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Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits by Pakistan RPCV Peter McDonough
Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits by Pakistan RPCV Peter McDonough
Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the
Eugene C. Bianchi and Peter McDonough
For our money, Chapter Eight of Eugene C. Bianchi and Peter McDonough’s celebrated recent work, Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits, published by the University of California Press, encapsulated the core of their analysis of the Society of Jesus in the U.S. and the changes it has undergone since Vatican II. Some Jesuits sniffed over the book, claiming it was shallow and biased and negative. Paul Shaugnessy, a Jesuit serving as a Navy chaplain in Hawaii, called the book “ a quirky yet convincing depiction of the collapse of the renegade Society of Jesus: papists who hate the pope, evangelists who have lost the faith.”We liked the book, because it raised questions about the future of the Jesuits that need asking, particularly questions about celibacy and the Jesuits’ second vow. And we didn’t find it negative. We rather liked their report that that many Jesuits find a great deal of satisfaction in their work, which, Bianchi and McDonough said, “is both expressive (‘I do what I like, I like what I do’) and devotional (for the greater glory of God). “ Here, for those who didn’t have the time to read their whole book, is that chapter eight, along with the authors’ expansive footnotes.
. . . we are engaged in massive corporate denial. We simply cannot continue running these major institutions on the scale we have been, and I see no provincial (superior) making provision. Sometimes I am a bit pissed off because I think that my generation is going to have to deal with it.
. . . in theology a number of men suddenly confronted the fact that they could not articulate for themselves any fundamental difference between ordained ministry and lay ministry. Consequently, they began to wonder why they were making the sacrifices that ordained ministry required . . . .
As they struggle to set the course of the Society, Jesuits argue about alternative slants on ministry. Mission-minded priorities contend with therapeutic concerns, and collaborative approaches vie with assertive faith-and-justice agendas. Underlying the skirmishes over corporate purpose, a deeper question looms. What, if any, is the connection between ministry and priesthood?
The Jesuit presence in the schools, parishes, retreat houses and other operations affiliated with the Society has dropped precipitously. Secondary education provides as good an example as any of the decline. In the early sixties, just before Vatican II, about half of the instructors in the 45 high schools run by the order in the United States were Jesuits. By the mid-seventies, this figure had fallen to slightly above 30 percent; by the mid-eighties to a little over 20 percent, and by the turn of the millennium into the neighborhood of single digits.[i] The result has been a partial takeover of the works by lay people. It is no longer accurate to speak of these places as run by the Jesuits. Non-Jesuits and in some cases non-Catholics have taken up the slack.[ii]
A second change has entailed the seepage of Jesuits out of the classroom and educational administration into various types of pastoral and parish work. This shift has been slower than the drop in numbers. To some extent it flows from the aging of the Society. Jesuits have customarily spent their retirement years in spiritual counseling and helping out with the round of parish chores. As the membership of the order ages, the proportion of Jesuits in pastoral work grows larger. But some fraction of the exodus from education also stems from competition with lay professionals; it is harder for Jesuits to get tenure in what were once their institutions. The brain drain is also driven by the demand for men to carry out priestly duties and by such competing priorities as the commitment to social action. Altogether, the occupational profile of Jesuits makes the order look more like a network of parish priests than would have been the case a few decades ago.[iii]
The impact of these trends on organizational performance and morale is more complex than the changes themselves. The apostolic operations of the Society look to be in reasonably good shape. With the professionalization of faculty and staff, the quality of the high schools and many of the colleges and universities has risen. If the Society of Jesus goes under, it will not be because its ministries collapse.[iv]
Success in these terms raises a pair of questions. If the schools and other operations launched by the Society can do well enough on their own, what’s left for Jesuits to do?[v] And what remains of the religious identity of the schools, with a vestigial Jesuit presence or none at all?[vi] This chapter and the next address these questions.
