By this point in the semester, week four, things have mostly calmed down. My students and I have found our rhythm, and we have begun to settle into the work of examining our world’s political systems and learning from one another.

But this year, more than others, I feel a heaviness lingering in the background of many of our lives. For some of us, it is the horror and betrayal of the Catholic Church’s crisis of sexual abuse and failed leadership. For others, it is concern about family members in harm’s way, enduring storms or the threat of deportation. For still others, it is concern about politics — both on our campus and in our country — and the many harms that recent discourse and actions inflict on our communities.

These events leave me, and many of my students, feeling on edge — unsettled and unsure of how to face problems of such enormity. And even when we are not directly involved, we often find it hard to look away. Our attention and imagination are captivated, as we spiral through emotions that leave us exhausted.

One response, the one that seems most common in society today, is to quickly and immediately judge, to take sides and seek a relief from our disquiet by standing on the seemingly firm ground of conviction. This reaction is appropriate in many ways, as injustice and harm need to be seen clearly, named and addressed. Action, so long forestalled, need to be taken, and accountability restored.

But there is another response, one that moves beyond our first reactions. It looks below precipitating events, searches to understand underlying root causes, humbly listens to the voices of others, probes our own deepest values, and makes the choice to engage the slow work of change.

St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, called this “discernment.” He learned from experience that it was difficult to make truly good choices and achieve real and lasting change when he reacted in the moment.

In fact, he later came to teach that, when we find ourselves in desolation — hurt, angry, confused, overwhelmed — we should not make major decisions. Rather, we should pay attention to and tend to our brokenness and the injuries of those around us. Our wounds need to be salved and our souls solaced; we may need to convalesce for longer than our driven Georgetown selves would normally allow.

Make no mistake, though: This process is anything but passive. It involves focused introspection; it demands purposeful learning about the issues and about ourselves; and it requires the building of relationships that will allow us to commit to change over the long haul of our lifetimes.

Profound cultural change is needed. In the case of the Catholic Church, it may very well take our lifetimes, or several lifetimes, for us to transform the culture of hierarchy, clericalism, secrecy and abuse that have injured so many. For our environment, scarred by evermore severe storms and temperature swings, we will need to change the consumption habits of our planet and help communities that are being affected survive and adapt. And in our politics, a rediscovery of the common good, an embrace of the dignity of each member of our human family, and a willingness to dialogue are all long-term reorientations required for our fractured society to be made whole.

Those who would undertake these tasks need to be all in, ready for the long haul: grounded in our faith and values, prepared with knowledge, humble yet unrelenting, members of an inclusive community that can support, encourage and inspire. Action must start now, but it also must be sustained and ongoing. Our task on the Hilltop is to lay the foundation — in ourselves and in our relationships — for the shared future and change we seek.

This driving purpose brings me back to our daily tasks of the new semester, which actually play a critical role in helping us achieve that long-term change we seek. There is an old Jesuit saying “Age quod agis.” Quite simply, it means, “do what you are doing.” In moments of confusion or betrayal or stress or crisis, stick with the tasks that you have at hand. After all, we chose this university and these tasks — our classes, clubs, internships, commitments, friendships — for a reason; continuing to be true to them can help us find our way to a path forward. They also remind us that the betrayals or failures we face are not the totality of who we are, and they usefully prepare us to face those challenges more effectively.

So, as we enter more deeply into this fall, let us keep our eyes on the horizon, pursuing the long-haul work of transformation for which our world so desperately cries out, but also taking seriously the day-to-day studies, work and friendships critical to forming the path that will lead us there.

Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., is an associate professor in the department of government and the School of Foreign Service. He currently serves as director of the Center for Latin American Studies. As This Jesuit Sees It appears online every other Thursday.

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One Comment

  1. Andrés Mojica says:

    Amidst the recent grand jury report which concludes more than 300 priests sexually abused over 1000 children since the 1950’s, Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J. advises us to: “[continue doing] what you are doing.” For Georgetown, that means: “lets continue our silly pretense of a Catholic identity, despite the growing evidence of its burden.”

    Every semester at Georgetown University seemingly provokes new ire from continually bewildered archdioceses or religious groups that condemn Georgetown’s already secular culture. There is no shortage of these incidents, which are often provoked by the conduct of Georgetown’s administrative personnel! Such was the case upon Georgetown University’s recent approval of the Living Learning Community for “safely exploring issues of gender and sexuality”, an administrative decision seemingly denounced by all tabloids. The Washington Times headlined the story with “Shenanigans in sex at Georgetown U” and Lifesite News called the decision “a startling move for a university that claims to be Catholic”. Such was the case when Love Saxa, a pro-heterosexual marriage student group, risked defunding by Georgetown University for defending the Catholic Church’s traditional view of marriage, a debacle which culminated with legal action when Love Saxa alleged Georgetown University misappropriated donations intended for their group by depositing these funds into the accounts of other student groups. Chad Pecknold, a theology professor at the Catholic University of America, commented: “I suppose the question for Georgetown is whether they think Catholic kids can still be Catholic there.” Such was the case when the Georgetown Alumni Association conferred Senator Dick Durbin with the Timothy S. Healy, S.J. Award for “[rendering] outstanding and exemplary service to his/her profession or community” the day after he was banned from Holy Communion for supporting abortion rights. Bishop Thomas Paprocki called the proceedings “shameful” and further commented, “In a sense it’s nothing new [from Georgetown].” Such was the case when a student group invited former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, disliked by conservatives for supporting abortion rights and former President Obama’s contraception insurance mandate, to deliver a speech at Georgetown’s annual awards ceremony. An editorial in the District of Columbia’s archdiocesan newspaper called the decision “a disappointment but not a surprise” and reads, “Georgetown has undergone a secularization, due in no small part to the fact that much of its leadership and faculty find their inspiration in sources other than the Gospel and Catholic teaching.” Such was the case when Georgetown University covered the monogram “IHS”—symbolizing the name of Jesus Christ—on a stage pediment before former President Obama delivered a speech at Georgetown in 2009. Patrick Reilly, then President of the Cardinal Newman Society, called the incident an “outrageous example of a Catholic university sacrificing principle for prestige.” How many more of these incidents will Georgetown endure before action is taken?

    It’s hard to imagine a platitude other than that offered by Matthew Carnes that is more tepid and stupid amidst the circumstances.

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