Jesuit Higher Education in the Age of Pope Francis
Peter Ely, S.J.

No one was more surprised at the election of a Jesuit Pope than the Jesuits themselves. We never thought that was a possibility. It would certainly have surprised Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, who didn’t even want Jesuits to become bishops at all, let alone the Bishop of Rome. So when the news came on March 13, 2013, that Jorge Bergoglio, an Argentine Jesuit, had been elected pope and taken the name Francis—not in honor of the Jesuit Francis Xavier but of the Franciscan Francis of Assisi—we were startled, and more than a little nervous, too.

Bergoglio, who had become the provincial superior of the Argentine Jesuits at the age of 36, was known as a polarizing superior who had left the Argentine province deeply divided after his six-year term of office. What Bergoglio himself admits is that he was quite “authoritarian” during his years in leadership of the Province.

Whatever surprise came from the choice of this particular Jesuit was rooted in a deeper disbelief, developed and confirmed over a long history, that any Jesuit would be elected pope. In the years since the order’s founding in 1540, relations between the Roman pontiff and the Jesuits have swung between warm support on the one hand to strong disapproval on the other. One pope early on tried to get the Society to change its fundamental character as a new kind of religious order in the Catholic Church, an order not bound by the monastic practices of common recitation of the Divine Office and stability of location. He would have required Jesuits to meet several times a day, as monks do, to recite the Divine Office. Ignatius, on the other hand, wanted Jesuits to be free to move wherever they had to without being tied down to one place. This pope died, of natural causes—perhaps with the aid of the Holy Spirit, some Jesuits thought—before he was able to see his plan through.

Then, in 1773, about 230 years after the founding of the Jesuits, Pope Clement XIV gave in to pressure from European monarchs and completely suppressed the Jesuits worldwide. That abolition of the order lasted forty-one years, until 1814. Even before this, the kings of Portugal, France, and Spain had already expelled all Jesuits from their territory and confiscated their considerable properties. Many forces other than the papacy itself were involved in liquidating the Jesuits, but this is the prime example of the knotty historical relationship between Jesuits and the papacy that made it seem unlikely that a Jesuit would ever be elected to the office.

What the Papacy of Pope Francis Has Meant for Jesuits

Pope Francis, in his style of governing, his simplicity, and his humility has made a deep impression on the world. The profoundly symbolic gestures of his first few hours as pope, beginning with his disarmingly simple “Bona Sera” (“Good Evening”) at his first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s; the surprising request that people pray for him before he even gave his first papal blessing; his insistence on taking the shuttle bus with the other cardinals from the conclave that had elected him to personally pay his hotel bill; his refusal to live in the papal palace in the Vatican—all of these signaled a new, more modest exercise of papal authority, and have made him perhaps the most accessible Bishop of Rome in modern times.

In October 2013, a few months after his election, he had an interview with the well-known atheist founder of the Italian journal La Repubblica. As the interview began both men traded “accusations” that each of them would try to convert the other. That was just an opening joke, but Francis responded in all seriousness: “Convert you? Proselytism is solemn nonsense. You have to meet people and listen to them.” This attitude of openness and willingness to listen has had a profound impact on people of all faiths and of no faith around the world.

Francis is very much a Jesuit in his style of governance, and his celebrated exaltation of the works of mercy over enforcing doctrinal orthodoxy also has characterized the Jesuits through most of their history. In Jesuit universities there has long been a resounding affirmation among lay faculty and staff of the Jesuit charism, along with a suspicion about the larger Catholic Church. As one witty saying has it, “Jesuit, ; Catholic, not so sure!” Having a Jesuit pope helps to overcome this dichotomy. All of a sudden being Catholic and being Jesuit seem not so far apart.

