While the term was first coined by a superior general of the 1930s, (see Bart Geger, Cura Personalis: Some Ignatian Inspirations, Jesuit Higher Education: a Journal. Jan. 2014), cura personalis crystalized something that was already present in the spiritual worldview of St. Ignatius Loyola: God who knows us more intimately than we know ourselves impels us, in turn, to take up residence alongside others, to live in solidarity, and to love them with patience, humility, and reverence.

Cura personalis is now so deeply embedded in the warp and woof of Jesuit university life that it is cited in several university values statements as a key identity marker. In many of our universities, cura personalis has become the watchword by which curricula are developed and student programs are assessed. Personal care for each student implies the skill of active listening and a practiced effort to understand their world, which may be quite different from our own.

Communal and Person Centered

Students at Marquette University.

Students at Marquette University.

Cura apostolica is the complement to cura personalis, but it is not an institutional counterweight that tempers our warm and fuzzy inclinations to provide personal care (that is, the Ignatian version of good cop, bad cop). Rather, through cura apostolica, the same intimate knowledge and compassion found in cura personalis is extended, beyond any single person, to encompass our shared personhood and mission. Thinking of a Jesuit college or university as a complex and communal person rather than a corporate container for good works transforms our sterile language about “the university” to a more humane and invested conversation about “our university” and “us.” It allows us to confront our common failings and build on shared virtues. We matter to each other; we matter together for the common good.

The addition of cura apostolica to the Jesuit lexicon can be traced to documents of the 35th General Congregation in 2008, but, like cura personalis, its core meaning has been characteristic of the Society since the order’s early days. The directives given by Ignatius to the Jesuits’ fledging ministries and the apostolic guidance codified in the Jesuit Constitutions all reflect the same spirit of cura apostolica that animates Jesuit colleges and universities today. Threaded through the history of Jesuit higher education is the expectation that decisions about the work – which is to say the realization of the mission – will be spiritually discerned and responsible to the most pressing of human needs.

It was historian John Padberg, S.J., who penned references to cura apostolica for the general congregation documents, interpreting the term for our modern sensibilities. “Cura apostolica,” he said, “was never about building up institutions. It was and is about seeing ‘the work’ as the people engaged in it and the people served by it.” While we need the practical means to sustain and grow our institutions, our core work is flesh and blood, not bricks and bitmaps.

Belonging to Each Other

Beneath all the surveys on institutional trust and confidence lie deeper questions. How do we belong to each other? In the midst of deconstructing institutions that have failed us, what will keep us from being a mere assembly of individuals whose full humanness is stunted by isolation and self-reference? How can we eschew the misuse of power and privilege that has gutted the humanity from too many institutions and begin to imagine something better? The inability to discern how we belong to each other underlies our national struggle with racism, economic inequality, environmental degradation, and most of the flashpoints that drive us to our protective corners. The writing off of institutions as we knew them has left some of us wandering in search of a connection and has resulted in a shrinking plot of common space to address the issues and crises that seem to be multiplying exponentially on our newsfeeds.

The classic Christian belief regarding the nature of God states that God does not merely look kindly on community. Rather, God is a community – one God made up of three divine persons. Thus, if we humans are in any way divinized – if, for just a moment, someone else experiences gratuitous love and light from us – then that in-breaking of divine love can happen only in relationship. Through the relationally thick work of cura apostolica we are reminded unmistakably that we belong to each other.

Leading from a posture of cura apostolica is a risky business, precisely because preservation of the institution is not the highest value. If our principal “work” is the reconciling love that so vividly marked the life of Jesus, then the care we offer our institutions must always be qualified. Specifically, if a particular institution or “way of proceeding” serves the intent of reconciliation, then it is worth fostering. If it does not, then we must change it, re-found it, or even end it, in service of a greater good.

This perspective will undoubtedly ruffle some feathers among colleagues. “What? Is she suggesting we simply abandon centuries of Jesuit higher education on a whim?” Certainly not. The very resistance we feel when our schools are threatened by precarious financial forecasts or harsh external critique tells us that they are worth our care and sacrifice. But tweaks to budgets, staffing, organizational charts, and curricula will eventually come up empty if the critical work of the mission is not always center stage. Think, for a moment, of the most courageous and trustworthy people you know. My guess is that they hold their work with an open hand and keep their eyes on a larger goal.

Practicing Cura Apostolica

It is occasionally said that the true gift of Jesuit education is not in the originality of its academic model. In fact, Ignatius borrowed heavily from the experience of others in shaping the early schools and the course of studies that would typify them. Rather, the distinctive contribution of Jesuit colleges and universities is their ability to translate the world-affirming dynamic of the Spiritual Exercises into an educational approach that values the human as an echo of God. In the same vein, we recognize genuine cura apostolica when leaders discern their choices with the personal and institutional freedom that Ignatian spirituality evokes, and we will know them simply to be custodians of the status quo when that freedom is absent.

Visible evidence of genuine cura apostolica abounds in Jesuit colleges and universities, at every level of the schools:

  • Strengthened relationships within and among AJCU’s 39 conferences (that is, professional associations) have yielded an increasing number of cross-conference projects for a more just world. This expression of cura apostolica transcends institutional boundaries and draws everyone involved into common discernment.

  • In the wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on clergy sex abuse and revelations that abuse perpetrated by priests of the Diocese of Buffalo went unreported by bishops, President John Hurley of Canisius College wrote and spoke repeatedly on the crisis, underscoring the need for reform and calling for women’s leadership in the church. He co-founded, with eight other lay Catholics, The Movement to Restore Trust, an independent organization of Catholics in the Diocese of Buffalo who have convened to assert “the laity’s rightful role in the Church.” President Hurley is caring for the Catholic identity of his school and community by confronting the structures and practices of the church that run counter to a reconciling mission.

  • Three quarters of all AJCU schools have now completed the Mission Priority Examen (MPE) process designed to help Jesuit colleges and universities reflect comprehensively on their current mission priorities and set concrete goals for the future. Tasked with assessing each school’s mission priorities through the lens of seven themes, some schools also identified the need to add new categories for reflection and mutual accountability. Thus conversations on diversity and inclusion, environmental sustainability, and internet work collaboration have found their way, from the ground up, into the Examen process. Clearly the responsibility for cura apostolica has taken root among faculty and staff as a whole.

These examples, and hundreds like them throughout the AJCU network, are fresh, compelling efforts to reframe Ignatian leadership with both cura personalis and cura apostolica in mind. Such leadership requires us to pay attention to our own spiritual growth and interior freedom and to stretch our imaginations regarding “care for the work” in our day.

Care for the work, in this anti-institutional moment, remains constant for Jesuit schools: to become more humanistic and connected, not less; to discern with God more choices, not fewer; to act from courage, rather than fear. Separated by centuries and geography from the world of Ignatius Loyola, the poet Mary Oliver may have captured in a simple line the essence of cura apostolica: “My work is loving the world.” With refreshed vision and discerning hearts, let the loving increase.

Stephanie J. Russell is vice president for AJCU and consultant for mission integration. She attends the National Seminar on Jesuit Higher Education once a year.