A New Way of Proceeding: Ignatian Colleagues Program Discerns Universal Apostolic Preferences for the Society of Jesus

By Deanna Howes Spiro, Director of Communications, Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities

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In February 2019, Jesuits across the world received a letter from the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Rev. Arturo Sosa, S.J. In this formal communication, Fr. Sosa recommended four areas of consideration for all Jesuit ministries, institutions and organizations over the next ten years. Known as the Universal Apostolic Preferences, these four areas have been approved by Pope Francis and received enthusiastically throughout the world.

Fr. Sosa has described the preferences as “points of reference for the whole Society, that inspire its discernment in common and its apostolic planning at all levels of our life-mission. At the same time they are a guide for restructuring the Society’s governance and for creating working networks, both among ourselves and with others, in this same ministry of reconciliation.”

In the United States, the preferences are already affecting the ‘way of proceeding’ (to use a Jesuit term) for a number of Jesuit ministries. In March 2019, the editors of America issued an op-ed called ‘How the apostolic preferences for the Society of Jesus guide America Media.’ Several Jesuit schools now list them as a key resource on the mission and identity pages of their websites (see Santa Clara University and Xavier University, for example).

Dr. Joseph DeFeo, Executive Director, Ignatian Colleagues Program

Dr. Joseph DeFeo, Executive Director, Ignatian Colleagues Program

But the real action on Jesuit campuses is just beginning. Through the Ignatian Colleagues Program, college and university leaders have begun meaningful conversations on the preferences, and are discerning ways they can transform our way of proceeding as a network of 27 institutions of Jesuit higher education.

Founded in 2009, the Ignatian Colleagues Program (ICP) is a leadership program for senior-level administrators and faculty (and, in recent years, university presidents and trustees) at Jesuit colleges, universities and affiliate institutions to immerse themselves in the Jesuit and Catholic tradition, Ignatian pedagogy and spirituality. Over the course of 18 months, participants engage in learning through online workshops and small group conversations; are personally challenged through an immersion experience and a silent Ignatian retreat; and develop a capstone project that applies their ICP experience into something that benefits their home institution.

At present, more than 550 people have completed ICP—and after they “graduate,” many still participate and stay connected as alumni. One way of doing so is through the ICP Alumni Workshop: a 24-hour mini-retreat and Seminar held every summer outside of Chicago for current participants, alumni and friends of the program.

Most years, the workshop focuses on a specific dimension of social justice. But this year, the Universal Apostolic Preferences took center stage, and were the subject of four engaging and thought-provoking presentations made by an “all-star” lineup of female academics and administrators from across the Jesuit network.

The first preference, "To show the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises and discernment," was introduced to the 72 workshop participants by Dr. Debra Mooney, Vice President for Mission and Identity at Xavier University. This preference is one that Mooney is focusing on as she helps her colleagues at Xavier (particularly faculty) to integrate the Jesuit mission into their work. She said, “Ignatian, communal discernment is something that I think is a gift that we can enhance and bring to life a little bit more through the call from Fr. Sosa in these preferences. I believe that it’s a way that our institutions can live the Ignatian tradition in a very practical way, in a way that makes us more effective.”

Dr. Debra Mooney, Vice President for Mission and Identity, Xavier University

Dr. Debra Mooney, Vice President for Mission and Identity, Xavier University

In addition to faculty, Mooney works closely with the Board of Trustees at Xavier, to help them better understand how Ignatian communal discernment is “a spiritual approach to decision-making that helps us to achieve our mission.” The more that Jesuit colleges and universities welcome lay people as presidents, the more important it becomes to educate them in all aspects of their school’s Ignatian heritage, spirituality and pedagogy.

Just hours away from Xavier in Cincinnati, John Carroll University (located in Cleveland) is doing just that by having its president, Dr. Michael Johnson, and a board member, Teresa Lewandowski, participate in ICP. Although Lewandowski is a graduate of John Carroll, she never understood the depth and richness of Ignatian spirituality, and its practical applications for one’s daily life, until joining the program. As a member of the Board of Trustees for her alma mater, she also serves as chair of the board’s mission and identity committee, a role that she now approaches with an eye toward formation. She said, “I think it is really valuable for all of us to have this common ‘Ignatian language,’ so that it can help us as a board to do our work even more intentionally.”