Francis has also inspired Jesuit education, especially Jesuit higher education, to go further in a direction we have already taken. There is a natural tendency in university life to concentrate primarily on careers. People get degrees in order to get to a better place professionally. The notion of vocation easily gets lost, even in religiously grounded universities. Pope Francis, by his constant calls to mercy, to the importance of “touching the poor,” calls us beyond that. The Jubilee Year of Mercy that Francis declared for 2016 called us at Seattle University to reflect more deeply on the relation between justice and mercy in our own tradition. Because Francis owes much of his own intellectual and spiritual development to Jesuit education, it is fitting that he is now challenging it to be more faithful to its founding vision.

How the Spirituality of Ignatius Became an Educational Vision

Ignatian spirituality, which is essentially a way of seeking and finding the will of God, shares much with other forms of Christian spirituality, but it has some key defining characteristics. And the educational vision of Ignatius and his followers provides the fundamental inspiration and principles that have guided the development of one of the most extraordinary systems of education in human history. So education in the mind of Ignatius was essentially an extension of the same goal as his spirituality.

What I want to call attention to here is that any faithful spirituality does not necessarily produce an educational vision. That kind of development is not to be taken for granted. Many types of spirituality, genuinely magnificent ones, have not been translated into an educational vision in the thoroughgoing way that Ignatian spirituality has.

So how was Jesuit spirituality transformed into a distinctive educational vision? And how was that educational vision incarnated into a widespread system of schools and universities? First, the Ignatian vision from the beginning contained elements that disposed it toward incorporation into an educational vision. And yet that transposition was quite unintentional: it happened only as the result of a series of accidents that seem happy in retrospect.

Ignatian or Jesuit Spirituality begins, as most spiritualities do, in the life of a founder. Ignatius or Inigo of Loyola, the youngest son of a noble Basque family, was born in 1491, about eight years after Martin Luther, and he died in 1556, ten years after Luther. Inigo lived the first part of his life as a courtier to the chief treasurer of the kingdom of Castile. His fortunes began to change when Charles V became king of Spain and Ignatius lost his patronage at the court. The crucial event that led to his conversion occurred when a cannonball shattered Ignatius’ leg at the Battle of Pamplona, during a Spanish war with France. During the long period of recovery in the family castle, Ignatius was gradually weaned from his longstanding love of chivalric literature. The only books available to him were a book on the life of Christ and another on the lives of the saints. But even without access to his chivalrous books, Ignatius still dreamed of doing great deeds of chivalry, including rescuing beautiful maidens in distress. For some time he would alternate between such chivalric dreams and his more sober religious readings. Gradually, however, he noticed that the dreams of heroic adventure, enjoyable as they were at first, led to boredom and even disgust. The lives of Christ and the saints, on the other hand, not only gave him pleasure while reading them but continued to inspire him even after reading. This would be the beginning of what would become a central feature of Ignatian spirituality, the “discernment of spirits.” Gradually Ignatius learned to distinguish the fruits of the Holy Spirit as Paul describes them in Galatians—“love, joy, peace, patience. …” —from the effects of the “enemy of our human nature,” as he would call the evil spirit, or Satan. So Ignatius’ long conversion experience began when he discovered that he could tell if a certain course of action derived from the “good Spirit” or the “evil spirit” by observing where it led.

This spiritual journey continued when Ignatius traveled from his home in the west of Spain to Manresa, near Barcelona, in eastern Spain, where he spent a year learning how to live a more spiritual life. Instead of living for himself, as he had done before his conversion, Ignatius wanted now to live for God. Whereas before he had been concerned with what he could do for himself, he now turned his attention to what he could do for God. Though undoubtedly embodying a far superior orientation of his life, this second stage suffered from one basic flaw: it was about what he would do. During his year at Manresa, however, Ignatius gradually learned a lesson very similar to what Martin Luther also learned: that the spiritual life was not ultimately about what we can do for God, but what God does in and for us, and in us for other people.

Ignatius learned that lesson from his particularly painful encounter with “scruples.” No matter how often he confessed his sins, he never felt he had done so in a way that would earn him forgiveness. For a while he thought the problem was solved when his confessor told him not to confess anything of the past “unless,” in Ignatius’ words, “it was something quite clear. But since he found all these things to be very clear, this order was of no use to him, and so he continued with the difficulty” (Autobiography, Ch 3, no. 23). The aspiring believer went around and around, trapped in the conviction that salvation depended on the quality of his own efforts.

