As the number of Jesuits decreases at universities across the country, many institutions are renewing their focus on the Jesuit identity and developing innovative ways to maintain Jesuit culture — the Hilltop included.

The New York Times reported that the number of Jesuits has fallen by 70 percent since 1954 and that several Jesuit colleges have been forced to confront the real possibility that the order might soon disappear from their campuses.

The Jesuits, formally known as The Society of Jesus in the United States, have been an integral part of the Georgetown community since the school’s founding by Archbishop John Carroll, S.J. Dedicated to learning, service and faith, they play active roles in the educational, religious and social facets of the university.

But even Georgetown’s highly visible and involved Jesuit community has been impacted by the recent downward trend in the number of new priests joining religious orders.

Georgetown’s Jesuit community has seen an almost 50 percent decline in members in the past 36 years, dropping from 122 in 1975 to 64 today, according to The Washington Post.

Fr. Howard Gray, S.J., special assistant to President John J. DeGioia, entered the Society of Jesus in 1948 following his high school graduation. For him, the decline in the number of new members is very visible in the community.

“There were about 10 to 12 of us that entered the Jesuits out of high school,” he said. “Times have changed now.”

He added that this dip in numbers poses several challenges for the future of the order.

“When you have a decreased population you count on and that population is aging, that affects your mobility and flexibility,” he said.

“The question for me is, ‘How do we give our scholars, who may have been lawyers or students, the time and space that they need to study?'” he added, noting the academic role that Jesuits have filled within the Catholic Church.

While Gray and many of his fellow Jesuits note the change in demographics, they believe certain measures can be taken to keep their legacy alive.

“Some universities have had a much greater decline in the number of men in active ministry whereas others still have significant numbers,” Fr. John Siberski, S.J. said. “We cannot afford to spend much time mourning diminishment or reminiscing about the good old days. The focus is the present.”

There is a silver lining to the problem of the diminishing size of the Jesuit order: The decline in numbers has sparked renewed efforts by institutions to connect their Jesuit communities to their general campuses.

Georgetown’s Wolfington Hall, completed in 2003, provides a centrally-located residence for campus Jesuits and has been an important tool for increasing student access to Jesuits and creating spaces where community members can meet.

“The new residence was specifically designed to be more open and inviting to the Georgetown community,” Fr. Otto Hentz, S.J., said.” And the impact on campus has been dramatic. Students, faculty and alumni are there all the time, and we’re constantly hosting events, meetings and dinners for all sorts of groups.”

Many Jesuits are not worried that their reduced numbers will lessen Georgetown’s Jesuit identity because their core ideals of knowledge, service and compassion still animate professors, students and administrators.

Gray said that the order must foster its traditions and ideals through their lay brethren.

“More and more we see ourselves moving into collaborative leadership,” he said. “We need professionally competent lay colleagues that can express the Jesuit heritage.”

But students worry that Georgetown wouldn’t be the same without a Jesuit presence on campus.

“The Jesuits dedicate their entire lives to finding God through knowledge and passing that along to us. I think it’d be impossible to ever replace them,” said Alexa McCue (SFS ’13).

Whatever happens to the order in the future, a number of Georgetown Jesuits and students seem determined to maintain the traditions of Jesuit scholarship and service in a constantly transforming campus community.

“Change happens. It is the basic reality of life for individuals, groups, universities and nations. Predicting what those changes will be, how they will be affected, and what kind of impact they will have is always a losing proposition,” Sibenski said.

“The Jesuit presence at Georgetown has been evolving since 1789. That, at least, isn’t going to change.”

– Hoya Staff Writer Anne Skomba contributed to this report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *