The Next Chapter’s Challenge: Building Jesuit ministries for the 21st century

The year 2014 marks two important anniversaries for the Society of Jesus and for all of us who share in Jesuit ministries.

One is the 40th anniversary of the 32nd General Congregation, which famously affirmed the integral connection for the Jesuits of “the service of faith” and “promotion of justice” within their “preferential option for the poor.” The saintly Pedro Arrupe, S.J., said this meant that the goal of Jesuit education was now the formation of “men [and women] for others,” a term that many students made their own. In 1976 I wrote my first paper on Catholic higher education, arguing that the General Congregation provided the foundation for an enriched understanding of Catholic and Jesuit intellectual and academic life, now placed at the service of the human family’s aspirations for justice and peace. For four decades now, Jesuit high schools, colleges and universities have worked hard to translate those commitments into academic programs and institutional policies. Nativity schools, Cristo Rey high schools and innumerable programs of local, national and global service give witness to personal and community commitments to faith, justice and the poor.


The Murder

November 2014 brings another anniversary: the murder of six Jesuits and their two guests at the University of Central America in El Salvador. At my college, Holy Cross, and wherever Jesuits lived and worked, we mourned together the cruel assassinations carried out by American-trained military officers in the setting of a civil war for which American policy—and all American citizens—bore a large share of responsibility. In the years that followed thousands of Jesuit students joined in the effort to close the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., and relocate American power on the side of justice and liberation. The murder of the Jesuits reinforced commitment to “faith and justice” in Jesuit educational institutions and in all areas of Jesuit ministry. All of us who have worked in Jesuit-sponsored ministries know how deeply these experiences have touched the conscience of people and communities, however difficult we all have found it to develop effective political and pastoral strategies for the church, the country and perhaps ourselves.

Certainly as we mark these anniversaries and embrace generous and engaged students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends, there are many reasons to be disappointed. While the School of the Americas was renamed and relocated, training of military leadership remains a central feature of U.S. national security policy, not only in Afghanistan, Iraq and parts of Latin America but now in a major way in Africa. There is little evidence that this training has engaged, much less resolved, the issues exposed by the El Salvador murders and subsequent investigation by U.S. Congressman Joseph Moakley, Democrat of Massachusetts, and his then assistant and now Congressman James McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts. Mr. McGovern continues to fight for the poor, and for democratic governance in Central America. He visits El Salvador regularly to keep alive public memory of the murder of the Jesuits and the earlier murders of American nuns and Archbishop Oscar Romero.

This year’s anniversary ceremonies will also call attention to the dramatic migration of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children to the U.S. border. They are fleeing desperate conditions of poverty and violence in the one-time American client states of El Salvador and Honduras, now the murder capital of the world. Current U.S. policies, and the state of public conversation about national security and immigration policies, make it clear that years of advocacy for justice and the option for the poor have yet to make a major impact on American public policy.

Three Reflections

For me, the anniversaries spark three reflections, and all have to do with politics. One is the simple politics of civic life: negotiating enough agreement to allow families to live safely and provide for their most basic needs. We enjoy, but rarely recognize, the benefits of such politics. Nowhere is the value of that basic politics more evident than in post-conflict societies like El Salvador. The slain Jesuits worked during the civil war at that kind of modest peace building. Now, across the world, we Americans are asking people who have good reason to fear, and hate, each other to put down guns and take up politics, the work of dialogue, organizing and negotiating. Forty years ago many of us said, perhaps too quickly, with Pope Paul VI, that development was “the new name for peace.” After so many bloody wars sparked by injustice, and living through what can be called the age of the refugee, we might now say that politics is the new name for peace.

Another politics is the politics of religion: accepting the fact that religion matters and religion, like everything else, can be a force for good—peace, human dignity and human rights, a measure of justice and the promise of solidarity—or for evil—division, deception and the justification of violence and injustice. How religion works is at some level determined by God’s Holy Spirit, but we have certainly also learned that it is influenced as well by politics, the acquisition and use of power in, by and for organized religious groups. Our own church makes a big difference across the globe. Yet even the most activist backers of faith and justice hesitate to take up politics within the church, even though they know the difference the leadership and policies of the church have made, in Central America and many other places.

Now the temptation is to rejoice that Pope Francis is making a difference, but what that difference will be in the end will depend on the politics of the church, not just in the Vatican but here in the United States, and in that we all have a share of responsibility.

And then there is the politics of knowledge, so important to those of us involved in Jesuit intellectual and academic ministries. It is no disrespect to say what everyone involved knows: that the good that is done for real people in Nativity and Cristo Rey schools and in our colleges and universities still leaves the great needs of public schools and American academic culture in front of us. Or, whatever good is done by experiences of service, and much good is done by practice of the works of mercy and justice, big questions of public responsibility remain. We in Jesuit higher education all know that our graduates, our benefactors and friends are men and women of conscience who, as best they and we can, try to live “for others.” But we all know that we have yet to find ways to deal with those huge questions of power and privilege, injustice and inequality posed by Archbishop Romero and the El Salvador Jesuits.

The Challenge

In 2011 Yale Divinity School gave its William Sloane Coffin award for service to peace and justice to Holy Cross graduate, Catholic Worker and global peace activist Chris Doucot. At almost the same time Santa Clara alumnus, former C.I.A. Director and then Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, presided over the assassination of Osama Bin Ladin. Both men are faithful citizens, but I suspect both Doucot and Panetta would acknowledge that we have not yet, together, figured out how to integrate our respect for knowledge and our commitment to the common good into our professional work and civic life. How we use knowledge is a major political question, and the anniversaries suggest that this question should be on the table as we acquire knowledge through research and learning. But the politics of knowledge leads to the same large issues of power and privilege as do the politics of civic and religious life, and we have not yet come up with a way to confront these questions, together and constructively. We properly honor the Doucots and, more regularly, the Panettas, but we have yet to openly confront the tension between these two quite different understandings of faith, justice and the option for the poor.

The agenda set by those events 40 and 25 years ago was always a political agenda. If together we could have the courage to bring issues of structural justice and injustice into our continuing effort to nurture and support vocations of service in and for our world, we would honor the memory of those who went before us and render a great service to church and country. Like all anniversaries, these offer stories that leave us with the challenge of creating the next chapter. The Jesuits may be fewer in number, but their story is now our story, and that story is far from over.

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