Last week, I was fortunate to be able to attend the inauguration of Fr. Scott Pilarz, SJ (COL ’81) as the president of Marquette University. I have known Scott since we met as Georgetown undergraduates in the late 1970s. He kindly asked me to preach at his inaugural Mass last Thursday, and preparing for the Mass gave me the opportunity to think and pray about what it is that Jesuit universities ask of our presidents and others entrusted with leadership on our campuses.

My percolation on the question reminded me of some late night channel surfing I once did while vacationing at the Jersey Shore. I was mindlessly flipping through the channels when I stopped at the Discovery Channel. They were running a show about a tribe of so-called primitive people who live deep in the jungle of New Guinea. It was a remarkable story. The tribe moves from place to place in the jungle, never wanting to deplete the resources of any one spot. They build sturdy, temporary houses out of the trees and branches around them. When they move, each member of the community has a particular task.

One of the most important of these tasks, one which falls to the leader of the tribe, is gathering the embers of the tribe’s fire. The leader carefully wraps them in banana leaves and transports them to the new site, where he unwraps the embers, fans them to life and provides the community once again with the gift of fire.

I watched those jungle dwellers, and I thought of Father Pilarz and President DeGioia and all those who lead Jesuit universities. We Georgetown community members are dwellers in the jungle of American higher education, and our fire tenders matter. If those who lead us fail to tend the fires that burn at the heart of our tradition, then the tradition will die, and the quality of our life will be greatly diminished. The university might well continue to exist, perhaps even reach higher levels of prestige and acclaim, but the fire at our heart will be out.

It seems to me that in Georgetown’s case, the daily, hourly temptation is to trade the warming fires of our Jesuit and Catholic tradition for the cold comfort of a secular humanism that dilutes the definition of what makes us who we are to a bland, lowest-common-denominator sort of mantra: “Academic excellence is good; community service is good; diversity is good.”

As Georgetown makes her way through the complicated world of American higher education, our fire tenders matter.

What is the fire that burns in the heart of Jesuit universities? It’s an understanding of what a human being is, of what the world is and honestly, it’s an understanding of what the meaning of life is for both humans, and thus, for the university. It’s an understanding rooted in the Catholic tradition that God is real and active in the world in ways human beings can know and experience.

Obviously, not all universities share that understanding.

A Catholic university is not just about knowledge, it’s also about meaning and wisdom, virtue and love. It’s about truth. And in our bones, we inheritors of the Jesuit tradition know this: Truth is not created by the human mind, but encountered by the human being. That’s why the formational aspect of Georgetown’s vocation is so important. That’s why Georgetown cares not just about the kinds of thinkers our students become, but the kinds of people they become.

St. Ignatius Loyola, whose spirituality gave birth to the Jesuit tradition, reminds us that our ability to encounter truth is directly linked to the depth and maturity of our interior lives — intellect, yes, but more: imagination, memory and empathy. The mind only takes on its proper meaning and role when it is understood in the context of the human being. That is among the most important embers everyone in the Georgetown community carries with them as they move through the jungle of American higher education.

The United States is planted thick with excellent colleges and universities. Most of them treasure different embers, live by different lights, warm themselves around different fires than those that center Georgetown. We wish those schools well, but we do not want to be them. When we seek to emulate them — out of envy or insecurity or whatever — we play a very dangerous game: a game that could cost us our living tradition.

Our fire tenders matter. Let’s pray for them.

Fr. Ryan Maher, S.J. is an associate dean and director of catholic studies in the College. Fr. Schall, Fr. Maher and Fr. O’Brien alternate as the writers of As This Jesuit Sees It … , which appears every other Friday.

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