Universality, Learned Ministry, and Depth of Thought and Imagination

by Paul G. Crowley, S.J. |

In April 2010 in Mexico City, Fr. Nicolás’ keynote, “Depth, Universality and Learned Ministry: Challenges to Jesuit Higher Education Today,”(1) addressed a situation that has changed greatly even since Fr. Kolvenbach, the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, gave his well-known speech on Jesuit education at Santa Clara University a few years ago.(2)

The two talks were similar in their call for solidarity of Jesuit institutions and works with the weakest, partly through entering into dialogues with religion and culture. But what motivated Fr. Nicolás’ talk far more than Fr. Kolvenbach’s was the explosion of interdependence, interconnectedness, and communication that we call globalization. Globalization extends beyond matters of transnational migration and interlocked global economies; it also extends to politics. Witness the sweep of political change in the Middle East—events unimaginable before the onset of globalization through technology and the instantaneous interlinking of people, especially young people.

What did Fr. Nicolás say about this phenomenon, and its effect on the future of Jesuit higher education worldwide? There are three points made in his speech on which I’d like to focus briefly: contemporary rediscovery of the universality of our Jesuit mission, the need for a recovery of the learned dimension of Jesuit works, and reaffirmation of depth of both thought and imagination in the life of the university.


Jesuit institutions are fond of speaking of their belonging to a global Jesuit network. Yet, as Fr. Nicolás pointed out, what we have now is a conglomeration of institutions of varying degrees of Ignatian inspiration, some sharing enough family resemblances that they can join together in regional organizations such as the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities in the United States, and similar organizations in Latin America and Europe. Occasionally institutions do manage to find ways of working together, as we have discovered to some extent through the Casa Educational Network, now in San Salvador and Manila.(3) These are promising beginnings.

But what Fr. Nicolás calls for is something more: the expansion of regional groupings into more universal, more effective international networks of Jesuit higher education through a sharing of resources: information, personnel, technical and technological expertise, and especially the strategic meeting and interchange of people over time in projects designed for the betterment of society.

Specifically, he called for confronting new forms of atheism (what is known as “aggressive secularism” in Europe); finding solutions to poverty, inequality, and other forms of injustice; and addressing global environmental degradation, which especially affects the lives of the poor. The impetus for this drive toward global networks is found, he said, in the Jesuit Constitutions themselves, which call upon us to work for the more universal good.

As some indication of how daunting this task might be, consider the panel in which I participated, on science, theology, and culture at the Mexico City conference. It was populated fairly evenly between representatives from schools like Santa Clara, and others from the developing world. One representative was from a small technical institute in the Democratic Republic of the Congo specializing in agriculture and veterinary medicine. The conversation about the relationship between science and faith means something very different in that kind of cultural context than at Santa Clara, where the discussions can quickly become theoretical. How, we might ask, would a Jesuit institution like a Santa Clara imagine working collaboratively for the more universal good with a small Jesuit institute such as the one in the DAR? Not an easy task! One instrument suggested at the meeting that might help us imagine our way there is the newly launched website, Jesuit Commons (www.jesuitcommons.org), which links Jesuit works and people worldwide in the service of the poorest of the earth. But that is only one instrument among many that might be devised in the future. This is a matter for all schools of a university, including engineering, business, and law.

A map at the Mexico City conference highlights the many Jesuit institutions around the world. Photo credit Charles Barry


Learned Ministry

The downside of globalization, says Fr. Nicolás, is a worldwide culture of superficiality, where serious thinking gets short-circuited. Technology makes so many demands upon us, and so hooks us with its near narcotic effects, that some of us are not even reading as much as we should or once did. And when professors are not reading deeply with a view toward a learning that can grow and be shared, and inform all that we do, then we are in trouble. We cannot very well expect our students to treasure learning when our own lives are so glutted with “information” and constantly shifting attention spans.

On the yet darker side, our students, as well as professors, can become caught up in superficial relationships, private worlds, or degrees of self-absorption that weaken their sensitivity toward others. Technology can, subtly, lead to a dehumanization if it is not used intelligently and in a discerning way. While technology can unite people and make things possible in previously unimagined ways (for example, travel), it can also cause us to lose our mental home, culture, and ethical bearings, such that everything becomes equally irrelevant, including, of course, the Mystery of God. This is a serious challenge for Jesuit works. And so, Fr. General calls for a renewal of “learned ministry.”

Technology makes so many demands upon us, and so hooks us with its near narcotic effects, that some of us are not even reading as much as we should or once did. And when professors are not reading deeply with a view toward a learning that can grow and be shared...then we are in trouble.

Despite his use of the word “ministry,” this is not an intra-Jesuit topic. For all of us working in the Jesuit university can be pulled away from habits of learning and deeper contemplation. We find ourselves diverted to various programs, projects, and worthy activities, but too often at great sacrifice to the learning that should inform these efforts. Nor can this dimension be replaced by mere enthusiasm or goodwill.

Indeed, Fr. Nicolás says that the Jesuit enterprise in all its works, not only higher education, must be infused with a “love of learning, intelligent exploration of faith, imagination and ingenuity, solid studies and rigorous analysis.”(4) This calls especially for new explorations of the relationship between faith and reason if we are to confront in our institutions the challenges of aggressive secularism as well as new forms of religious and political fundamentalism. A recovery of the value of learning—of learnedness informing what we do—is essential. This is our gift to the Church, and marks how we engage the world. We cannot commit to this halfheartedly or with inadequate attention to what is central to a Jesuit understanding of intellectual infusion of all our works.

