Spiritual Foundations of Jesuit Higher Education

By Patrick Howell, S.J.

Jesuit higher education is attempting to achieve what has never been done before. In the future Jesuit institutions will have very few or no Jesuits, and they will be governed, led, and inspired almost entirely by committed lay leaders in education.

Jesuit education is already under assault from multiple sources. Some critique the apparently weak attention to the Catholic foundations of what it means to be Jesuit. Others question the theological orthodoxy of Jesuit universities. External experts also wonder what’s so distinctive about Jesuit education that isn’t already being done better by richly funded state institutions. Critics on the progressive side lament that our institutions don’t always live up to the mandates and inspiration of a faith that does justice, especially internally to the institution itself. And adding to the complexity of all these objections are the increasing costs which have brought a few American Jesuit higher institutions to the brink of financial insolvency.

All these factors and more contribute to the complexity of running comprehensive, multifaceted Jesuit institutions of higher learning. But the one identifiable quality that stands out for a school to legitimating use the adjective Jesuit is whether or not it manifests key elements of Jesuit/Ignatian spirituality grounded in the Christian scriptures and tradition. For this claim, we assume the centrality of academic excellence, but a Jesuit education goes deeper, demands more.

All Jesuit schools were founded on the proposition that somehow they were nurturing a community of believers in Jesuit Christ as Risen Lord. And today, in contrast to the 16th century, this also means a profound respect for all religious traditions and a robust interfaith dialogue. Jesuit education, founded on principles of Ignatian spirituality, is immensely enriched and brought closer to the truth by engagement with all the great faith traditions. And ideally, the Spiritual Exercises, the roots of our Jesuit heritage, will form all men and women engaged in this work ready to face a bold, complex future.


Consequently, the vital criterion of academic excellence, though central, is not enough. Excellence in Jesuit education will mean an “educated solidarity” with the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized, which most often means a true metanoia, a change in world vision, of our students so that they truly become men and women for others. They must learn from others through the dynamic exchange that occurs through service and community engagement. Such service necessarily leads to critique and reform of unjust social structures, including those found in the Church itself. The Exercises seek to achieve such a far-reaching metanoia, and so too should Jesuit education.

This metanoia stems in large part from the realization that I am not only loved, but liked, that God the creator loves me into being and wants me to flourish. This perception of the reality of God leads on to discovering God immanent in nature, in human history, in all that lives and moves and has its being. It should, we hope, lead on to a sense of awe and wonder at the mysteries of creation, to an urgent desire “to find God in all things,” and thus to care for the Earth and redress its degradation. Jesuit education will encourage affective experiences in knowing and in wonderment that the world is “charged with the grandeur of God.”

The Exercises foster a spirit of genuine spiritual freedom. They encourage a shift from egocentric aggrandizement to a stance of generous service. Crucial to this freedom is the arduous process of stripping away false, worldly values in order to free ourselves from beguiling attachments, which might hinder our ability to respond to the call of Christ. For other traditions, of course, it would be the call to respond to the impelling Spirit or to the gentle urges of the sacred. Ignatius called this freedom detachment, not only freedom from clinging to property, to reputation, and to health, but also inner liberation from false assumptions, warped values, biases, and, of course, distortions which crush the true self, arising from racism, sexism, and consumerism. A Jesuit education, therefore, will direct its efforts towards illuminating the ambiguities and biases embedded in the American experience. Prejudice and bigotry need to be unmasked. The true nature of patriotism, rather than chauvinistic belligerence, needs to be nourished and grow into maturity. Encountering these biases may lead to painful encounters about family, country, or government so that students experience a genuine, lasting change of heart and world vision.

This conversion leads on to another typical Ignatian contemplation on the “Two Standards” and “the Call of the King” – highly evocative metaphors for Ignatius in the age of chivalry. Ignatius perceived human existence as a dramatic struggle between the forces of good and evil, light and darkness, tragedy and joy. So we too in our educational enterprises must strive to communicate this sense of drama, both individual and communal. Every day we face choices. We must become conscious of the deeper realities of our lives, rather than superficial impressions and whims. Young adults need to grapple with the causes and effects of war, world poverty, racial hatreds, excessive nationalism and the impersonal forces of technology, which obliterate human needs and threaten to destroy cultures. The Two Standards help young people to face into the dramatic choices surrounding them.

We don’t have time or space to delineate all the consequences of the Spiritual Exercises for Jesuit higher education, but a final key concept is that the dialectic of action and contemplation should impregnate our educational objectives and programs. Leading our students through the Ignatian vision of reality will bring them a deeper, more profound awareness of the beauties of creation, the dignity of every human being, and the call to action to be colaborers with God in the creation of a just and humane world.

Jesuit-educated men and women are dreamers; they have a frontier, can-do spirit. In all this they embody the magis, not only in academics but in effective action. An Ignatian vision of reality likewise requires a faculty and staff who are not only part of the mission but are the mission. They embody the Jesuit mission in all its dimensions and have a passion to convey it to students.

Patrick Howell, S.J., chair of the National Seminar and for many years professor of theology at Seattle University, will become part of the Mission and Ministry team at Gonzaga University.

The cover photo is featured courtesy of Gonzaga University.