In Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons,” there’s a brief but brilliant exchange between Sir Thomas More, lord chancellor of England under Henry VIII, and Richard Rich, a bright and talented young man trying to make a name for himself in the world.
Rich is unsure of himself and wondering about his future; he asks More what to do with his life.
When More tells him he should be a teacher, Rich asks him, “And if I was, who would know it?”
“You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that,” More responds.
We are all emboldened in our lives by a desire to do great things. This urge is at the heart of our Ignatian heritage at Georgetown: a desire to be women and men in service with and of others and to go forth and set the world on fire.
These principles are tremendous virtues in a world that needs people for others. Yet that great desire can also become a temptation — as it was for Rich — to equate greatness with fame and renown.
We often hear of the desire to leave a legacy. Such a desire begs the question as to what leaving a legacy actually means.
Occasionally, when I have a little extra time walking across campus, I will stop off in the Jesuit cemetery to say a few prayers for my brother Jesuits who have passed on before me. There, among the headstones, are the names of Jesuits that reside on buildings across campus and spring from the lips of folks here at Georgetown to this very day.
Fr. Patrick Healy, S.J., served from 1874 to 1882 as Georgetown’s 29th president and who actualized Georgetown as a symbol of unity after the Civil War.
Fr. Horace McKenna, S.J., contributed to the desegregation of Catholic parishes in Southern Maryland in the 1950s and eventually founded So Others Might Eat, a nonprofit organization that works to address poverty in the Washington, D.C. area.
Fr. Gerard Campbell, S.J., served as university president from 1964 to 1968 and shifted governance of the university from an all-Jesuit to a majority-lay board of directors. Campbell also brought in Rabbi Harold White as the university’s first full-time rabbi.
Fr. Timothy Healy, S.J., served as the university’s president from 1976 to 1989 and guided Georgetown as it became a key international research institution.
All were great Jesuits. They were not perfect, but all contributed to what Georgetown is today.
Yet this list names just a handful of the nearly 350 Jesuits buried in the cemetery. Who was John Byrne, a Jesuit novice who died Sept. 28, 1809? Or Ludovic Weber, who passed away Nov. 5, 1929?
Each Jesuit cemetery, like the one on Georgetown’s campus, serves as the sacred burial ground for my Jesuit brothers: scholars, poets, spiritual guides, scientists, martyrs, pastors and worker priests.
What is noteworthy, 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, there is no mention of Ph.D. or M.D. and no inscription of books published or souls saved. Rather, each has three dates, the dates of that Jesuit’s births: on earth, into the Society of Jesus and into eternal life.
Whatever his worldly accomplishments, however great or small and for however brief or long a time, each Jesuit is remembered in the same way that St. Ignatius and his first companions are remembered — as individuals committed to serving with, and for, others, and to trying to go to those places in our world and culture where authentic peace and justice are absent. It is on their shoulders that we rest today.
Although the historic facts and deeds might be forgotten, the legacy of how each of these Jesuits lived their lives is not.
Leaving a legacy is not so much about what you do, but rather how you do it.
And as for who will know? You will. Those with whom you journey with compassion and understanding in this life will. God will. Indeed, not a bad audience, that.
Fr. Gregory Schenden, S.J., is the Catholic chaplain at Georgetown University. As This Jesuit Sees It appears online every other Thursday.