Walking across campus on a brisk fall day, it’s easy to point out the myriad ways Xavier University has changed. Orange leaves ripple on the cool breeze, bouncing light off buildings that didn’t exist even a decade ago. And proposed expansions and recent property acquisitions all but guarantee that greater, more dramatic transformations are on the way.
But beyond the realm of bricks and mortar lie things older and stronger—fundamentally unaltered traditions that provide the University’s true foundation. Leo Klein, S.J., vice president for mission and ministry and a 1955 graduate, traces the core of those traditions directly to Ignatius Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus in 1540.
“His key phrase was ‘to find God in all things,’” Klein says. “From the beginning of Jesuit education, the spiritual aspect of one’s life was important. And I think it’s still in the fabric of Xavier University.”
Not that forms haven’t changed, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. But Klein is quick to point out that the guiding principles remain solid.
“Xavier University is pretty conservative,” he says. “But some of the old structures dropped. It used to be that before they would hand you your diploma, you had to have made a spiritual retreat every year. For the past 35 years it hasn’t been there in a structured way. But I think the intent is still there. We provide retreats, big time. And a lot of kids take advantage of them. So I think it was there in the beginning, and it is today. But it’s there in a new way.”
The same can be said for such traditions as the annual Spirit Celebration. “We used to have Mass of the Holy Spirit in the Fieldhouse,” says Paul Lindsay, a 1956 graduate and former associate vice president for University relations. “You were given an attendance card and you had to attend. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, that went by the board. Today we have the Mass of the Holy Spirit outdoors, and it’s participatory. Yet we get a good number of students to attend. So the focus is still on the Mass and the liturgy. The approach to the Mass has changed, but that theme is still there.” Xavier’s core curriculum, which embodies the Jesuit educational philosophy and makes up more than half of the 120 credit hours students need to graduate, has also remained intact, although it, too, has evolved.
“In the 1970s and the 1980s when a lot of other schools were cutting back core curriculum, Xavier kept it,” Klein says. “We were so far out of fashion that we’re back in fashion. If you check out the core curriculum, we’re right up there among Jesuit colleges and universities. If we’re not the most hours, we must be second or third.”
On the social side, athletics have served as a rallying point for University students since at least the late 19th century. Lindsay recalls football grabbed most of the attention in the early and middle portions of the 20th century. There was a brief lull after football was dropped in 1973, but basketball began to rebound in the 1980s. Now, student support for hoops rivals that of football’s glory days.
Then there are the strong, lifelong friendships—another constant in Xavier history. Once again, however, the conditions under which those friendships flourish have changed. Lindsay recalls that when Xavier was largely a commuter institution with a smaller enrollment, campus clubs and activities helped cement personal bonds. Now, with more students and activities, dorm life strengthens those relationships.
A constant in all of this has been the historical spirit of Jesuit creativity. It’s the same spirit, Klein says, that in the 19th century answered the need for business leaders by opening a commercial school downtown; the same spirit that led the University to open its doors to students from St. Xavier High School and, later, the U.S. Army Air Corps when World War II depleted enrollment; and it’s the same flexible spirit that today sustains Ignatian programs as it instructs lay faculty and staff in carrying out the Jesuit mission in the face of declining numbers of Jesuits.
“Since 1831, Xavier University has proudly professed its Catholic and, since 1840, its Jesuit identity,” Klein says. “That identity remains the same. How the University shows itself Catholic and Jesuit evolves over the years, as do the Catholic Church and the Society of Jesus. A Catholic university today must profess and implement the goals of the Second Vatican Council—ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. A Jesuit university today must live out the mission of the Society of Jesus—the service of faith of which the promotion of justice is an integral part. Always the same—Catholic and Jesuit. Always evolving in a new and ever-changing world. There’s the challenge, yesterday, today and tomorrow.”