A Discussion with Michael Holman, S.J., Principal of Heythrop College

With: Michael Holman

July 24, 2012

Background: In this exchange on July 24, 2012 in London, Fr. Michael Holman, S.J., and Colin Steele discussed the intersection of religion and education. Fr. Holman told Colin about the state of Catholic education in England and why he sees its flourishing as important. The two also discussed the Jesuits' return "to basics."

Describe your vocation as a Jesuit and your time in the order.

I joined the Society in 1974, immediately after completing my secondary education at the Jesuit school in Wimbledon. After my novitiate, I was sent to Heythrop College for my philosophy studies; after that, I continued my formation at Campion Hall (Oxford), our college in Glasgow, and the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Boston. After ordination in 1988, I studied educational administration for a year at Fordham University and was then appointed a teacher and school chaplain before becoming deputy head at the Jesuit school near Sheffield. Then it was off to Detroit for a year of tertianship with Fr. Howard Gray and Fr. Walter Farrell. This year included six months in Guyana. In 1995 it was back to Wimbledon College as headmaster for nine years, and finally, for six years until August 2011, I was provincial of British Province. I have been principal here at Heythrop College since the beginning of this year.

As for why I joined, I knew that I wanted to live the devotion to Christ and to people that the Jesuits I had known in school had exhibited. It was what I experienced during a school pilgrimage to Lourdes—the special combination of prayer and the care of those who are most in need—that finally inspired me to join the Jesuits. I was equally excited about being part of the Society with its sense of being a group of “companions in the Lord.” Along the way, I’ve been greatly inspired by the likes of Fr. Arrupe and Fr. Kolvenbach, two former superiors general. Fr. Michael Campbell-Johnston, a former British provincial, has also inspired me with his commitment to the poor, as have numerous others with their desire, day in and day out, to follow Jesus as his companions and disciples.

Many Jesuits have told me they feel the order going “back to basics.” Does that resonate with your experience at all?

It does, but I think we need to be careful about how we understand that phrase. We have certainly done a great deal in recent years to rediscover the spirit of Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises and in the Constitutions of the Society which he completed shortly before his death. This has helped the society reinvigorate its missionary spirit for challenging times. At the same time, “going back to basics” should not just be a way of granting ourselves license to interpret Ignatius as we wish. One of the most important things that Fr. Kolvenbach did for us when he was our superior general was to bring us the whole Ignatius, including the parts of his character and his spirituality that we arguably find more challenging.

Some say, so I understand, that “going back to basics” includes a renewed sense of obedience to the Church, but I don’t think this was ever diminished. Fr. Kolvenbach consistently reminded us of Ignatius’s vision of an order at the service to the Church. Our vocation today is certainly to go to the frontiers where Pope Benedict has sent us, but to do that by maintaining firm ties to the center all the while. We bring the Church to places where others can’t or won’t go, as the Pope said, but we are manifestly still “of the Church” and in no way independent of the Church.

As a Jesuit educator in the United Kingdom, what are your observations on the state of religion and education (and how the two intersect) in this country?

I regard myself as being very privileged to be working in education, either at the secondary level, as I have in the past, or at tertiary level, as I do now. There is no doubt that the education young people receive influences their outlook on life for years to come, and in some cases it can be life-defining.

So I am fortunate to be here in this college to be working with so many young people all of whom have chosen to study theology or philosophy, in one form or another, for their undergraduate studies. Each of them is keen to pursue an interest in faith and religion, or in belief and meaning and truth. In a secularized society such as ours—whatever that may mean—this represents an opportunity for the Society and the Church, one which we are eager to make the most of.

These subjects educate young people who are people of depth, who are critical and creative thinkers, and in a society such as ours which at this time is undergoing many changes in the wake of the ongoing financial crisis, such people are very much needed. Not all our students are people of faith, but there is no doubt that the study of such themes, as well as the other formational opportunities we offer, can take them to the threshold of faith and beyond.

There is one particular program of study here which we have developed over the past five years, that is the study of the three Abrahamic religions—Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. This course was begun at undergraduate level (the first course of its kind in Europe, I am told) and now continues at the postgraduate level. So we have students studying together on this program from each of these three religious traditions. I would hope this provides society generally with a model of how to promote mutual understanding. It’s not by creating a secular public space that you promote social cohesion in a multifaith, multicultural society such as ours. It comes about rather when people respect each other’s religious traditions and take the time and make the effort to understand those other traditions and so grow in your appreciation of them.

The government’s relationship to both religion and education is more complex here than it is in the United States. In the United Kingdom, the government funds the Catholic Church's schools and higher education institutions with a religious character. Indeed, the Church’s contribution to state-supported education in this country is so considerable that it not only implements policy, it has a voice also in the formulation of policy. What this also means, of course, is that we need to match the government’s expectations with regard to standards and, to an extent, its curricular priorities also.

Not that the two are diametrically opposed, but the values and vision that guide Jesuit education are not always the same as government’s, and it can be challenging to balance the two. At the moment, the government tends to have a standards-based, output-driven agenda, while the Jesuits would take a more content-focused, input-driven approach. Government is pushing a vocationally oriented, “employability” agenda in secondary and higher education, and it is of course quite right that schools and colleges educate young people who will contribute usefully to the future of society. The Jesuit way of doing this, however, would be to emphasize more the education of the whole person. I find you have to keep the particular mission of the educational institution clearly in view if you are to make decisions which both serve the mission of the school or college and meet the expectations of government.

We’ve talked a bit about what a Catholic education has to offer British society and how the Jesuits are related to the Church at large. What do you think the Jesuits have to offer the Catholic Church?

Our lengthy formation process produces men of deep faith and commitment who are very well trained not only as priests and brothers but also as professionals—educators, doctors, lawyers, and as academics in philosophy and theology and in numerous other disciplines. The Society, therefore, has resources which it now, as it has for centuries, puts at the service of the mission of the Catholic Church.

We have a missionary spirit. If you look at our churches, they don’t open into a religious cloister, they open into the street. What, for example, we offer through the Spiritual Exercises and numerous adaptations of them is a method which many people can use, people who are already members of the Church and those who are not, to encounter to Christ and then to come closer to him in the midst of their daily lives. The Church needs people willing and able to live in and communicate on behalf of the Church with the world outside the Church, and that is just what many Jesuits try to be.

Of course there are many challenges facing the Society today. We are not as numerous as once we were. But the mission is as urgent now as it ever was, arguably more so. So much of our work is now done in collaboration with lay men and women who not only work with us but share our mission. The challenge here is to ensure that these men and women are well trained and well formed to participate in the mission of the Society and the Church in this way. But there is no doubt that, despite a reduction in our own numbers, the mission of the Society on behalf of the Church and in collaboration with many others is as vibrant now as it was when the number of Jesuits was greater, something which seems to me altogether good and, as we say, “for the greater glory of God!”

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