Apart from the professional upgrading of the schools and other activities, another development has accompanied the decline in membership and the reallocation of manpower in the Society. On the average, Jesuits turn out to be more satisfied with their work than former Jesuits – not by much but by a large enough margin to dash sweeping conclusions about demoralization throughout the ranks.[vii]
For all their tribulations, Jesuits find it a bit easier to infuse their work with a sense of ministry than do their former peers. Men who leave the Jesuits generally do not switch fields. They usually wind up doing what they were trained to do or have an affinity for, with the result that their professional profile is similar to the distribution of jobs among those who remain. But not quite. Somewhat fewer former Jesuits work in education and the service professions than do Jesuits themselves. Earning a living to support a family sometimes forces them to take on work and follow career lines that might not represent their heart’s desire.[viii]
So, many operations that took shape under Jesuit auspices are now thriving or doing well enough under non-Jesuit or team direction, and most Jesuits do not seem to be frustrated on the job. Outcomes such as these, which join promising and discouraging elements, are the result of two different responses to the crisis in religious life. On the one hand, in the wake of the disorientation following Vatican II, the Society of Jesus has undergone what anthropologists call a revitalization movement.[ix] The interior life of Jesuits has been made over. The rejuvenation of the Spiritual Exercises in one-on-one-form has been the paramount demonstration of this revival. On the other hand, much of the energy of the Society of Jesus has been devoted to coping with demographic and institutional decline. This stopgap stewardship becomes apparent in efforts to manage retrenchment and the geriatric bulge in membership. But it also crops up in urgent attempts to keep the Jesuit presence alive, and occasionally to innovate, within the apostolic infrastructure.[x] The contemplative side of Jesuit life appears to have been turned around. The record on the activist side, especially as it concerns the corporate thrust of the order, is less impressive.
The numerous mission statements, issued by the Society’s General Congregations, redirect Jesuits toward a commitment to social justice, collaboration with the laity, and a dialogue with contemporary culture. These declarations represent an effort to supply a unifying link between renewal of the interior life and ministerial effectiveness across the various areas in which Jesuits are active, against a backdrop of falling numbers.[xi]
The guidelines remain controversial, however, in part because the new direction runs up against the turf wars or sluggishness built into long-standing commitments in other quarters, such as education, and in part because they arouse principled or ideological opposition. Jesuits have succeeded in reconstituting themselves as individuals more readily than they have managed to adopt and push forward a common direction. The disjuncture between individual progress and uneven collective success is a leitmotif of the analysis that follows.
Our initial focus is on the motivations and satisfactions that Jesuits, and not a few former Jesuits, bring to and take from their work. Then we move from the psychological toward the strategic dimensions of ministry. We look at the main programmatic shifts – collaboration with the laity and the priority to social justice – which the Society has adopted in order to give direction to its collective ventures. The relationship between these agendas is not altogether harmonious, and the ligatures they are supposed to provide between the therapeutic and institutional goals of the Jesuit enterprise sometimes pull apart. Laying out these tensions prepares the way for the analysis of changes in Jesuit secondary and higher education presented in Chapter Nine.
Most Jesuits and many former Jesuits have no trouble understanding what they do as ministry. But what do they mean by “ministry?” Sometimes it is simply a gratifying task that stretches a man by challenging him. “Teaching high school was very demanding but I generally enjoyed my work within the Society,” one former Jesuit says plainly. “I like to work and the Society had a lot of really worthwhile work to do.” Paeans to fulfilling activity are interspersed with half-jocular jibes at workaholism. Even so, tasks that somehow make a difference are prized. Ministry takes many forms but at the heart of it is a precious satisfaction that Marx would understand: a sense of non-alienating labor.[xii]
The core idea of ministry is satisfaction in personal service to others. “I do what I like,” a 65-year-old Jesuit in campus ministry declares. “I enjoy what I do. They let me do unusual and creative projects. I do love kids.” Not only do such men like what they do but they give the impression of considerable freedom, of really doing what they like. The twin themes are service to others, with a strong person-to-person touch. The maxim that virtue, with a measure of self-esteem thrown in, is its own reward holds true for many Jesuits. Work is both expressive (“I do what I like, I like what I do”) and devotional (for the greater glory of God).
Meaningful ministry, then, consists of personal service; a motivational boost that lifts work beyond the pastoral or the purely ad hoc is often present as well. Ministry is transfigured with a zeal for pitching into the sacred adventure (“building the Kingdom”). Self-satisfaction is magnified through a sense of taking part in something larger than the self.
