By Spirit & Deed

Written by Kimberly Winston

student massTHE BAYVIEW HUNTERS POINT area of San Francisco is a gritty neighborhood that usually makes the news only when gunshots are fired. Here and there, discarded tennis shoes droop from telephone wires, broken glass glitters in the gutters, and split garbage bags belch forth refuse onto the sidewalk. Drivers keep their car doors locked, more intent on passing through than passing time.

But it is here, in a few hard-won plots of dirt that dot the neighborhood with lettuce, tomatoes, fruit trees, and even corn stalks, seven miles and a world away from the University of San Francisco’s tidy campus, that the school and its students live out the Catholic and Jesuit identity of their university. “The fundamental desire of Jesus was to create a world that was fair and balanced and a help to those with the least ability to help themselves,” said Seth Wachtel, an assistant professor of architecture whose students have helped design and build the dozen or so green plots of the Quesada Gardens Initiative, where local residents, many of them poor and underserved, grow their own food. “To train students professionally and emotionally to use their skills to develop a fair planet is very much in the Catholic and Jesuit tradition and very much the mission of the university.”

Architecture NicragaUSF is one of more than 235 Catholic universities and colleges in the United States, 28 of them run by the Society of Jesus. All of these schools seek to endow their combined 900,000 students with Catholic ideals and values, but the definition of those values and how they are communicated varies from school to school. At some, like Ave Maria University, it means, in part, a curriculum requiring Gregorian chant, Aquinas, and Augustine. At others, like Boston College, it means, in part, students take two semesters of Western theology.

USF, too, has requirements that help stamp it as Jesuit and Catholic. Students must study theology and engage in service learning—courses requiring hands-on work among San Francisco’s poor. There is also a wealth of Catholic-themed courses, including ones on Catholic social thought, celebration of the sacraments, and exploration of bio-medical issues through a Catholic lens. But students and faculty seldom cite these courses when asked how the school is Catholic and Jesuit. Rather, they name the school’s dedication to justice, central to the teachings of Jesus and a primary concern of the Roman Catholic Church. Faculty, staff, and students at USF say the main place they seek and find the school’s Catholic and Jesuit identity is not always in the most Catholic of things—Mass in St. Ignatius Church, the Catholic studies program, the Jesuit-led retreats and workshops—but just as often in its adherence to the direction of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, to “see God in all things.”

“When people ask about the Catholic character of the university, I think it is important to understand you cannot find it in any single place,” said USF President Stephen A. Privett, S.J. “You can’t find it only in Jesuits who wear collars. That’s not what makes us Catholic. Is that a part of it? Yes. But no one piece by itself is the key. There is no cornerstone without which you don’t have a Catholic university.”

Not everyone agrees. Many Catholic institutions of higher education have faced biting criticism, both from within and outside Church hierarchy for actions some deem “un-Catholic.” Earlier this year, Notre Dame University was excoriated by some who disapproved of President Barack Obama delivering the graduation address because he favors reproductive rights for women. Christian Brothers University has come under fire for hosting a lecture by the Catholic scholar and journalist Peter Steinfels because he has written favorably of the ordination of women. USF, too, has been condemned for having Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as a graduation speaker (she was not given an honorary degree) and for awarding Bishop Kevin Dowling of South Africa an honorary degree on the grounds that their views on human sexuality conflict with Church doctrine. (Bishop Dowling, however, has publicly declared that he supports the Church’s teaching on human sexuality.) Patrick J. Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, wrote in a letter to Fr. Privett, “You are publicly allying a Catholic university with leaders of what Pope John Paul II called a ‘Culture of Death.’”

Others see this openness to different views and the welcoming of the stranger as central to Catholicism and the Jesuit order. “There are folks who are much more comfortable with the Church up on a mountain top with clear answers to clear questions, relatively unsullied by contact with the world,” said Charles Currie, S.J., president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, of which USF is a member. “Others are more comfortable with a Church that is involved with the risks and ambiguities of the human condition and runs the risk of getting dirty in the process. Such a Church has the chance to transform society in a way the Church on the mountain top can never do. And there is room in the Church for both.”

Fr. Privett holds that a university that refuses to engage those who differ with it is harsh, unwelcoming, and un-Christ-like. Critics like those from the Cardinal Newman Society “would do more good for the Church by taking a less rigid and self-righteous stance,” he said. He also suggested hardliners look to the warm welcome Pope Benedict XVI gave to both President Obama and Speaker Pelosi in Rome earlier this year. He sees a further model in the Pope’s response to a letter from Sen. Edward Kennedy just before his death. Despite Kennedy’s public support for reproductive rights, the Pope invoked upon him “the consolation and peace promised by the Risen Savior to all who share in His sufferings and trust in His promise of eternal life.” “That is the kind of charity and reconciliation expected of Catholics,” Fr. Privett said.