Finally, Ignatius learned to put his confidence in God’s mercy in Christ, rather than in his own efforts. He now recognized his persistent “scruples” regarding his own sinfulness as also the work of the evil spirit, since they led to discouragement, even thoughts of suicide. “In this way,” Ignatius tells us, “the Lord deigned that he awake, as if from sleep. Since he now had some experience of the diversity of spirits from the lessons God had given him, he began to examine the means by which that spirit had come. He thus decided with great lucidity not to confess anything from the past anymore; and so from that day forward he remained free of those scruples and held it for certain that Our Lord had mercifully deigned to deliver him.” What Ignatius could not bring about through his own prolonged efforts of prayer, fasting, and penance, God brought about in him.

Does this remind you of Luther’s struggle with the notion of “the justice of God”? Luther first thought it meant “the justice by which God judges us,” but then came to see, in his so-called “Tower Experience,” that it meant “the justice by which God makes us just.” “I meditated night and day,” Luther tells us, “on those words [the justice of God] until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: ‘The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.”’ I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is, by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e., that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.’”

This convergence between the vision of Ignatius—a vision vindicated at the Council of Trent—and Luther’s central insight into his own experience is one indication of the increasingly deep unity of vision between Catholic and Lutheran Christianity regarding Justification, a unity of vision that has been expressed in our time in the Catholic-Lutheran “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” of 1999.

During his year in Manresa, Ignatius also began to record his experiences in what would eventually become his most famous and influential work, The Spiritual Exercises, which is essentially a manual for people desiring to explore their own inner spirit in the light of the Gospel. Ignatius compares spiritual exercises with physical ones: “Just as taking a walk, traveling on foot, or running are physical exercises, so is the name of spiritual exercises given to any means of preparing and disposing our soul to rid itself of all its disordered affections and then, after their removal, of seeking and finding God’s will in the ordering of our life for the salvation of our soul” (Spiritual Exercises, no.1).

Actually, that language is deceptive. It is not, as Ignatius had already discovered, we who deliver ourselves of our “disordered affections,” but God who delivers us when we turn to him. This removing of disordered affections we might better call “interior freedom.” The Exercises, which are divided into four “weeks” corresponding to four crucial phases in the Gospel, offer meditations and prayers designed to allow the retreatant to enter into the mystery of the saving action of Jesus Christ. The Exercises are not a book to be read but a lived journey into the heart of Jesus. 

Six features of Ignatian spirituality in general, and from Ignatius’ Exercises in particular, constitute the foundation of an educational vision: interior freedom, the discernment of spirits, imagination, spiritual affectivity, desire, and gratitude. First, interior freedom is a state of equilibrium, achieved in the overcoming of disordered attachments, that allows one to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit. It is the primary condition for discernment. Discernment of spirits allows one to develop a habit of recognizing the actions of the good Spirit and the evil spirit. Ignatius provides for three times when such a discernment can be made: first, when a person is overwhelmed by a personal manifestation of God such that “a devout soul without hesitation, or the possibility of hesitation, follows what has been manifested to it” (74); second, “when much light and understanding are derived through experience of desolations and consolations and discernment of different spirits” (74); and third, in a time of tranquility “when the soul is not being moved one way and the other by various spirits” and uses its natural faculties in freedom and peace.

That second category, reflecting on our experience of “desolations and consolations,” is especially important. One of the most distinctive characteristics of Ignatian spirituality is the close attention it gives to human emotions, looking on them as a means whereby God’s will can be made manifest through careful reflection, rather than as disturbances to be put aside. This habit of allowing the will of God to emerge through and in our deepest feelings is not only characteristic of Ignatius’ spirituality, but eventually came to mark his educational vision as well. This particular form of discernment opens the way for a close integration of the heart and the head, of emotion and thought, an integration that has been at the core of Jesuit education.

