A Discussion with Father Peter Rožič, S.J., Rector, Jesuit College Magis, Maribor, Slovenia

With: Peter Rožič Berkley Center Profile

June 1, 2016

Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, in June 2016, undergraduate student Sarah Jannarone interviewed Father Peter Rožič, S.J., the rector of the Jesuit College Magis in Maribor, Slovenia. In this interview, Rožič discusses the purpose of the college, as well as its importance for Catholic university students in Maribor.
Could you begin by introducing yourself and your work?

I’m a Jesuit. I have been one since 1997, and in 2007 I was ordained as a Catholic priest. After concluding my doctoral studies in political science and government at Georgetown I moved to Santa Clara [California] to work there as a postdoctoral researcher surrounding the issues of transitional justice and democratization. I also helped out different communities, like the American Slovenian community in San Francisco and the American Slovenian Education Foundation.

Upon coming back to Slovenia in 2007, I continued a bit with my research and also started to establish the Jesuit Residential College in Maribor later called Jesuit College Magis, or Magis for short. I now currently work as a superior in the Jesuit community in Ljubljana, and I also teach mostly doctoral students at the School of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana. I work as a vice director of the St. Ignatius institution based in Ljubljana, which is also the governing organization of Magis. I am also in charge of the renovation of the Jesuit center in Ljubljana, which in about two years will become another residential college.

What type of work do you do at Magis?

I go there twice a week, primarily on Mondays because Monday evenings are usually free for Catholic students in Maribor. They have other activities elsewhere, but the students that live in our residential college take time for community building within the college. I meet them on Monday evenings, and we hold a Mass together. On Monday evenings, we also have a meeting, a lecture or a visiting guest.

Additionally, I have a one-on-one conversation with the students twice a year. I also facilitate the exchange between students and their tutors, who meet monthly. As this is something that is relatively new to Slovenia, I have to work with both the students and the tutors so that they interact well. I also take care of the ongoing renovation at Magis. And then there are other things such as admissions and certain other activities that we do with the students. The rest of the time I spend in Ljubljana; I return to Maribor mostly every Friday, but then typically I work out of Ljubljana.

What compelled you to found Magis?

There was a bit of a change in understanding the Jesuit mission in Slovenia about four years ago.

What changed?

We wanted to work more with students. There are a variety of works and activities that the Jesuits are involved in across Slovenia, the primary one being leading retreats. Working with youth has always been present but until, let's say, 2012, it was more related to other work, such as parish work where there was a youth group or Catholic Scouts, and a Jesuit would serve as a spiritual adviser. We decided that we wanted to work more closely with the students by offering residential spaces for them to live and create communities in, not in terms of formal education. The idea was for them to be able to study and fulfill their mission as students, and also give back to the community while growing as a person.

That started about four or five years ago, and it took a while to develop and present it to the leadership because we were young Jesuits with many ideas which were not immediately realizable. Eventually we asked for approval from the leadership to open a residential college after the example of the first colleges that the Jesuits created in the mid to late 1500s. We were particularly impressed by the examples of the Hungarian Jesuits and their residential colleges, as well as a few other examples in the region of Central Europe. When I got back to Maribor the time seemed right to open a college, but it only happened because of the students that were interested in the idea.

What led you to focus more on informal education, or personal formation, versus formal education?

Quite a few things. One of them is that informal formation or residential living and learning is easier and cheaper for us, and it’s less demanding in terms of administration. It gives us a chance to be with the students as more than just their professors—we can interact with them directly. We can also do that through their studies, but it’s much more complicated. We do not have the means or human resources to open a department within the university; it’s very expensive and difficult, though that may happen in the future.

Living with the students gives us greater joy ourselves, and we find more fruit in our work. We wanted to be with the youth, and not just teach them. We wanted to see the youth more engaged in society and the Church through the example provided by Jesuit education, not formal in our case but other parts of Jesuit education. To accomplish this we studied the documents of the Jesuits in previous years and sometimes centuries, and the most recent documents on education, pertaining to things like helping youth find God in all things, how to help them serve the community as well as the Church, and how to help them grow up as mature people.

