Thepe’s room is on the sixth floor—not too high , but still with a nice view—and faces south. He plans to build a bench under the window so his collection of orchids can get plenty of sun. He’s a happy man. And he’s not alone.
The building is the University’s answer to the large number of Jesuits on campus. As their ranks swelled in the 1960s, it became painfully apparent that Hinkle was no longer sufficient. Built in 1920, Hinkle had only 40 rooms, forcing about 20 Jesuits to live elsewhere. The building was hot, and its dining hall was so small they had to eat in shifts.
So in 1969, the University built a new structure—big, functional and modern, complete with several chapels, a large kitchen and dining room, a 10th-floor lounge and air conditioning. As many as 70 Jesuits could live there.
But as Thepe carries his belongings onto the elevator, he and the others moving in are unaware of the paradox the building will soon create. As the University’s tallest building was going up, the number of Jesuits was going down. Schott Hall would not stay full for long, and the University would convert the building to offices. Today, 35 years after Thepe moved in, barely 20 Jesuits live on campus, and their one-time residence now stands as a reminder of a time that used to be.
It was an anomaly that showered campuses like Xavier with so many young Jesuits in the decades after World War II. The windfall made it easy to find highly qualified men to fill positions on campus. Students couldn’t avoid daily contact with a cassock-clad Jesuit. Xavier had 58 Jesuits in the 1959 school year, including six top administrators and 49 faculty.
“In the 1940s and 1950s, there was an extraordinary increase in the number of Jesuits, and we assume the war had something to do with that,” says Thomas Gaunt, S.J., executive secretary of the Jesuit Conference. “They were literally putting up curtains and subdividing rooms in seminaries.”
But the Jesuit order, like all Catholic orders, was about to be tested in the 1960s by forces beyond its control—Vietnam, changing attitudes toward authority and Vatican II.
“Those were exciting days after Vatican II,” says Leo Klein, S.J., Xavier’s vice president for mission and ministry who arrived on campus in 1970. “The message was you didn’t have to enter the seminary or a religious order to serve God. The whole theology of the importance of the laity was recaptured with Vatican II, and it had a good deal to do with the decline.” By the early 1970s, the number of U.S. Jesuits began a downward decline that lasted nearly 30 years. It bottomed out in 1999 when only 32 men joined the order. At the same time, large numbers were leaving. In the last 50 years, the Jesuits lost more than 5,000 men, and today they number about 3,200, Gaunt says.
And the crisis isn’t over, says Charlie Currie, S.J., president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. Most expect it will worsen as the bulge of elderly priests prepares to retire. Of the 618 Jesuits in full-time higher education, the average age is 61. A slight up-tick in the last five years in newcomers has been encouraging—60 total entrants in 2004—but they can’t begin to make up for the looming retirements.
“What’s hitting in the next five to 10 years will be a marked decline in the number of Jesuits engaged in full-time active ministries,” Gaunt says. “We don’t have that many in their 50s and 60s to replace them.”
Nonetheless, Klein says Xavier’s Jesuit identity remains strong. “I don’t think it is less Jesuit and Catholic than it’s ever been—indeed, it might be more so,” he says. “We’re working very hard, and I think we’re being very successful at showing our Jesuit, Catholic identity.”
About 15 years ago, George Traub, S.J., was asked to take Xavier’s Jesuit mission to the University’s lay population—not just teach them the mechanics of life as a Jesuit, but to infuse them with the spirituality of St. Ignatius, the order’s founder. Traub invited a group to meet at a nearby spiritual center to discuss their role in the Jesuit mission. The weekends continued for 10 years, developing a core group who knew the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and could help Traub spread the Ignatian vision at Xavier.
From that effort grew several programs, including AFMIX— Assuring the Future of Mission and Identity at Xavier—a two-year program to help the University’s laity pick up where the Jesuits are leaving off. These efforts have made Xavier a leader in the development of Jesuit lay ministry, Currie says.
Klein says it wasn’t easy to accept that lay people could be spiritual leaders. He had to remember that Ignatian spirituality happened to Ignatius when he was a layman. “That’s why I always call them Ignatian programs. We’re not trying to make little Jesuits out of everyone.”
But it’s the direction of the future, and it may include a non-Jesuit president, something that’s happened at Georgetown University and the University of Detroit Mercy. “I think the transition to a non-Jesuit president at Xavier is inevitable, given the demographics in the order in the U.S.,” says President Michael Graham, S.J.
To prepare, Graham says, the University must continue its lay ministry programs and support leadership development of Jesuits and non-Jesuits alike. “Twenty-five years from now,” says Currie, “there may be some campuses with no Jesuits, but that doesn’t mean it’ll stop. They will still be Jesuit-inspired institutions.”