A third characteristic of Jesuit spirituality that emerges from the Exercises is the use of the imagination. In order to draw the person making the Exercises into the mysteries of Christ, Ignatius insists on the importance of the imagination. When contemplating the mystery of Jesus’ birth, for instance, Ignatius suggests that the exercitant enter imaginatively into the scene, “to see the persons, that is to see Our Lady, Joseph, the maidservant, and the Infant Jesus after his birth. I will make myself a poor, little, and unworthy slave, gazing on them, contemplating them, and serving them in their needs, just as if I were there, with all possible respect and reverence. Then I will reflect on myself to draw some profit.” (114) This way of imagining can have extraordinary effects when it moves from an activity in which we arrange the scene to a passivity in which the characters take over and we open ourselves to becoming the recipients of something deep in our subconscious. In a way it is an entry into the emotional logic of dreams, but done in a state of wakefulness, not sleep. For example, one Jesuit priest following this method suddenly felt a desire to pick up the baby Jesus, but felt he was unable to do so. His director instructed him to go back to the scene. When he did, Our Lady picked up the child and placed it in the astonished priest’s arms. He recounted the story with deep feeling.

A fourth characteristic of the Exercises is spiritual affectivity. Ignatius calls the retreatant to a kind of loving intimacy with God the Father, with Jesus, and with Mary. The description above of the role of imagination offers an example of this emotional quality. But Ignatius also invites the retreatant at key points to enter into a loving “colloquy” with Jesus or Mary, and thus to speak directly to them. The recurrent prayer of the Second Week, for instance, is “to ask for an interior knowledge of our Lord, who became human for me, that I may love him more intensely and follow him more closely” (104).

This mention of the “colloquy” brings up a closely related fifth point, the importance of desire. The purpose of the colloquy is “to ask for what I desire.” That will change in each meditation. In the First Week the person asks for sorrow for his or her sins; in the second—as we have seen—for an interior knowledge of Christ; in the Third Week the plea is for sorrow with Christ in his suffering; and in the Fourth Week, for joy in the resurrected life of Christ. Ignatius was himself a man of strong desires and great ambition. But what had been a form of worldly competitiveness in his youth as a noble and a soldier had become a desire in the now-spiritual pilgrim to move ever more deeply into the mystery of Christ and to respond more fully to His call. This characteristic of Ignatian spirituality eventually became integral to his order’s educational vision. Jesuit education calls students to lofty goals, ardently pursued.

The sixth characteristic is gratitude. The culminating theological vision of the Spiritual Exercises appears in the Contemplation ad Amorem, “Contemplation on Love.” In this contemplation Ignatius calls retreatants to immerse themselves in and be overwhelmed with gratitude for the love of God that pours into us from all sides. “I will consider,” Ignatius says, “how God labors and works for me in all the creatures on the face of the earth; that is, he acts in the manner of one who is laboring.” (Sp Ex, #236). This extraordinary vision of the relationship of God with each individual calls those making this contemplation to an intense awareness of God at work in the whole world, but also intimately in each of them, as specific individuals. The intended effect of this contemplation at the very end of the Exercises is an overwhelming gratitude for the goodness of God poured out into creation, and poured out especially into me personally. This world-affirming, personal religious vision would become the cornerstone of Ignatius’ educational vision.  

Knowing the development of the Jesuit educational system, we may in retrospect look back at the Exercises and see in the characteristics of discernment, imagination, spiritual affectivity, desire, and gratitude the seeds of a distinctive educational vision. But Ignatius did not at all think of founding schools for some time after his year in Manresa. His first desire was to travel to the Holy Land to see with his own eyes the places where Jesus lived and preached. After much difficulty Ignatius eventually did make his way to Jerusalem, with the intention of remaining there. But the Franciscans who were then in charge of the Holy Land’s sacred sites, with jurisdiction from Rome, had other ideas, and they “invited” Ignatius to leave because of the “dangers.” He did manage to visit Mount Olivet from which Jesus was thought to have ascended by giving away his penknife to the guards. In the end Ignatius accepted the authority of the Church invested in the Franciscans and left Jerusalem.

