The Service of Faith in a Religiously Pluralistic World

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

It gives me great pleasure to be with you today during this year of 2006 as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Francis Xavier, the great missionary of the 16th century for whom your university is named. I am also happy to be with you as you celebrate the 175th anniversary of the founding of your university. Along with Georgetown University, Saint Louis University, and Spring Hill College, your school is one of the senior leaders of Jesuit higher education in the United States of America. The first bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Cincinnati, Edward Fenwick, saw the need in his young church for what we know as higher education and founded the Athenaeum in 1831. His successor, Bishop John Baptist Purcell, persuaded the Jesuits to take over the running of the Athenaeum in 1840 when it was renamed St. Xavier College.

From these beginnings, this complex and highly respected institution has grown and matured to become a vital voice in Catholic and Jesuit higher education in the United States. In the name of the Society of Jesus, I thank you for all you have done and continue to do in this important—even crucial—apostolate of Jesuit higher education. I understand that a new book, tracing the proud history of your school, has just been published. Congratulations.

Your 175th anniversary offers an excellent opportunity to consider the identity and mission of Xavier University, especially in the light of its relationship to the Church and the Society of Jesus; for throughout its history, Xavier has remained faithful to the inspiration of its founders by seeking to serve the Church through the mission of the Society of Jesus.

My words today will concentrate of Xavier’s commitment to the religious dimension of the whole person. I do this in order to stress the importance of conversation about religious subjects in all the areas of human existence. In a world in which specialization is increasingly more important, a world in which people learn more and more about less and less until they know everything there is about nothing at all, it is important to remember that religion and religious topics are not just the responsibility of specialized areas like the theology department or campus ministry. Rather, they are the responsibility of everyone at a university. Indeed, everyone involved in Xavier’s enterprise has unique contributions and responsibilities regarding this central facet of human existence. In recent addresses on Jesuit higher education in the United States, I have spoken about the service of faith with special attention to the promotion of justice.1 Today I will speak about the service of faith with particular attention to other religious traditions as it takes place in a particular culture.

Xavier University’s fidelity to and participation in the ongoing development of the Church and the Society of Jesus is quite obvious even in the most cursory examination of the past 35 years. In 1971, the Synod of Bishops boldly proclaimed that

    …education demands a renewal of heart, a renewal based on the recognition of sin in its individual and social manifestations. It will also inculcate a truly and entirely human way of life in justice, love and simplicity. It will likewise awaken a critical sense, which will lead us to reflect on the society in which we live and on its values; it will make people ready to renounce these values when they cease to promote justice for all people.2

In responding to the Church’s vision articulated by the bishops, the Society of Jesus developed a similar emphasis in the documents of its Thirty-second General Congregation in 1975. In particular, Decree Four, “Our Mission Today: The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice,” captured both imaginations and attention. In the years since 1975, this conviction about the relationship between faith and justice has been developed and nuanced, debated and challenged.

Justice, like charity, is a word that can easily be misunderstood. Some might say that justice is only about social action or legislation and that charity refers only to almsgiving. However, Pope John Paul II pointed out that the justice of the Kingdom is the concrete, committed way to live out the new commandment of the Gospel, and Pope Benedict XVI restored to charity the full diving and human meaning of love. Both popes have stressed that there will be no justice without Christ’s love lived out by all of us; at the same time love will remain only a lovely word if it does not become concrete in deeds of charity and social assistance, of solidarity, and of justice.

In 1995, the Jesuit’s most recent General Congregation addressed the relationship between justice and faith, both to emphasize its significance once again and to clarify its meaning. The Congregation stated that the mission of the Society of Jesus and its ministries, such as Xavier University, is “the service of faith of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement.”3 The integrating principle of this mission is the link between faith and the promotion of the justice of God’s reign. Developing this line of thinking even more, the Congregation stressed that an effective presentation of the Gospel must include dialogue with members of other religious traditions and engagement with culture.4