A Discussion with Ignacio Bone, S.J., Clinical Practitioner and Professor of Psychiatry, Comillas Pontifical University, Spain
July 12, 2012
Background: In this exchange on July 12, 2012 in Madrid, Fr. Ignacio Boné, S.J., and Colin Steele discussed the European crisis and the future of young people in Europe today. Fr. Boné talked about the effects that Europeanization and unemployment have on a globalized Spain. The two also discussed the future of Catholic education in Europe and particularly at Comillas Pontifical University, where Boné teaches.
When and how did you find your vocation to become a Jesuit?
It was 1989, right after I finished the first year of my medical degree. In university, I had been involved in campus ministry activities and part of a Christian Life Community; after making a 30-day examen in daily life retreat, I felt the stirrings of a vocation. I prayed and thought about it a lot, and eventually it became clear to me that the idea of becoming a Jesuit made me feel happier and more at peace than any other life I could think of. Clearly, it was the best thing for me. After my first year of medical school, I applied to and joined the order; I then undertook my priestly training while completing my medical degree. After I finishing my M.D. and residency in psychiatry, I began teaching part-time while working towards my Ph.D. for the Jesuits. These days, I have a clinical practice and a teaching position here at U.P. Comillas, and I’ve taken on some administrative responsibilities in the last couple of years, as well.
Fifty percent of Spanish young people are unemployed right now. Where are your graduates going? Are you producing people for others or just more highly-educated indignados?
Our interest is to prepare people to serve society. We’d prefer that they do exactly that, but all too often what we end up doing is preparing students to serve big companies. Of course we try to impart a service ethic to each of our students, but it’s difficult. Some are here for our Jesuit identity, but many are here for our reputation as one of the better private universities in Spain. And the students aren’t crazy: you know how hard it is for them to get jobs these days—the ones who can find employment take it.
In spite of external economic pressures, we try to instill in all of our students a competence in ethics and morality. There’s a cross-course emphasis on the university’s vision and mission, which we intentionally try to have every professor embed in his or her syllabus. In addition, there are mandatory identity courses for all students: two semesters on Christian theology and social ethics, and another two of professional ethics. Additionally, we offer social services programs for students to participate in here in Madrid, sponsored trips to the Third World, and pastoral services that are available to any student who wants to avail of them.
Let’s keep unpacking this. How do you think that Europeanization has affected your students?
These days, nearly every one of our students—certainly all of the best and the brightest—are traveling throughout Europe both for study and for fun. That’s a new phenomenon even in the last decade or two—it’s happened so fast that most professors still find it difficult to think of providing a European education. It’s easier for the students, though: they’re all going on at least one Erasmus semester [intra-European university exchange program enabled by the European Credit Transfer System credit equivalency scheme], and some also go to the United States or Canada. It might be different from the way I went through university, but I’m completely sure that building a European identity is crucial to the personal, educational, and future professional growth of today’s students.
Why’s that? What is it about study exchanges that is so worthwhile?
The most important thing it does is to grow people up. Here in Spain, the culture revolves around the family to a much higher degree than it does in the States, so it’s often difficult for our students to make the break with their family environs that’s necessary to achieve independence until they go on an Erasmus semester. Living outside of their parents’ orbit, they have to take on personal responsibility for the first time, and that’s a critical part of growing up as a person, a student, and a citizen. It’s likewise important that they learn to speak other languages and live in different contexts, since that contextualizes their own backgrounds and experiences. Finally, learning how to travel, live, and work in cross-cultural settings during their university years prepares students for the Europeanized/globalized careers that most of them embark on. If they’re already comfortable moving about, they’re that much more attractive to the kinds of firms that they want to be hired by.
Turning back to the question of the EU, what’s your perspective on Spain’s relationship to the rest of the European Union right now?
The only thing I’m really sure of is that it’s going to be a long and difficult process for us to get back on our fiscal footing. We’ve grown accustomed to living with a certain level of services and benefits; now that we can’t keep them, we’re going to have to make some very painful decisions about what gets cut and by how much. And all of those cuts will have human costs—how can we continue to adequately look after the poor when there just isn’t enough money to go round?
Is that a conversation that’s being had on campus amongst the students and/or the faculty?
