As I See It

by Fr. James Loughran, SJ

Partnership with the Laity and Evangelization of Culture


Fr James Loughran, SJ

"I am known, and would like to think appreciated, for my six-minute homilies," said Fr. James Loughran, SJ, president of Saint Peter's College in Jersey City, in a talk he gave to New York Province Jesuits last June. His job was to speak on the 34th general congregation's call to Jesuits to be in partnership with the laity and to evangelize culture through learned ministry. "This assignment," Fr. Loughran continued, "which says about 25 minutes, exceeds my natural talent by four times. I would be content if people said, after today, 'Loughran wasn't so good, but you should hear him when he goes six minutes.'" This article is excerpted from his remarks.


The Society of Jesus's priorities of partnership with the laity and evangelization of culture through learned ministry are not new; both of these have always been at the center of who Jesuits are and what we do. They are, to use a phrase from the Jesuits' 34th general congregation (GC 34), "constitutive elements of our way of proceeding." Though these priorities are by no means new for the Society, nevertheless GC 34 is calling us to something different, something not so easy. I shall mingle memory and my own quirky, quixotic thinking related to each priority.

Jesuits and Laity

There are many examples of partnership of Jesuits and non-Jesuits in Jesuit apostolates: most of the faculty, administrators, and trustees of our universities, colleges, high schools, and middle schools are lay, as are more and more of the principals and presidents in the high schools, deans, vice presidents, campus ministers, etc., in the colleges; those serving on parish councils, and those giving the Spiritual Exercises. There is almost nothing that Jesuits do that is not done in collaboration with non-Jesuits. We are men with and for others.

Let's look again. Hasn't this partnership with the laity always been a Jesuit priority? Right from the start, partnership with the laity described our way of proceeding. I quote from an article titled "Companions," which Fr. John O'Malley, SJ, wrote for Company magazine a few years ago ["As I See It," Summer 1994]: "Does history hold any surprises, even for a historian? It held many for me as I did my research on my recent book, The First Jesuits. One surprise was how regularly the early Jesuits, including Ignatius and Xavier, encouraged lay people to help in their ministries and how often the Jesuits assisted lay people in their religious instruction."

I promised a quirky, quixotic response to this reminder that to be a Jesuit is to work in partnership with non-Jesuits. First, I have heard the claim made that never in the history of the Society was so much Jesuit talent gathered at one time and in one place than at Fordham University in the 1960s. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Looking back to those days, I would argue that there were too many strong and talented Jesuits in one place. Individuals were underappreciated. A community of so many was extremely difficult. The environment encouraged the Jesuit vices of arrogance and individualism and was unhealthy for body and soul.

Many of those Fordham Jesuits could have done better work, I think, as priests, teachers, and scholars in a situation where they were working more closely with non-Jesuits. Fordham could have been an even greater university with a smaller number of those extraordinarily talented, well- educated Jesuits living and working with one another as well as with non-Jesuit colleagues.

Second, I make this quixotic proposal: Let's found a new Jesuit college. The last one we started was Wheeling Jesuit in 1954. Since Georgetown in 1789, we have never gone this long without starting a new college. Don't ask me where the money will come from. The answer to that question is the same for any college, brand new or 200 years old: tuition and fees, gifts, government sources. And if you ask me why found a new college? I'll say for the same reason we run the schools now in existence: quality education for the students who come to us, especially the less privileged; Catholic presence in and dialogue with the larger, secular, academic world, and so on. Of course there is need for new Catholic colleges.

Ah, but where will the manpower come from? There are not enough Jesuits now to run the 28 existing schools. That is another reason why it is urgent to start a new Jesuit college. Let's found-- and let's not be afraid to call it--a Jesuit college, built on the premise that there will never be more than a handful of Jesuits involved. In other words, let's deliberately do what the other 28 schools are forced to do. Besides being a model for Jesuit colleges in the future, such a symbol might help existing colleges to refocus on their mission and really figure out what lay-Jesuit collaboration means.

