Students in Kathleen Smythe’s History of Agriculture class spend part of the semester working at local farms so they can experience what they’re studying. At one four-hour session last year, students planted more than 100 tomato plants.
“They later talked about the satisfaction of looking back and seeing the clear sign of their accomplishment, going from a set of empty rows to rows now filled with plants producing food (for others),” Smythe says.
There is a connection, she says. It has to do with the impact our actions have on others. Getting dirt under their fingernails helps students reconnect with America’s agrarian roots so they can appreciate the environmental impact involved in bringing mass-grown food products to the table versus growing it locally.
Addressing ethical issues of environmental sustainability on a global scale, while modeling it on a local scale, is just one example of how Xavier is incorporating a new way of living and thinking into the classroom. It’s the hallmark of a Jesuit education, one that has been made more visible since the election of Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope. And, in his first two years, Francis has made it clear what his top priorities are: the poor and climate change. They have become, it seems, nearly interchangeable.
“This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.” —Pope Francis
Titled “Laudato Si’,” which means “Praise Be,” the pope’s encyclical on climate change brought renewed attention to the deteriorating conditions of the earth and its impact on the desperate needs of poor and marginalized populations of the world. As The New York Times explained when the encyclical was released in June: “The hardest-hit…will be the poorest citizens of the poorest countries, those least able to adapt to the rising seas and devastating droughts and floods that are likely to occur even in this century without swift remedial action.”
For Jesuit schools in particular, Francis’ universal call for a renewed focus on economic and environmental sustainability creates a heightened sense of purpose and reinforcement of what it means to be Jesuit—a clear lens through which universities and their students can view and experience the Jesuit way of life. It’s a tradition that from its founding in 1540 has been grounded in the value of education. Jesuit priests distinguished themselves from other orders by choosing to live among the people rather than isolating themselves in cloistered monasteries. They traveled the world seeking knowledge and God and became known as scientists and explorers.
Today’s Jesuits are still considered leaders in education, and their students are encouraged to go out and experience the world. At Xavier, Jesuit pedagogy is being lived out through the University’s commitment to sustainability both in the classroom and across campus. Five years before Pope Francis issued his call for a cleaner climate, Xavier was well on its way to creating a cleaner and more sustainable campus and educating students about how to carry that into their personal and professional lives. The pope’s visit to the U.S. highlights not only Xavier’s commitment to Jesuit education but to sustainability as well, an area where the University has emerged as a leader among Jesuit schools.
The University zeroed in on the environment when it held its second annual celebration of Francis’ election as pope last March and invited Xavier alumnus Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, as the keynote speaker. His message, says Xavier’s Chief Mission Officer Debra Mooney, echoed that of Francis: “It’s not only important to protect the earth because we are a part of it and we’re interrelated, but the degradation inadequately impacts the poor.” President Michael J. Graham, S.J., encapsulated the University’s commitment in 2011 when he said, “Our mission as a Jesuit, Catholic university cannot be fulfilled as such without an ongoing and ever-greater appropriation of sustainability across the entire horizon of University activities.”
Sustainability director Ann Dougherty was in the student cafeteria in 2013 the day that Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit, was elected pope. She was watching the TV screen when he also announced he had taken the name of Francis, patron saint of animals and the earth.
“As a lifelong ecologist and steward of the environment, I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “This was going to be a different kind of pope. Taking the name Francis meant there was going to be a stewardship of the environment and a redefinition of what dominion means, and the Catholic Church would be part of healing the world.”
At the time, Dougherty had been at Xavier for two years working to help the entire
campus become more sustainable by adopting practices to reduce energy consumption and waste, and grow its own food.
“At Xavier, we think sustainability is part of the mission. Period,” she says.
For her, Pope Francis symbolized the work she’d dedicated her life to do—she’s now working in sustainability for a private company—and his “Laudato Si’,” which means “Praise Be,” affirmed that commitment.
“The Jesuits are the guys who study philosophy, theology, history, science and government, and put it all together,” she says. “As a people holding the world in their hearts looking beyond to what is real, they become sustainable individuals. If there is anyone who can lead the world to greater sustainability, it’s the Jesuit charism and the Ignatian process of reflection—of looking beyond what is apparent to what is real.”
