The National Catholic Review
Jesuit high schools in the age of Francis

Jesuit high schools are rightfully proud of their reputation for graduating students who, by any academic standard, do very well. Many of our graduates attend selective colleges, excel professionally and achieve remarkable financial and social success. Most are models of urbane, sophisticated young women and men. Our efforts as educators to engender a social conscience also bear much fruit; some of our graduates go on to lifelong careers of service and advocacy for justice.

But we must ask ourselves what, in the final analysis, are we educating for? Is it to see another generation rise through the ranks of American society, or are we forming agents of social transformation who will prophetically challenge the status quo when it diverges from the demands of the Gospel?

Soon after Pope Francis’ election, I was on a retreat with high school juniors and seniors when I asked one young man how his small group’s discussions were going. “Yeah,” he said matter-of-factly, “we basically concluded that Pope Francis is awesome!” Behind their enthusiasm for Francis was their recognition of—and admiration for—his humility, simplicity of lifestyle and inclusive message. The pope, through his words and gestures, has captured the imagination of the world and speaks in a tone of voice to which many young people will listen. Pope Francis has expressed his hope for a church that “is poor and for the poor,” a contemplative church, a humble church.

Because we share the pope’s Ignatian roots, Jesuit educators stand well positioned to break new ground in building up such a church. We must recognize, however, that Francis’ call to service and solidarity is rooted in a mystical consciousness and an impressively mature spirituality. If we as educators are to fully embrace and effectively form our students in line with the pope’s vision, we might consider some areas of our lives, both institutional and personal, where there is room for maturation and growth. This is the challenge that Pope Francis, like the Jesuit general superior Pedro Arrupe before him, has placed before the Ignatian educator.

Service Renewal

A senior at the Jesuit high school where I serve shared his concerns and doubts with me about the pressure he and his peers feel to be successful, which he defined as “earning a lot of money, having expensive, really cool things and having a good, well-paying job.”

“We are supposedly ingrained with the ideals of service, charity and compassion here at school,” he said, “but we ‘men for others’ strive for success, although we do not want to admit it. This is not supposed to be what we think here. Despite the fact that we preach otherwise, this is exactly the idea that most graduate with.” This young man’s concerns echo those I have heard from other students and faculty over my years in Jesuit education.

From 1974 to 1975, Father Arrupe and the delegates at the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus sought to revitalize the immutable tradition of Jesuit schools—”the service of faith and promotion of justice.” It was Father Arrupe’s hope that this renewed mission would move our institutions beyond the aim of simply producing social and financial achievers. Great strides have been made toward the realization of this vision. All our schools seek, for example, to foster the spiritual life of each student through retreat opportunities, liturgy and prayer. And we all require our students to engage in Christian service work throughout their years under our care. I suggest, however, three areas where there is room for growth and greater maturity.

First, our commitment to cultivating a social conscience in our students must be evident in our institutional consumer habits and policies. We do an active disservice to our students when our patterns of behavior appear to contradict the values we promote in religion classes and through Christian service programs. What message do we communicate, for example, when our sports teams use equipment and apparel manufactured by companies known to employ sweatshop labor? And our unquestioning embrace of computer technology, undoubtedly a revolutionary learning tool, raises moral concerns as well. Many of these devices are the product of harsh, exploitive working conditions and chemical processes that scar both human beings and the earth. We are all complicit participants in the unjust economies that bring us these products. While I acknowledge that it would be impossible to forgo their use entirely, we must recognize and act upon our obligation to those who make them.

‘Small Print’ Problems

We are naïve to think that the sweatshop-made sneakers our athletes wear, the food for our cafeterias produced under conditions degrading to humans and animals and our computer labs stocked with devices made in inhumane conditions can be compartmentalized or detached from our obligations as people of faith. We cannot afford to be fragmented in our commitment to justice and the dignity of all our brothers and sisters, seen and unseen. As one of my students observed, “The problems of sweatshop labor and exploited workers are the ‘small print’ of our lives. The Catholic conscience orients us toward the larger problems of the world. We tend to overlook the smaller, simpler changes we can make that will lead to much good.” He used the word “hypocrisy” to describe our collective lack of attention to these “small print” issues.

If it is unavoidable that we use the products, justice requires that we use them reflectively and penitently, and that we marshal the full weight of our institutions to effect change where possible. Father Ryan High School in Nashville, Tenn., for example, took the unprecedented step among Catholic high schools of covering corporate logos on their athletic equipment with a simple Jerusalem cross. Administrators said they did not want students to be advertisers for companies with “abhorrent labor practices.” The school also refuses to accept promotional money and free products from “unjust” brands. A senior at the school told USA Today last September, “We have the privilege of being able to stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves. Being brandless makes Father Ryan our brand. It makes justice our brand.”

