I first left the Hilltop when I graduated in 1988. Leaving Georgetown a second time is even harder. Revisiting places made holy by our time together helps us to say goodbye. Join me then for one final walk around campus.
We begin in the graveyard. Here lie Jesuits who first stirred up in me the notion that I might be a Jesuit someday. Among the newer graves are Jesuits with whom I lived and learned these last eight years. Being a Jesuit is not a career; it is a calling lived out in a community of men dedicated to the greater glory of God and the service of others. This curious centerpiece of our campus reminds us that we rely on a tradition far greater than any one of us. The Jesuit tradition serves not as an anchor, fixing us in place, but as a rudder, guiding us to the next horizon.
Up the hill is Copley Hall. I spent two years living there as an undergraduate, and the past eight years as a Jesuit-in-residence. No roommate this time, but lots of visitors. Each week, students brought hungry appetites, curious minds and occasionally broken hearts. Over dessert, I raised questions: What gives you joy? What matters most to you? What do you most deeply desire in life? Jesuit education incites conversations that matter, those that go deep.
We walk over to Dahlgren Chapel, the spiritual heart of campus. I love Dahlgren because the walls hold countless prayers, including my own, uttered across the decades. The walls echo with joy, hope, grief, fervent petition and gratitude. I have celebrated innumerable Masses, baptisms and weddings there. Too often, we have also gathered in times of loss, when a student dies or when violence rocks our world. Dahlgren stands as an important symbol that learning, faith and service can go together, and that community makes our individual journeys all the more meaningful. Within the chapel, the transcendent gently breaks into our ordinary lives.
Crossing the quadrangle into Healy Hall, we visit my classroom. Every semester in Healy 104, students and I grappled with questions about the meaning of faith and the role of the Catholic Church in the 21st century. Pope Francis stirred things up midway during my time here, enlivening the conversation even more. I can still hear my constant refrain about the meaning of Jesuit education: “Be attentive, be reflective and be loving.” Go deep, I pleaded. To borrow an image from a favorite book, we are made to scuba dive, not Jet Ski through life.
Down the hall are the Campus Ministry offices. As I leave a second time, I am even more convinced that the path to enduring peace in our world will come through faith communities. There is no university as committed to this earth-saving project as Georgetown. More personally, I know that I am a much better Catholic priest and person because of my friendship with the Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Orthodox Christian and Hindu communities. Our diversity reflects the utter creativity of God.
We walk out onto Healy steps and to the right, through the large windows of Lauinger Library, we see the often unnoticed Latin phrase etched on the high wall. It is from John’s Gospel: “Know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Recall the freedom when a new idea explodes tired intellectual categories and self-awareness exposes bias, renewing relationships once stagnant. Savor the freedom that pushes aside fear to realize new opportunities. Relish the joy we experience when what we do flows from the deepest sense of who we are most truly.
On the other end of the quad is White-Gravenor Hall, with the statue of St. Ignatius before it. The founder of the Jesuits carries the staff of a pilgrim, his chosen self-description. His home was the road. Learning and faith are more like journey than a destination. We live our questions and wrestle with doubts, loving the best we can along the way through the beauty and messiness of human living.
Look closely at his feet: One is firmly planted, the other steps forward. This is the stance of a Jesuit, ready to go when called to serve another need. We who leave the Hilltop adopt Ignatius’ stance. We will always have a firm footing on this holy ground, yet we step forward toward a future not yet our own.
Finally, in Healy Circle, we come to John Carroll’s statue, another pilgrim Jesuit. He greeted us when we first walked through Healy Gates. Look carefully at Carroll’s gaze as his eyes are fixed well beyond the hilltop to the city and the world. That gaze missions us to go and put everything we have learned here in service of others. We arrive here only then to be sent back into the world beyond the gates.
In the end, Georgetown is not just a collection of nice-looking buildings and beautiful landscape. Georgetown has a soul, a spirit that animates this place. God is at work here in every approach to truth, beauty and goodness, in every conversation that matters, and in every impulse to make the world a more just and gentle place. Whether we leave a first or second time, we carry that spirit with us.
Fellow pilgrims, Godspeed on the great adventure ahead.
Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., is vice president for mission and ministry.
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