How do you engage the students in larger society?

This is something that keeps on developing. For this first year I did not expect students to be formally engaged in volunteer work. It’s something that they do back home in their home parishes. For example, a student would be leading a children’s choir, which takes quite a lot of time. Some of them work with people in need. Some of them are leaders in the Catholic Scouts.

Is that a requirement for acceptance to Magis?

It is a bit of a requirement. The problem is that since applicants are interested in coming to a Catholic residential college they are self-selected already. The majority of students would not consider entering a Catholic dorm because it’s kind of a stigma. But since it’s a residential college it also brings them some prestige and the opportunity for international exchange, as well as the ability to meet the international guests that we host. The issue is that since they are self-selected these are people that are already engaged in their communities back home, which means that they are already busy with a lot of activities. So sometimes the issue is to have them focus on their studies rather than give back to the community.

What is the mission of Magis?

It is to help form and educate leaders and citizens, and mold people of service in the years while they are in the residential college. This should all occur while they are deepening their faith and acting out of their faith in the world that they are in.

You’ve mentioned that there is currently no financial assistance for students. How might financial help look in the future?

The living expenses are not very high, even in regards to expenses that students would otherwise have in student dorms. Most of the students want to live in a student dorm because it is a little bit cheaper, so we adjusted the price, and it is now a little bit more expensive than in the cheapest student dorms in Maribor. We have also asked donors to help us with the students to receive some sort of financial aid in the future, and we have received support from quite a few people donating small amounts of money. I think that next year we will provide quite a few scholarships. However, not all of these scholarships are needed, because the majority of students in Magis now receive state scholarships for their studies, for living expenses, transportation, which includes going back and forth to their hometowns on a weekly basis.

How do you think Magis emphasizes cura personalis?

We don’t emphasize cura personalis as a concept, but the students have quite a few options for it, all of which are voluntary. For example, there is a spiritual assistant to the college named Father Milan. He is always available by phone or email for spiritual conversations, which also entails questions about personal growth, career development, and faith, but it’s up to the the students to ask Father Milan for help or to have a conversation. Father Milan also comes for weekly meetings to speak with students about their faith and their personal growth. I myself have avoided that role because I am the rector, and while I could hold these conversations with students, and some of them have asked me to, I would prefer not to do it because of my position.

Another thing that we do is, as I have mentioned, meet with the students regularly. They also can hold meetings together as Magis students, we have Mass once a week, and they also have the option to go to Mass every morning at the chapel attached to the college. What is more, they are closely linked to the Catholic Student Chaplaincy Sinaj in Maribor, which offers quite a few opportunities; the director actually lives at Magis. We do not want to compete with Sinaj, and so many of the cura personalis services are actually offered through that center.

Are there other opportunities for personal formation in Maribor?

I think that every department in the university has an office for students in terms of psychological and career advice, but it can be very formal and not many students actually use it. It’s not like in the United States where students must meet with advisers and go over the plan for their studies. That’s left to the students most of the time. The aspect of mentorship or tutorship is also heavily underdeveloped here. The students don’t even feel the need for this because they don’t know it exists. So when we started with it in Magis they didn't know what to do with it; it was something that was very new. We discuss things that they otherwise wouldn’t have exposure to but that pertain to their lives, such as spiritual growth and discovering their vocation. We’ve also had successful entrepreneurs speak about opening up a business.

Is there a need for entrepreneurial skills in Slovenia?

