Refounding the "Universities of the Society"

The Challenge of Fr. Nicolas to Jesuit Higher Education

by Michael E. Engh, S.J. |

In April of 2010, more than 180 leaders and representatives of Jesuit higher educational institutions from around the world gathered at the modern campus of the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

My predecessor, Paul Locatelli, S.J., had been planning for the event for over two years. In his role as Secretary for Jesuit Higher Education, Paul had coordinated, secured funding, and structured the four-day meeting. The centerpiece of the program was an address by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., who traveled from Rome to articulate his vision for Jesuit higher education. A palpable energy animated the delegates from around the world when we met one another on the redbrick patio outside the auditorium for the opening session on Thursday, April 22, 2010.

Presidents (also called rectors, principals, or directors) arrived with faculty members, administrators, staff, and chairs of boards of trustees. We participated in plenary and small group sessions, Masses, meals, and receptions. Our delegation from Santa Clara University included Paul Crowley, S.J., chair of the Religious Studies Department (and author of one of the preparatory papers); Ron Hansen, professor of English; Steve Saum, editor of Santa Clara Magazine; and Chuck Barry, university photographer. We had traveled to the conference to contribute to laying the groundwork and setting the agenda for an international network of Jesuit institutions of higher education. As Paul Locatelli, S.J., had conceived the conference, we were to address several major issues and craft proposals for continued collaboration after the meeting.

Surveying the welcome reception it was obvious that men outnumbered women, and it appeared that lay colleagues outnumbered Jesuits. We had arrived from around the world for this assembly, though the eruption of an Icelandic volcano had deterred a number of Europeans from attending. I met an intrepid Belgian Jesuit who had driven from Belgium to Madrid to catch a flight, as well as Africans who had touched down in London to change planes for Mexico City. If one was determined to be present, it could be accomplished. Twenty or so presidents of U.S. Jesuit universities and colleges were in attendance. Once at the Iberoamericana we met colleagues from across the globe, and I soon accumulated business cards from colleagues in Nepal, Korea, Argentina, India, and Madagascar. The voluble exchange of greetings, stories, and ideas had begun, one of the great highlights of this assembly.

The first full day of the conference included the opening Mass (in Spanish), plenary sessions (with simultaneous translations on headphones), and our first small discussion group meetings. The plenary speakers focused on the challenges that Jesuit institutions of higher learning faced in Latin America (Jose Morales, of the Iberoamericana), India (Xavier Alphonse), East Asia (Joel Tabora), Africa and Madagascar (Mwana Mfumu Isangu), North America (Jack DeGoia, of Georgetown), and Europe (Jose Ramon Busto). Jack DeGoia noted that in North America we were experiencing desecularization, that is, the re-emergence of religion in public discourse, with the frequent consequence of heightening polarization among people.

Banners along a hallway at the Mexico City conference highlight the many Jesuit institutions around the world that participated in the gathering. Photo by Charles Barry


Given my interests stated in my inaugural address,(1) I had registered for the Ecology and Sustainability work group. The original Spanish and English language groups quickly merged into one English-speaking group of 19 people from 10 nations. We elected Nancy Tuchman (Loyola, Chicago) as our chair/facilitator, and Susan Jackels (Seattle University) as recorder. Paul Locatelli had charged the working groups to develop position statements with outcomes that we wished to see implemented locally and internationally. Our exchanges were rich and engaging in our group comprised of ecologists, political scientists, historians (happily, there were two of us), mathematicians, theologians, climatologists, anthropologists, business professors, sociologists, and one agricultural engineer. Only a few of us were Jesuits, two were presidents, six were women, and not all were Christian or even believers.

I witnessed how the United Nations must have to function in order to accommodate the vast range of delegates’ concerns, personalities, perspectives, sensitivities, cultural values, and educational specializations.

Over the two and one half days together we progressed from general concerns and personal interests to the position statement and plan of action. I witnessed how the United Nations must have to function in order to accommodate the vast range of delegates’ concerns, personalities, perspectives, sensitivities, cultural values, and educational specializations. We moved from individual statements and pet projects to a collective vision of what we could do together once we left the conference. We affirmed that we could contribute best to solving problems of ecology and sustainability if we did so as university people “committed to learned ministry in Jesuit higher education.” As such, “[w]e believe that our engagement as educators enables us to work creatively and collaboratively for a more just, humane, and sustainable world” (from the draft of our position statement).

In the midst of our meetings, we heard Fr. Nicolás deliver his riveting keynote address.(2) For ninety minutes, he analyzed how globalization affects the way we as educational leaders approach Jesuit higher education. He focused on three dimensions of this topic: promoting depth of thought and imagination, particularly among students; rediscovering universality and developing networks to address issues globally; and renewing the Jesuit commitment to learned ministry. In his departures from his prepared text, Fr. Nicolás often displayed his winning sense of humor. He closed by offering three interlinked questions: If the founders of the Society of Jesus were starting today, would they opt to engage in the work of universities? What kind of universities would we create if we were refounding the Society of Jesus? How would we proceed in these universities if our goal was to fashion a more humane, just, faith-filled, sustainable world?

