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Letter from Fr. McFarland on Holy Cross' Mission

Dear Friends,

The new century, young though it is, has already presented epic challenges to citizens of our country and our world. Increasing numbers of Americans are reported to be reorienting their priorities, reexamining their faith, and showing renewed interest in the role of organized religion in their lives.  The role of religion in higher education has also generated a great deal of discussion. In 2002, Liberal Education, the magazine of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, noted a marked upsurge of interest in religion among college students and explored how different schools, both secular and religious, are responding. Among Catholic colleges and universities, there has been a decade-long discussion about how best to live out our Catholic identity and mission today. That discussion has included those in Jesuit circles as well, where it has its own particular character and intensity.

Alumni concerns about Holy Cross remaining faithful to its Catholic and Jesuit tradition surface frequently in letters, alumni gatherings, and informal conversations. From time to time, we receive letters from alumni urging a return to the curriculum and practices that were in place when they were in school here more than half a century ago.  Just as often, we receive letters from alumni who applaud many of the changes made here since 1970. Given the steady feedback and healthy debate in our alumni community, and in the context of the broader discussion about our Catholic and Jesuit identity and mission, I thought I would use this letter to explain how we understand that mission and how we are pursuing it today at Holy Cross. Please bear with me if I seem a little more formal and pedantic in this. I want to make it clear that our mission, and the steps we are taking to implement it, are grounded in the contemporary mission of the Society of Jesus, as expressed by our Superior General, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, and the decrees of our recent General Congregations, the highest legislative authority in the Society.

The Jesuit Mission and Higher Education

Holy Cross is not Catholic in just the same way it was in the 40s and 50s. Neither are most Catholic colleges and universities. Much has changed over the last 50 years, in the Church, in our society and in the world. These changes have created challenges and opportunities for Catholic education. Many of us have responded by returning to our original inspiration, rethinking our goals, and refashioning our institutions to better serve our students, our Church and the wider society. This certainly has been true of Jesuit education.

Jesuit spirituality, which is the animating spirit of all Jesuit work, including education, is profoundly incarnational. It seeks to discover God "in all things," meaning in our ordinary human experience. For Jesuits there is no possibility of ignoring, denying, or running away from the world in which we find ourselves. As Fr. Kolvenbach said in a recent speech to the International Meeting of Jesuit Higher Education, "For the Society there is no such thing as an either-or approach to God and the world, however dangerous the latter may look. The encounter with God always takes place in the world, so that the world may come to be fully in God." Therefore, there is a need, he added, "to respond to the challenges of the new times," in response to which the "universities of the Society have undertaken a profound reflection ... and they have taken action.... Never before have the universities of the Society shown such concern about deepening and manifesting their Catholic, Christian, Jesuit, or Ignatian identity."

Our Jesuit mission, therefore, is determined not just by our tradition and past practices, but also by the ongoing, prayerful deliberations of the Society of Jesus. The most comprehensive and succinct statement of our Jesuit mission today comes from the Thirty-Second General Congregation (GC 32):

"The mission of the Society today is the priestly service of the faith, an apostolate whose aim is to help people become more open toward God and more willing to live according to the demands of the Gospel. The Gospel demands a life freed from egoism and self-seeking, from all attempts to seek one's own advantage and from every form of exploitation of one's neighbor. It demands a life in which the justice of the Gospel shines out in a willingness not only to recognize and respect the rights of all, especially the poor and the powerless, but also to work actively to secure those rights. It demands an openness and generosity to anyone in need, even a stranger or an enemy." (GC 32, "Our Mission Today," par. 18)

The primary focus, as it always has been, is on the service of faith. However, the way in which that is pursued has a somewhat different emphasis now. There are three elements that can be found in the above statement and other authoritative pronouncements, which help define Jesuit education and its mission today.