Second, let us take seriously the prophecy of the great theologian Karl Rahner, S.J., who noted, “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has experienced ‘something,’ or he will cease to be anything at all.” Perhaps our most important task in religious education is to teach our students how to pray, how to be still, how to be present to the sacredness of now, how to see with the eyes of the soul that we, and all creation, are in God’s embrace. Currently, Catholic education at the high school level adeptly transmits information about our tradition. But what use is this vocabulary, this “faith seeking understanding,” without the experience that undergirds it? As William J. O’Malley, S.J., has noted in the pages of this magazine, many of our students are baptized, but not converted: “Our audience does not have personally validated Christian faith” (9/14/09). And, as Pope Francis has said, “a religion without mystics is a philosophy.”

Retreats and liturgies create spaces for encounter with God, but we should not assume these “mountaintop” experiences are sufficient to nurture a deep, transformative personal relationship with the divine. Rather, the regular, consistent practices of soul craft—centering prayer, solitude in nature, sacred silence and sacred conversation, lectio divina, meditation—can provide our students with the archetypes and avenues that lead to a mystical consciousness, in which we see and feel about the world as Jesus does. A number of Jesuit schools have instituted a regular, sometimes daily, practice of the examen, often done in the afternoon. Over the years I have introduced my students to lectio divina and praying with icons. We have tried various forms of centering prayer, at times incorporating drums and percussion instruments into the practice. I always begin class periods with several minutes of silence or a guided meditation. Students consistently speak highly of this experience, saying that these periods of prayer are the only times in their overscheduled days when they can simply be.

Third, we educators need to be doing our own spiritual and emotional homework, always continuing the journey to deeper maturity and wholeness. “You can lead someone only as far as you yourself have gone,” says Richard Rohr, O.F.M. If we have not begun the work of transforming our own woundedness, if we have not moved beyond the dualistic, judgmental mind which too often characterizes the early stages of our faith lives, if we neglect the quest of discovering what Thomas Merton called our “true self,” we will surely transmit our unresolved issues and “false self” facade to our students. Many Jesuit educators nourish and further their spiritual journey, for example, by sharing in service work, making the Spiritual Exercises according to the 19th Annotation and taking part in faith sharing groups. Several years ago I made the Men’s Rites of Passage, a life-changing initiation experience designed by Father Rohr, and I am now an active member of a men’s spirituality group. Having a community of spiritual partners—with whom we can share our questions and dreams of faith and doubt, hope and struggle—is an essential part of the contemplative life. The accountability and support this community provides challenge me to bring a soulful authenticity to my ministry and teaching—something students undoubtedly sense in their teachers.

It is to be hoped that as we grow in our vocations as teachers, ministers and mentors, we will become elders and sages in the biblical sense—compassionate, forgiving, able to embrace the paradoxes of life and faith, openhearted in giving and receiving love. In us, our students must find role models of integrated spirituality, for ultimately there is no spiritual life separate from life itself. There is only one. Our recognition of our life in Christ (Gal 2:20) must come to permeate all that we do, personally and institutionally. This might be the most important lesson we can teach our students.

A Prophetic Risk

Pope Francis, in remarks to students of Jesuit schools on June 7, 2013, offered a beautiful analogy for educators. “In educating, a balance must be maintained, your steps must be well balanced, one step on the cornice of safety but the other into the zone of risk. And when the risk becomes safe, the next step must venture into another area of risk. Education cannot be confined to the safety zone.” As we move deeper into the 21st century, our Jesuit high schools are being summoned by Pope Francis and the signs of the times to a bold and daring vision for formation aimed at the transformation of our church and society. We are being called to take a further, prophetic step into that zone of risk.

The pope has recognized that the people of God and indeed the earth itself are crying out, longing for healing, wholeness and justice. It is no longer enough to prepare our students for “success.” As Jesuit educators we are being asked to do something great—to assist in leading the church to unequivocal solidarity with the poor, to a mystical consciousness, to maturity of faith. Let us not be afraid to step boldly into this ancient but renewed mission.

Brian B. Pinter is the director of campus ministry at Regis High School and an educational associate at Christ Church United Methodist, both in New York City.


