MAHER: GU's Future Hinges on Faith
As This Jesuit Sees It ...
Published: Thursday, February 9, 2012
Updated: Friday, February 10, 2012 00:02
Every semester I ask the students in my Jesuit Education course to read an essay written by Fr. Timothy Healy, S.J., on the occasion of Georgetown's bicentennial in 1989. Fr. Healy was president of Georgetown when I was a student here. He always struck me as a mixture of King Henry VIII and St. Thomas More. Mostly Henry, but with just enough of Thomas, please God, to help him find his way home.
In any case, his essay is brilliant, both in its high-brow prose and its earthy poetic sense. It's a treat for me to reread it each semester. This week, a paragraph leapt out at me, even though I had read it a hundred times before without paying it much attention. It was the kind of surprising jolt that can come from reading and rereading well-written pieces.
Most of Healy's essay speaks of the joys and challenges of undergraduate education, which has always held a place of pride in Georgetown's heart. But for a few paragraphs, he turns his attention to our professional schools, entities which apparently proved to be more than a little vexing to the dauntless Fr. Healy.
Healy notes, "Before its first century was out, Georgetown began teaching law and medicine. Much to their loss, these two professional schools are today tugged and pulled by bodies of practitioners, organized and arrogant, and vastly careless of the aims of the rhythms of a university — above all of one that believes in God."
It was the final phrases that shocked me: "The aims of the rhythms of a university — above all one that believes in God." It struck me as such a simple but powerful assertion, one that all too often goes unspoken: Georgetown is a university that believes in God.
That is not, of course, to say that everyone who works or studies at Georgetown believes in God. Nor is it to say that only people who believe in God should be hired or accepted here. Were that the case, Georgetown would be neither Catholic nor a university, at least not in the healthy sense of either of those words.
But it is to say that this is a university whose life and work is animated by a living tradition, intellectual and religious, that believes in God. This faith-fueled tradition is why we do what we do, and it gives shape and nuance to the way we do it.
Unmooring our collective work from our animating foundation — as our public rhetoric, promotional materials and website often do — runs the risk of letting the soul of our university morph into the soul of secular, humanist, elite private school, a species with which the East Coast is already planted thick.
For Georgetown to be Georgetown, we need leaders who are comfortable and confident in speaking — in their capacity as leaders — of faith and God. And I do not mean just campus ministers and the vice president for Mission and Ministry. Nor do I mean just the president. Nor do I mean just Jesuits or Catholics.
I mean deans and vice presidents, provosts and directors of centers, raisers and managers of money, directors of alumni, admissions and athletics.
Leadership at Georgetown must include the ability to convincingly articulate our animating faith-based tradition if we hope to pass these traditions on to future generations of students.
Leaders of many other Jesuit schools have wrestled with this issue. At a recent Mexico City meeting of presidents and other leaders of Jesuit colleges and universities from around the world, a working group on ecology and sustainability hammered out a statement of common purpose that began, "We believe that we are created to be with God, and that creation is a gift of God." That line caught my attention.
One participant reflected that the religious language troubled some in the group. But in the end, with respect for those made uncomfortable by explicitly religious language, the group settled on an unambiguously spiritual articulation of the underlying vision and imagination that give rise to a Jesuit university's work.
I couldn't help but wonder how such a statement of common purpose would be received at Georgetown. This in turn made me wonder if Fr. Healy would still recognize Georgetown, professional schools and all, as a university that still believes in God.
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.