A 35-year-old theologian, soon to be ordained and about to return to high school teaching, combines these elements. He complains, as do many of his colleagues, about the tedium of the theological lucubrations that pull him away from person-to-person work on the outside:
As a full time student, my days are filled with reading and study. Although we talk about studies as an “apostolate,” for most of us, I think, this is little more than a language game designed to soften the hard fact that time spent with books, no matter how interesting, is no substitute for time spent working with people. I know only a few Jesuits who entered the Society in order to study more.
Quickly, he warms to his passion:
The high point for me, and I imagine for most of my peers, was regency. I taught English at ___. During those three years I found myself finally doing the sort of work I had entered the Society to do. I was making a contribution to people’s lives and to the life of the church that simply could not be missed. I spent myself with great joy in that work. At no point in my Jesuit life has it been clearer to me how it is that this life can make sense. The needs of the People of God were clear and obvious and “in my face” from the moment my homeroom began to fill with students at 7:30 or so each morning for three years. I loved being a regent at ___. Those are probably the three happiest years of my life so far.
I stay because the love which I have for the church and the Society fires a vision or a dream in me that helps me to see this life in what many would probably call “romantic” terms. Despite the occasional setbacks, I do find Jesuit life to be a noble and ennobling endeavor. I do see Jesuit life as a project or an undertaking full of challenge and meaning which make it worth the efforts of a man’s whole life.
Often, men who leave the Jesuits pursue careers that allow them to keep up a sense of ministry. This case of a 47-year-old educator is a little exceptional in the strength of the carryover.
The vision I developed in the Society still burns with great ferocity today. I wanted to help the poor. I organized in the Society, left, and for the last 16 years have worked with kids who dropped out of high school and returned in Brooklyn . . . . This career choice is terrific. I’ve been able to help kids who need it and I feel great about that. I’ve also grown a lot.
On occasion, however, the sense of ministry gets short-circuited among former Jesuits. Sometimes the problem can be traced to distasteful aspects of the job, compounded by competing personal obligations. And outside the Society, communal support for selfless dedication may be in short supply.
The frustration of this 49-year-old lawyer is that he is obliged to pay the bills by working at a job that doesn’t live up to his yearning for service. “When I left the Society [after four years, 27 years ago], I went on to graduate school and obtained a Master of Social Work degree,” he begins.
I continued in youth work for eighteen years, during the last of which I went to night school for a law degree. I now work as a lawyer. I defend doctors and hospital in cases of alleged medical malpractice.
I have found over the years that neither social work nor law have been fully satisfying. Both have their good points but both are mainly ways to earn enough money to support myself.
The striking feature of the lawyer’s story is the persistence of his aspiration for ministry. The work he happens to do takes up “nine to twelve hours a day” but it remains a sideline compared to his appetite for the ideal of service and taking part in a larger cause:
I try to find connections between my work and “building up the Kingdom.” I do not find the connections to be strong or immediate. It takes a constant mental effort, and I fail more often than I succeed even in remembering to look for connections.
The Kingdom is more accessible outside the law office. I listen to the New Testament on tape in my car nearly every day, and I find that exercise very helpful. I am active in my parish and in my [adopted] son’s . . . high school, and that helps too. I find I need to be in contact with a faith community. It is very hard for me to keep on track otherwise.
I continue to hear a quiet call to work for the Lord on a more full-time basis. I do not know how to do that and still support myself and my son. Perhaps when he is grown up, I will be able to do something along those lines.
In the end, however, the greater satisfaction that Jesuits report in their work is only modestly higher compared to that of former Jesuits. As a rule, because so many of them stay in the helping professions, a good many former Jesuits are apt to consider their work as ministry of some sort, even if they do not surround it with the vocabulary of religious heavy-breathing. A few former Jesuits object to the terminology itself. One former Jesuit in his mid-fifties who runs a data-processing system at a government hospital prefers the word “service” to “ministry” because the latter has the note of evangelizing, “which I don’t try to do.” Another man, a management consultant who was with the Society for over 25 years, argues that
The border around the category “ministry” has become very fuzzy. I never did like the category much. Good people contribute to the commonweal the best parts of themselves. That’s it. Calling some of this ministry puts a halo on it that is inappropriate.