I don’t think students are really discussing these things—they’re just focused on completing their degrees. Thinking about the crisis probably should be more present in students’ conversations. As a faculty, we’re certainly thinking about it, and we’re trying to bring it into the students’ consciousness as well. We offer lectures and debates about the political, social, and economic situation in the country and in the EU, and turnout has been okay. The director of our mandatory courses in professional ethics is also working with this quite a bit, since he’s necessarily trying to teach students professional ethics for the age of austerity.
Meanwhile, some of our students are feeling the pinch quite strongly. Like Spain as a whole, some families got used to living quite nice lifestyles that they now find completely unsustainable. And just like the county, adjusting to forced, fast downward mobility is a real challenge. The university has programs in place to help those students whose families are struggling to adjust to their changing circumstances, chiefly by means of psychological and/or pastoral counseling and tuition rebates and reductions. Still, reducing students’ bills does not guarantee that we’ve reduced their anxiety. We’re seeing more and more cases in the psychiatric clinic from within and without the university that are clearly societal and not psychological. People come in feeling desperate: they’re unable to sleep; they’re having spouse problems. For most of these, there’s not much we can do—they’re victims of a financial crisis, not a mental one, and how are you supposed to treat that? We can offer counseling and even drugs in some cases, but these things aren’t free, and the whole reason these people are coming to see us is because they’ve run out of money. We just can’t come up with enough grants for therapy or even enough counselors to handle this caseload.
Is there a pastoral angle to dealing with the crisis?
Yes, but we’re stretched pretty thin there, too. The clinic and the university cooperate with other Jesuit missions dedicated to serving the poor through counseling and ministry (that’s how we get a lot of our subsidized therapy referrals). The recession is also a major topic of discussion in Christian Life Communities (CLC), in which laypeople are trying to deal as best they can with the changing social and economic realities of the crisis. One of the overarching focuses of both the Jesuit response and the CLC response is on migrants. They’ve been the community that has been both the hardest hit by the crisis and the one that’s been most forgotten about in the response.
Turning back to the issue of Jesuits in the university, the rector told me the other day that U.P. Comillas only has 50 Jesuit professors out of a faculty of about 1,000 people. How do you, as one of those few Jesuits, see the process of spreading your resources through the university so as to maintain its Jesuit character?
We participate with the other Jesuit universities in Spain in focus groups on the vision, mission, and identity of a Jesuit education. We also have resources for faculty here to get them invested in perpetuating the Jesuit identity of this place. There’s the annual retreat for several faculty members to Santiago de Compostela, where they delve into the Ignatian spirituality, values, and vision that inspire this university. By sheer force of numbers, we’re not really the boss here—there are only two administrative positions held by Jesuits. Therefore, we really need the cooperation and investment of our lay colleagues in perpetuation our vision. Still, we own the place, so we can hire faculty who want to be part of the project in the first place. Most of our professors come here for the identity in the first place, but questions about Jesuit vision and mission are a prominent part of our hiring and promotion processes.
Overall, it’s been good for both sides—Jesuit and lay—in the faculty to learn how to cooperate with each other. Mistakes have been made in opening the relationship, but it’s obviously the only way forward. At the same time, identity is becoming increasingly important and central to our work, and that process is going well overall.
Given all that, how do you see Jesuit education evolving into the future with a view to its past?
The biggest trend I see in Jesuit education right now is a concerted effort to get back to our roots. We have a tradition that stretches back to the sixteenth century with a lot of wisdom and experience wrapped up in it; we’re already more connected to that tradition than we were 20 years ago. The challenge is to keep rediscovering our past and re-invigorating our present in a time when Christian and especially Catholic identity is not well-regarded. Religion is pretty passé in Europe at this point—the abuse crisis certainly isn’t helping—but there’s still an interest and a demand for religious education. That’s why lay-religious collaboration is so important, and we are taking important steps in that direction, especially within the field of education. The big institutions—the Church itself, the big universities like Comillas—are going to survive even as faith declines in the public sphere. Given how many faculty members we get who are genuinely excited about and invested in providing a distinctly Jesuit education, there’s clearly some value here, which I would say is a real emphasis on quality of teaching and opening students to transcendence, faith, and justice.