Yes, there is. Often students study and then get a degree without thinking about what they will do with that degree. I think that’s quite a big problem in Slovenia. Many students, especially young women, would like to become kindergarten teachers, but since there are so many people with this degree, there is an overflow of these teachers in the market, yet the students still want to pursue it while knowing it will be impossible to find a job. Now, what we have exposed our students to is the idea that even if they study that, they can still open a kindergarten on their own. There is a certain feeling of entitlement to a specific job if people hold a degree in that field. Of course that mentality is changing—I’m not saying that it’s everywhere and that all the students are like that; that’s just the impression I have by comparing the students I’ve seen in Washington or California to the students I see here. There the question is: Will I get a job after college? Here the question is: How do I get a degree?

How do community and education intersect?

At Magis we focus more on forming a person than educating a person, which includes obtaining skills like virtue. Virtue is very important, and virtue is obtained through training. That of course is no easy task, but it is the role of the community to help its members grow in virtue. So they grow in virtue personally while they are with one another because they have to learn to live with one another.

In terms of formal education, community can be of help or of hindrance. It can be of help when they are under pressure—they help each other in terms of offering support like cooking a meal for someone who has to study. It can be of hindrance because many of these students like each other a lot, so they will just stick together when they should be studying...in my opinion, in certain cases, for too long of a time. At some point they have to go back to the desk and study.

Do you see fostering community as promoting social justice?

Yes, because they learn about each other and about other people’s needs. They also learn about others’ projects in terms of giving back to the community. In this way they are more exposed to the needs of the world and they can answer them more aptly, but we haven’t reached the point at which the entire community comes up with a project.

What do you think is the greatest challenge for Catholics in Slovenia today?

There may be a few. Those who want to be fully dedicated to the mission of the Catholic Church may often find themselves unaccepted by the rest of society. For the most part, people in Slovenia see the Catholic Church as something that’s a bit unusual or even something that’s not entirely normal. So for example, applying for a political position in the country while expressing your religious opinion may hurt your career.

Why?

Partly because of the communist regime and the fact that the current government hasn’t gotten rid of the legacy of the former regime. Because of this Catholics have become used to being a bit silent. I am not speaking about Catholics who are a part of the political party on the right, because they can be quite vocal, but I’m speaking about those who want to live as Catholic and Christian. Under the previous regime, it was almost impossible to participate in public life, and that has remained. Many of the Catholics would prefer not to expose their faith or their beliefs or morality to the public.

How might Jesuits be giving Catholics a voice?

Giving them voice in the public domain has not been the main project of the Jesuits here. It’s mostly been about helping Catholics be independent or act independently, relying on their own freedom and faith. The Jesuits have but rarely gone out and promoted things in public.

Right now you are helping to build up a network of residential colleges throughout Central Europe. Why is that work important?

It gives the Jesuits a lot of pleasure—it feels like the first Society of Jesus, when they created colleges that answered the needs of students while helping them grow into mature students within the Catholic Church. These days, we see a great demand.

We can help these students grow and develop while also have social impact later in a society. It’s something that we think will happen with this contribution. And then we can learn a lot from one another. Our college can learn a lot from the two colleges in Budapest. They learned from us on our model of tutors that is not present in Hungary. They would want to send some of our students to our volunteer projects that I mentioned earlier. There’s also financial help that we can get through cooperation from EU funds, just from learning certain skills from one another to help our students better run college better and provide financial help for students.

What are the challenges for Magis?

Since it just started the challenge is to institutionalize the spirit that we’ve developed this past year. Right now I feel it’s that the identity is based on my approach and on my work, and I hope that changes as time goes by. We also need to finish the reconstruction of the building. Another challenge we’ve encountered is attracting more boys. We have quite a few applications for next year already, but most of them are women. That’s fine, but we currently have less than 20 percent of men, and we’d like to reverse that trend. Ideally it would be half and half.

What is your vision for Magis in the future?

That the spirit of the place becomes institutionalized, and it doesn’t just rely on one person like the student director or on me as the rector. I hope that we can contribute to society by modeling leadership to other colleges and perhaps universities.

What makes you most proud about this work?

The joy of the students, and seeing them grow in their personal life.

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