As with Jesuits themselves, the more directly their work brings former Jesuits into face-to-face contact with others, and the more directly it requires efforts at care-taking and remediation, the more likely they are to retain a sense of ministry and the more likely they are to find satisfaction on the job. Cura personalis and pastoral flair are at the core of the longing expressed by this 43-year-old former Jesuit:
Connections between my work and a sense of ministry? Not many connections really. My “ministry” now, I suppose, is to the quality of the printed word in religious publishing. I bring to bear on this my sensitivity to the English language, my knowledge of Church and theology, and the Catholic/religious market that we serve. But this more often feels quite detached and unconnected to other people. The personal contact dimension of ministry I sorely miss. I see myself as having more people skills than I can presently use. I feel drawn to some form of pastoral ministry in which I can both share/explore and counsel in terms of more personal and spiritual issues.
In short, freedom from family obligations may be advantageous in certain cases, but it also appears to heighten the need to find personal satisfaction through face-to-face interaction with others. If sociability is reduced, the sense of ministry suffers and personal satisfaction falls. Jesuits are not troglodytes.
Jesuits are supposed to be contemplatives in action, dedicated to ministry. For men committed to “an honorable worldliness” (as one lay colleague put it), navel-gazing is no substitute for action. “Mission is after all what we are here for,” a Jesuit in his late sixties insists, invoking the Society’s activist bent.
Remarks like these belie an uneasiness with the self-absorption released by the cultural revolution of the sixties. A Jesuit psychologist in his late thirties points ruefully to the therapeutic syndrome. He worries about the inclination of Jesuits responsible for decisions on the deployment of manpower to second-guess the value of the approach. The introspective path may lead to gossamer puzzles. By comparison, the ministerial arena at least sets up objective problems that may be solved. After so much self-scrutiny, an extroverted pragmatism has the appeal of engagement with reality.
Some of the men presently in positions of authority are reacting to the ‘60s, ‘70s focus on interpersonal knowing, deep sharing, and so on, and they’re investing in the apostolical. It is as if you were looking at a pendulum swinging in the other direction. “Let’s keep our focus there and if you have problems or whatever, we can talk about it and work it out.” Right. And the fear of navel-gazing – I think they are terrified that people are going to get into a kind of inward focus that would be crippling.
Another young (32-year-old) Jesuit, who was to leave the Society within a year, distinguished between “the mission model,” familiar to Jesuits of older generations, and “the therapeutic model” prevalent in the post-conciliar era. The distinction (“an oversimplification,” he warns) is largely self-explanatory. In the old days
Formation was structured, programs were developed, experiments were offered, that prepared the man to take part in the apostolic mission of the Society. In other words, you were trained for the apostolate. Personal concerns and “issues,” were subjugated to the apostolate (if allowed to surface at all). Today, however, I think it is clear that the therapeutic has taken over. Under this model the individual’s formation is aimed at self-knowledge, mental and physical health, emotional stability, and lives of intimacy.
Balancing the two – “integrating” is the preferred word in counseling circles – proves difficult. There is a suggestion that self-awareness cannot measure up to the romance of being swept along in collective purpose. But perhaps because corporate mission has yet to be clarified, the therapeutic model remains attractive:
Those formed by the mission model may well look at young Jesuits and say (and I quote) “your needs are all well and good, but look to the apostolate for meaning and vision. If you are happy in your work, you can put up with some of the smaller stuff around community.” There is wisdom here. One of my contemporaries puts it this way: “Give the men a job and they’ll be fine.” . . . We know that the apostolate is the focus and the reason, but no matter how good my day at work was, or how much I am nourished by the apostolate, if I come home to closed doors, unhappiness, privatization, and solitude, the previous eight hours are of little consequence.
In the end, achievement on the job, however gratifying, doesn’t make up for the lack of human warmth. This is why so many Jesuits seek out face-to-face ministries.