1. A Greater Emphasis on Freedom and Individual Responsibility

The service of the faith means "to help people become more open toward God and more willing to live according to the demands of the Gospel," not to make people think or behave in a rigidly determined way. A robust, lasting, and effective faith has to be one that we choose and appropriate for ourselves, not one we take out of fear or habit. That is the underlying rationale of St. Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises, which defines Jesuit spirituality. As the GC 32 observed about the Spiritual Exercises:

"Inherent in this Ignatian practice of spiritual direction is a deep respect for the exercitant as he is and for the culture, background and tradition that have gone into making him what he is. Moreover the pedagogy of the Exercises is a pedagogy of discernment. It teaches a man to discover for himself where God is calling him, what God wants him to do ...."

There is a deep conviction here that if a person is open to God's Word and generous in responding to it, God will lead the person on the right way, with the encouragement, help and guidance of others. Fr. Kolvenbach made clear that this is the proper approach for Jesuit higher education in a talk at the International Meeting of Jesuit Higher Education:

"Far be it from us to try to convert the university into a mere instrument for evangelizing, or worse still, for proselytizing. The university should be a bearer of human and ethical values; it should be the critical conscience of the society; it should illuminate; should be the crucible in which the diverse directions of human thought are debated and solutions proposed."

There are many ways in which we encourage and support Holy Cross students in exploring and developing their faith and their moral commitments. Our retreat program, including the five-day silent retreat built around the Spiritual Exercises, is much imitated by schools around the country.  Weekend-long Manresa retreats feature student leaders who guide sessions on family, faith, friends, and other topics that are relevant to our students.  Five hour-long retreats offer students the chance to meditate on their faith during stressful times in the semester.  The Exercises especially have been a life-changing experience for generations of students and they continue to be just as powerful today.

Liturgy and prayer are central to our life as a community. Many of our students attend Sunday Mass regularly, not because of coercion, but because they want to and because it is very much a part of the culture here. Students often do more than just show up; every year about 400 are enrolled as liturgical ministers, to assist as singers and musicians, lectors, eucharistic ministers, and greeters. For those who are more serious about Church service, we have the Magis program, a two-year ministry training program. We offer many lectures on religious and moral topics. Students are required to take at least one course in religious studies, yet many take more. There are many options available, but they all in some way encourage the students to explore dimensions of their own faith and religious experience, and to learn from the best that contemporary scholarship has to offer in their chosen area. We also have begun offering a non-credit "Catholicism 101" course to overcome the lack of knowledge many of our Catholic students have about their own faith, as well as to offer our tradition to others.

We are especially excited about the $2-million Lilly Foundation grant that was recently renewed for the exploration of vocation. This initiative has already touched many dimensions of the College's life and work, and has allowed us to expand what we already were doing to develop vocations both for lay service, and for priesthood and religious life. The Lilly grant funding has helped us:

  • Promote more reflective practices among students and faculty, through a special first year orientation, journaling, mentoring and so on;
  • Add more religious and vocational themes to existing courses and develop new courses around those themes;
  • Involve faculty as mentors in exploring vocational themes; 
  • Develop internships and other experiences in Church service for those interested. Some of those will be specifically targeted for young men interested in the priesthood.

As these initiatives have developed, the College has taken on significant portions of what began as Lilly programming, and plans to continue them with internal funding. 

2. Justice and Service of the Poor

The GC32 statement makes it very clear that to be credible, our service of the faith must encompass the struggle for justice, especially for those most in need. This has been the dominant theme in Jesuit reflection and legislation on mission over the last 30 years. Fr. Kolvenbach reaffirmed its importance when, in October 2000, he spoke to the Conference on Justice in Jesuit Higher Education, pointing to "the diakonia fidei [service of faith] and the promotion of justice as the characteristic Jesuit university way of proceeding and serving socially."

Justice and the service of the poor and marginalized is a very important part of Holy Cross life, and something to which most students contribute. Our strong volunteer programs are an important part of our mission to form "men and women for others." Each semester more than 1,000 of our 2,600 students volunteer in the community. The largest program is SPUD (Student Programs for Urban Development), in which about 350 students volunteer each semester at more than 20 sites, helping to feed the poor, staffing shelters for the homeless and for battered women and children, tutoring immigrant children and others, visiting the elderly, working in prison ministry, serving as big brothers and sisters, and so on.