Engagement with Society

Ignatius QuoteIf, as Fr. Privett holds, there are many cornerstones supporting a Catholic and Jesuit school, one of USF’s strongest is spelled out in its mission of “educating minds and hearts to change the world.” Key to that is providing students with hands-on experience in the world. That’s why a USF student cannot graduate without engaging in service learning, a program that integrates work among the marginalized into the classroom curriculum.

Service learning is found in every department and every degree program, from mathematics and science to sociology and English. Students enrolled in Professor Paul Zeitz’s mathematical circles class tutor underprivileged students at San Francisco public schools. Professor Linda Walsh’s health services students go to Guatemala to assist in a rural clinic. Other students work in homeless shelters, community projects, and non-profit organizations as part of their courses. And while most universities put students to work in their local communities, there is something inherently Catholic and Jesuit in USF’s program. “It’s more than volunteer work,” said Patrick Murphy, past director of USF’s Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good, which coordinates service learning. “It is an expression of our Catholic identity in that we explicitly focus on the poor and the marginalized. That is part of the Jesuit mission and consistent of the teachings of Jesus. We say you should help the poor, that it is part of your responsibility as an educated person.”

First-hand experience as a conduit of Catholic and Jesuit values is also carried into immersion trips, some done through service-learning and others through University Ministry’s Arrupe Immersion Trip program. On these trips, students travel as far away as Kenya, Peru, and the Dominican Republic to study things like homelessness among children and human rights violations. But while many universities send their students into the trenches, USF gives it a Catholic and Jesuit spin. “It’s not about feeling guilty, it’s about feeling responsible,” says Michael Duffy, director of USF’s Joan and Ralph Lane Center for Catholic Studies and Social Thought and a professor of political science who has taken students to the Burma-Thai border to study the causes of human trafficking. “I say that repeatedly to my students. If we do not live responsibly then we perpetuate this injustice.”

 Guatemal teachingCarlie Kralj is a senior, working toward a degree in international studies. She has been on several immersion trips, including one with Duffy among the victims and perpetrators of human trafficking in Thailand. “I really feel it illustrated the Catholic idea of social justice,” said Kralj, who has a Protestant background but described herself as not religious. “It wasn’t about me helping these poor people. It was about creating a relationship where we impacted each other’s lives.” Back in San Francisco, she has put that new perspective in play. “It changed the way I look at the world,” she said. “It showed me how living in community is a way that shapes us and helps us grow in ways that are distinct from being independent. There is strength in community.”

Other USF offerings that embody its Catholic and Jesuit foundations include:

  • The St. Ignatius Institute, which emphasizes the great books of Western literature, with an emphasis on their role in the Catholic intellectual tradition. Undergraduates have the opportunity to live communally and worship together in a series of retreats and regular Masses. The Jesuit tradition of assisting the poor is emphasized through service in shelters in the San Francisco area and an annual trip to build low-income housing in Mexico.
  •  The Institute for Catholic Educational Leadership (ICEL) in the School of Education, which trains teachers and other administrators who will work in Catholic private schools. ICEL attracts prominent scholars from across the U.S. and trains new ones to bolster the future of Catholic private education, which has seen its resources and enrollment decline steadily since the 1950s.
  •  University Ministry, which offers multiple opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to come into contact with Catholicism and the Jesuit tradition. It provides spiritual directors for students, places “resident ministers” in dormitories, and organizes retreats and special events centered on Catholicism and Ignatian spirituality, including a Mass held every Sunday in St. Ignatius Church where students serve as greeters, singers, musicians, and readers, and comprise the vast majority of the congregation.

As executive director of University Ministry, Donal Godfrey, S.J. oversees the implementation of all of the office’s programs and activities. He is both a Catholic priest and a Jesuit, yet he finds one of the chief ways USF exemplifies its identity is in its openness to other faiths. “The fact that we are Catholic and Jesuit allows us to explore the religious identities of our students who are not Catholic,” Fr. Godfrey said. He recalled one student, a Muslim, who said he felt more honest and open about being a Muslim at USF than he did at a state school, where issues of religion were taboo. “Being Catholic and Jesuit means we take faith and questions of meaning and God seriously,” Fr. Godfrey said. “This oftentimes gives others who are not Catholic permission to be open about their faith or lack of it, or struggles with it.” Raising questions about the nature of God and meaning of faith—any faith—is never a threat to the school’s Catholic character. “As a Jesuit and a Catholic, I have nothing to fear from that search for the truth because my faith is not threatened by truth. It would only help me understand it more deeply.”