At this point in his autobiography, Ignatius gives a surprisingly modest indication of a decision that eventually led to the system of education that would become the principal work of Jesuits. “After the pilgrim realized,” he tells us, “that it was not God’s will that he remain in Jerusalem, he continually pondered within himself what he ought to do. Eventually he was rather inclined to study for some time so he would be able to help souls. . . .” (Autobiography, 50).

“Eventually he was rather inclined. . . ” is not a very firm statement of purpose. But the phrase “to help souls” expresses the underlying motivation of Ignatius’ spirituality, the motivation that would also ground his educational vision. When Ignatius launched himself in this new direction he could not have understood its importance. He could not have understood, for instance, that he was stepping onto the ancient path opened up in the early centuries of the Christian Church, when Tertullian and Cyril of Alexandria disputed over the question of whether the secular learning of the Greeks could have anything to do with the revelation of the Bible. Tertullian thought that secular “Athens” had nothing to do with holy “Jerusalem.” Cyril argued that God had given philosophy to the Greeks just as he had given revelation to the Jews and Christians. Nor did Ignatius know about Augustine and the inspiration he drew from the Platonists, or about the development of scholasticism and the rise of universities, or about Thomas Aquinas and his use of Aristotle. He probably didn’t even know at this point anything about the extraordinary intellectual revolution in his own time that we call Renaissance humanism. Yet his own school system would be located at the heart of this great cultural transformation.

A crucial ingredient in the transformation of Ignatius’ spirituality into an educational vision was his own education. When he left the Holy Land, he was not at the point of elaborating an educational vision. But the aristocratic soldier, now faithful believer, did seek to further his own education, which had previously been quite limited. The “Pilgrim,” as he called himself, came back to Barcelona and sat down, at the age of 35 or 36, to study Latin with schoolboys. He then attended the Spanish universities of Alcala and Salamanca, where, by his own admission, he tried to “advance with such haste in studies [that] he found himself very deficient in fundamentals” (Autobiography, 73). Finally, in the year 1528, at the age of 37, Ignatius went to France to begin his studies in earnest, following the “order and method” of the prestigious University of Paris, which would become foundational in the school system he would eventually set up. During these years in Paris, Ignatius also met the first seven devout “companions” who would earn their master’s degrees with him. Together, they pronounced vows of poverty and chastity in the year 1534, a year before they completed their studies.

When they had finished at the university the group traveled in different directions, reuniting in in 1536 in Venice, where three more companions joined them. After a long process of discernment, the ten decided to bind themselves together by a vow of obedience. Ignatius became the first superior and remained in that position until he died in 1556. Once again the possibility of ministry in the Holy Land surfaced, probably at the urging of Ignatius. The ten companions therefore agreed to set sail for Cyprus and then Jerusalem, provided that a ship became available to take them. If no ship came, however, their backup plan was to travel to Rome to present themselves to the Pope and offer to undertake whatever mission he might have in mind for them. As luck, or divine providence, would have it, no ship was available that year.  So once again, by accident, the mission to the Holy Land was ruled out and the companions turned to Rome.

The central point here is that no plan for entering into the field of education had arisen among the companions. This seems strange. All of the first ten companions had prestigious master’s degrees from the University of Paris, the preeminent university of the time. Yet for many years the companions showed no inclination or ambition to found or teach in schools. I have often asked myself why that was so. The simplest answer may be that running schools simply wasn’t what religious orders of the time did. In fact, no true system of schools existed at all. So the idea simply wasn’t on their radar.

