Father James Martin: Some advice for starting at a Jesuit college

First of all, congratulations! You have just been given a great gift: four years of a college education.

You are a special class for me—and not only because you’re the so-called visionary Class of 2020—but because my nephew is in your class.

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Whether or not your uncle is a Jesuit, no matter who you are, or where you go, you are going to be nervous during your first few weeks. It's natural. And that is the dirty little secret of the first week of college. Everyone is nervous. Everyone.

Why? You are away from your family and your friends. You are in an unfamiliar environment. You are wondering how you're going to do in your classes, how you are going to find your way around campus and, maybe farther down the line, what you will major in. Most of all, you are probably wondering who your friends are going to be.

So here’s a second little secret: It’s okay not to know. You couldn’t possibly know all the answers to those questions. So just let go of the need to know.

That said, you do have lots of great choices ahead of you. Which raises the question: "How will you make them?"

Fortunately, you are in a Jesuit school, and teaching people how to make healthy and life-giving decisions is part of the Jesuit tradition.

But what does it mean to be at a Jesuit school? To understand something about that you have to understand something about the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola.

So here is a very brief story of his life.

He was born in 1491 in the Basque country of Spain. Initially, he wanted to be a great soldier and a knight. He was extremely vain, talking in his autobiography about how great his hair was, and was very concerned about impressing the women. He was also something of a hothead. He is probably the only saint with a notarized police record for “brawling with an intent to cause bodily harm.”

In 1521, in a battle in Pamplona, his leg was shattered by a cannonball, which stopped him in his tracks, literally and figuratively. Ignatius is brought back to his family’s castle, where he recuperates. He asked for something to read and all they have are books on the lives of the saints and a life of Christ, which he is not interested in.

But as he reads them something strange happens. He starts to feel happy and hopeful when he thinks about following the example of the saints. And unhappy and despairing when he thinks about continuing his old pattern of trying to impress people.

And that's the first seed of Jesuit spirituality: God gives us the capacity to make good decisions. Basically, we can make good decisions, based not only on our understanding of good morals, but by paying attention to our interior life: what comforts us, build us up, calm us down, give us hope. The paths that make us feel despairing and hopeless are not coming from God.

That practice is called discernment. And it’s not just for Catholics and Christians but everyone.

Ignatius turns around his life. He gives up his desire to become a knight, spends a few months in prayer—in a cave, where he lives very austerely. So austerely that he starts to damage his health. But eventually he realizes that that’s not working and he needs to take care of himself if he’s going to get anything done. So he changes his mind and starts to eat and sleep. That's another insight about Jesuit spirituality: Sometimes going ahead means making a U-turn. That’s why Ignatius is often called the “Patron Saint of Plan B.” 

Ignatius goes back to school, where he takes classes with young boys learning their grammar, because he's not very well-educated. And then he goes to the University of Paris, where he meets St. Francis Xavier and St. Peter Faber, who become his roommates. (Of course, they weren’t saints back then.) So the Jesuit order came out of three college roommates.

That’s some of the history. Now here are just a few insights from Jesuit spirituality that might help you as you begin your college career.

1. Be yourself.

God made you who you are. That may sound obvious, but a lot of us try to be somebody else. We think that if only we were taller, smarter, richer, better at sports or “better looking” we would be happier. But when you compare yourself to someone else do you know what happens? You compare what you know is your own mixed-bag life, of goods and bads, with what you falsely see as someone else's “perfect” life. You usually only see the good in the other person’s life. So your life loses out. It’s kind of a rigged game.

As the old Jesuit expression goes, “Compare and despair.”

Plus, if you dig a little deeper, and I know you will with your friends here, you find it everybody's life is a mixed bag. So try not to compare.

2. You can make good decisions.

So many decisions might seem overwhelming now, but God gives you the ability to make good, healthy and life-giving decisions. You can rely on wisdom from your family, from good friends, from your religious traditions, whatever they may be, and you also have God's working within you, moving you to avoid things that are bad and embrace things that are good. And again, you don’t have to know it all now, or decide it all now, and even after you decide, you can change, and even do some U-turns, like St. Ignatius did.

3. Jesuit education is focused on cura personalis.

That means care for the whole person. Jesuit schools care for the whole person. Not just the intellect and not just the body. But the soul, the spiritual life. Because, as one Jesuit once said, we’re not human beings living a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.

People will care for you, body, mind and soul. There are people, if you get in trouble or if you're worried or her frightened, who will care for you. And not only counselors and advisers. But campus ministry. The administration. The faculty. Everyone.