Evangelization of Culture

Right from the start, evangelization of culture through learned ministry has been an important part of our way of proceeding. Here are words from the GC 34's "Our Mission and Culture": "This intuition [that God is already active in the lives of all] is what has led Jesuits to adopt such a positive approach to the religions and cultures in which they work. The early Jesuits . . . linked Christian catechesis to an education in classical humanism, art, and theater to make their students versed both in faith and in European culture. It is also what prompted Jesuits outside Europe to express a profound respect for indigenous cultures and to compose dictionaries and grammars of local languages and pioneering studies of the people among whom they worked and whom they tried to understand."

Again, I have two quirky, quixotic responses to this reminder of how Jesuits have been involved in the evangelization of culture through learned ministry throughout their history. First, I want to speak about my experience as acting president for seven months at Brooklyn College. When I arrived there in February 1992, I went ahead with the president's start-of-the-semester meeting with the faculty even though I had only a couple of days to prepare. On the morning of the event, I hastily added this afterthought to my address: "There is a lot of talk in the Catholic, Jesuit world that I come from about the promotion of peace and justice, about a preferential option for the poor. It is more than talk. You would be amazed at how much of the resources of the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities are dedicated to financial aid for the poor and nonwhites so that the poor and first-generation college student can get a quality education. Brooklyn College, although a public, secular institution, is deeply committed to the same mission. That's why I feel so comfortable here."

Immediately afterwards and often in the weeks that followed, faculty referred approvingly to the themes of that paragraph: education for peace and justice, service to the poor and disadvantaged. This reaction encouraged me, in other speeches, meetings, conversations, and letters, to use much of the same language of Jesuit education as I had on Jesuit campuses. Most appreciated references to the meaning and value of the liberal arts and sciences, but they also responded well to ideals and goals such as "personal care for students," "education of the whole person," "education of men and women for others," even "eloquentia perfecta."

I discovered, moreover, that at Brooklyn College there were many--Catholics, Christians, Jews, others--whose work was a vocation, a ministry, whose motivations were shaped and energized by their religious convictions. There were many others for whom something like religion--a vision for society, a belief in the value of the human person, a desire to serve--inspired their lives and labor.

All of this should have been a pleasant surprise. On one level it was, but on another it wasn't! I realized that for years I had taken smug satisfaction in the thought that Jesuit schools stood out for their combination of academic excellence, commitment to teaching, social justice, service to the poor, and the like. Now I was finding out that our schools might not be unique. The moral of the story? People from other cultures and subcultures are ready to hear and be inspired by what we have to say. But we have to be ready for lessons in humility, for discovering new meanings to the word "magis."

Here is my second story related to the evangelization of culture through learned ministries. When Fr. Kolvenbach visited Saint Peter's in 1997, I drafted a brief speech for him. It's very strange to be sitting there hearing somebody else speaking your words--in a Dutch accent! Funniest of all was the trustee who came up to me afterwards and said, "Father, that was wonderful. I mean your stuff is good, but that was terrific."

Fr. Kolvenbach read the whole thing, as written, with one addition, which is why I am telling this story. What I wrote for Fr. Kolvenbach had him reflect on the qualities of an excellent Jesuit college: high academic standards, awareness of one another's spiritual lives, and academic community.

After the paragraph on academic community, he added this, the only change in the speech I wrote for him: "But the community you build cannot stop at the edge of the campus. The commitment to community extends to all of the world, to all God's people, especially to the poor and abandoned who are Christ's beloved ones. Our faith propels us, as men and women for others, toward building such a community among the children of a loving God. Our faith propels toward the Kingdom of God that Christ proclaimed."

The moral of that story? It is that our evangelization of culture through learned ministry happens largely through our students and their service and leadership over a lifetime.

In our Jesuit self-understanding, faith and justice are still dominant themes: the sense that God is present and active in our world, that justice and the evangelization of culture are inseparable. So is service a dominant theme: we are men for others. But there seems to be a growing consciousness that we are also men with others--laity, people of other cultures, that in our service we are being called to cooperation, listening, learning from others, respect and friendship, companionship, dialogue, and humility.

I leave you with something to ponder. The documents of GC 34 predict that, as the nature of our service is transformed, we Jesuits shall be "stretched in our creativity and energy." What could that mean? *


Copyright(c) Company Magazine. Created: 9/3/00 Updated: 9/3/00