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Pope Francis greets Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, S.J., and Julie Sullivan, the president of Santa Clara University, on March 18, 2024. Pope Francis greets Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, S.J., and Julie Sullivan, the president of Santa Clara University, on March 18, 2024 (photo: Vatican Media).

These are difficult years for Catholic and Protestant schools of theology. Falling birthrates and church attendance have resulted in fewer young people who consider a career in ministry or teaching. In Catholic circles, a long-term decline in priestly vocations was partially offset in recent decades by an increase in the number of lay people who studied theology. But in part because of steady disaffiliation among Catholics, younger Catholics especially, and the relentless closing of parishes and schools, fewer laypeople are pursuing theological study at the graduate level.

This has put significant pressure on graduate theological programs. Some schools and consortiums, like Washington Theological Union, have closed permanently. Others became divisions of larger universities. Weston Jesuit School of Theology affiliated with Boston College and moved to Chestnut Hill, Mass. Andover Newton merged with Yale and moved to New Haven. In an unusual move, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, an Episcopal seminary in Berkeley, Calif., became a ministry of Trinity Episcopal Church in New York. As part of the transition, the school dropped almost all in-person instruction and has announced that it will withdraw from its consortium, the Graduate Theological Union (G.T.U.).

Another member of the G.T.U., the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley (J.S.T.), is trying to adapt to this new reality. Over a decade ago, it affiliated with Santa Clara University, which helped stabilize its finances and gave it the breathing space necessary to imagine a new role for itself in a changing world. Key to that transition is the school’s new dean, Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, a Jesuit priest and theologian originally from Nigeria.

Father Orobator is the first dean of J.S.T. born outside of the United States. An accomplished theologian and pastoral leader, he was born in Nigeria to a family that practices traditional African religion. After encountering Catholicism and joining the church in his teen years, he entered the Society of Jesus in 1986 as a young adult. As a Jesuit, he studied philosophy at the at l’Université Loyola du Congo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and theology at Hekima College in Nairobi, Kenya. After ordination in 1998, he went on for further study in both fields, earning a doctorate at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.

Although he is from the Northwest Africa province, he served as provincial superior of the East Africa province from 2009 to 2014, and then as president of the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar from 2014 to 2022. Father Orobator’s scholarship focuses on ecclesiology, which is the study of the church as a place of God’s presence and action. He has written several books on the topic and has also published books with broad appeal, like Theology Brewed in an African Pot and his award-winning Pope and the Pandemic: Lessons in Leadership in a Time of Crisis.

I interviewed Father Orobator for America in February. Early in our conversation, I asked him how he imagined that his experience as a pastoral leader and theologian would guide his leadership of J.S.T. He offered a model of church in response: “Over the past 10 years or so, what Pope Francis has tried to remind us is that the church doesn’t have a center. The church is a ‘constellation of peripheries.’” This is an innovation on models of church that speak of an organization with a center and with margins. “I prefer ‘peripheries,’ because ‘edges’ are places that are ‘out of sight and out of mind,’” Father Orobator said. “Peripheries are places where the Spirit is at work, places we are constantly called to reach out.”

I asked him to give a few examples. He first identified particular social issues: “Migration is one; poverty is one; ecology, one; and war another. Displacement and inequality are peripheries as well.” He emphasized, though, that peripheries are not just social issues or geographic locations: “A periphery is what I call existential. It is where humanity has been defined, where it has been challenged, where it has been summoned to open up the values of the Gospel.” In this, Father Orobator gives words to an impulse Pope Francis has expressed many times, to create a missionary church. “The church is not about the self-preservation of some cause or some geographical center,” he noted. “It is really an invitation to reach out and follow the Spirit far and wide, to those constellations of peripheries that define humanity today.”

Context is everything, Father Orobator believes. The meeting of the church and the world on each of these different peripheries draws out different aspects of the tradition. Sometimes the encounter calls forth the church’s wisdom on spirituality. At other times, the wisdom comes from the moral tradition. At still other times, the encounter elicits wisdom from the church’s intellectual, artistic, liturgical or legal traditions. In every case, the church also needs to be ready to receive wisdom from the periphery it is encountering. “Think about Gerard Manley Hopkins talking about Christ playing in 10,000 places,” Father Orobator said. “Where are those 10,000 places today? That is where the church is being called to be present.”

When I asked Father Orobator if he found inspiration in any particular passage of Scripture, he immediately cited Lk 5:1-11. Peter knew his context; he knew how to fish. He had even been successful at it in the past. In spite of his knowledge and effort, however, on the day he first encountered Christ, he had caught nothing. It was only when the Lord told Peter to put out into the deep, and Peter was able to overcome his reservations and do so, that he found success.

