Fifty years ago, Jesuit priests in Roman collars walked the campus, working as the primary faculty and serving as an outward sign of the Catholicity of the University. Students were required to attend Mass and at least one spiritual retreat a year. They were handed cards, and if they weren’t stamped with proof of their attendance by the end of the year, they risked not being able to graduate. It was a different era.
Today, the “Jesuit Tradition” banners hanging along the academic mall and the striking gilded sculpture of Ignatius Loyola standing behind Bellarmine Chapel provide symbolic, outward signs of the University’s Catholic, Jesuit identity. But Mass and retreats are no longer required of students, and seeing a priest in a collar on campus is a rarity. Dressed in sport coats and, occasionally, ties, they’re hard to distinguish from other faculty.
“Some alumni’s experience of theology here was 18 credit hours of
reading Thomas Aquinas,” says department of theology chair William
Madges. “Things have changed a lot.”
Yes, Aquinas is still around, along with Christianity’s other great
thinkers, prayers and doers, including Jesuit founder Ignatius
Loyola. But as the Catholic Church opened up to the world during the
past 40 years, the Catholic university’s approach to serving the
faith has opened up, too. Xavier is no exception.
“Catholicism is experienced in different ways, at different places in
the University,” says Madges. “You have to look not only at what
happens in theology, but also what happens in literature or
philosophy courses and what happens in campus ministry.”
Indeed, the information once contained in a mandatory class or two is
now spread to courses throughout the curriculum. And, says Madges,
it’s reasonable to expect students to graduate with an even deeper
understanding of Catholicism than they would have received before.
For students to not be exposed to this information, he says, they
would need to painstakingly select certain theology classes,
carefully avoid literature and the moral imagination courses that
deal with Catholic themes, never participate in the many
opportunities for worship, avoid all of the student-run retreats, and
have nothing to do with the Dorothy Day house and programs for peace
“You’d have to work pretty hard at avoiding it,” he says.
And even if a student tried, he still might not be able to elude it
entirely, as faith-growing opportunities abound. Within the
curriculum, at least three theology courses are required. All
undergraduate students take a theological foundations course that
explores the nature of theology as a disciplined reflection. Students
must choose a course from the areas of scripture, Church history or
systematics and another course in the area of ethics or religion and
culture. One student might take courses that emphasize Catholic
theology. Another student might take courses that have more to do
with other religions, as about 30 percent of the student population
today is not Catholic, a major change from the past.
“The student has an awful lot of say in what he or she takes in
theology,” says Madges. “We respect our students’ ability to choose.”
Does that freedom take away from the University’s Catholic character?
Madges says plenty of courses teaching Catholic doctrine are offered,
but in the mix of the broader theological field. He quotes recent
Catholic teaching, both from Vatican II and from Pope John Paul II’s
curia, on the role of the university that supports this approach.
“Catholic theological education today is dialogical,” Madges says.
“In the past it was monological.”
Ignatius Loyola would be “jumping up and down” with joy knowing that
today’s Xavier students are putting their head knowledge together
with experience, says Klein-that they are developing spiritually
outside the classroom as much as in it.
“Here we are shaping these students who are going to be leaders. We
want them to be intellectually clear, but we also want them to be
morally astute, to have a sense of God.”
And they are, says campus ministry director Chris Potter-Wroblewski.
Mass attendance by students is at a 15-year high, she says, with
about 1,000 students attending on a typical Sunday. Xavier students
are not unlike other Catholic students today, she says. “This
generation of students tends to describe themselves as more spiritual
than religious.” But they see their Catholic faith as a foundation,
Campus ministry offers no less than 13 different retreats, and the
600 students who attend them annually represent another all-time
high, she says. There are the 18 Koinonia groups, through which about
180 students meet weekly to share, discuss and pray over significant
issues of their lives. Social service involvement is booming on
campus. And a growing part of the faith-dialogue is a program for
students to study-and serve-in a Third World mission situation. Study
semesters are offered in Nicaragua, Nepal and Cincinnati’s
Over-the-Rhine, where students take courses while experiencing and
reflecting on the situation of the poor.
“One notable difference among students of this generation,” says
Potter-Wroblewski, “is that they are willing to put their faith into
Much of what’s different at the University can be traced not only to
changes brought about by Vatican II in the 1960s and society in
general, but to a pivotal General Congregation of the Society of
Jesus in 1974 as well, says Klein. This Congregation-only the 32nd in
nearly 500 years of Jesuit history-was called to assess the order’s
priorities in a rapidly changing Church and world. Led by the
visionary Jesuit General Superior Pedro Arrupe, Jesuit
representatives from around the world followed the Ignatian directive
to reflect on their experience.
“The experience of Jesuits behind the Second World, behind the Iron
Curtain, where the faith was oppressed, and in the Third World, where
there is such injustice, deeply influenced that Congregation,” says
The result was a groundbreaking document, “Faith in the Service of
Justice,” that has been working its way through Jesuit institutions
everywhere for almost three decades. The Congregation, Klein
explains, “said that everything that was to happen through the good
services of the Society of Jesus was to be the service of faith, of
which the promotion of justice is an absolutely necessary
Klein has led the effort to implement this vision. “Now Jesuit
identity is a pretty hot issue around the University.”
With a growing University and a decreasing number of Jesuits, “the
board of trustees has faced the fact that ultimately they are
responsible for the University’s Jesuit identity.”
Because faculty and staff establish and maintain the learning culture
for students, one key tack has been faculty and staff development. In
1986, the University started programs that help faculty and staff
understand Ignatian spirituality and educational ideals. There is an
orientation program for newcomers and continuing education for
A newer program, unique to the University, goes by the acronym
AFMIX: Assuring the Future of Mission and Identity at Xavier. This
voluntary two-year program for faculty and staff trains lay people to
continue the Jesuit traditions once carried out by priests. The
second class graduates in April, extending the number of trained
employees on campus to 60.
“Those programs have done a great deal to alert everyone that this is
a Jesuit school,” says Klein.
The trappings of Catholic identity may not be as obvious as they once
were, but the University is as Catholic as ever.
John Bookser Feister holds master’s degrees in humanities
and theology from Xavier. He is founding editor of American
Catholic.org, the web site of the St. Anthony Messenger Press