Depth of Thought and Imagination

How do we recover a sense of this learned ministry? Fr. Nicolás suggests that the path is through a depth of thought and imagination. Here is where Jesuit educational tradition has something to offer, for it pushes imagination and thought beyond academic excellence or brilliance alone, toward a transcendent depth. Traditionally, humanistic studies, and especially the classics, have been a vehicle toward this depth. As SCU Professor Emeritus Michael Buckley, S.J., has shown in his explorations of Jesuit humanism, the classics helped to engender in Jesuit students a disciplined and learned sensitivity toward the human and the humane, toward tragedy and human suffering, toward misery as well as hope.(5) Today, Fr. Nicolás asks, where might we look for the classics? Not only to Greece and Rome, but also China, Japan, India, and to indigenous cultures. There is much wisdom yet to be learned!


[W]e must also always be asking whether and the degree to which our students are being transformed. Are their encounters with reality—real books, real people, real poverty, the earth as it actually is—helping them to put the world together in a way that will bring about transformation toward the more universal good?
Photo credit Charles Barry


The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius are also a natural pedagogy for creative imagination, not only in their use of imagery as a means of entering into the depths of human experience and the experience of God, but also of finding coherence in a world that does not obviously cohere because it is so broken. Indeed, one could say that our current situation is one of almost Nietzschean destabilization—of ontology, language, culture, and order. Ignatian imagination begins with this reality, the reality of our fractured human lives, and strives toward a remembering of the parts, so that reality can not only be grasped, but comprehended in its wholeness. This involves, as the late Jesuit William Lynch explained, a direct engagement with the real, for only in such a direct engagement is there the possibility for the discovery of the hidden presence of God, and for transformation not only of reality, but of the engaged person, and of engaged communities as well. For Lynch, this was a matter of a Christic imagination, an imagination informed by the visceral reality of the Incarnation.(6)

What does this point have to do with Fr. Nicolás’s main idea that Jesuit educational institutions need to establish real connections among one another for the sake of the greater good? It is a vitally important point because our institutions are not foundations, corporations, or NGOs. Yes, the university is a proyecto social, as Fr. General insists, and there are some social functions that universities play that are not directly tied to the classroom. But, fundamentally, universities are places where students come to learn and to be transformed, and in that process, universities also help to transform societies. Some of that learning will occur in direct contact with the realities of the world, with the suffering and poor of the world—and it must. But we must also always be asking whether and the degree to which our students are being transformed. Are their encounters with reality—real books, real people, real poverty, the earth as it actually is—helping them to put the world together in a way that will bring about transformation toward the more universal good? Are their imaginations being developed and their thinking deepened so that they themselves can meet the challenges of globalization? At Santa Clara I think we are generally doing a good job of this, but we still must ask: How many of our students graduate with this degree of transformation coming from a depth of thinking and imagination?


The most challenging moment in Fr. Nicolás’s talk came at its conclusion. As we know, Jesuit numbers are on the decline for the most part, and Jesuit institutions are increasingly being led not by Jesuits, but by people who share the Ignatian inspiration deeply. We are at a crossroads, a new historical moment. In that light, Fr. Nicolás asked all in attendance, Jesuits and lay colleagues alike:

        If Ignatius and his first companions were to start the Society of Jesus again today, would they still take on universities as a ministry of the Society?…

        One of the most, perhaps the most, fundamental ways of dealing with this is to place ourselves in the spiritual space of Ignatius and the first companions and—with their energy, creativity, and freedom—ask their basic question afresh: What are the needs of the Church and our world, where are we needed most, and where and how can we serve best? We are in this together, and that is what we must remember rather than worrying about Jesuit survival. I would invite you, for a few moments, to think of yourselves, not as presidents or CEOs of large institutions, or administrators or academics, but as co-founders of a new religious group, discerning God’s call to you as an apostolic body in the Church.

        In this globalized world, with all its lights and shadows, would—or how would— running all these universities still be the best way we can respond to the mission of the Church and the needs of the world?(7)

Wisely, he did not answer these questions, but I am grateful that they were raised. It is up to us to consider them, to imagine what it would mean to co-found a new religious movement, and in that light, to understand what a Jesuit university can be, or ought to be. The times surely demand this kind of fresh thinking.



  1. Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., “Depth, Universality and Learned Ministry: Challenges to Jesuit Higher Education Today,” Mexico City, April 23, 2010.
  2. Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., “The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education.” The Santa Clara Lectures, Santa Clara University, October 6, 2000, 1–17.
  3. For more on the Casa Educational Network see: http://www.scu.edu/casa/network/.
  4. Nicolás.
  5. Michael J. Buckley, S.J., The Catholic University as Promise and Project: Reflections in a Jesuit Idiom (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1998).
  6. For more on the thought of William Lynch, S.J., see Images of Hope: Imagination as Healer of the Hopeless (University of Notre Dame Press, 1974), and Christ and Prometheus: A New Image of the Secular (University of Notre Dame Press, 1970).
  7. Nicolás.
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