Jesuits nowadays are more willing to acknowledge the sentimental rewards and the creative rush they derive from what used to be depicted as heroic self-abnegation. In the old days a cordon sanitaire of tight-lipped unflappability and long suffering was drawn around the Jesuit whose emotions were expressed in athletic competition or drowned in a drop too much. The therapeutic manner has heightened awareness of the desiccating effects of absorption in work and of toughing it out through self-effacement. Jesuits were supposed to care for others but to be weirdly impartial with themselves. Such severity toward the self has been rejected.[xiii]
Few post-Freudian Jesuits are wholly convinced of the beneficence of displacing libidinal energies into work. The jokes about workaholism are uneasy. At the same time, the talk of personal integration is very earnest. Jesuits these days favor a mix of personal contact, zeal, and professionalism – a somewhat contradictory bundle that may be at least as demanding as the traditional, harshly ascetic code surrounding ministry.
As happens with expectations for community life, aspirations about work tend to be both turbo-charged and cautious regarding the possibility of contentment. What may constitute a plausible ideal of getting it together for one man may for another be a sack of competing pulls.[xiv] Here is a 28-year-old Jesuit describing the gratification he gets from face-to-face ministry, only to question how far it can take him toward fulfillment:
It is a struggle to integrate sexuality as a vowed celibate and I am not convinced it is possible to do so in an entirely healthy manner. I can say that I have found that when I am engaged in a work requiring me to become involved in people’s lives because they trust me, there is an intimacy present that is very satisfying. That is something that I suspect few people outside of priests and ministers get to experience very often. It is a privileged place to be present for the foundation moments of so many lives. On the other hand, this is a very lonely life at times. Having both Jesuit and lay friends, both gay and straight, helps to give vent to some sexual needs. But in the end the physical needs basically go unmet unless one breaks his vows, which happens sometimes.
While their views are slipping into the minority, some older Jesuits are inclined to dismiss such reservations as sissified. In their place they put a massive dedication to work, suffused by an obdurate passion for the divine. Obedience, not fulfillment, is the watchword. An elderly pastor, more than half a century a Jesuit, sums up this stern, heartfelt perspective:
I think a personal love of Jesus Christ is the only reason men stay; I think they leave because of expecting the glory and getting the cross, and not being able to handle it. I am a pastor of an African-American parish. I do not have an assistant or a secretary or a bookkeeper. I am kept quite busy doing all the things that these would do, and I find all of these things to be part of my ministry to which I have been assigned, and which I love deeply.
The traditional and therapeutic takes on Jesuit life converge in their somewhat parochial, on-the-ground view of ministry. Neither has much truck with abstract doctrine. The operational code of ministry is outgoing service. This is the ordinary view of ministry and, though it is non-monastic, it doesn’t distinguish Jesuits from parish priests. The traditional and therapeutic approaches toward ministry differ more in their expectations than in their working definitions. One carries the baggage of disciplined obedience and love expressed as zeal. The other prizes personal growth and intimacy.
In both cases it is the hands-on, practical, personal element of ministry that counts. Like troops in combat, many older Jesuits expect to receive orders. They’re used to obedience, not to ruminating over grand strategy, and some of them get confused and angry when clear directions are not forthcoming and they hear repeated exhortations to be self-starters. Likewise, younger Jesuits wrapped up in concerns over intimacy are not given to contemplating the big picture. The result is the same in both instances: a focus on the here-and-now, with not much in the way of strategic vision.
Structural transformations – professional specialization, increased competition in the market for education and services, and the erosion of institutional control by the Society – have also contributed to the sense that ministry is what goes on locally and rather haphazardly in the midst of larger, barely comprehensible forces. It is institutional fragmentation in the apostolic agenda of the order, as much as a cultural fashion for self-indulgence, that limits horizons and simultaneously heightens anxiety about the direction of corporate change.
“The most satisfying part of my work is, by far, having the sense that I am connecting with people – a wide range of people on a fairly intimate and significant level of their lives,” a 31-year-old theology student and part-time teacher declares, echoing the personalist line. “The most frustrating part, I suppose, is not knowing where we are going collectively/communally.” It is difficult to step back from close-up interaction and contemplate grand strategy.
I think that we are engaged in massive corporate denial. We simply cannot continue running these major institutions on the scale we have been, and I see no provincial making provision. Sometimes I am a bit pissed off because I think that my generation is going to have to deal with it. I am not terribly concerned with the shortage of vocations, because I do think that God will give us what we need, so long as we are not stupid ourselves.
