Forging Formation at Rockhurst, One Ignatian Conversation at a Time

By Timothy Linn, Public Relations Specialist, Rockhurst University

 Photo of St. Ignatius Loyola Statue courtesy of Rockhurst University

Photo of St. Ignatius Loyola Statue courtesy of Rockhurst University

It has been more than 470 years since the formation of the Society of Jesus and its mission to educate the world.

Few would doubt that the mission continues to have an impact. But a lot has changed in the years since St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the order that would become a driving force for global education, and Jesuit educators are continuously challenged to re-contextualize the core values for new generations and new perspectives.

Three years ago, John Kerrigan, Ph.D., associate professor of English at Rockhurst University, began inviting faculty and staff to sit down and talk about the ways that the Jesuit philosophy informs their every-day life at the University, and how they can bring that philosophy into their work.

The idea was simple: Kerrigan would provide copies of A Jesuit Education Reader, edited by Rev. George W. Traub, S.J., and each semester invite those on campus to the table to share what they learned from selected readings. It stemmed from his experience in the Ignatian Colleagues Program (ICP), an 18-month immersion program in Ignatian values offered by the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) to faculty and administrators. Kerrigan said, “At the end of that program, the last six months or so, I was charged with coming up with a way of bringing some of the concepts that I had learned back to the University."

One particular article in the Reader had stuck with him: “Spiritualties of — Not at — the University,” by John B. Bennett and Elizabeth A. Dreyer. Kerrigan said that its central concern with hospitality as a foundational virtue can “move its readers toward being open to learning and growing through dialogue. The Reader as a whole was just a great anchor for getting together whoever would be willing among the faculty and staff."

Kerrigan drew on the expertise of other faculty and administration alumni from ICP, who helped pick meaningful passages from the Reader for the group. He also drew some lessons from his own experience teaching, including three important concepts — engagement, alignment and imagination.

“All three of those things have to be working for a project like this to really be successful,” he said. “When we’re open to engaging together through these discussions, part of what happens is that we think about the ways our values align with those of the mission, and [then] we may generate new images of our work and even of the University.”

 Photo of  A Jesuit Education Reader  Courtesy of Rockhurst University

Photo of A Jesuit Education Reader Courtesy of Rockhurst University

Kerrigan applied for and received an Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) grant to fund the purchase of copies of the Reader for faculty, and the University’s Office of Mission and Ministry provided copies for staff. According to Kerrigan, one of the most difficult things was waiting to see if anyone would attend the first discussion in 2015. As it turns out, there was significant interest among staff and faculty. “Initially, we had such a response that we couldn’t even accommodate everyone in a single room,” he said. “Ellen (Spake, Ph.D., assistant to the president for mission and ministry) and I were just thrilled, and surprised. I think it says a lot to have a program like this that is successful even as it is optional.”

Mary Cary, a secretary in the College of Health and Human Services, was in that first session, and has made the effort to attend every one since. She said, “To read a book like that and discuss the whole thing can be a little overwhelming. I think it’s awesome to be able to take it piece by piece and discuss it as a campus.”

As someone who had already graduated from Rockhurst and loved the experience in the classroom discussing texts and how they related to every-day issues, Cary felt that the Reader group gave her a similar feeling, and a similar scope. She said, "The articles we read are very thoughtfully chosen for where we’re at in a given year, and by that I mean the University, the nation, the world."

Spake noted that there is no shortage of formation opportunities for both faculty and staff who wish to deepen their understanding of Ignatian principles. But inviting both to the same table is unique, and that might be part of the appeal for many of those who come to the Reader discussions.

Spake said, “I think it serves a variety of needs, but one of the biggest ones is building that sense of community,” which in itself is a Jesuit concept. “This is a program for everybody at the University, and I think that’s really important. It gives the discussions a unique character.”

The articles in the Reader range from historical overviews on how the Jesuits became so associated with education, to explorations of the role that faith plays at Catholic institutions today, to ruminations on the challenges faced by Jesuit institutions of higher education.

Talking about those topics in such a large group yields different perspectives, and frequently leads Cary to look at her own work in a new light. “To bring it into our everyday work is just invaluable,” she said. “Any opportunity we have to talk about our mission is important, because I think we can perform our jobs better in addition to making us more of a community. It sort of brings the mission to life because we’re discussing it and trying to grow in it together.”

Spake sees the Reader discussion group as a “mission multiplier” for how effectively it immerses those who participate in the Jesuit core values and mission of Rockhurst. Kerrigan, too, sees the ripple effects that even a little simple conversation can have in helping faculty and staff alike, whether they’re teaching a course, administering student activities, or even filing paperwork.

“The way that we help faculty and staff really understand the mission is to help them understand the root of our traditions — the root of Ignatian spirituality is the way that it can, if we’re open, go to work on us as individuals,” he said. “It meets you where you are and transforms you in the best way .”