Welcome to another academic year at the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University! Over the next nine months we will all have many opportunities for growth in personal insight, spiritual wisdom, and the development of the skills needed to impact our world for the better.
The beginning of a “new” academic year is a great time to reflect on the impact new experiences can have on our personal life and the lives of the communities and institutions in which we live. New experiences can scare us or energize us; they can leave us in confusion or they can give us clarity of thought about something we did not understand; they can leave us paralyzed or move us to action. Our most profound new experiences, especially religious and spiritual experiences, re-orient us; they alter paradigms of thinking; they give us eyes to see and ears to hear many things that we did not notice in the past. Such experiences can “awaken” us and convince us – either immediately or over time – that we need to change our ways and the ways of the organizations and structures organizing, modulating and regulating our common life.
The great interpreters of new religious and spiritual experiences have been the seers, sages, prophets, and saints of history. These were people who were so moved by a religious or spiritual experience that they spent the rest of their lives changing their own life and calling the people and institutions around them to become something better, something more faithful to their understanding of God and to the promotion of a more human, fair, and just world. Our great interpreters of religious and spiritual experiences left long, indelible marks on human history. In taking to heart the observation of Jesus, “you cannot put new wine in old wineskins,” they radically transformed themselves first, and then the context around them, especially the communities and institutions framing their lives. They made new wineskins to fit the wine of their new experiences.
One of the most profound stories of the transformative power of a new experience occurred in the life of Pedro Arrupe, SJ, a little more than 68 years ago. Arrupe, who is often called the “second founder of the Jesuits,” had a profound experience when he was 37-years-old and the superior of the Jesuit community in Nagatsuka, Japan. This experience uniquely prepared him for leading the international Jesuit community during the tumultuous years of 1965-1981.
During a quiet morning on August 6, 1945, Arrupe and his fellow Jesuits saw a blinding light, followed by the sound of an explosion that blew out all of their windows and shook their home. Although they did not know it at the time, they had just experienced together the world’s first use of the atomic bomb as a weapon of war. Their home was located on the outskirts of Hiroshima, and he and his companions were spared only because the house was nestled behind a hill outside of the city.
After the blast, the Jesuits walked up the sloping terrain and looked out over a scene of mass destruction, fire, and smoke. Though soldiers warned them of a “deadly gas in the air,” Arrupe, a physician, and his fellow Jesuits, wandered through the rubble and debris in search of survivors. Over the course of the next weeks the Jesuits dressed burns, treated radiation sickness, and provided pastoral care to survivors. The experience created images they never purged from their memories. (If you are interested in reading Arrupe’s experience in his own words, see here.)
Forged and tempered in the fires of Hiroshima, 20 years later the Jesuit community called Pedro Arrupe to become the Superior General of the Society of Jesus. Under his direction the Society implemented the vision and teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), a worldwide council held by the Catholic Church that made profound changes in this complex international community. Under Arrupe, the Society of Jesus discerned a new articulation of its mission – one expecting all Jesuits and their institutions to commit to the “service of faith” and the “promotion of justice.” Within this commitment the Jesuits discerned an even deeper call from God to promote dialogue and collaboration among all people of faith and good will, to learn how to seek and find common ground with others even though separated by deep differences, and to learn how to stand together in the protection and promotion of all humans as made in the image of a common Creator.
At the 32nd General Congregation, a worldwide Jesuit gathering in 1974-75, the Jesuits formally accepted their mission to serve faith and the promotion of justice. Arrupe supported the effort, but warned his fellow priests that linking faith and justice could result in the martyrdom of some of the Society’s members and friends. In 1989, this prediction came true with the gruesome murder of six Jesuit priests and two lay women at the Jesuit house on the campus of Universidad Centro Americano (UCA) in El Salvador. The Jesuits had been serving as advocates for those living on the margins of society in the troubled Central American nation, and had dedicated their scholarship to publicizing the challenges and oppression faced by the poor. Immediately after the multiple homicides, Jesuits began volunteering to take the place of their fallen comrades. Instead of silencing the commitment of the Society of Jesus to serve faith and promote justice, the murders deepened and amplified this Jesuit commitment.
One of the first people to volunteer was a young Jesuit named Dean Brackley, who rather quickly developed an international reputation as an advocate for the poor, and a spiritual guide for anyone seeking to leave a mark on the world. Brackley died of cancer in October, 2011, but touched nearly everyone he encountered. As a man of deep faith, commitment to intellectual rigor and service to the poor and marginalized in the world, he embodied the new Jesuit charism.
Pedro Arrupe’s experience changed him and inspired him to cooperate with God’s grace in changing the Society of Jesus, its more than 100 institutions of higher learning throughout the world, and all of the people, groups and communities impacted by those institutions. His experience helped to change the six Jesuits killed at the UCA, and they inspired Brackley, who, in turn, inspired others.
Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry is an “intentionally ecumenical” school, engaged deeply with 17 religious denominations and organizations. Our ecumenical foundation is built on the Jesuit commitment to create a place of hospitality and vibrant theological and personal discourse for all people of faith so we can encounter and learn to dialogue and collaborate with one another, even while we learn to live out our own faith tradition at deeper, fuller levels. This requires for us to return again and again to the roots of our own religious and spiritual traditions. In this grounded place of encounter and dialogue, we cultivate a spirituality that allows us to find common ground in the promotion of justice. Without ignoring or diminishing our own difference, we learn from each other, and we learn more about ourselves in the very act of encountering others who think differently
The school is a kind of place commited to what Brackley called “genuine education”. Read more here: Brackley Article
Genuine education … must engage students personally at the level of experience and practice, challenging their commitments and value-priorities. Authentic formation leads to wisdom which, we know, involves a kind of knowing that engages the whole person … an experiential knowledge, involving intellect, will and the “affections”. This kind of knowledge transforms the person.
The School of Theology and Ministry is about creating new learning experiences because new experiences change us, and when we are changed, remarkable things can happen to us, the communities and institutions in which we live and work, and the world.
May this new academic year bring all of us life transforming experiences that leave us more authentically ourselves, more grounded in our religious and spiritual traditions and each other, and especially closer to God. And, in the spirit of Pedro Arrupe, may this result in all of us becoming even more committed to the promotion of a more just and humane world.