'There is no turning back'

Appointment of layman at Georgetown spurs discussion at BC

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

The inevitable lay presidency at one of the United States' 28 Jesuit colleges, observed Vice President and Assistant to the President William Neenan, SJ, had long been mulled in much the same way as the predicted breakdown of Social Security: as something bound to happen, but not for 25 years.

So Jesuit campuses across the nation reverberated with the recent news that Georgetown University, America's oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher learning, had broken with more than two centuries' tradition by naming a president who is not a priest or religious.


William B. Neenan, SJ: "This may give greater insistency to those committed to Jesuit education to say, 'We can't take this for granted.'"

"The reality is here," said Fr. Neenan, who is former academic vice president and dean of faculties at Boston College. "This may give greater insistency to those committed to Jesuit education to say, 'We can't take this for granted.'"

John DeGioia, a 44-year-old Georgetown senior vice president and alumnus, became the first non-religious to lead an American Jesuit university when he was named to the GU presidency late last month. (The University of Detroit Mercy is led by a Dominican nun, Sister Maureen Fay, OP.)

Jesuit observers at Boston College said the Georgetown appointment illustrates the central importance of committed lay involvement if the Jesuit educational mission is to advance as Jesuit numbers decline.

"You have to do it the way BC is doing it," Fr. Neenan said, "through trustees and faculty committed to the Jesuit mission, and the establishment of institutions like the Jesuit Institute and the Center for Ignatian Spirituality that specifically address issues related to that mission."


William C. McInnes, SJ: The appointment of a lay president at Georgetown "is only reading the signs of the times, since Jesuit education is a vital and living reality."

The total number of Jesuits worldwide has fallen to under 22,000 from a high of 36,000 in the 1960s, and with the average age 57, a diminished candidate pool exists to staff the society's 28 colleges and universities and 46 secondary schools in the United States.

Partnerships with lay professionals are seen as vital to continuing the Society of Jesus' historic work in education.

"The appointment of the new president of Georgetown is a sign of the times," said Vice President for University Mission and Ministry Joseph Appleyard, SJ, who contemplates the changing face of the Jesuit university in a paper, "Beyond the Thin Black Line," which is online at http://fmwww.bc.edu/SJ/blackline.html.

"Vatican II developed, for the first time in the Catholic Church's history, an extended theology of lay ministry and, since then, church ministry has increasingly been lay ministry," Fr. Appleyard said.

"By one estimate there are as many as 180,000 lay men and women engaged in church ministry in the United States. In 1996 the most recent General Congregation of the Jesuits even said that Jesuits should shift their focus from their own direct ministry to supporting lay people in their ministry.

"The Georgetown appointment fits right into this frame of thought. It will also move the topic of institutional mission to the center of discussion in other Jesuit universities, I suspect, as they try to figure out what it means to say that they are Jesuit and Catholic."

Center for Ignatian Spirituality Director Howard Gray, SJ, is a member of the Georgetown Board of Directors that chose DeGioia, and is close to the new president.

"I think it very important to understand that in choosing Jack DeGioia as the next president of Georgetown University, the Jesuits on the board also confirmed they were committed to furthering lay leadership by entrusting, in large part, the spirituality that supports this tradition to Jack's initiative and oversight," said Fr. Gray.

"I cannot emphasize this aspect of the choice enough. Jack DeGioia has incorporated academic leadership with a practical and informed knowledge of the Ignatian spiritual tradition. Therefore, he was chosen not only as an academic but an apostolic leader.

"What this means for the future of Jesuit higher education is that the lay-Jesuit partnership is genuine. It also places a happy burden on our lay colleagues to understand that the distinguishing characteristics of Jesuit higher education cannot be sustained by Jesuits alone.

"We really do need a critical mass of lay and Jesuit partners who believe in this educational tradition and will work to keep it alive. The future of Jesuit higher education belongs to all of us, and this Georgetown decision for a lay president confirms that this partnership is real and total."

Alpha Sigma Nu Moderator William C. McInnes, SJ, who was president of Fairfield University, the University of San Francisco and the Association of Jesuit Colleges, predicts most "will want to wait and see" the long-range effect of this latest development in Jesuit education.

"Just as with previous changes in the governance of Jesuit education, such as the appointment of lay trustees and separate incorporation, this too will probably be controversial," said Fr. McInnes, a former dean of the Carroll School of Management. "But the ship sails on. Some will yell 'betrayal,' others 'wonderful.' In my opinion, it is only reading the signs of the times, since Jesuit education is a vital and living reality.

"There is no turning back."

 

Return to March 1 menu

Return to Chronicle home page