In the spring, about 100 students gave up their spring break to volunteer with the Appalachia Program, and a similar number traveled to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild that area, still struggling six months after Hurricane Katrina. The volunteer experience extends beyond graduation. Each year, about 10 percent of our graduating seniors commit themselves to one or more years of full-time volunteer service in the Jesuit Volunteers, the Peace Corps, Americorps, Teach America, and similar programs. We have many student groups focused on justice and human rights. These include Pax Christi, Amnesty International, Students for Life, JUSTICE, the Student Labor Action Coalition, the Black Student Union, LASO (Latino students), ASIA (Asian students), MECCA (Muslim students), Allies and AbiGaLe (support groups for gay students). There are also several academic courses and concentrations with a justice focus.

3. Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue

The statement from GC 32 underscores the need for "openness" toward others, "even a stranger or an enemy." Jesuit mission has always had an outward thrust, seeking to engage other religions and cultures. Such outreach is just as important today. The Thirty-Fourth General Congregation wrote in its decree "Our Mission and Culture,"

"Ours must be a dialogue, born of respect for people, especially the poor, in which we share their cultural and spiritual values and offer our own cultural and spiritual treasures, in order to build up a community of peoples instructed by God's Word and enlivened by the Spirit as at Pentecost. Our service of the Christian faith must never disrupt the best impulses of the culture in which we work, nor can it be an alien imposition from outside."

The Congregation also pointed out that, "The Holy Father has repeatedly asked Jesuits to make interreligious dialogue an apostolic priority in the third millennium."

To fulfill this mission here at Holy Cross, we must become a community of many voices, representing many experiences, cultures, and religions. We welcome faculty from many backgrounds. Not only do they bring impressive intellectual gifts and a deep devotion to teaching and the care of our students, but they enrich us in many other ways. As Fr. Kolvenbach said in his talk to the meeting on international Jesuit education, "The mission of a Jesuit institution of higher education - as is the case with faith - is not imposed; rather it is proposed. In an ‘interface' of mutual respect and sincerity, colleagues are invited to share this mission and in different degrees to make it their own." In this spirit we have forums where we promote dialogue among our faculty and staff about the values of Jesuit education, as well as broader questions of meaning, ethics and faith. These have been a good learning experience for all sides. In practice we find that some who do not come from Catholic or Jesuit backgrounds are among the most ardent supporters of our Jesuit mission to explore questions of ultimate value and meaning, to promote justice and compassion for the poor, and to promote the fullest personal, moral and religious, as well as intellectual, development of our students.

We also are working to diversify further our student body. Not only is this a question of justice for those often left out of the elite institutions of higher education, but it is necessary to create the kind of intellectual, social, and educational environment that our mission demands. All of our students need to learn to understand, appreciate, and work with people from different races, classes, and cultures. In support of that goal, we have added staff in admissions and financial aid to recruit a larger and more diverse pool of qualified applicants, are establishing a number of academic, cultural, and social support programs to help insure the success of this new group of students, and working to raise students' awareness and understanding of multicultural issues.

Of course, one of the primary roles of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture is to promote intercultural and interreligious dialogue, even as it explores critical moral and religious questions. Since its opening in 2001, the Center has made impressive strides with its lecture series, attracting a wide variety of theologians and religious thinkers - Catholic and otherwise - to present their views and entertain questions.  The Kraft-Hiatt Program for Jewish-Christian Understanding; the Deitchman Family Lectures in Religion and Modernity; and the Thomas More Lectures on Faith, Service, and Religious Life are just three examples of programs that the Center has instituted, with great success. 

Those of us who have dedicated our lives to Jesuit education and are in touch with its day-to-day reality are convinced that, as we become more open, more diverse and more committed to the service of others, far from drifting away from our Catholic identity, we are reaffirming it and recommitting ourselves to our Jesuit mission, which has served as our foundation for more than 150 years.

Rev. Michael C. McFarland, S.J., president (2000-2012)

(April 2006)