Redefining Success: 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.
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.