On banners and in New Student Orientation talks, in classes and on retreats, we proudly proclaim the values of the Spirit of Georgetown. Many of us can rattle off these values: cura personalis, people for others, interreligious understanding and all the rest. We take them as a common reference point, and they help guide our conversations and the way we care for one another on campus.
But translating values into choices is challenging. Sometimes it is easier to leave our values floating in the air as philosophical propositions rather than stake them in the ground to both drive and sometimes limit our choices.
What is true for our Georgetown values is also true for those of the Jesuits. We Jesuits, and the many people who share in Jesuit institutions, have no shortage of long-held and deeply cultivated values and convictions. Yet lest they remain simply good intentions, we need to translate our values into concerted, effective action. So roughly every decade, Jesuits around the world try to do just that in a way that will guide the future.
Last month, the Society of Jesus culminated a two-year process of discernment, announcing what it calls its four Universal Apostolic Preferences. These preferences are not new laws or even a new set of values — rather, they are strategic emphases intended to guide the worldwide Jesuit order and its many institutions.
How might these new priorities shape our life at Georgetown? If we take them seriously, they should transform our community and each of us individually as we shape our choices in our classes and clubs, in our internships and careers.
The first of the preferences is “Discernment and the Spiritual Exercises.” This preference foregrounds the key charism, or gift, that St. Ignatius Loyola gave to the church and world: a way of prayerfully and conscientiously orienting our lives. Against the backdrop of a cosmos charged with meaning and God’s loving presence, it invites us to “get in touch with our deepest self, the space where God speaks to us.” At Georgetown, where deadlines often pressure us to make rushed decisions, I hear this as a call for each of us to go deeper in the practice of interiority while making choices with reverent respect for ourselves and those around us.
“Walking with the Excluded” is the second priority embraced by the Jesuits. It seeks to ground our decision-making in the concrete reality of human life by turning our attention especially to those on the margins. Here on the Hilltop, I see this preference asking us to turn our community inside-out: aspiring to be not with the successful and the strong of the world, but with those whose courage in facing adversity, evil and injustice has the most to teach us.
Third, in what they call “Caring for our Common Home,” the Jesuits take up Pope Francis’ call to “change the course of history” in addressing our growing global environmental crisis. It asks how we can each be “honest custodians” of creation and how this might shape our relationships to the populations most acutely affected by climate change and environmental degradation. I hear in this preference a radical, lifestyle-questioning invitation – one that forces us to think about every disposable cup we use, every flight or Uber ride we take and the foods we consume (and to challenge our institutions and businesses to do the same).
The fourth and final priority is Journeying with Youth. This preference prioritizes the next generation and recognizes the disorientation of growing up in today’s hyperconnected, super-aware ecosystem of technology, discord, superficiality and economic pressure. Jesuit institutions are asked to accompany young people — in ever new and innovative ways — in the “creation of a hopeful future,” nourished by depth, relationship and meaning. This priority forces me to think about the example each of us gives to the next generation of children, in the ways we communicate, form relationships, and model hope and commitment. What example do we want to provide for the community and world?
These concrete priorities the worldwide Society of Jesus has set for itself give us a chance to think afresh about the values we so often celebrate on the Hilltop. The Jesuits hope to transform the decisions and dreaming, imagination and impact of the Society of Jesus around the world. How will they transform us here on the Hilltop? How might they transform you?
Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., is an associate professor in the Department of Government and the Walsh School of Foreign Service, and he currently serves as the director of the Center for Latin American Studies.