The idea of schools for lay people—Jesuits had already begun to offer instruction to their own younger members—first came into view when the civic leaders of Messina, Italy, approached Ignatius to ask if he could establish schools for their young men, similar to what he had developed for men joining the Jesuits. Ignatius saw this as an opportunity. He responded immediately and sent to Messina ten Jesuits, four ordained priests, and six un-ordained “scholastics,” as they were called. He assigned some of his most talented Jesuits for this work. Within a few months the senate of the city of Palermo asked for a similar school and got it.

The idea of Jesuit schools then quickly took off. By the time of Ignatius’ death in 1556 there were thirty-three such schools, and another six had been approved. By the time of the Society’s suppression in 1773 there were 669 schools and 176 seminaries across Europe as well as in Latin America and Asia. Fr. John O’Malley, the preeminent U.S. historian of the Jesuits, calls this burst of educational innovation the “second founding” of the Jesuits (O’Malley, Jesuits, 115-116).

What amazes me is that this “second founding” of the Jesuits, the launching of their educational enterprise, took place without any extended discernment or developed plan on the part of Ignatius or his companions. Why was it so easy? The answer, in my view, is because they were already poised for this decision. The spirituality of Ignatius already contained within itself the ingredients of a powerful educational vision, although it was not understood as such by them. The ingredients were catalyzed, synthesized, and activated as if in a chemical process by the simple request that they begin a school. The cadre of educated Jesuits, equipped with their Paris degrees, would now begin to elaborate an educational vision even as they put it into practice.

What were the distinctive characteristics of these schools, and how did the educational vision they embodied reflect the Ignatian spirituality out of which it came? I find the following eight the most important. First, there is a great clarity about the ultimate religious purpose of Jesuit education. Ignatius expresses this tersely in the Constitutions: “The objective which the Society of Jesus directly seeks is to aid its own members and their fellow men to attain the ultimate end for which they were created. To accomplish this, besides the example of one’s life, learning and a method of expounding it are necessary.” And this ultimate end is “to know and serve better God, our Creator and Lord.” Needless to say, this is a challenging educational goal in our contemporary context.

The second characteristic is the integration of the intellectual, moral, and spiritual aspects of education. “Solid learning and virtue” is a phrase often seen in the early documents, along with “the close harmonious union of instruction and character formation,” or the “necessity for teachers to train their pupils in Christian virtue no less than in learning.” This was already a characteristic of the broad movement of Renaissance humanism, which the Jesuit eagerly embraced. A third characteristic was and is “formation” of persons rather than the mere provision of “information.” I would also add “transformation.”

A fourth characteristic, connected with the education the first Jesuits had received at Paris, was an “order and method,” or organized curriculum, that was both rigorous and flexible. A fifth and highly important characteristic was that students were to be active in the learning process, not just passive recipients of ideas contained in lectures. From the beginning of Jesuit education, students engaged in exercises in composition, in disputations or debates, in contests, in giving speeches and acting in plays. The sixth characteristic has been the emphasis on humanities and rhetoric, the arts, mathematics, philosophy, and, of course, theology. Ignatius and his companions shared the Renaissance conviction about the value of the Greek and Roman classics as instruments of humanization and models of what Jesuits have always called eloquentia perfecta, the ability to speak and write clearly and persuasively. This emphasis on eloquentia perfecta constitutes the seventh characteristic. The strong focus on verbal and written eloquence partly reflects Renaissance humanism, but it also reflects Jesuits’ devotion to the Gospel mandate to preach the good news. And finally, the eighth characteristic was that Jesuit education was to be international, not confined within particular nations or cultures. 

These are the central qualities of a true Jesuit education. They represent the way in which the devout spirituality of Ignatius and his first followers became incorporated in an education vision. So why were the Jesuit schools so successful? First, they represented something genuinely new. The kind of schools the Jesuits developed for lay people simply did not exist at the time. There were schools at court, like the school run by Vittorino Da Feltre at the Mantua court of Gianfrancesco Gonzaga to educate his children in the ideals of the Renaissance. But the schools developed by Ignatius and his companions were different. Jesuit schools were abundant and affordable—tuition was completely free prior to the Suppression of the Jesuits in 1773—and thus accessible well beyond the court life of the nobility.