Of course part of cura personalis is also taking care of yourself, reverencing yourself and reverencing one another. God dwells in you and all of you are beloved by God: black, white or brown, gay or straight, rich or poor. So the question is: Can you reverence yourself? And reverencing yourself means not only caring for your body—you know, not getting drunk every night and never getting enough sleep—but also making healthy decisions that will help you to flourish.

It also means reverencing others. Now that includes questions of sex: Can you reverence the other person instead of taking advantage of them? But, on a more basic level, it means reverencing who they are, letting them be who they are and loving them for who they are.

That goes for people who seem different from you. While you’re here, don’t be afraid to get to know them. In fact, seek out people beyond your comfort zone, who disagree with you, who stretch your ways of thinking and feeling. That’s part of the fun of college.

4. Try to be grateful.

Ignatius said that at the end of the day you should pause, and look over your day and remember the good things that happened and give thanks to God for them. It's a beautiful way to centering yourself at the end of the day. And that may be a good insight for all your years here. These four years are going to, believe it or not, fly by. You’ll be standing in caps and gowns and saying, “Remember move-in day?” So be intentional about stopping to take it all in.

One part of gratitude is being grateful for who you are. You don’t have to try to be anyone other than who you are. You don’t have to change for God to love you. And you don’t have to pretend to be something different for people to like you. The big trap of young adulthood is trying act cool to get more friends. Whether it’s drinking more or doing drugs or saying that you’re sexually active—or even more positive things, like trying to get the highest grades, or even going on the most retreats so people think you’re the most spiritual person around—there’s the danger of creating a “false self,” that you present to the world. When that happens, just say to yourself, “Stop, I don’t need to do that. I’m okay the way I am.” And part of that starts with gratitude: being grateful for the gifts that God has given me and the way that God made me.

What am I grateful for? All of you. For making the choice to get a Jesuit education. For opening yourself up to what God will do for you. For being patient and letting God do God’s work. I know it seems like a nervous time, but I hope it helps you to know that you’re being given a big gift right now: college.

And the big question to answer over the next four years is: What will you do with this great and precious gift you’ve been given?

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Henry George
1 year 2 months ago
I don't know how honest it is for James Martin, S.J., to say that the College founded by the Society of Jesus are really Jesuit Colleges anymore. Are Jesuits more then 10% of the Faculty at any Jesuit College ? Do they even have control over their colleges ? As much as you mention Saint Ignatius, do you mention that he would stand in the cold waters of the Seine imploring Saint Francis Xavier to not go out for night of debauchery ? Are any of the Jesuits at these colleges doing likewise for their students ? Would Saint Ignatius approve of Jesuit Colleges that have not only Coed Dorms, but Opposite Gender students living on the same floor and a Campus Health Center that hands out free contraceptives ? When the Jesuits return to requiring 4 solid courses in Catholic Theology and 6 courses in Philosophy, when they offer more courses in Catholic Theology than non-Catholic Theology - this means you - University of San Francisco - then you can write truthfully about receiving a Catholic Education at a College founded by the Society of Jesus. I do hope you noticed you never even mentioned receiving a "Catholic Education" at a Jesuit College. What would Saint Ignatius make of that omission ?
L J
1 year 2 months ago
St Ignatius would definitely call out trolls for doing nothing but whining, bashing and being curmudgeons. Fr Martin wouldn't write what I just did but I surely can. Stop the kvetching. Go volunteer at your local campus ministry at a Jesuit college if you think things are that bad. And try practicing more AMDG! Sheesh. Great article, Fr Martin!
Henry George
1 year 2 months ago
Mr. Reyes, I am not a troll. As such you owe me an apology, or at least America should edit out that phrase from your comment. I am concerned about the utter failure of Jesuit Colleges to uphold the Catholic Faith in its totality. I am concerned that Jesuit Colleges encourage/abet sexual immorality. No, St. Ignatius would not allow Jesuit Colleges to exists as they do today, barely different than public colleges -save the cost of attending. I have taught at Jesuit Colleges, I have preached at Jesuit Colleges, I have counselled at Jesuit Colleges and I have admonished the Campus Ministry programs at Jesuit Colleges for failing to preach Christ Jesus in and out of season. I also attended Jesuit Colleges before they became largely secularised. I taught a Senior Course in Theology and on the first day I asked the students about the Early Church. Out of 30 students, only five knew anything about St. Paul, St. Stephen, the Council of Jerusalem. Acts of the Apostles, Council of Nicaea, Origin, Augustine... So I asked them what they had learned in their previous Theology Classes and it was all about Social Justice, which is fine and praiseworthy, but to attend a Jesuit College and to not know by your Senior Year anything about the basics of Church History is sad. As for AMDG, yes, if only the Jesuits would live up to their motto. And again, do notice not word about Catholicism in Fr. Martin's essay.

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