Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Catholic Identity Fosters Interfaith Dialogue

Imam Yahya Hendi, Georgetown’s Muslim chaplain, speaks quietly and with care, so that his words carry a certain poignant intensity. But when he speaks about the Georgetown community’s reaction to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he is particularly moved.


By 10:30 that morning, he said, most people had realized the gravity of what had taken place, and the Office of Campus Ministry had hurriedly spread the word of a prayer service in the Leavey Center.




At noon, Hendi said, hundreds of students of all faiths filled Sellinger Lounge, spilling out into Hoya Court and toward the bookstore.




“It was very moving the way our community came together, praying for peace and harmony,” he said.


oments like these have solidified Hendi’s respect for the university’s Catholic identity, which Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J. (COL ’88), the director of campus ministry, describes as an identity that “engages our commitment to social justice, our commitment to serious intellectual inquiry, to embracing the Church’s long theological tradition and caring for all of our students, mind, body and spirit.”




This emphasis on spirituality – regardless of denomination -forms the core of the mission of campus religious leaders such as Hendi and O’Brien.




“Imam Hendi is not simply an imam for Muslims,” he said, “but for all of our students.”




O’Brien and Hendi are close together physically as well as spiritually. To find them, you simply walk from O Street through the front gates and straight into Healy Hall. To the right, there’s a line of offices – first, O’Brien’s, and behind his, those of the Protestant chaplain, the Jewish chaplain, Hendi and two other Jesuits.


O’Brien says the placement “at the heart of the campus” is intentional.




“That presence speaks volumes about our commitment to Georgetown’s religious mission,” he said.




This Catholic identity, however, has come under scrutiny in various forms. Forty-eight percent of undergraduates identify themselves as Catholic, according to the university. Some members of the Georgetown community believe this diversity of faith traditions merits continued discussions on the university’s Catholic values.




O’Brien and some of his colleagues in the faculty and administration underlined the importance of a strict adherence to Catholic ideas. Still, some aspects of Catholic doctrine are rooted in the broader picture.




“We may contextualize them out of a particular faith tradition and out of the scriptures,” said Fr. Philip Boroughs, S.J., the university’s vice president for mission and ministry, “but others will appropriate them out of humanist values or other religious traditions. . I think a number of them are common values shared by humanity.”




This nondenominational take on the university’s spiritual identity combined with the religious pluralism of campus give administrators a wider reach on campus. As head of the largest campus ministry program in the United States, O’Brien said his role dictates that he is not solely interested in the spiritual well-being of Catholics on campus.




“The Catholic Church’s mission is to bring people closer to God. And for Christians, that would be through knowing Jesus Christ better,” he said. “For non-Christians, when a non-Christian comes to know their God more intimately . we have [also] succeeded in our mission.”




“One of my proudest moments was when . a Muslim student who I taught in class, at the end of the semester, introduced me to friends as `his father,’ `his priest’,” O’Brien added. “That was a sign to me that what we’re doing the right thing in Campus Ministry.”




Jesse Mirotznik (SFS ’12), the co-president of the Jewish Student Association and a Figge Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Institute last year, also said he has benefited spiritually from his time at Georgetown.


“Georgetown has a culture that encourages people to be introspective about their faith and about their identity,” he said, “and that’s encouraged me to look at what it means for me to be a Jewish person.”




It has brought him some memorable experiences, too. Earlier this week, he found himself inside a ritual tent that the JSA had built for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, watching a religious discussion between Hendi, Bruce Aft, the interim Jewish chaplain, and Fr. Pat Rogers, S.J., the director of main campus ministry.




“I don’t necessarily think you’d find that sort of opportunity for interfaith connection at a university that wasn’t so actively interested in spiritual life,” he said.




Though a commitment to interreligious dialogue lies at Georgetown’s core, the university administration has indicated that they will not budge on certain policies. High-level administrators said abortion rights groups like H*yas for Choice will continue to be denied university funding. Plan A, a separate group in favor of reproductive rights, created substantial controversy last year.




Boroughs said that although the administration is happy to discuss the issue constructively and allow such groups to exist independently of the university, it has no plans to go further.




“You could keep talking about it forever,” he said. “There are certain parts of our Catholic identity that probably aren’t going to change . [and] that will be maintained at Georgetown.”




Morgan McDaniel (SFS ’13), vice president of H*yas for Choice, agrees that the main sticking point between the university and her organization is not its views but its distribution of condoms – which she sees as a relatively minor issue.


“This is a very specific, and somewhat irrational, place to draw the line,” she said. “I don’t think the university should be willing to make that ultimatum. . I think the goal should be education within the Jesuit values of free discussion and tolerance, not to shut out students who would want to get an education.”




For many students, there is no clear resolution to this dilemma.




“That’s a question that every Georgetown student struggles with to some extent,” Mirotznik said. “I’m not sure how I personally feel about the issue [of condoms being distributed].”




While contemporary social issues challenge the university’s Catholic identity, Georgetown’s future may be tested by a more immediate threat: the aging population of the Jesuits as a religious order. The average Jesuit priest in the United States is nearly 64 – and they are not being replaced by equal numbers of new members.


Fr. O’Brien displayed a paperback directory of all the Jesuits in this country. It was about an inch thick – but, he said, it’s been shrinking.




“In the future, there will be fewer Jesuits on campus,” he said.




But while he believes that a certain critical mass of Jesuits is crucial to maintaining the Catholic tradition on the Hilltop, he remains optimistic.




“A few deeply committed, passionate Jesuits are able to animate a university with the help of laymen and laywomen equally committed to that mission,” he said. “So we spend a lot of time sharing the Jesuit and Catholic tradition with faculty and administrators and staff.”




Boroughs said that he is worried that students may often be too busy to really experience their benefits.




“I think we’re always tuned in to our Blackberries and Twitter and iPods, and I’m concerned about the pace of living and its spiritual and its physical and its intellectual effects on us,” he said. “Even students’ willingness to step out of that pace to be reflective has diminished somewhat.”




But he said he prefers to frame the issue as an opportunity.




“[Our students] are the future leaders of our world,” he said, “and if we have an opportunity to help them grow and to gain deeper spiritual and human awareness and intellectual life, what a great way to shape and influence the world. I think that’s why we’re here.”




**This is the final installment of a two-part series examining Georgetown’s Catholic identity.**




**Correction:** Due to a posting and layout error, the full-length version of this article did not appear in either the Oct. 1 print edition or the initial web posting.

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