As Dougherty was working on improving the physical environment at Xavier, professors Smythe, in history, and Nancy Bertaux, of economics, were focusing on the academic. They were part of a team that developed four undergraduate degrees in sustainability and environmental science plus a master’s in sustainability, led by former city planner Liz Blume, director of Xavier’s Community Building Institute.
Bertaux was nearly giddy when the encyclical was released, not just for what it says, but because it affirms how well Xavier has performed. Plus it reinforces the connection between ecological and moral issues with up-to-date science, economics and theology.
“He’s the world’s leading environmentalist at the moment, and what the encyclical says is we’re on the right track here with our programs and curriculum,” she says. “Taking ecology and economics core courses related to theology, history, English, statistics and economic theory are tools students need, but also the vision of the connectedness of everything—to see that the economy has to exist within society and society within nature overall, that we are a part of nature and what we do to nature we do to ourselves.”
It also reinforces what Xavier started working on five years ago.
“I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.” —Pope Francis
“We are absolutely the leader among Jesuit schools in terms of curriculum,” she says. “I don’t know anyone with the kind of interdisciplinary programs that we have.”
Bertaux also worked with Dougherty to create sustainability projects on campus that involve students enrolled in sustainability or environmental science courses. That includes students working on the Urban Farm, creating a water bottle reduction project, and conducting energy studies that have resulted in a nearly 7-percent reduction of energy use across campus.
“We have pioneered looking at sustainability across all the divisions and silos of the University and getting on one page,” Bertaux says. “We have put together a whole suite of interdisciplinary sustainability programs that are absolutely cutting edge.”
Sustainability practices have also contributed to a 30-percent reduction in waste. One of the most visible improvements is in the cafeteria, which was paying for food waste and cardboard to be hauled to the landfill when Dougherty arrived in 2011. Now there is almost zero waste to the landfill, the University collects cash for the recycled cardboard, and two food waste dehydrators dry all food scraps from the kitchen, producing a granular waste that is returned to the farm as compost. In return, fresh vegetables and produce are delivered to the cafeteria.
“The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast.” —Pope Francis
The process exemplifies an important concept in the encyclical, Smythe says. “Part of the encyclical is reconnecting people to the environment and recognizing we are not separate from it. He makes it clear we are stewards and caretakers of the earth, but we don’t have dominion over it…and as we are harming it, we are harming ourselves.”
Students at Xavier are introduced to the Jesuit side of their education from the day they first set foot on campus. Beginning with their orientation, they hear about “The Jesuit Way,” which increasingly includes elements of sustainability, the environment and the earth.
Faculty mentors work with new and veteran faculty to guide them in incorporating Ignatian pedagogy into their coursework. As a result, students learn about the ethical issues of the subjects they’re studying—like Smythe’s African history students, who discussed the ethics of sending cast-off American-made T-shirts to the African continent as waste. But the emphasis is also to learn through hands-on experience. For example, Smythe also had them make recommendations to the Congolese government about how to allow oil exploration in Birunga National Park and defend it to their people.
As director of the Center for Faith and Justice, Greg Carpinello works with students daily. His office serves about 1,200 students during the year by offering retreats, worship services, faith-sharing and prayer groups. He focuses on helping students discover their spirituality and the benefits of a Jesuit viewpoint.
“A Xavier education orients students toward something bigger than themselves, the realization they’re part of a world that’s internally connected and really crying out for their service and sense of vocation,” Carpinello says.
Which, like the encyclical, reflects on the early Jesuits “who were not the ones who stayed cloistered but were out with the people experiencing the gritty realities of the world and putting to the forefront the issues of humanity.”
That’s why Xavier encourages students to ask the big questions here so that when they leave, they’re inspired to lead lives that are not focused only on themselves.
“It’s no surprise Francis chose to write his encyclical on the environment, because the world is facing critical questions about the environment,” Carpinello says. “To be Jesuit is being on the frontier of what happens in the world.”
[Editor’s note: The original version of this story has been updated to include corrected references to reductions in energy use and waste produced on campus.]