Jesuit Heritage Week and Interfaith Engagement

By: Michael Fischer

October 18, 2011

At an institution like Georgetown, sometimes the most obvious things in retrospect are difficult to fully appreciate in the present. More so than its location in DC, more so than its high academic caliber, more so than the diverse backgrounds of its students, there is nothing more fundamental about Georgetown University than that it is a Jesuit university. The Jesuit Catholic philosophy flows through all aspects of Georgetown, but this immense presence is sometimes overlooked because it is so obvious a quality. Hence, we at Georgetown have Jesuit Heritage Week, a chance each year for a more distilled reflection on the Jesuit identity and heritage of Georgetown.

What are these Jesuit aspects that so radically change a Georgetown education and life? Perhaps it is the Jesuit philosophy of education. A Jesuit education challenges students both to know simply for its own sake, i.e. to know better its source in God, and also to know to service. It is both the liberal arts and the practical crafts. A Jesuit education brings us closer to the divine both through reason and through the good that we can give back with that education to our communities and the larger world. Divorce these two aspects, and the education that remains is a hollow shell of itself, either senselessly aloof or despairingly utopian.

Or perhaps it is the Jesuit approach to interfaith conversation. Imam Hendi, head of the Muslim Chaplaincy of Campus Ministry, often tells of a Muslim student from the Middle East who asked him whether the plethora of Christian crosses atop the buildings of Georgetown ever concerned him. Imam Hendi responded that, on the contrary, the crosses of Georgetown assured him every day that Georgetown took religion seriously, that Georgetown recognized the role of faith in the life of the university. At the Jesuit university, conversations between faiths not only happen, but they matter. Here, it is not a soul-less academic exercise or a politically correct gesture: here, interfaith conversation is a passionately charged act of faith, for here students believe and seek a truth larger than themselves.

Or perhaps is it Jesuit spirituality that sets apart the Jesuit university. In the Jesuit theology, the divine is seen not only outside but also within the world, that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God,” to quote the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is in the reflection of our daily actions of relationships and work, in the contemplation of our emotions and desires, and even in the recesses of our imagination where the good and the truth quite often approach us. In everything we do, in every person we meet, and in every moment we live exists the opportunity to better know our ultimate end.

What then is the Jesuit university? It is education, conversation, and reflection. It is reason, contemplation, and service. It is all these things, and then a bit more. For in celebrating Jesuit Heritage Week, we not only rejoice in the present, but also remember the past. We have inherited this Jesuit identity from those who came before us, who thought, toiled, served, worked, and sacrificed for those who would come after whom they would never meet or see. In its own small way, the ultimate goal of Jesuit Heritage Week is helping to see to fruition that great Jesuit ideal that transcends all boundaries, categories, and distinctions: being men and women for others.

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Jesuit Heritage Week and Interfaith Engagement