Laura Gengler is a junior who was so inspired by her trip with University Ministry to Sydney for World Youth Day that she came back to USF and changed her major from psychology to theology and religious studies. She has always been a practicing Catholic, but said her perspective on God’s nature has shifted since attending USF. “I think my idea of God is much more personal now,” she said. “I see God as much more approachable. He is in my everyday life and isn’t only something that happens on Sunday at Church. I have realized that my faith can be in everything that I do.”

Embracing Diversity

MatthewScriptureUSF’s Catholic and Jesuit identity is also tied to its diversity as it is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse of all Catholic colleges and universities, Jesuit or otherwise. In 2008, only 42 percent of the school’s undergraduates said they were Catholic, with others claiming Protestant (7 percent), non-religious (3.2 percent), Buddhist (2.2 percent), Jewish (2 percent), Muslim (1 percent), and Hindu (.7 percent) backgrounds. (The remaining students opted to not declare their religious background.) The number of Catholics at USF is low among Jesuit schools in the U.S., where the average is more than 57 percent, according to the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. When USF’s entire student body (including graduate students) is counted, the number of Catholic students drops even lower, below 30 percent. But USF faculty, staff, and students say this diversity is more a boon than a blow to the school’s Catholic and Jesuit identity. “The Jesuit tradition has always engaged with other traditions,” Fr. Godfrey said. “We do not retreat into the citadel and put up the moat. Our vision is a vision that engages with all people of good will, of all faiths and none. And if you look at the person of Jesus, that’s who he was.”

The proof of that vision lies in how welcome people who are not a part of the Catholic tradition feel at USF. Jeffrey Brand, dean of the USF School of Law, said confronting questions about the school’s identity and mission led him to a richer exploration of his faith. “I can’t think of a more wonderful thing to say of a Catholic university than that it is where a Jew would feel so at home that it provided strength for my own Judaism,” he said. He has delivered two homilies at St. Ignatius Church and written openly about his faith, and said he always finds his religious perspective welcome in faculty and student encounters. “If this were just a secular university, none of that would have happened,” he said.

MassHolySpt_web300pxWhen Nikki Raeburn, associate professor of sociology, arrived at USF in 1998, she thought it would be temporary. “I never thought a Catholic university would hire an out lesbian feminist,” she said. “But they did. I did not think there was any way I would get a tenure track position here. But I did. So I educated myself about what Jesuits are and what a Jesuit university is, and to me, that commitment to social justice, that is Jesuit. And my understanding of Catholicism is that sentence in our mission about USF welcoming people of all faiths and no faiths.”

Magnified by Location

USF’s diversity is a reflection of San Francisco and the broader Bay Area, one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse parts of the U.S. It also includes some of the most affluent and poverty-ridden neighborhoods in the country. That means the school has certain responsibilities to the city, some of which serve as witness to its Catholic and Jesuit identity. USF officials say it isn’t enough to send students to work in the city’s homeless shelters, but it must also ask its students to examine the roots of the problems that created those soup kitchens and shelters. “A university has a different mission from a St. Anthony’s or a St. Vincent de Paul,” Fr. Godfrey said. “Our mission is to ask the questions. Why do we have such a big homeless problem in San Francisco? Our business should be to understand why those homeless shelters were created and how we can change that.”

Murphy said the school’s perch on Lone Mountain provides it with a golden opportunity to live out its mission. “The Tenderloin is only a bus ride away,” he said. “But if we had a student who went to St. Anthony’s every week for four years but never asked why there are so many hungry people, then we would not have lived out our Catholic identity.”

The Most Reverend George Niederauer, archbishop of San Francisco, said the university can also contribute to the development of Catholic identity among the archdiocese’s 89 parishes and 11 missions. He sees a give-and-take between the university, its students, and faculty, and the local clergy and laypeople developing into “a dialogue that explores what difference being Catholic makes in the life of the university and what difference the university makes in the life of the local Church,” he said. “Out of this dialogue could emerge collaboration between the university and the local diocese in the three-fold work that the Second Vatican Council identified for the Church: making Jesus Christ the priest, prophet, and shepherd, present in the world though faith, sacrament, and service.”