For the Santa Clarans in the audience, the phrasing of the last segment of the question repeated verbatim part of the university’s mission statement,(3) but he added the further dimension of faith. This aspect of the university as an explicit agent of evangelization caught my attention because it contrasts markedly with the more secular environment of American higher education. Clearly, our response to globalization must consider the role of faith and religious belief, just as Fr. Nicolás had urged us in his call for depth of thought and imagination. Implicit in this conviction is the belief that Catholics, while sensitive to the beliefs of others, at the same time enter into dialogue with a theology that requires attention and respect. Further, we do so animated by an Ignatian spirituality that greatly benefits the persons of our world through its Incarnational understanding of creation.

In our small group, the speech re-energized and broadened our deliberations. We returned to writing a document of common purpose that owed significant inspiration to Fr. Nicolás. Writing by committee was a demanding process, but we hammered out a position statement that began, “We believe that we are created to be with God, and that creation is a gift from God. We also realize that that creation is wounded by sinful actions. We are called to join God in the healing of creation.” The religious language troubled some in the group, yet we sought a spiritual grounding to our declaration. “As members of the universal human community,” we continued, “we recognize our common responsibility for the welfare of the entire world, especially in facing challenges of ecology within sustainability. It is our moral obligation both to learn with the poor, who are most affected by environmental degradation, and to respond to the present without compromising the needs of future generations.”

I took from the conference a new and deeper under- standing of the words of St. Ignatius to Jesuits when he sent the first Jesuits on mission: Ite inflammate omnia (“Go set the world on fire”). With our discreet topic we found one means to launch out with faith, creative imagination, openness to the poor, and hard thinking.
Above, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., traveled from Rome for the Mexico City conference in April 2010. Fr. Nicolás gave the keynote address and also celebrated Mass with Secretary of Higher Education for the Society of Jesus and former SCU President, Paul Locatelli, S.J., at right, and others. Below left, SCU President Michael Engh, S.J., participated in the Ecology and Sustainability working group. Below right, participants gathered in small group consultations with topics ranging from “Human Rights and Civic Responsibility” to “Theology, Science, and Culture” to “Markets, Inequality, and Poverty.” Photo credit Charles Barry


Next, we created two work products, along with their suggested outcomes and means to achieve them. First, to raise awareness of the complex issues involved in sustainability we proposed the organization of an international Jesuit higher education network that focused specifically on teaching, research, advocacy, and action on sustainability. This would include a website and webpage to share best practices in classrooms and programs that developed leaders committed to environmental justice. Annual report cards on progress at individual universities and conferences every two to three years would bring together environmental sustainability leaders to share successful programs and successful outcomes.

Such a network addressed the challenge of Fr. Nicolás to think globally and deeply when addressing issues in closer collaboration. The second desired outcome was the development of research themes among our university scholars to raise awareness and to inform policy makers. This included the creation of standards for ethical behavior for environmental protection, as well as developing a database of Jesuit college and university faculty with expertise similar to the existing Community of Science.(4)

One work group at a single conference did not refound the Society of Jesus. We realized, however, the extraordinary influence of institutions of higher education to affect student learning, faculty research, formation of public policy, the dissemination of knowledge, the articulation of human rights, and the creation of jobs and wealth to benefit the poor. In our discussions we affirmed the importance of this work as a true ministry to those in need, a ministry needing to be better coordinated and linked in order to be more effective. We touched on numerous issues, but recognized that an animating spirituality was a fundamental dimension of how to shape the world.

In leaving the conference, I carried memories of a direct experience of how Fr. Nicolás inspired this working group of 19 educators from around the world. His passion and brilliance modeled how our own dedication and talents could animate others in ecology and sustainability and beyond. I took from the conference a new and deeper understanding of the words of St. Ignatius to Jesuits when he sent the first Jesuits on mission: Ite inflammate omnia (“Go set the world on fire”). With our discreet topic we found one means to launch out with faith, creative imagination, openness to the poor, and hard thinking.

It is now up to Fr. Nicolás to coordinate the next steps after the unexpected setback of Fr. Locatelli’s death. We look to him to determine how best to meet the goals of the conference, but I have seen that the desire and the passion exist within many people to realize the aspirations we had embraced.



  1. For more on President Michael Engh, S.J.’s, inaugural address (the emphasis being on “creating a more just and sustainable world”) see:
  2. Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., “Depth, Universality and Learned Ministry: Challenges to Jesuit Higher Education Today,” Mexico City, April 23, 2010, available at
  3. Santa Clara University Mission Statement can be found here:
  4. The Community of Science (COS) describes itself as “the leading global resource for hard-to-find information critical to scientific research and other projects across all disciplines.” It is found at:


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