Howard Gray, S.J., is assistant to the president for mission at John Carroll University and founding director of Ignatian spirituality at Boston College. He spoke on campus recently about Jesuit identity. Here are his thoughts.
I hear frequently from alumni who say that today’s Jesuit education isn’t the same as that which they experienced. Whenever I hear this complaint, I reply, “If it’s Jesuit education, it should change.” It should never be just the repetition of what has been said before.
Because we are finding God in all things, we give God the freedom to reveal through all kinds of new realities like mass media, like emerging cultures, like a new generation of students. To freeze one period of history and to claim that this is the tradition we should maintain is wrong. In some ways, that’s the nadir of Jesuit educational process.
Certainly the weakest theology we taught was in the period of 1940 to 1960. It was all too frequently catechism instruction with more notes. Later, especially in the light of Vatican II, college theology became more infused with its biblical, ecumenical and interreligious heritage, with its need to engage and not merely critique contemporary culture.
Sometimes we older folks can bear nostalgia for the days when answers were more uniform, when problems were simpler, when being clear and assertive made an answer “the right one.” We would like to return to the times when a certain policing of vices made us all think that we were virtuous because we were being closely watched.
But this kind of uniformity was not really characteristic of the Society of Jesus. One of the important principles of Ignatian spirituality is adaptation, i.e., allowing the gospel and the rhythm of the Spiritual Exercises to meet where the individual is. You do not impose them. You work with congruence to the personality in front of you.
The Exercises are not a program to be engineered but a pilgrimage that accepts the differences and graces of individuals, believing that God respects both the individuality of people and their unique freedom. You can only love even God with the one heart that God gave you. Unfortunately the Spiritual Exercises and the spirituality that they engendered were sometimes presented in a monolithic way, which destroyed the vibrant principle of adaptation.
So when people tell me that “we” are not what we used to be—the Society of Jesus, Jesuit colleges or universities, a retreat house, the Jesuit formation program—I respond that we are now probably closer to the Ignatian way of proceeding than at any other time in our modern history.
I do not say this with any lack of gratitude for the great Jesuits who were my teachers and mentors. I say it with esteem for the willingness the contemporary Society of Jesus has to make itself and its works renewed in the charism of its founder.