The testimony of a 39-year-old former Jesuit, recently retired from banking and looking forward to a stint with the Peace Corps, conveys a similar message. He praises the spiritual renewal that has taken hold in Jesuit life (“the most positive feature of formation was the personal integrity and witness to our faith by individual Jesuits on a daily basis”) but expresses dismay at the failure to lay out a strategy of institutional renewal.
The most important negative feature of formation was the difficulty the novitiate team had in telling us what the Society of Jesus was going to look like in the future, even the near future. We read and studied documents of the Society’s Congregations, but were all too aware that the documents and the lived experience were far apart. In a generation before, guys knew when they entered what they were getting into: a monastic formation, jobs at some Jesuit high school or university, probably cut off from much of the mainstream intellectual tradition of this country. When they retired, they would head to a Jesuit retreat center or a Jesuit parish. All the communities were large and institutional. Someone may like or not like this future, but they knew when they came what they were buying into.
No longer! Some guys came because they wanted the old style Society, complete with Latin and cassocks. Others wanted to live in poor urban areas and had visions of cooking lentils and rice for their small communities for the rest of their lives. They wanted nothing to do with traditional Jesuit structures. Our formation team was unable to tell us what we would expect. They didn’t know themselves. I suspect that the answer may still not be known, even now, almost 20 years after many of the most dramatic changes in Jesuit community.
In brief, two transformations have reshaped the opportunities presented by and attitudes toward Jesuit apostolates. The infrastructure of schools, not to mention other operations such as retreat houses, once under the control of the Society of Jesus, has become a loosely coordinated network that is impossible to steer in a single direction. This organizational transformation has a dynamic of its own, apart from though perfectly compatible with a second major change: the therapeutic revolution. Close to becoming the universal language of religious life, the latter change accentuates skills at individual self-discovery and rehabilitation over collective problem-solving.
Together, these trends have produced a fragmented market of decentralized institutions and initiatives that preserve considerable room for maneuver but that resist coordination and planning. The myth of a synoptic, self-contained coherence in “the works” has gone the way of theological system-builders and holistic paradigms.
Three other developments confound inherited approaches to ministry besides the slide in institutional control and the emergence of a therapeutic ethos. One is the decay of the humanistic ideal as a pedagogical model. Another is variation in the spiritual feel of ministry across different apostolates. Finally, there is puzzlement over the connection between priestly ordination and the conduct of ministry.
Historically, Jesuit identity has been bound up not only with ordained ministry but also with the humanities and the liberal arts. From the outset, the Society of Jesus became identified with educational apostolates – with what in retrospect could be called the cultivation of human capital.[xv] During the postwar period, with the success of the GI Bill of Rights and then with the expansion of enrollments and professional specialization from the 1960s, as most of the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States grew, the number of students in the humanities has dropped in relative as well as absolute terms.[xvi] Far from being distinctive to Jesuit or Catholic schools, the declension in the liberal arts reflects what has been happening in American higher education generally.[xvii]
The decline of the humanities has been accompanied by some curious sidebars: for example, the creation of professional schools (initiated at least as far back as the 1920s) partly as cash cows and as mechanisms for recruiting women, as paying customers, into an educational enterprise from which they otherwise would have been excluded. The exclusion of women from the liberal arts colleges was maintained (as the practice was at Yale) for some time after the profit-making professional schools were established.[xviii] But, unlike some of their elite secular counterparts with ample endowments, not many Jesuit colleges and universities could afford to preserve the humanities as their intellectual flagship.[xix]
More was at stake in the crisis of the humanities in Jesuit education than financial solvency. The Jesuit understanding of the humanities resembled the vision shared by Protestant ventures in higher education in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the humanistic disciplines signaled the union of learning and virtue at the crux of the Renaissance ideal. Because their wisdom was supposed to shape values and build character, propagating the classics and more broadly the liberal arts was a kind of ministry.[xx] The project – forming leaders, as it was called – had ethical purpose as well as a vocational payoff. Even if the humanities were never as central to the schools as idealized renditions of Jesuit pedagogy might suggest, the liberal arts curriculum set the tone. It was the institutional signature of the Society, much as the commitment to faith-and-justice has striven to dominate the ethos of the order in recent years.[xxi]
The influence of the Society of Jesus in higher education has come in for hard times not just on account of the reduction of Jesuits in the classroom but also because the nature of the Jesuits’ specialty, the humanities, has changed drastically. At least in research universities and graduate faculties, the convergence between learning and virtue has been stretched to the point of breaking.[xxii] In light of this dissociation, the testimony of a 64-year-old former Jesuit, now a university professor, has special poignancy:
For a long time I was unable to formulate what it was I was doing in the classroom. One of the losses I felt after I left the Jesuits was the loss of a larger context within which to place my own life and doings. That has continued, though without distress. However, some years ago, as we discussed our new core curriculum, I arrived at the very clear understanding that, whereas others were in the classroom to raise consciousness, I was decidedly there to hand on the intellectual and cultural tradition of the West. I am clearly not a post-modernist; however, my Jesuit initiation into the culture of the West also made me very aware that it was, at its best, an open tradition. I hand on the tradition.