Preparing ministers and theologians who can do the same thing requires a flexible mind and a deep appropriation of the tradition. Father Orobator hopes to help J.S.T. clarify and strengthen its global mission within the church. Too often, he said, students and faculty have only a bare impression of the many contexts of the church. He wants this to change. “We need to rethink the way we do theology, by actually giving opportunities to students, to faculty, to staff to be able to experience those peripheries not as an added element, but as constitutive of their theoretical formation,” he said.

Doing so, Father Orobator hopes, will allow students, faculty and staff at J.S.T. to “put out into the deep.” He wants to find ways for them to find success in places they would not have ventured into without Christ’s prompting. “Put out into the deep beyond your level of comfort, your security, everything you have built up as your pedigree. See something possible beyond all that,” he said.

Father Orobator hopes that anyone engaged in the craft of theology will “put down their nets” into waters they do not recognize so that the Lord may reveal an unexpected abundance. These encounters will undoubtedly be uncomfortable; they will also be transforming as teachers and students of theology discover how their same faith receives expression on a periphery distant from their own.

Practically speaking, Father Orobator’s goal is to unite the many Jesuit schools of theology throughout the world into a consortium that will allow students, faculty and staff to travel and work among them. “We would imagine, for example, having a whole cohort of students taking an entire program semester in a different situation, say in Nairobi, close to the slums of Kibera, or in Pune, or in Delhi, and then facilitating the reverse as well,” he said.

A respect for diversity has been part of pastoral training for decades. Father Orobator envisions something that goes deeper, a long-term encounter that yields understanding and friendships. “It is one thing to talk about these peripheries conceptually; it is another thing to make it possible for students, staff and faculty to be there,” he said. It does not matter if one is a renowned scholar, or preparing to be a high-school teacher or a lay minister at a parish. A deep knowledge of the church’s encounter with the world on a distant periphery can bring an unexpected bounty of insight.

Father Orobator contends that other spheres of human activity already live out these deep encounters, and that the field of theology needs to claim its place among them. Leaders in business, the performing arts, the social sciences and the humanities have taken a global view for decades, and place a high value on long-term cross-cultural relationships. Father Orobator wants the field of theology to take its place in this world:

To be immersed in that context, use the analogy of “smelling of the sheep.” What does it look like for a professor of comparative religious studies actually to smell the smell of a Buddhist temple or a Hindu temple? And beyond that, what does it mean to be a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Christian, especially in places where there might be conflict among these faiths? Or where Islam encounters Christianity, or where Christianity encounters traditional African religion?

Father Orobator is a deep thinker and powerful speaker. I felt his enthusiasm for this project even as I saw all the risks. To be fulfilled, his vision will require time and money, neither of which are in great supply in academia. Getting accrediting agencies to accept an international curriculum and then coordinating services across Jesuit theology centers worldwide will present countless bureaucratic obstacles, any one of which may prove fatal. Father Orobator acknowledges all of this and feels the challenge acutely. Nevertheless, he is confident of support from the Jesuit order, and from his faculty, students and staff. Certainly, if there were any time in academic theology for bold dreams and even bolder ventures, this is it.

Near the end of our interview, I asked Father Orobator his impressions of the church in the United States. He was quite frank about the challenges posed by polarization: “Coming here, I have come to realize that, frankly, it is worse than I thought. What I have experienced here disturbs me greatly because it is as if we have mutually exclusive positions.” He continued: “I think as a church, the community in the U.S. needs to recover a sense of communal belonging.”

In other words, Father Orobator thinks we are too quick to wish each other out of the church. Aside from weakening the church, such polarization inhibits Christ’s mission. “If we are about proclaiming the good news, how do we model it within ourselves and our community?” he asked. “Sometimes when I hear debates and conversations, I have to step back and say, ‘Are we still Christians? Do we still believe?’”

This last insight challenged me and has remained with me since. I am quick to wish certain people out of the church. I am quick to focus on the disqualifying differences I may have with certain Christians. Doing so, however, obscures the common cause I may have with them. It is too easy to ignore our common enterprise and our one faith in Christ when I am looking for excuses to cut ties and go my own way. It feels good, even righteous, to question the belonging of individuals who disagree with me on certain key issues. But Father Orobator’s words came back to me again and again. God wants a kingdom, and that requires us to work together to reveal it.

I think about all the difficult encounters I will have if I take up Father Orobator’s challenge, and I realize that I may have now found my own periphery. I can see clearly the places where I will find my uncomfortable encounters and the people whose faith will challenge and transform me because we belong to each other. All it takes is for me to find the courage to put out into the deep.

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