Jesuit Education of the Future

The Jesuit order—like other Catholic religious orders—is shrinking. In 2006, the Society of Jesus counted 3,034 brothers and priests in the U.S., down from 8,400 in 1965. Who will carry the banner of Jesuit identity at USF and other Jesuit schools in future generations? To Fr. Privett, the answer is clear. “If we think the future of the university rests with the Jesuits, it doesn’t,” he said. “It rests with the Jesuit capacity to evoke from others what our understanding and our tradition is about. We pass that on to them and then it is their show.”

But is that enough? Some of the nation’s top universities—Harvard, Yale, and Princeton among them—were founded by religious people with a vision. But when the laity succeeded them, those universities gradually lost contact with their religious foundations. If that happens at Jesuit schools, it would be costly. “They’d probably still turn out fine MBAs, but something the world desperately needs would be lost,” said Thomas Groome, professor of theology at Boston College and author of What Makes Us Catholic. “A sense of the spiritual, of how to make a life for one’s self and not just make a living, of service to the common good. It is hard to mount that kind of ethic for students without some spiritual grounding.”

PrivettQuoteDuffy said it is part of the Lane Center’s goal to plant the Jesuit roots of the school deep. In that, he said, may lay the answer. “If we are clear about what the mission is, does it really matter who is communicating that mission?” he said. “There are plenty of people here who are not religious and they are still able to understand our values and motivate people around them. It will be different when there are fewer Jesuits, but we do not have any control over that.”

David Gibson, author of The Coming Catholic Church, said that change is already here. Georgetown and Gonzaga universities, two Jesuit stalwarts, are now led by laymen. But that, he said, hasn’t meant a sacrifice of their Jesuit and Catholic values. He, too, believes the strength of Jesuit education rests with students.

“It has always surprised me how people just light up when they talk about their experience with Jesuits,” he said. “It wasn’t just a single episode of their lives, but (it) really stuck with them. They really imbibe their values and world view and spirituality, and decades later they are still walking the walk. When you see that kind of impact, I am confident this transition from a purely clerical leadership to a mixture of lay and clergy leadership will be successful.”

As recent architecture graduates, Irene Kim ’09 and David Castro ’09 are where the future of Jesuit education rests. As Wachtel’s students, both contributed to the Quesada Gardens Initiative. Castro also spent time in Nicaragua designing and constructing a community center for the rural poor. Both were raised Catholic, but neither currently practices. Still, both credit USF with helping them maintain their ties to their faith. “I don’t feel connected to Catholicism,” Kim said, “but that is one thing I can have a lot of respect for, the message to help others.” Castro said social justice, as taught at USF, is a Catholic value that has stayed with him. “It is just always on your mind, it’s just a part of your process,” he said. Both plan to direct their careers in architecture to design for the poor and underserved, and both said they could someday be drawn back to practicing their faith.

PursueJusticeShould USF officials be satisfied if students like Kim and Castro do not practice Catholicism’s rituals, but act on its teachings? Absolutely, said the McCarthy Center’s Murphy. “These students have chosen to live in a manner consistent with the teachings of Christ and the Church…. I much prefer it to the person who spends most of their time and career engaged in selfish pursuits that add little or nothing to society, yet one hour a week they show up at church and can recite the Baltimore Catechism.”

Duffy, of the Lane Center, is more circumspect. “I don’t feel that in Jesuit education anything is ever enough,” he said. “Going to Mass and taking communion are essential elements, but hardly all that Catholicism encompasses. My hope is that at some point in the future, our students will make these connections on their own.”

And Fr. Privett said, “I would like people to understand that their impulse to pursue justice and do good is of God. Whether acknowledged by them or not, they are clearly doing God’s work and that will prove a blessing for them and those they serve.”

“Jesuits, you might say, have faith in faith,” said Gibson, himself a convert as a result of time among Jesuits. “They believe that by their witness of service, education, and openness, they will be a witness to the faith and some people will choose it. They don’t try to convert people by beating them over the head, but by showing them the Jesuit way through the Catholic faith with the goal of affecting the wider society.”

Fr. Privett put it this way. “The Catholic tradition is a huge tent, a 15-ring circus. I think we need to be able to cultivate a tolerance and understanding that there has always been this breadth…. Sometimes, that leads to tensions. But those tensions are part of what it means to be a Catholic. And I think those tensions are an invitation to conversation.”


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