After learning about discernment, ICP alumni workshop participants heard about the second preference, "To walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice." This preference was presented by Sr. Katherine Feely, SND, Director of the Center for Service and Social Action at John Carroll, and Dr. Mary Wardell-Ghirarduzzi, Vice Provost for Diversity Engagement and Community Outreach at the University of San Francisco. Wardell-Ghirarduzzi challenged participants to ask themselves, “Who are we really? Who are we becoming more of? The preference to look specifically to the poor is really an invitation for us to consider who the poor and outcasts are among us on our own campuses.”

For many Jesuit colleges and universities, the poor and the outcast include students who face food insecurity and/or homelessness. In group discussions on this preference, several participants cited examples of good programs, such as food pantries and winter gap housing, being offered to help this particular population on their campuses. But, as Wardell-Ghirarduzzi noted, much work remains: “I think we’re being invited to look at our own institutional frameworks to solve these problems, but it doesn’t end there.”

Dr. Mary Wardell-Ghirarduzzi, Vice Provost for Diversity Engagement and Community Outreach, University of San Francisco

Dr. Mary Wardell-Ghirarduzzi, Vice Provost for Diversity Engagement and Community Outreach, University of San Francisco

For Rafael Zapata, a current participant in ICP, the preference for the poor and outcast correlates to his work as the first chief diversity officer at Fordham University. Zapata said, “I think the preferences provide a lot of language for the justice work inherent in the mandate that I have in our diversity action plan: to enhance access and to enhance a sense of community among those who have been historically underrepresented or maybe not always felt welcomed. It’s a rigorous document, it’s incredibly well thought-out, and the relationship there to the Spiritual Exercises too is certainly fundamental in helping us to reflect and giving us a practice to help us think about what matters most.”

Students are not the only population on campuses who Jesuit educators and administrators are called to walk with and serve. The third preference, "To accompany young people in the creation of a hope-filled future," applies as easily to young faculty and staff in their 20s and early 30s, as it does to students. Dr. Margaret Freije, provost and dean of the College of the Holy Cross, and Dr. Eileen Burke-Sullivan, Vice Provost for Mission and Ministry at Creighton University, explained that all of these groups benefit from the kind of accompaniment that seasoned administrators and educators can provide.

But administrators and educators alike must also recognize the gifts, talents and experiences uniquely possessed by the young. Burke-Sullivan said, “The young can help us to understand better the epochal changes that we are now living through. And the Universal Apostolic Preferences can make an important contribution to creating and maintaining spaces that are open to young people in society and in the Church.”

On the second and final day of the workshop, Dr. Stephanie Russell, Vice President for Mission Integration at the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU), gave an address on the fourth preference: "To collaborate in the care of our Common Home." This preference, in many ways, is the "linchpin" of all four preferences, for discernment and accompaniment of both the marginalized and the young cannot happen without a fundamental understanding of and respect for the environments in which people from all walks of life live and learn. And while we must do what we can to protect the earth and do what we can to recycle, conserve energy and adopt more sustainable practices, we must also care for ourselves and each other, by being mindful of our local and global ecologies. Russell suggested that “ICP is one way of constructing an alternative way of life, at least life in an Ignatian frame.”

ICP has indeed become a significant influence on the personal and professional lives of its members and alumni. David Murphy is an alumnus of the program, who serves as Vice President for Marketing and Communication at Marquette University. But he also serves as chair of the University's search committee for a new vice president of mission and ministry, and came to this year's alumni workshop specifically to better understand the role that the Universal Apostolic Preferences should play at Marquette. Murphy explained, “Right away, I’m thinking about these four preferences, even in the interviewing of candidates. We listed them in our candidate profile and we want to hear from folks to see how they understand them, and it helps for me to be more deeply invested in them as well, in my role leading this search.”

Dr. Aaron Van Dyke, a chemistry professor at Fairfield University, also completed ICP several years ago. Since then, he has incorporated the Examen into his organic chemistry classes for the first five minutes of class every Thursday, a practice that his students have come to appreciate and anticipate. Van Dyke said, "The students actually get upset if I forget to do it. It’s amazing! The students very rarely get scheduled time in their day for reflection and, as Eileen Burke-Sullivan noted at the workshop, one thing that sets Jesuit schools apart from other schools that do social justice work is the fact that we ask them to reflect on the experience and ask them to say: ‘How is this transforming you into a more human person?’ That’s something that the Universal Apostolic Preferences are also asking us to consider: How are we becoming more human through this process and how are our companions also becoming more flourishing human beings?”

To learn more about the Ignatian Colleagues Program, please visit ignatiancolleagues.org.