Second, from their founding, the Jesuits were open to change as the times changed, and ready to take up whatever new subject matter and methods came on the scene. When Europe underwent the scientific revolution, for instance, the Jesuit schools eagerly incorporated a scientific curriculum and, in fact, produced some of the leading scientists of the 17th and 18th centuries.

A third reason for success was that Jesuits embraced the spirit of the new humanism that redefined what it meant to be a “man.” In the Middle Ages, the mark of manhood was chivalry, skill, and valor in battle. The Renaissance redefined manhood as eloquence, the art of persuasion, the ability to build up the city. The ideal “man” became the engaged citizen. Today we call this civic leadership. It is interesting to note that in his own personal development, Ignatius himself had moved from an attachment to the ideals of chivalry to embrace the different kind of “manliness” of Jesus Christ and the saints, which was more about interior freedom and devotion to the good of the neighbor, especially the poor.

A fourth reason for the success of the Jesuit schools, perhaps the most important of all, was the Ignatian conviction of the fundamental goodness of human beings and of the world. The seeds of this conviction lie, as we have already seen, in the “Contemplation on Love” of The Spiritual Exercises. Along with this conviction went the belief that people are educable. The early Jesuits shared this belief with the leaders of the Renaissance revolution in education, but not necessarily with all the religious movements of their time. It wasn’t that Ignatius underestimated the power of sin, but for him redemption was more powerful. At the root of the Ignatian vision lies the Pauline conviction that “where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more.” Ignatius believed the Holy Spirit continually uses human instruments to carry out the transformation of individuals and of society.

A fifth reason for the success of the Jesuit schools was, I think, the commitment of the Jesuits themselves to founding and staffing these schools. It is extraordinary that when Ignatius was asked to open the first school in Messina, he immediately chose to send ten talented Jesuits to staff it. And as more and more requests came in, Ignatius managed to find more Jesuits to staff them. This guaranteed a remarkable unity in the widely scattered Jesuit institutions. Jesuits were all inspired by the same spiritual vision, and Ignatius regularly sent around “visitors” to make sure that Jesuit educators everywhere were regularly communicating about their experience and moving in tandem.

For several decades they kept refining their educational goals until they were all brought together in the definitive and very detailed “Ratio Studiorum,” or “Plan of Studies” of 1599, which became the foundational guide for the development of Jesuit education up to modern times. It is important to note, however, that after centuries of use this Plan of Studies became more and more outdated. Modern Jesuits have undertaken a radical revision of this plan while trying to remain true to its essential spirit.

The Post-Vatican II Context and Challenges Ahead

The post-Vatican II context and the “age of Pope Francis” can be understood as overlapping notions. The age of Francis is a kind of “second spring” of Vatican II. Francis’ two predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, were also post-Vatican II popes. They affirmed the Council and lived out of it as they interpreted it. But for many progressive Catholics their interpretation seemed stifling, and resulted in a kind of winter of discontent. The dynamism of Vatican II seemed to have stalled, the door that had been opened wide at least partially closed. This interpretation, while widely held in some circles, is not entirely accurate or fair. But it is clear that the dynamism and the openness of Vatican II now seem to be resurgent in Pope Francis. So I want to talk about Vatican II, the Jesuit response to it, and the challenges of the new spring Francis has brought about.

From its first foundation the Jesuit order has been revising the articulations of its central vision in light of ongoing experience. This constant reformulation takes place at the highest level in what are called “general congregations,” of which 36 have taken place in the nearly 500 years of the Society’s existence. Congregations, consisting of Jesuit representatives from around the world, elect the Superior General of the Jesuits and also reformulate ideas and policies in light of changes in history and culture. A dramatic reformulation took place in the 32nd General Congregation, held from December of 1974 to March 1975, that has deeply influenced the Society in all of its commitments.

