Jesuit Educators Mull Role of Social Justice at Conference

Jesuit Educators Mull Role of Social Justice at Conference

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Boston College representatives joined colleagues from across the country last month in assessing American Jesuit education's commitment to social justice at a four-day conference.

The conference, held Oct. 5-8 at Santa Clara University and co-sponsored by BC, brought together some 400 delegates from the 28 American Jesuit colleges and universities, as well as Jesuit and Roman Catholic leaders from the US and abroad. It climaxed a national initiative, co-sponsored by the Boston College Jesuit Institute, to examine how Jesuit education has been influenced by the 32nd General Congregation of 1975, which affirmed promotion of justice as a primary characteristic of all Jesuit enterprises.

But BC delegates said the discussion on social justice in Jesuit education did not end with the close of the Santa Clara conference. Institutions attending the conference agreed to prepare strategies by next March for promoting social justice in their local communities and in the world.

Even without the directive, the attendees said, the event's keynote speeches - notably that given on the second day by Jesuit Superior General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, SJ - and various formal and informal dialogues will spur more future conversation.

"This was a strong endorsement for direct service that touches people's hearts and minds in the Ignatian way," said Prof. Patrick Byrne (Philosophy), associate director of the Jesuit Institute.

"While it remains to be seen how it will play out," said PULSE Program Director David McMenamin, "I think people were struck by the potential of connecting 28 campuses in this kind of effort, as well as working on their own."

The social justice project, which the Jesuit Institute coordinated with Santa Clara University and the University of Detroit-Mercy, included three regional conferences of American Jesuit colleges and universities, one held last fall at BC.

As part of the project, Jesuit institutions also examined their own individual commitment to social justice. BC, for example, studied its curriculum over a 30-year period and found an increased emphasis on teaching social justice. The study's results were among the topics discussed at a campus forum held this past March.

Having lain the groundwork, the BC delegation - joined by University President William P. Leahy, SJ, and Academic Vice President and Dean of Faculties John J. Neuhauser - headed for Santa Clara to participate in a broader discussion on social justice in Jesuit education.

BC delegates cited Fr. Kolvenbach's address, which was Webcast to a worldwide audience, as a highlight of the conference. The Jesuit leader described the conference's theme as encouraging colleges and universities to embrace "an action-oriented commitment to the poor," a mission extending back more than four centuries to the Jesuits' founder, St. Ignatius Loyola.

"Jesuit universities have stronger and different reasons than many other academic and research institutions for addressing the actual world as it unjustly exists and for helping to reshape in the light of the Gospel," said Fr. Kolvenbach.

"[Fr. Kolvenbach's address] was effective in that it spoke to so many people in so many ways," McMenamin said. "People felt truly invited to participate in the promotion of justice."

Byrne said he was struck by Fr. Kolvenbach's comments on the disparity present in a technologically advanced society. "He was making the point that, here we are in the middle of the Silicon Valley - a symbol of this technology - and there are still kids who cannot get an education," said Byrne.

Affirmative Action Director Barbara Marshall said Fr. Kolvenbach challenged the Jesuit institutions "to measure their distinctive character embodied in the expression of faith-filled concern for justice by 'who students become.'" His speech, Marshall said, also provided a context for colleges and universities in which to address issues of equality and nondiscrimination in the workplace.

The BC delegates praised the small group discussions and forums, which Byrne said "really helped set the tone for Fr. Kolvenbach's address."

"What struck me was how little discussion there was as to what we meant by 'justice,'" said Campus Minister Daniel Leahy II. "There appeared to be an innate understanding among everyone there. Instead, we focused more on furthering our mission in regard to the pursuit of justice."

Byrne noted that next semester the Jesuit Institute plans to start a seminar on promoting justice in Jesuit higher education. Although not specifically tied to the Santa Clara event, he said, the seminar will likely touch on many of the issues discussed at the conference.


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