A professor of English at one of the smaller Jesuit colleges makes a case that reports of the death of the humanities may be overblown. “The general erosion of confidence in humanistic education,” he admits, “[is] a major factor in shaking these guys’ [the Jesuits’] confidence in the educational apostolate . . . . It’s the perception of doom that’s most important and that certainly is the mood of the day. But,” he continues,
I think (hope?) that the prophesies of doom for the humanities and the traditional arts and sciences are exaggerated . . . . In fact, the more I get to know faculty at other [Jesuit] institutions, the more I think that we – somehow! and at least at the undergraduate level – have retained more of a generally humanistic sense of what the university is up to (and of at least the wish for interdisciplinary synthesis) than have the secular institutions that we compete with. It may finally be nothing deeper than the survival of a core curriculum that includes philosophy and theology, so that at least the Marxist literature professor may occasionally be confronted by a student who may know something that would stand up against a glib identification of religion with opiates. But I do think there’s a difference.
A second change goes with the descent of the humanities. A sense of ministry is apt to be more compelling in pastoral work, spiritual direction, social advocacy, and the high schools than in research and teaching as these activities have developed in American higher education. Spiritual direction is replete with God-talk. “It’s easier being in pastoral or social work to see ministry and priesthood and the Society as integrated into everything I do,” a 56-year-old associate pastor says.
You asked about a typical work day. Today’s Ash Wednesday. I got up at 5:30 as I usually do, spent some time in prayer and finished off my homily preparation. I presided at two Eucharists at 8:00 and 12:00. I took Eucharist and ashes to six shut-ins spread out all over the city. I met one of my three retreatants doing the seven week parish directed retreat. I talked with four people, out of the 26 I have met so far, who are doing the Lenten Journey, a parish program that gives an orientation to Lent and helps people discover an integrated approach to prayer, fasting and almsgiving that gets them where they want to be on Easter. I returned 27 phone calls and fixed up the legal papers for a marriage that was performed at ____ without proper authorization by the local government. I opened eleven pieces of mail and dashed off a few notes. Tonight I am supposed to have dinner with a parishioner and his female companion, not his wife; believe me, I’ll still be on the clock. I do a lot of work with couples preparing for marriage and with people seeking annulments. I talk with a lot of angry Catholics, angry from every imaginable angle. Yesterday I had two long phone conversations with parishioners who are going to write the Cardinal because [the parish] had introduced the Nicene Creed. My Annotation 19 retreatant came in right after that and she won’t recite the Gloria because it’s not inclusive. I’ve been taking an hour a week of scripture with two Visitation novices, the only non-Americans in the community, one from Kenya and the other from Kerala. I’m active in WIN, a community organizing project for DC sponsored by the IAF (Industrial Areas Foundation], a Saul Alinski-inspired organization.[xxiii]
In contrast to all this hands-on pastoral work, the figure of the pastor-in-the-classroom as a model of Jesuit pedagogy and scholarly achievement has not quite passed from the scene. But it has seen better days.[xxiv]