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Molly CahillFebruary 15, 2024
Students from Jesuit schools gather near the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 8, 2021, to advocate for the environment and for immigrants‘ rights (CNS photo/Rhina Guidos).

This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

A large conference space in a hotel isn’t necessarily a place you expect to experience grace. The aesthetics of this one weren’t surprising or really at all out of the ordinary: carpeted floors, chairs, a stage, a podium, projectors and screens. But the closing Mass of the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice did feel extraordinary somehow—at least from where I sat in the back row of the choir, up on the stage that was functioning as an altar. I looked out at a few hundred students who had their arms around one another’s shoulders. They were singing along, many of them with eyes prayerfully closed, to “We Are One Body.”

The Mass was part of an annual conference in Washington, D.C., run every fall by the Ignatian Solidarity Network. The vast majority of attendees are high school and college students, though there are also employees and friends of Jesuit and other Catholic ministries. For three days, the students hear keynote speakers and attend breakout sessions, and their time in Washington culminates in Advocacy Day, when they meet with their congressional representatives to discuss their learnings from the weekend and the policy issues that are most important to them.

I attended the Teach-In several times when I was an undergraduate student at Boston College, but last year I returned for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic, this time on assignment from America Media. In addition to joining in with the choir, I was able to hear some of the talks and was inspired once again. It felt good to be in the familiar setting, but I also had the chance to hear from current students who were now in the position I once was in, looking ahead to how their lives and their Ignatian values would merge. As I sat at America’s vendor table in the main concourse, I struck up conversations with students. What brought them to the conference? What had they learned from the sessions they’d attended? What did Jesuit education mean to them?

That last question sparked the longest conversations, some that followed winding paths and took us from being strangers to friends in a matter of minutes. I heard about beloved family members, admired teachers and mentors, meaningful classes, and unforgettable immersion trips and retreats. In those conversations, I heard one Jesuit maxim more than any other: “men for others.”

These words were creating an others-oriented attitude that was both visible and physical.

The phrase’s emphasis on service and on the needs of others was profoundly meaningful to the students, although it resonated differently depending on their particular stage in education and life. High school students often spoke of the service trips and extracurricular involvements that deepened their experience and helped make these words and the Word real. One student told me: “I haven’t been the same since my spring break service last year. I still think about our trip and the community we met there almost every day.” In comparison, college students made future-oriented connections, thinking about how their education and future careers could be used for the betterment of society. A senior who plans to complete a year of postgraduate service while applying to medical school told me: “My education wasn’t just for me. It would be a waste if I didn’t take the gift that was given to me and give it away to other people who need it, too.”

Candidly, after years at a Jesuit school and now during my work at a Jesuit publication, I have heard “men for others” so many times that its impact had lost its edge and its freshness for me. But hearing it come up again and again among the conference’s young people, and seeing it so clearly animate them, reinvigorated me. And it sparked my curiosity.

Men for others. At that concluding Mass, a version of these words, which I heard over and over again in my weekend conversations, manifested into more than a simple phrase. These words were creating an others-oriented attitude that was both visible and physical, a connection that bonded many. And while I could see the linked arms and hear the raised voices, there was something in the room that felt metaphysical, too: love’s presence, God’s presence. No small feat.

The Purpose of Jesuit Education
On the surface, the message of “men for others” is simple, but its history and evolution only add to its layered and meaningful message. Unlike many other popular Jesuit mottos, this one doesn’t originate with St. Ignatius or the first members of the Society of Jesus. It is a 20th-century development, and one specifically formed with Jesuit schools and their students in mind. On the scale of Jesuit history, a 50-year-old adage is basically brand new. Perhaps that is why students today feel its relevance and urgency.

If Jesuit education today is inspiring any students today to go out of their way to serve others and seek God’s justice, it is only because that educational mission was at one point faltering—and because the response of the Jesuit leader who recognized that fact resonates even now.

Father Pedro Arrupe was the superior general of the Society of Jesus when he gave his 1973 address that popularized the term that would eventually become Jesuit canon. Speaking to graduates of Jesuit schools in Europe, he suggested that the Society’s mission in education should respond to the “signs of the times” and seek God’s justice on earth. The portrait of a Jesuit school alumnus was laid out; he should be a “man for others.”

In an increasingly isolated world, a mantra that encourages people to look outside of ourselves is refreshing.

But Father Arrupe wasn’t outlining this mission as a pat on the back to Jesuit educational institutions everywhere. The phrase was aspirational. He was saying this ought to be the mission—but had yet to be implemented.

The speech is thorough and its tone is a bit fiery, challenging schools and their graduates to do better and do more. He writes: “To be just, it is not enough to refrain from injustice. One must go further and refuse to play its game, substituting love for self-interest as the driving force of society.”

Even reading it 50 years after the fact, you can imagine hearing a pin drop in the room when Father Arrupe said:

Have we Jesuits educated you for justice? You and I know what many of your Jesuit teachers will answer to that question. They will answer, in all sincerity and humility: No, we have not. If the terms “justice” and “education for justice” carry all the depth of meaning which the Church gives them today, we have not educated you for justice.

