A Discussion with Josep "Pep" Maria, S.J., ESADE, Spain

With: Josep Maria

July 14, 2012

Background: In this exchange on July 14, 2012 in Madrid, Josep "Pep" Maria, S.J., and Colin Steele discussed Jesuit universities and education. The two also conversed about Jesuits working at business schools and the state of the Jesuits in Spain today.

You mentioned in our email exchange that Barcelona Jesuits are somehow unique, at least in Spain, if not within the order as a whole. Could you elaborate on that?

The first thing you probably noticed when you met me is how casually I’m dressed—probably far more so than most of the Jesuits you met in Madrid. My outfit [polo shirt, shorts, sandals] is pretty standard for the Jesuits out here. We’re further from the center of power, so we’re a lot less “priestly” in our dress and mannerisms. (There is a bishop here, but he pretty well leaves us alone.) Particularly in the post-Vatican II era, Catalonian priests have become notably secularized in their attitudes and behavior. Only now are we starting to reassume some of the signs and symbols of our office. In my classes, for example, I usually start out not telling students I’m a Jesuit. When I do tell them partway through the semester, I jokingly refer to it as “coming out of the closet.”

In order to understand the place of priests and the Church in Catalonia, you have to understand something about our nationalist struggle. During the Franco years, the Church’s concordat with the state meant that churches were pretty much inviolable to the forces of state security. Not surprisingly, they quickly became the logical incubators of the Catalonian nationalist movement. Most Catalonian priests in the 1970s and 1980s were pro-democracy and pro-nationalism, but what they didn’t really anticipate was the huge drop in support for the Church as a whole after Franco’s death. Part of that had to do with the nature of the pro-democracy movement here: as opposed to Spanish trade unions, which were socialist, Catalan unions were anarchist. After Franco, they had no interest in listening to anybody—not the Spanish, and certainly not the Catholic Church. As a result, Catalonia today is the second-most secularized region in Europe, right behind the Netherlands. The only vocations we’re seeing in this region today are from rightist groups like Opus Dei. The Jesuits, who trend leftwards (though not all of them!), have thus been a bit incognito here for the past few decades.

Given that context, describe your own vocation.

I entered in 1990, right as the [Second Vatican] Council-era old guard were giving way to today’s crop of post-Vatican II Jesuits. The older ones had whole-heartedly embraced the council reforms, leaving their soutanes behind and changing the formation process from a sort of mass production model to a novitiate centered on living in small groups in tiny apartments in and around Barcelona so as to be closer to the people. These days, younger priests are sometimes more conservative than their elders, which is just as true of diocesans as it is of Jesuits and other religious.

ESADE, where I teach, is paradigmatic of the post-[Second Vatican] Council, post-Franco transition of the order here. The university was founded in 1958, but it followed the council’s reforms so enthusiastically that many ESADE Jesuits actually left the order. (The joke has it that ESASDE was the first Jesuit university to go from Jesuit control to lay control without changing hands.) Now, we’re very focused on social justice, professional ethics, and other “Jesuit” issues, but it is staffed almost exclusively by former Jesuits. I’m one of only two active Jesuit faculty in the entire university.

Talk about your work at ESADE. What’s it like to be one of only two active Jesuits at a Jesuit university?

As soon as I got here in 1998, the other Jesuit and I restarted pastoral action at the university. Campus ministry activity had been shut down years before, but we managed to get it restarted in the face of some skepticism on the part of the university. We started with a service of religious guidance that aims to reach students wherever they are—and quickly realized that as long as you don’t say “God” or “Jesus,” you can say and preach more or less whatever you wish! We’ve taken pretty much the same approach with staff: through UniJes (the consortium of Jesuit universities in Spain), we send some faculty to Loyola every year for a week of formation in the ways and vision of Ignatius.

Being one of two Jesuits here is definitely a challenge, especially given that we spend so much of our time incognito (my colleague usually doesn’t tell students he’s a Jesuit at all). I’ve found the easiest way of dealing with this is to take a long-term view and start with just giving an authentic witness. I don’t have to use explicitly Christian, Catholic, or Jesuit terms or symbols to do so—a genuine witness is genuine, even if it’s couched in philosophical/humanistic terms for the audience at hand. In doing so, I’ve discovered that the Jesuits are particularly well prepared to do just this, which I credit to our extensive training in philosophy and literature. We have much broader bases to draw upon than just the Bible or traditional theology when crafting our message, and that way we can deliver our message in terms that appeal to secular society without diluting the message too much.

That’s an interesting idea. Could you unpack your reasoning a bit more?

The basic principle is that if the Jesuits are Catholics—as we have reaffirmed time and again and as Pope Benedict XVI himself acknowledged at General Congregation 35—then the border on which we operate is logically Catholic also. And if that is true, then people who admire and follow the Jesuit vision and spirituality are likewise following a canonically valid Catholic tradition. Our particular apostolate might be described as being on the borders of the Church, but that doesn’t make us any less Catholic. Therefore, if people like what we offer and choose to accept it in their own lives, that’s a validly Catholic action. I don’t buy the distinction between pre-evangelization (message cleansed of Jesus references) and evangelization (the full message). The message is the message, no matter how we deliver it. John 10 says that the good shepherd calls each sheep by its own name, and that’s exactly what we’re doing by employing the language of humanism and philosophy in giving our witness. That’s the language our students speak most comfortably, so that’s the language we’ll speak to them. It makes no sense to speak in a foreign language to a non-believer or someone of different beliefs.

