When Fr. William McFadden, S.J., came to Georgetown University in 1963, a crucifix occupied a place of honor at the front of every classroom. Before class began, students were asked to face the cross and say a simple prayer. It was a time before the Second Vatican Council modernized the Catholic Church, and strict adherence to Catholic doctrine was the standard.
“Students were required to attend Mass, and they had to stamp these little cards on the way out of the chapel to show that they had gone,” McFadden recalled. “A lot of it was for show, such as saying the prayer at the start of class. In actuality, it was really a way to get students to quiet down before class.”
Students were also required to go on religious retreats. Every Friday, buses lined up in Healy Circle to cart students from one of the residence halls to a nearby retreat center for the weekend.
But two years after McFadden came to Georgetown, Vatican II changed the Catholic Church — and the university along with it.
In 1968, the curriculum was overhauled, and as a part of it, the theology requirement was lowered from four to two courses. But McFadden said though religious practices were no longer mandatory, the university’s Catholic community flourished.
“Retreats became a voluntary thing and attracted students who actually wanted to go. And I found that when the theology requirement was lowered but extended to all students and not just Catholic ones, more students actually ended up taking elective religion classes overall. It allowed those students who really cared about Georgetown’s Catholic identity to revel in it.”
STATIONS OF THE CROSS
And so things remained for the next 30 years. But in 1996, Sister Elizabeth Fiore, V.H.M. (COL ’99), then a freshman, could not find a crucifix to pray under in the classroom in which she was studying. In the years after Vatican II, the university had not installed crucifixes in newly constructed buildings.
Enraged, Fiore published a letter in the August 1996 edition of the independent Catholic journal, The Academy.
“Society needs the reminder of the crucifix. Indeed, Georgetown University has flourished for over 200 years because she has needed the reminders of the cross. Now she must return to those reminders,” Fiore wrote. “Where Dante has reserved the hottest place in hell for those who are indifferent in the face of conflict, he has reserved the coldest place for those who partake in treacherous acts of betrayal. Georgetown students, be not puzzled if you suddenly feel a draft when you sit in class.”
Fiore, now a nun with the Monastery of Visitation in Georgetown, organized the Committee for Crucifixes in the Classroom, and during the next year, the group unsuccessfully worked to petition the university to place crosses in every classroom on campus.
“We didn’t remove all the crucifixes or make a decision to not hang them up purposefully,” English professor John Glavin, who also gives tours on the religious iconography on campus, said. “It’s just that when we built new buildings, crucifixes were never put up in the rooms. When students started protesting, we faced the question of what to do about it. We asked faculty, and many felt uncomfortable lecturing with the cross overhead.”
After forming a task force to evaluate the situation, the university announced a new policy in 1998.
“We decided there would be crucifixes, but they would have a historic or aesthetic importance,” Glavinsaid.
University Registrar John Pierce, who was involved in the task force on the issue, said that the university solicited donations, and the crucifixes were then placed in classrooms along with plaques explaining their origins and historical and artistic importance.
Those crucifixes are not front-and-center in classrooms. The university installed them based on where they best fit in each room, Pierce said, adding that he has not received any complaints about the icons since that time.
According to McFadden, Fiore’s battles with the administration had little to do with the actual symbol of the crucifix.
“This was really about identity politics. Georgetown’s Catholic character has nothing to do with crucifixes in classrooms. Identity does not hang on something like that,” he said. “Rather, this young woman felt that Georgetown was not religious enough and was casting about for a cause. This became that cause.”
“There was immense pressure at the time, both inside and outside the university, about the crucifixes. They were considered a symbol of the permanence of our Catholic identity,” he said.
Kieran Raval (COL ’13), Grand Knight of the university’s chapter of the Knights of Columbus, argued the crucifixes are part of an important tradition that keeps Georgetown’s Catholic identity alive.
“It’s a tradition to carry on, not for the sake of nostalgia, but because Georgetown is based on certaintruths.” Raval said. “Other perspectives increase a vibrant atmosphere, but at the end of the day, we are rooted in Catholicism.”
BEYOND THE CROSS
For some Catholic students, being at Georgetown has reinvigorated their faith. Raval said that his time at Georgetown and as a member of the Knights of Columbus have strongly influenced his views.
“My time at Georgetown has definitely strengthened my faith,” he said.
Today, the university offers two Catholic Masses per day on weekdays and as many as seven on Sundays. Sunday evening Masses draw up to 300 students each.
