As they pass the statue of John Carroll, tour guides are advised to suggest to prospective students that our Jesuit founder would be proud of where we are today. As our annual celebration of Jesuit Heritage Week came to a close Sunday, I found myself deeply reflecting upon the question: What would past Jesuits think of Georgetown today?
Certainly, Georgetown’s Jesuit forebears would marvel at its impressive growth. They would commend the university for breaking down barriers of race, creed and sex to cultivate and educate students who were once marginalized. They would be proud that students here commit themselves to engaging the greater community, especially those in most need.
Yet my reflections also lead me to worry that these men to whom we owe so much would also deliver a scathing critique of Georgetown today and perhaps say that we’ve entirely missed the point of this university.
In recent years, Georgetown has cultivated its identity through an approach I call ‘distilled Jesuitism,’ the abridged works of Jesuit thought and values for the masses. Even when we seek to broaden our understanding and appreciation of our Jesuit inheritance through events like Jesuit Heritage Week, we still speak in catchy buzzwords: “social justice,” “contemplation in action” and “God in all things.” Reliance on these phrases generates misconceptions that Georgetown is a pseudo-Jesuit, but not Catholic, institution.
It is impossible to be Jesuit without being Catholic. Georgetown does not offer a Jesuit education, but instead a Catholic education preserved by Jesuit sweat. A Catholic education does not require a Catholic faith, but it does nevertheless require observance of Catholic principles and values.
Jesuits founded Georgetown in order to educate under these convictions and beliefs. But the Latin root of the verb “to educate” means “to lead out.” Its derivatives in Italian, Spanish and French all mean “to civilize.”
Outsiders may say this sounds elitist. Yet from the start, a Jesuit education targeted the gifted and the graced, because St. Ignatius knew that their souls were at great risk: They had the potential to do the utmost good or the worst evil.
Georgetown was not founded primarily to train students to run governments, teach students to make money or provide students with the resources to cure diseases, though all these might be valuable consequences.
In 1989, Fr. Timothy Healy, S.J., reminded students that at Georgetown, “we have never bowed to either of two heresies: that the bachelor’s degree is for making a living rather than for life itself or that one can debase the arts and sciences to make them ‘value-free.'”
Yes, the university should want to open up minds, break down prejudices and fill the vaults of knowledge. Yet at a Catholic school, under Jesuit guidance, education is primarily meant to build conviction, enshrine virtues and make truths known. The chief mission of Georgetown is not to send forth smart, skilled or even world-changing graduates but instead gentlemen and gentlewomen, individuals of substance, character and virtue.
The Jesuits came to Georgetown as a measure of faith, a planting of hope and a labor of love. Only these things could generate such a passion that could make our first student, William Gaston, could write to his mother in 1791 that a professor “has made my heart almost burst with crying.”
In the end, Georgetown will pass, as all things do. Our endowment, our new buildings, our volumes of research and our tombs of accomplishments will all one day be forgotten. Fr. John Conway, S.J., said it best when he noted that “crumbling ruin and broken arch and tottering tower and roofless walls, heavy with weeds and neglected ivy, may be all that will remain of Georgetown’s material greatness. But even then, in those far distant ages, the truths and the principles taught in Georgetown today are the only ones that will lead that newer civilization to better things, for they are eternal.”
During Jesuit Heritage Week we thank past and present Jesuits for all they have done for our alma mater. Let us then listen to the words of our Georgetown Jesuit ancestors and embrace their critiques and challenges. Only then shall we live more fully for the greater glory of God.
Michael Fischer is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. CURA HOYANALIS appears every other Tuesday.