The difficult part, of course, is maintaining and staying true to our own identity. Our witness is our witness, like I say—and it can involve more or less explicitly Christian language depending on context—but the temptation in giving a humanist message is to say that’s good enough and forget to mention you’re a Jesuit. You don’t have to start there—crosses and Roman collars don’t impart piety, nor do they tend to draw students in—but it’s important that we do claim our Jesuit identity and be proud of it.

Let’s get back to the mechanics of a Jesuit university with two Jesuits. How do you go about maintaining the Jesuit nature of the place on a daily basis?

We might be few, but we have influence well beyond our numbers. The board of the university is appointed by the provincial, so they’re all vetted by the Society. That ensures that administratively we’re all pulling in more or less the same direction. Meanwhile, our courses for faculty and staff open the vision and mission of the place to our lay colleagues so that they can take ownership of it themselves.

There are a few other ways in which we are able to exercise greater influence, as well. One is by identifying, working with, and ministering to the people here who are really invested in the Jesuit projects of education and spirituality. These people are also few in number, but there are more than two of them, and we offer monthly opportunities for Bible study, prayer, and contemplation to those who are interested. We also do a pretty good job bearing in mind that the Jesuit apostolic subject, as confirmed by [General Congregation] 34, is not the order itself but the order in the context of and in cooperation with laypeople. That’s part of what being on the borders means; we have to welcome the opportunity and challenge of spreading our message effectively enough to garner lay collaborators.

It’s for that reason that we’ve separated the ESADE mission statement from Ignatian spirituality per se. The Ignatian tradition of course strongly informs the mission, but the mission is intentionally created to be accessible by and accessible to various kinds of spirituality—including atheism and secular humanism. The idea is that all of those spiritualities interact with each other and with the Ignatian one that is at the heart of this university; in so doing, they feed and strengthen the mission, from which flows all of our programs. Even if that doesn’t sound terribly Jesuit to you, consider that there was exactly zero explicit Catholic practice visible on this campus when I arrived in 1998. It’s coming back little by little—we take a step, the students follow, etc.—and I’m willing to accept little by little as better than not at all. I heard a saying once that says, "If you want to go fast, you can go alone, but if you want to go far, you must go with a group." To date, we’ve happily sacrificed speed for good relations with the lay faculty. There have been no ruptures so far, and we don’t plan on changing our attitude any time soon.

How does ESADE prepare students to succeed and apply the Jesuit values they learn at ESADE in a globalized world?

We place a very strong emphasis on social justice and commitment, which we try to infuse into everything we do and teach here. The underlying idea—which we try to make clear to students—is that cultivating spirituality will make them better managers. Rather than making snap decisions for uncertain gain, we want our students to become managers who are compassionate, competent, and committed, so that they can make decisions that are in line with the long-term interests of themselves, their firms, their employees, and their society. To that end, we incorporate spirituality and solidarity into our course work and extracurricular whenever possible. We tell students over and over that this kind of intentionality and internality is crucial to developing a good and strong vision of professional responsibility. We offer students a retreat at Manresa on the life of Ignatius, for-credit service opportunities in the developing world, and the monthly fellowship group for those who want still more explicit experience with the Jesuits and Christianity.

Our credited program in Latin America, called SUD, gives students hands-on experience with what solidarity means. The most important thing we want them to get out of it is that aid and development are not a unilateral handout from up to down. Rather, it’s a two-way street, which both sides must be willing and able to walk if there is to be peace. We also emphasize at SUD the importance of having a personal crisis, because without such a crisis of identity, it’s almost impossible to convert—that is, to stop being an imperialist. Along the way, we use SUD as a kind of vehicle for contemplation and evangelization. We teach students to expect and process setbacks and difficulties (and successes!) with the Ignatian lens of living through consolations and desolations.

Finally, I’d like to return to the question of the ability that you maintain yourself and the Jesuits have to speak to non-believers and other believers in their language. How do you think you (and the order) develop(ed) this critical intercultural skill?

For me, it stems from my studies in philosophy and economics. I studied economics in university (prior to joining the Jesuits), and that prepared me to speak the global language of that field. The other important thing has been studying philosophy. I started reading philosophy on my own during and after university, then of course studied it much more intensely as a Jesuit. Like economics, philosophy has a certain universality to it and explains a lot about the ways in which people think. Therefore, it gives me both insight into who my audience is and another language (other than the religious) with which to approach them. That’s how I’m able to bear genuine witness even without being explicitly Christian all the time (a Christic versus a Christian spirituality).

What all this has led me to believe is that we need to reach out to and offer our witness to laypeople, even if it’s in Christic terms. That tends to make more conservative elements of the Church hierarchy and even some conservative laypeople pretty nervous (“it’s not Catholic enough!”), but like I said before, witness is witness—and it’s most effective when delivered in the language of the listener. As it is, there are very, very few shepherds left these days, and they’re stretched thinly even in dealing with a shrinking flock. Nothing breeds conservatism and retreat like a shrinking population that thinks it’s in existential danger; ironically, the only way out of the trap of defensiveness is to refuse to let it take hold by engaging as broadly as possible. The more we hold back and try to consolidate and conserve, the more we’ll ultimately lose. We’ve got to keep the faith-justice link strong, since part of the defensive mentality is to stop doing justice, and it will force us to stay involved and invested in the real world, even when it looks ever bigger and scarier for all its secularization.

Discover similar content through these related topics and regions.