Bernardo Survil | 5/22/2014 - 7:19am

Editor, America:

It’s not only Sacred Scripture that’s useful for giving instruction. I made full use of the timely publication of Brian Pinter’s “Redefining Success” (12 May, 2014 ) to instruct when I was shocked to see our Greensburg Diocese planting lawn posters hither and yon with this message: “97% of Catholic School grads go to college. Enroll now.” No one should doubt that Catholic Schools have a deserved place in the U.S. educational marketplace. But to advertise them as the sure ladder to “success” as measured by non-gospel standards deforms what Catholic education can and should offer, E.G. A whole week’s unit imbibing Pope Francis’ “Joy of the Gospel.”

Fr. Bernard Survil, Greensburg, PA
An America subscriber since 1967

Beth Cioffoletti | 5/8/2014 - 10:41am

Excellent article, with many provoking thoughts. I was especially caught by the Karl Rahner quote and following commentary:

“The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has experienced ‘something,’ or he will cease to be anything at all.” Perhaps our most important task in religious education is to teach our students how to pray, how to be still, how to be present to the sacredness of now, how to see with the eyes of the soul that we, and all creation, are in God’s embrace. ...

The Contemplative Prayer movement that has taken root in some Catholic churches over the last 20 years gives me much hope, but I think that it has to be paired with the social conscience of groups like the Catholic Worker.

What depresses me most is the TUITION costs of these Jesuit high schools and colleges. What was affordable to my very middle class parents in the 60s and 70s is out of reach for all but the most wealthy among us. I wish that my own son could have had some exposure to Jesuit education but we could not afford it.

Dick Wolven | 5/2/2014 - 8:38pm

“Are we educating … to see another generation rise through the ranks of American society?” What to do about that?

Build a social conscience in the students? In many cases social conscience is a code word for "guilt tripping" on impressionable teenagers that somehow they are intrinsically evil because they are not poor or dispossessed. It is wrong for them to have affluent parents. In this issue of America, there is another article stipulating that IF you do not subscribe to Global Climate Change, you are dumb AND selfish.

Some of the goals that I see in a Catholic (and Jesuit) education should be the desire to be the best you can be (AMDG), to be grateful for what you have (first step in the examen), being considerate and rigorous in your thought process (taking time out daily for yourself), beginning to understand yourself and to discern your relationship with God and the world (i.e. vocation), being a team player, rooting for, and helping others (being of service; ‘getting your shoes dusty’), in addition to developing a sense of responsibility and accountability for doing well academically and growing socially, in ethics and integrity.

I do not understand why a teenager should be taught it is wrong to wear a certain brand of sneakers or eat a certain food because some social justice fanatic deems it wrong. I see the associated guilt as the first thing to drive people away from the Church. Almost all the people I know who have left the Church tell me it is because of the Church’s intolerance to their foibles (divorce, sexual preference, etc). In essence, they are made to feel guilty and it is much easier for them not to be involved where they feel that way.

I see all the quotes from Pope Francis in America and other media with the subsequent spin to serve someone else’s purpose. Capitalism is bad. Climate change is bad. Having wealth is bad. Ad infinitum! If someone is afflicted by any of these, that person is intrinsically bad. It seems to me that the Pope’s most engaging quote was “who am I to judge?” Maybe that is something you should strive to teach in Jesuit High Schools.

Joseph Carroll | 5/7/2014 - 1:46pm

Thank you for your thoughtful response to this article. I am wondering, though, why you cannot "understand why a teenager should be taught it is wrong to wear a certain brand of sneakers or eat a certain food..." I am sure you will agree that the exploitation of human beings and the destruction of the environment for profit are immoral. Are you saying we should not explain why these are immoral? Or are you saying that you believe the students should come to this Truth in some other way?

Also, when you say that someone else's purpose is to say "Capitalism is bad. Climate change is bad" I think you misrepresent that "someone else's" point. I do not believe that the Holy Father has ever said "capitalism is bad" as such - I believe he condemned the idea of economic growth as an end in itself; that economic growth alone is not sufficient to bring about justice for all people.

Regarding climate change, I agree that simply telling incoming students "climate change is bad" is a bad idea. However, I do not know of anyone who does this. Moreover, I think the point is not "climate change" as such, but a greater overall appreciation of the environment as a gift from God to be taken care of, not to be exploited for economic gain. If human action does in fact change our climate, then yes, this is something to be condemned and avoided at all costs.

Again, I thank you for your comment. I do, however, disagree with the notion that educating our students about the moral shortcomings of our world is wrong.

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