Father Arrupe defines his objective early in his remarks, and he spends the rest of his time filling in the details. Linking love of God and love of neighbor, he sets a standard not only for prayer and faith but also for action and the treatment of neighbor. Even with a critical attitude about the current state of affairs, his message is hopeful; he posits a plan that can be achieved if schools and their people have a united vision of the need for both personal and societal change. He writes: “In short, interior conversion is not enough. God’s grace calls us not only to win back our whole selves for God, but to win back our whole world for God.”

Evolving in the Name of Inclusivity and Solidarity
Father Arrupe’s speech reflects his time in that he is specifically addressing men. By 1973, Jesuit universities were just beginning to admit women for undergraduate study. An all-male culture at these universities was still the norm and the order of the day, so he was naturally addressing graduates who were men, speaking on behalf of a Society of Jesus made up of men. 

But as practices and institutions evolve, so does language. Today most co-ed Jesuit schools now include women explicitly when they profess this motto: Men and women for others. Gender inclusivity has been one of the most important—and most effectively implemented—shifts. Many students who meet the Jesuits at a coeducational institution (myself included) will hear “men and women for others” before they are ever introduced to the original wording. 

As students told me when I met them at the conference this fall, some schools have shifted to using the phrase “people for others.” The gender-neutral term extends a hand of welcome to non-binary and gender-nonconforming students and community members. More broadly, as one student told me: “It takes my gender out of it. Serving others has nothing to do with whether I’m a man or woman. An umbrella term brings all of us in as one.”

Another evolution has occurred in a place you might not expect: that little preposition: for. Some users of the phrase have added another preposition: with. The addition might seem small, but its intention is deep: Men and women for and with others.

Today most co-ed Jesuit schools now include women explicitly when they profess this motto: Men and women for others.

When students and graduates serve their communities or travel to another country for a service or immersion program, they can orient themselves as people “for” those they serve. They can assist them, support them and build things for them. This is all good and well-intentioned. But those who have added “with” to the maxim believe there is something more and better we can do. Their attitude builds on the spirit of Father Arrupe’s original call.

With reflects a solidarity and closeness with the people Jesuit students and graduates hope to serve. It dismantles an attitude of “us” and “them” in favor of a more communal approach: There is only collaboration and closeness when one sees all people as potential agents of change and as fully realized human beings with much to contribute. It is this feeling that the students at the Teach-In sang at that concluding Mass: We Are One Body. In Father Arrupe’s view of human dignity and the justice that it begs, there is no separation in God.

Living the Ideals of Jesuit Education
If listening to students’ stories convinced me of anything, it is that this maxim continues to have power. It is resonating in a particular way with young people. Even the littlest details of what they told me conveyed how the meaning of living “for others” is seeping into them. I was even moved by the specifics of their travel plans just to get to the conference; they told me about arriving at the airport so early in the morning that the sky was still pitch black, or about squeezing into a van in the school parking lot, all because they were willing and eager to attend an event that was about justice, community and learning. Students as young as 14 were going out of their way to gather in the name of something more.

So why does this idea speak to young people so clearly? I believe that in an increasingly isolated world, especially for my fellow members of Generation Z, a mantra that encourages people to look outside of ourselves is refreshing. In addition to service opportunities, students noted how their school communities and smaller groups like teams, clubs and retreats also encouraged them to practice being others-oriented. 

Additionally, “men and women for others” has an appeal that crosses religious boundaries. Though Father Arrupe’s speech was explicitly religious in tone, the phrase itself can have secular appeal. Students who are not Catholic or who have complicated relationships with the church (or religion more broadly) can still find access points into Jesuit culture through service and spirituality. “I have questions about God and some of the things the Catholic Church teaches. But thinking about other people and how to love them is something I can get behind. I think everyone can agree on that,” one student told me.

Father Arrupe challenged his audience to expect more from Jesuit education, but he also offered a challenge that applies to all of us: “We cannot separate personal conversion from structural social reform.”

High schools and colleges meet students at a time in their lives when they are often open to an experience of personal conversion. Jesuit schools are uniquely situated to introduce students to that all-important connection between social reform and personal transformation, to plant a seed for their future lives and careers. What I heard from young people at the Teach-In were experiences that form the beginnings of conversion. The potential for growth is endless.

There’s plenty in Pedro Arrupe’s 1973 remarks that feels prescient, almost like it’s speaking to the young people of today in the midst of their challenges. One such example struck me:

All of us would like to be good to others, and most of us would be relatively good in a good world. What is difficult is to be good in an evil world, where the egoism of others and the egoism built into the institutions of society attack us and threaten to annihilate us.

The young people I spoke with in Washington, D.C., really do, as Father Arrupe suggested, want to be good to others. In the world we are inheriting, it is a big challenge to remain hopeful. But when we come together, arms around each other, and work for something bigger than ourselves, I still believe we are on a fruitful path.

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