But while Catholicism continues to play an important role at Georgetown, shifting demographics have led to increased calls for interfaith dialogue and more resources for non-Catholic students. Currently, 47 percent of students identify as Catholic, 27 percent as non-Catholic Christians, 6 percent as Jewish and 3 percent as Muslim.
In 1999, Georgetown hired Yahya Hendi to lead the Muslim chaplaincy, making Georgetown the first American university to hire a full-time imam. When the university hired Rabbi Harold White more than 40 years ago, it also became the first Catholic university to employ a full-time Jewish chaplain. White estimated that when he came to Georgetown, Jewish students made up about 1 percent of the student body.
As the Jewish and Muslim communities have expanded, so have the resources devoted to them. This past fall, the Jewish chaplaincy moved into a new space in the Leavey Center, the first time the group has had an on-campus gathering space. Around the same time, the Muslim chaplaincy moved its Friday prayers to a newly renovated Bulldog Alley to accommodate increased attendance. Future renovations to the Leavey Center will create more permanent homes for the two groups.
“The resources available to students of different faiths, particularly Jews and Muslims, has definitely increased during my time at Georgetown,” Jewish student Mara Hollander (COL ’12) said. “Additionally, we’re getting the appropriate amount of the space that we need for services and other religious activities in the planned renovations of Leavey.”
Hollander said that the university’s emphasis on Catholicism and the prevalence of religious iconography does not bother her.
“As long as they’re part of the architecture, it’s OK. They’re symbolic of Georgetown’s Catholic values, and I try to find values that I share with Catholicism so that I can appreciate them.”
Hendi has also spoken out in support of the crucifixes on campus.
“I will put up a fight if anyone tries to remove the crucifix from classrooms. I am convinced that the cross is an important religious symbol for all people,” he said at a conference in Rome in May 2004.
Today, the Intercultural Center is the only academic building on campus without crucifixes. Rather, the Torah, Qu’ran and scriptures or symbols significant to other religions are prominently displayed near the main elevators on each floor.
Hollander said that while the university’s Catholic identity was initially a concern for her as a freshman, her attitude has changed over the past four years.
“After I got into Georgetown, I applied to The George Washington University and American University, because I wanted to be in D.C. but really didn’t want to go to a religious school. Then I came to visit Georgetown and attended Shabbat services here,” she said. “I found that there was an outlet for me to practice my religion.”
While the university offers structured resources for students of other faiths, those for unaffiliated students are less prevalent. At Georgetown, atheists and agnostics make up more than 12 percent of the student body, the third-largest group behind Catholics and other Christians.
Vice President for Mission and Ministry Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., said that unaffiliated students are welcome to attend retreats, religious services and social justice and education programs. However, there are no official student groups on campus for atheists or agnostics.
Jessica Schieder (SFS ’12), who said she identifies herself as spiritual but not belonging to any organized religion, said that she has not seen any outlets on campus for students like her.
“One effort that I haven’t seen is for non-believers,” she said.
THE POLITICS OF IDENTITY
Schieder highlighted Obama’s 2009 speech in Gaston Hall as an example of the challenges Georgetown faces in reconciling a historic Jesuit identity with increasing diversity and a desire for global prestige. In April 2009, 10 years after the university decided to install crucifixes in classrooms, the president came to speak on economic policy in Gaston Hall. The White House requested that theIHS symbol, which denotes Jesus Christ, be covered up to provide a simple background not highlighting any faith.
The university complied.
“It was appropriate. The president was speaking at an academic institution. He wasn’t there because it’s Catholic,” Schieder said. “At the time, there was so much discussion of international religious issues, especially with Islam, so it’s good that he chose to be neutral in his presentation and that the university was accommodating.”
But many students did not share Schieder’s point of view, and the university’s decision sparked an outcry.
Focella recalls being distressed over the university’s decision.
The next time Obama spoke on campus, it was in McDonough Arena against a blue backdrop, and the issue of religious symbolism did not arise.
Raval said he feels there is a need for greater affirmation of Georgetown’s Catholic identity.
“There are definitely areas where the university could be stronger. The university has had chances to reaffirm itself as Catholic, most recently during the Sandra Fluke [LAW ’12] controversy. There was room for a firmer statement affirming our catholic, jesuit identity,” he said.
Others, like Hollander, said they were content with the university’s focus on spirituality and interfaith efforts.
“I’ve come to find that I really appreciate that Georgetown places an emphasis on Jesuit values, because they’re values I share,” she said. “I like the emphasis on inter-religious dialogue, and I’ve found that generally people are really excited to learn about religions they don’t understand.”