The Service of Faith in a Religiously Pluralistic World (part 2)

Keynote address by the Very Reverend Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., Superior General of the Society of Jesus | October 3, 2006

Part 2

Taking into consideration these documents of the Church and Society of Jesus, a few years ago your faculty stated the university’s purpose this way: “Xavier’s mission is to educate, to help develop a deeply human person, one of integrity, wholeness, and dedication, one equipped with values, knowledge and skills related to the whole experience of living.”5 Xavier’s mission has also been expressed this way: “to educate students intellectually, morally and spiritually, with rigor and compassion, toward lives of solidarity and service.”6

Before going on, it might be helpful to note why an explicitly religious institution like the Society of Jesus is so interested in education. St. Ignatius and his companions expressed very simply the mission of the religious community they founded: “to help souls.” The first Jesuits expanded this simple concept as they expressed their basic purpose in this way: “the propagation of the faith and the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine.” In his book, The First Jesuits, Father John O’Malley helps us understand the meaning and significance of the purpose and of Ignatius’s simple expression “to help souls.” Ignatius and his followers used the phrase “as the best and most succinct description of what they were trying to do….By ‘soul’ Jesuits mean the whole person… [T]he Jesuits primarily wanted to help the person achieve an even better relationship with God.”7 Today, of course, we would use other words, just as your faculty did in describing Xavier University’s mission; however, the reality is the same: to help develop a deeper human person, one of integrity, wholeness and dedication.

Although education was not part of Ignatius’s original vision, it soon became a central facet of Jesuit life. Jesuits recognize that the best way to help people achieve a better relationship with God was by helping them understand their place in the world that God created. Through education, Jesuits sought to introduce students to the even greater glory of God that is revealed as one came to know more and more about the universe and grasps the concepts and ideas that help us organize our understanding of, our place in, and our responsibility to all facets of creation. In 1586, the early educational theorist, Father Diego Ledesma, referred to the purpose of Jesuit schools this way:

    Whether they endeavor to teach the laws and form of government conducive to the public good; to contribute to the development, brilliance and perfection of the human mind; and, what is more important, to teach, defend and spread the faith in God and religious practice, they should always and everywhere help people toward the easier and full attainment of their ultimate end.8

Xavier University shares in this long and rich heritage. Indeed, you have been helping souls in this tradition for 175 years!

As one might expect, then, there is an obvious connection, between the teaching of the Church, the mission of the Society of Jesus, and Xavier University’s self-understanding. Your mission statements express well the truth that effective education is about formation of the while person. True education, education really worthy of the name, is an organized effort to help people use their hearts, heads and hands to contribute to the well-being of all human society. Genuine education helps individuals develop their talents so they may become agents who act with others to make God’s liberating and transforming love operative in the world.

Your statement on general education is an contemporary expression of the early Jesuits’ commitment to humanist education. Your continuing commitment to an extensive core curriculum is clearly one way to achieve the goal of understanding the world and one’s place in that world. Your emphasis on academic service learning and the continuing attempts to renew and strengthen your Ethics/Religion and Society focus make important contributions to that process. However, it is important for us to recognize that your faculty’s words apply to the activity of the entire university—faculty, staff, students, trustees. For all the functions of the university contribute to its mission of educating the whole person.

There are no neutral sciences, no pure academic disciplines that develop isolated from human problems in an ivory tower. Every branch of human knowledge raises questions today about meaning, ethical behavior and more responsibilities. As its very name—univers-ity—confirms, the whole university is involved in the process of educating the whole human being.

Many of your students are at an age when they may be seriously searching for insight into faith and religion, perhaps questioning, doubting, rejecting. In educating the whole person, many different disciplines and facets of university life assist students as they search for meaning, offering light for the process of more deeply understanding what one believes about life’s most profound questions such as who am I and why am I here. In fact, many students come to a Jesuit, Catholic university like Xavier because they expect to be helped to grapple with questions of faith in explicitly Jesuit and Catholic ways because of the university’s tradition and because of the public image it presents.