Conversations Magazine Leaps into the Digital Age

By Rev. Patrick J. Howell, S.J., Chair, National Seminar on Jesuit Higher Education

(Photo by National Seminar on Jesuit Higher Education)

(Photo by National Seminar on Jesuit Higher Education)

Over the past few years, Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education (a publication of the National Seminar on Jesuit Higher Education) has developed a high degree of collaboration with other AJCU constituencies. Four years ago, Dr. Tom Reynolds, who, at the time, served as Vice President for University Mission at Regis University, suggested to me that we brainstorm possible themes for the magazine that could be used by two regional Jesuit university organizations, Heartland/Delta and Western Conversations, during their annual meetings. Since then, these groups have generously given me the chance to meet with them to discuss which themes are most vital and urgent for their campuses.

A recent example of this mutuality is the forthcoming Heartland/Delta gathering at Creighton University in late February, which will make use of our Spring 2017 issue on “Difficult Conversations." And Seattle University applied the magazine’s Fall 2016 theme, “Laudato Si, Care for our Common Home,” to last summer’s conference, Just Sustainability: Hope for the Commons. We advanced our publication date by two weeks so that the magazine arrived in Seattle on time for the participants. Our seminar board might have been inclined to duck tough topics such as racism, the college hook up culture, and the financial viability of our institutions had it not been for the extra push from all of our colleagues on Jesuit campuses.

For the last five years, I have sent out a PDF of each new issue to all the Jesuit mission and identity officers. Some of the mission officers have then used a mix of both PDF and print versions of the magazine to focus on a few key issues and to share copies around the campus. Now, our new website (conversationsmagazine.org), is fully operative, dynamic, and accessible, providing a new home for the magazine. 

We had a rocky start with the transition. We had to change horses midstream and switch from a private designer to SquareSpace.com, a more user-friendly content management system for our own in-house webmaster. Since September 2016, Lucas Sharma, S.J., a Jesuit scholastic in his final year of First Studies at Fordham University, has made the site dynamic, accessible and current. Take a look and let us know what you think.

Georgetown University President Dr. John DeGioia greets members of the National Seminar on Jesuit Higher Education during their January 2017 meeting in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Rev. Patrick Howell, S.J., pictured right)

Conversations marked a quarter of a century of publication with the current issue, “Difficult Conversations” (issue #51). It has clearly evolved since it arose as an outcome of a national meeting that featured a foundational talk by Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J. (Superior General of the Society of Jesus from 1983 – 2008) at Georgetown University in 1989. At that point, the challenges of quickly changing times and circumstances among Jesuit institutions of higher learning were evident and urgent. New dynamics required a substantial re-grounding of the Jesuit mission. Consequently, the National Seminar, co-sponsored by the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States and AJCU, was founded to serve all 28 colleges and universities with a special focus on the Jesuit mission and its ramifications for every dimension of the institution. With your collaboration, we are advancing and achieving that goal.

It was clear already in 1989 that the Century of the Laity had arrived early. Jesuits were shifting from leadership positions to roles of supporting the laity in their mission. With the single exception of the presidents, who remained mostly Jesuit for another 15 years, almost all other leadership positions were ones where lay men and women provided the expertise, savvy, and commitment to the Jesuit mission. Now, in 2017, we see 14 lay people fulfilling the role of president.* The torch has been passed. One of the woman vice presidents at Loyola University Maryland put it well when the Seminar Board met with faculty and staff there a few years ago. She said, “I had always embraced the Jesuit mission, but after making the Ignatian Colleagues Program, I realized that I owned the mission and I was responsible for it.”

The goal of Conversations has never been to set the agenda at each local institution nor to provide a normative lens for the Jesuit mission. Rather, its goal has been to stir a conversation, to engage a dialogue, to tap into the wisdom and depths of each member of the Jesuit community so that the shared wisdom might become the platform for new advances in the Jesuit mission. The Jesuit heritage was never meant to be a static, museum piece called upon to grace a baccalaureate Mass or to punctuate the president’s opening talk to freshmen. Our hope has been that, like St. Augustine’s encounter with God, even the most resistant among us might, after myriad exposures, exclaim about the Jesuit mission, “O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you.”

For at the heart of the Jesuit mission, all are welcome. All have something to contribute. It is through the conversation that beauty and wisdom and truth emerge. And these propel us to form new leaders for the common good, who can animate through generous service a just and humane society.

Rev. Patrick J. Howell, S.J., distinguished professor in the Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture at Seattle University, has been the chair of the National Seminar on Jesuit Higher Education since January 2011.

*Please note: At present, the AJCU Board of Directors is comprised of 14 Jesuit presidents and 14 lay, non-Jesuit presidents, two of whom are serving in interim roles (click here for the Board of Directors page on the AJCU website).