Asked by the Second Vatican Council, along with all religious orders, to rediscover its founding vision or “charism,” the Jesuit General Congregation 32 came up with a startlingly simple but profoundly controversial and far-reaching formulation: “The mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement. For reconciliation with God demands the reconciliation of people with one another” (GC 32, Doc 4, 48). This bold statement forced Jesuits to look at everything they were doing, including education. Divisions occurred. Some Jesuits were deeply inspired by this new formulation; others thought the Order had lost its way. Experiments took place, along with many arguments and much reflection. Twenty years later, in General Congregation 34, the Jesuits revisited this statement and reformulated it to express more clearly what they thought it meant: “ . . . the contemporary Jesuit mission is the service of faith and the promotion in society of ‘that justice of the Gospel which is the embodiment of God’s love and saving mercy.’” The feeling had developed over the twenty years between these two congregations that the first formulation was not sufficiently clear in what it meant by “justice.” The new formulation addressed some of the uneasiness that the first formula had generated, and rooted the Jesuit mission more clearly in the saving work of Jesus Christ.

The 34th General Congregation also connected the commitment to the justice of the Gospel with interreligious and intercultural dialogue, which grew so significantly in the last quarter of the 20th century. More and more the openness to interreligious and intercultural dialogue has come to provide a very different context for the Jesuit sense of mission. And one of the most effective forums for this dialogue, Jesuits recognized, is the university. This new challenge has thus profoundly affected what Jesuits now do in higher education. “Diversity” has become a key goal—cultural, racial, religious.

I see three principal challenges facing Jesuit higher education in this second spring of the Vatican Council, this age of Pope Francis. The first challenge is to ensure that the educational vision continues to be inspired by the authentic spirituality of Ignatius as it has developed over the centuries. Jesuit education is Catholic, ecumenical, interreligious and intercultural, humanistic, and committed to proclaiming the justice of the Gospel. The challenge is that this vision can easily become secularized. People may like the emphasis on social justice but be reluctant to accept its roots in the Gospel. The Gospel offers a community of love. In a society where individualism is rampant, many seem allergic to community, to the common good, and to care for our common home.

A second challenge is maintaining what the previous superior general of the Jesuits, Adolfo Nicolas, calls depth of thought and imagination in the face of “the globalization of superficiality” (Mexico City Address of 2010). The incredible availability of information in the internet age can tend to create a kind of fragmentation, an inability to read and think and imagine deeply. The fast-food phenomenon has become a symbol of our age. We grab something on the run. We nibble on sound bites of news. Social media tend to substitute the quick exchange of new information for seriously engaged conversation. The internet has many extraordinary benefits, but we need to balance its seductive attraction with an emphasis on the importance of depth—on the ancient Jesuit goal of formation and transformation rather than just information.

A third challenge is ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. Various religions have regarded one another as competitors for so long that we have been tempted to forget that we have a common adversary, antireligious secularism. Now this is truly a complicated subject. Some of you may have read the magisterial work of the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. The history of secularism is long and nuanced. In many ways secularism has been a benefit to religion. My point here is not to criticize secularism per se but to stress the great contributions the world’s religions have made and can continue to make to social life. World religions have reached a point in history where we have the possibility to listen deeply to one another, to converse openly, to compare and contrast convictions, and finally to bring to bear the wisdom of all these traditions on our common problems. Religious conflict has been and still is the cause of much disruption of human life. A great challenge now is to enlist the resources of religion in service of the common good of humanity.

Pope Francis’ constant preaching of the Gospel of mercy is precisely an invitation to this kind of dialogue. It is at the root of everything he says and does. And mercy is the authentic heart of all religions. What a challenge to all education to include this notion in its vision!

Peter Ely, S.J., is associate professor of theology and religious studies at Seattle University. This essay is adapted from the 2016 Huegli Lecture on Christian Higher Education, which he delivered at Valparaiso University.


Works Cited

O’Malley, John. The Jesuits: A History from Ignatius to the Present. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

Ignatius of Loyola, Louis J. Puhl (Translator). The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Chicago: Loyola Press, 1968.



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