Why Jesuits Are in Higher Education

By William J. Byron, SJ
From Jesuit Saturdays: Sharing the Ignatian Spirit with Friends and Colleagues

In education, as in all else, the Jesuit is not content with simple efficiency—doing something right. Rather, he wants to be effective, which means doing the right thing. Accordingly, in all things the Jesuit way involves a search for God’s will. This search, in the Jesuit vocabulary, goes by the name of discernment. (One Jesuit I knew, the late Tom Savage, a professor of English at Xavier University in Cincinnati, taught his students a lot about discernment by means of a simple message posted on his office door: “The fool collects, the wise person chooses.”) Discernment, it should be noted, is a wisdom characteristic that prepares a person to choose wisely. ”¦

Jesuits in higher education will, upon reflection, notice that their method, their style, their way of doing what they do, is radically influenced by the spirit of their founder, Ignatius of Loyola. At least it should be. ”¦ [H]is wisdom lies hidden in several documents—in his spiritual journal, or Autobiography; in the Constitutions he wrote for his followers; and in the retreat outline written from personal experience and known as the Spiritual Exercises, which should not be separated from the Directory he intended for the use of the experienced guide who assists the person making the Exercises.

Assisting the Spirit in Moving Minds and Hearts

Discernment and the search for God’s will are the warp and woof of Ignatian spirituality, but the Ignatian way of discernment cannot be learned from books. It can only be experienced under the direction of a sensitive guide. Such guides are available on Jesuit university campuses, typically through retreat programs, to work with people interested in making the Spiritual Exercises. A special task, a privileged opportunity, for Jesuits in higher education is to open the book of the Spiritual Exercises to those who want to grow spiritually. In this context, as in the classroom, learning is directed by a motivator-organizer and assimilated by an active participant in the process. In the retreat experience, one learns how to pray. In the classroom experience, one learns how to learn. As classroom educator or spiritual guide, the Jesuit tries, as an instrument of God’s grace, to assist the Spirit in moving the minds and hearts of those who want to grow.

In the domain of higher education, there are many (students, faculty, and staff alike) with the potential for wisdom. That is why Jesuits gather at colleges and universities to work. Their task is not only to teach and search for truth in all its forms but also to share their founder’s special grace with those who want to grow in the Ignatian way. Often on Jesuit campuses there can be found a Jesuit whose assignment is to explain the Ignatian heritage and to bring interested members of faculty, staff, or student body into closer experiential contact with this spiritual tradition.

Christian wisdom is to “know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (John 17:3). There is an Ignatian way toward this wisdom. It is Ignatian, not Jesuit in any proprietary sense; hence it is there to be shared with others. The Jesuit is expected to have internalized this way. His educational methods will, not surprisingly, reflect it. His normal desire will be to live and work in companionship with others who know this way, so he lives in community with other Jesuits. And his hope will be to share this way or see it shared with others. This is all part of the Jesuit purpose in higher education or in any other work.

Sharing Ignatian Spirituality with Lay Colleagues

The Jesuit, by vocation, is trained “to seek God in all things,” even in quite secular and esoteric things and in academically rarefied surroundings. Seeking and finding God in all things is a bedrock Jesuit principle. And on this bedrock rests the traditional Jesuit commitment, in theory and in practice, to a Catholic Christian humanism. God is in all things human.

Not all Jesuits are skilled in sharing their Ignatian spirituality with lay colleagues. But few would not attach high importance to the sharing. And all support the various mechanisms in place within or around Jesuit institutions to facilitate this sharing. The realization of all these ideals, the translation of this theory into practice, is a personal challenge to Jesuit fidelity. The Society of Jesus lives on the trust it places in each of its members to appropriate the essentials of its spiritual heritage, to sustain them in himself by God’s grace, and to pass them on to others who want to grow in this way.

A brochure inviting prospective students—the kind who want to grow—to consider enrolling at the Jesuit-run University of Scranton states the matter simply and well:

College is an integral part of life’s journey. Over the next four years, you’ll gain knowledge, acquire skills and forge relationships that will last a lifetime. At the University of Scranton, we offer a liberal arts education in the dual Jesuit traditions of cura personalis—care for the whole person—and the magis—a restless pursuit of excellence. In this remarkable community of inquiry, as scholars and learners together, you’ll develop healthy habits of the mind and heart that will serve you well in any endeavor you choose.

That’s another way of explaining why Jesuits are in higher education.

Excerpt from Jesuit Saturdays: Sharing the Ignatian Spirit with Friends and Colleagues by William J. Byron, SJ.


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