All of us are emboldened in our lives by the desire to do great things. This desire is at the heart of our Ignatian heritage here at Georgetown University — to be people at the service with and for others, to go forth and set the world on fire. While these are tremendous virtues in a world that needs people for others, that great desire can also be misinterpreted to equate greatness with fame. We often hear in our culture of the desire to leave a legacy, but we need to examine what leaving a legacy actually means.
As we celebrate Jesuit Heritage Month this November, I have taken the time to reflect gratefully on my brother Jesuits — past, present and future — with whom I walk in this life. From the greats like St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, S.J., and Pedro Arrupe, S.J., to the lesser-known “quiet companion” Peter Faber, brilliant poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and worker-priest and mystic of the everyday Egide Van Broeckhoven. From my Jesuit brothers at Wolfington Hall with whom I break bread both at Mass and in the dining room to over 350 of my brother Jesuits buried in our Jesuit cemetery at Georgetown.
There, among the headstones, are the names of Jesuits that reside on buildings and spring from the lips of folks here at Georgetown this very day: Fr. Patrick Healy, S.J, Georgetown’s 29th president, who actualized Georgetown as a symbol of unity after the Civil War; Fr. Timothy Healy, S.J., who, as the university’s president from 1976 to 1989, aided Georgetown in becoming a key international and research institution; Fr. Horace McKenna, S.J., who contributed greatly to the desegregation of Catholic parishes in southern Maryland in the 1950s and eventually founded the organization So Others Might Eat in 1970; and Rev. Gerard Campbell, S.J., who as president in the late 1960s shifted governance of the university from an all-Jesuit to a majority-lay board of directors and brought to Georgetown Rabbi Harold White as the university’s first full-time rabbi.
These men are all great Jesuits — by no means perfect, yet all contributing to what Georgetown is today. Yet this list is just a handful of names among the nearly 350 Jesuits buried in the cemetery. Who, for example, was John Byrne, a Jesuit novice who died Sept. 28, 1809? Or Jacob Dunn, who passed away Nov. 15, 1890?
Each Jesuit cemetery serves as a sacred burial ground for my Jesuit brothers — scholars, poets, spiritual guides, scientists, martyrs, pastors and worker-priests. What is noteworthy, as one passes among the headstones in every Jesuit cemetery, is their uniformity. They are similar to each and every Jesuit cemetery around the globe. On the headstones, no references to Ph.D. or M.D. appear, no inscription of books published or souls saved. Each and every headstone has three simple dates: the date of that Jesuit’s birth on earth, of when they entered into the Society of Jesus and of when they entered into eternal life.
Whatever their worldly accomplishments, however great or small, for however brief or long of a time, each Jesuit is remembered in the same way Ignatius and his first companions are remembered: as individuals committed to trying to live with and for others and trying to go to places in our world where needs are not being met in terms of authentic peace and justice. It is on their shoulders that we rest today. Although the historic facts and deeds might be forgotten, the legacy of how each of them lived their lives is not.
Leaving a legacy is not so much about what you do, but how you do it. You will know about it. Those to whom you show mercy, compassion, justice and understanding in this life will know. God will know. Indeed, not a bad audience, that.
Fr. Gregory Schenden, S.J., is a Catholic chaplain at Georgetown University. As This Jesuit Sees It appears online every other Thursday.