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Building on the Ignatian Vision

Program helps BC administrators, faculty deepen understanding of the Jesuit mission

"With the impetus through Ignatian Colleagues, I was able to bring a new, invigorating perspective to my spirituality." -- Michael Cassidy (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Nov. 3, 2011

Stay quiet for seven whole days? No phone, no e-mail, no conversation? To Associate Professor of Political Science Jennie Purnell, the prospect seemed more than a little intimidating.

But Purnell, who teaches in the University’s Capstone program, found her weeklong silent retreat two years ago in Gloucester one of the most exhilarating and transforming of her life.

“It was an amazing gift. There is so much clutter in our lives, but for a week it was just me and the world. I sat on a rock and watched tides come in and go out. I felt present in a way I never had before.”

Fulfilling as it was, the retreat was just one avenue for Purnell and several other members of the Boston College community to find new meaning in their work through the Ignatian Colleagues Program. The ICP is a national initiative that helps lay administrators, faculty and staff in US Jesuit colleges and universities deepen their understanding of the Ignatian vision and mission.

BC participants — who include non-academic as well as academic administrators — in the ICP say the program has heightened their appreciation of Jesuit values and practices, and of how students perceive the personal and spiritual formation opportunities that are integral to BC’s mission. Developing this insight will be crucial at a time when the laity is seen as a key source of leadership in Jesuit education, according to BC administrators.

“As the numbers of Jesuits decrease, the survival of Jesuit education depends on being able to run a Jesuit school with non-Jesuit colleagues,” said Vice President for University Mission and Ministry Jack Butler, SJ. “The ICP is a chance for those colleagues to get a sense of the formative experiences we Jesuits have, and how these guide us in our everyday life.

“This is important when you consider what Jesuits believe about education, that you must help students engage the world in a full way, with heart, soul and imagination. A program that brings this across to a non-Jesuit layperson is a critical resource for Jesuit colleges and universities.”

The ICP, which began in early 2009, consists of five integrated components: a three-day orientation that introduces elements of the Society of Jesus, Ignatian spirituality and Jesuit-Catholic education; a series of online workshops on Jesuit and Ignatian-related topics; an introduction to the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, through silent retreat or guided experiences; an immersion trip to Nicaragua or El Salvador; and a capstone session that, among other goals, helps participants to think how they might foster Jesuit and Ignatian values on their own campuses.

Connell School of Nursing Dean Susan Gennaro was still relatively new to BC when she took part in ICP. Although as a graduate of Le Moyne College she was not unfamiliar with Jesuit education, Gennaro viewed the program as an opportunity to “understand how being a dean here at BC was different than at another school.” She got exactly what she was looking for, through conversation with her peers at other Jesuit institutions, and in particular the intensive online readings and video conferences.

“It wasn’t easy to go back to being a student, but it was fun,” she says. “One thing I’ve come to value at BC is how attentive, loving and respectful people are, especially in regard to faith and spirituality. For example, I could go to people from Mission and Ministry and ask questions about the readings or other experiences.

“I also appreciated that it was not just academics who took part in ICP — there were administrators from areas like human resources or finance. It’s very interesting to hear how someone managing an endowment, for instance, thinks about Ignatian values in his or her professional life.”

In contrast to other participants who engaged in a weeklong retreat, Law School Professor R. Michael Cassidy opted for a daily retreat of two hours apiece over Lent, under the spiritual direction of School of Theology and Ministry student Timothy Kochems. Though already ensconced in his Catholic faith, Cassidy says the experience was unlike any other.

“It was the best Lent I’d ever had; I felt spiritually prepared for Easter. Tim did a great job, patterning the daily retreats after the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, with questions and readings I would undertake. In a busy professional life, your prayer life — no matter how important is to you — can easily be subsumed. But with the impetus through Ignatian Colleagues, I was able to bring a new, invigorating perspective to my spirituality.”

Cassidy also was intrigued by his immersion trip to Nicaragua, and the questions it raised about how BC and other colleges can help students derive substantive lessons from participating in service activities.

“BC is not the only school struggling with the question of how to make its mission live,” says Cassidy. “Fortunately, with the networking opportunities ICP provides, you can extend the circle of people with whom you can talk about these issues. You pick up the phone, or send an e-mail, and share thoughts and ideas. It’s a wonderful asset.”

College of Arts and Sciences Dean David Quigley feels BC has had an impressive track record on efforts to integrate Ignatian values, thanks to longstanding resources such as the Jesuit Institute, the Center for Ignatian Spirituality and the Intersections program. But he says the ICP, especially through its interchange with other Jesuit colleges and universities, offers further benefits.

“You have the opportunity to take full stock of the personal, intellectual and spiritual formation in Jesuit education, and of the rich tradition BC represents,” Quigley explains. “The program also encourages you to think how you can build on that tradition. This is a very timely and important subject to contemplate, as BC approaches its sesquicentennial in 2012-13 — an event that will invite reflection on our mission as a Jesuit, Catholic institution.”

Other BC participants in the Ignatian Colleagues Program: Associate Vice President for Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment  Kelli Armstrong; Benefits Office Director John Burke; Biology Professor and Chairman Thomas Chiles; Office of News & Public Affairs Director Jack Dunn; Intersections Program Director Burt Howell; School of Theology and Ministry Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions Sean Porter; Center for Student Formation Director Michael Sacco; and Associate Treasurer and Director of Investments John Zona.