Published: Thursday, January 31, 2013
Updated: Thursday, January 31, 2013 01:01
Two years ago, Boston College professors, one of whom was Jewish, were having a conversation. The Jewish professor joked that BC’s “men and women for others” programs were so inclusive that he felt like he could be a Jesuit himself. The other professor earnestly replied that you don’t have to be Catholic to become a Jesuit.
Moving past the hilarious image of Father Leahy’s reaction to this story, I feel that this anecdote has a solid point. Over the past few decades, volunteer organizations at BC have exploded in popularity. The Student Service Organizations homepage lists over two dozen programs. In addition, hundreds of students join the PULSE program, simultaneously learning philosophy in the classroom and engaging in community service in the greater Boston area. In his inaugural address, former President George H.W. Bush likened volunteer organizations to “a thousand points of light … spread like stars throughout the nation doing good.” BC’s numerous service organizations embody this idealistic vision of selfless volunteerism.
This explosion in service programs creates a conundrum, however. The Volunteer and Service Learning Center’s mission statement claims the Center promotes “conscientious service in the context of Catholic social learning and contemporary Jesuit education.” This bold statement reminds me of a conversation I recently had with an ordained faculty member. He praised the rapid increase in student service participation, yet questioned the legitimacy of its underlying Jesuit foundation. “Men and women for others,” he claimed, “could have been Gandhi’s slogan, and Gandhi was neither Catholic nor Jesuit.”
This point became clearer after I compared my recent Kairos retreat with his own Kairos experience many years earlier. I explained that Kairos was an amazing experience for me. I was blown away by the powerful themes of love and spirituality that reverberated throughout this three-day retreat. My professor then recounted his own Kairos retreat with other clergymen years ago, however. His retreat completely focused on Jesus—the retreat schedule was even structured to emulate Christ’s life. After hearing this, I reluctantly conceded that my own Kairos experience, though incredible, lacked a similar Catholic or Jesuit undertone. The aforementioned Jewish professor would have been perfectly comfortable on a BC Kairos retreat.
Let me be clear, I am in no way criticizing any BC service program, nor suggesting that they be infused with orthodox Catholic doctrine. The evolution of BC’s service programs mirrors the growth of the University itself. Leaders of both groups realized that in order to attract more students and applicants, they needed to secularize their respective organizations. The rapid growth of both BC and its service groups confirms the wisdom of this decision. I view BC’s service programs with pride, knowing that students from all walks of faith spread like a thousand points of light across the Boston community, making the world around them a better place.
Instead, I suggest that in this secularization process, BC service programs have lost their fundamental identity. Despite his massive presence in front of Higgins in statue form, I did not encounter St. Ignatius’ life story until I took a Capstone class last semester. His inspirational personal journey toward God took me completely by surprise. I wish BC retreats and service programs placed a greater emphasis on St. Ignatius’ life and teachings. To quote a grossly overused cliche, you cannot have your cake and eat it too. By deemphasizing their spiritual nature, BC service programs have attracted a huge influx in volunteers. I am perfectly fine with this transformation. Just don’t claim these programs are still fundamentally Jesuit, because they’re not.