Creighton University:
Catholic and Jesuit on Purpose

Dennis Hamm, S.J.

One might think that Creighton’s being Catholic and Jesuit is an accident of history. After all, the Creighton family founded a Catholic college because they happened to be Catholic. During the late nineteenth century, U.S. Catholics were a minority laboring to “mainstream” themselves and attending a Catholic educational institution was an effective way to advance socially while keeping the faith. So, Jesuits—actually one priest, three scholastics (Jesuits in training), and two lay colleagues— were invited to staff the college because Jesuits were available and had a good reputation as schoolmasters. These bare facts, however, do not explain why Creighton has continued to grow and flourish—precisely as Catholic and Jesuit—for well over a century.

Today, some one hundred thirty years after Creighton’s founding and more than four hundred fifty years after the first Jesuit college was established, we at Creighton continue to embrace the labels Catholic and Jesuit to say who we are and what we do. So why is it still important to emphasize that Creighton University is Catholic and Jesuit?

Creighton as Catholic
Catholic, of course, refers to the Christian tradition identified with the Roman Catholic Church. The early Christian church, which began with Jesus’ disciples in the Middle East, grew quickly in the major cities of the Eastern Mediterranean and over several hundred years proceeded to become the prevailing religion in the so-called Latin West, comprising most of today’s Europe. The university was largely an invention of the medieval European church, creatively drawing on Greek, Roman, and even Islamic sources. The Catholic Church was, and still is, interested in speculative research and education because of its conviction that all reality—and, therefore all truth—is one. This conviction stems from the belief that God, who became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, is the Creator of all that is, the very source and sustainer of all beings. Since the source of reality is One, all reality is somehow intelligible, and all true assertions— whether faith-based assertions of divine revelation or discoveries about the natural world, including humanity—must be compatible, and revelatory of the Creator.

What it means to be human and how best to exercise human freedom within this intelligible reality are questions that unite faith and reason. Within the university, the disciplines of natural and social sciences and the enterprise of faith seeking understanding (theology) can productively coexist. From this positive collaboration between reason and faith was born the collective enterprise called the university, a Catholic project from the start.

In the present age, we are especially aware of cultural diversity, of how increased specialization can inhibit cross-disciplinary conversation, and of the tendency of society to presume a kind of relativism. Creighton dares to affirm the unity of reality, the mystery of a sustaining Creator, the divinity and full humanity of Jesus Christ, the dignity of all human beings, and the responsibility of everyone to use the goods of the Earth in the service of all. A Catholic university is an ideal place to try to live this vision.

If you practice a faith other than Catholicism (or even other than Christianity), and are joining the Creighton community as a new student or staff or faculty member, we hope you will find this a hospitable place to explore the roots of your own spiritual and intellectual tradition, which may well be intertwined with the long and broad Catholic tradition. The story and content of that tradition form the core of our curriculum.  If you are Catholic, you will find deep satisfaction in learning the historical and intellectual roots of your faith, particularly with and from faculty members who share that faith and who aim to represent Church teaching in its fullness. We live in a world of religious diversity which challenges us to know the sources of our convictions, to be able to explain the, and to understand how and why others differ seen as we work together to serve the common good.

Jesuit (Ignatian)
What does the adjective Jesuit add to this picture? Actually, the word is a substitute for the less familiar, more accurate term—Ignatian. The religious  community of men who are today commonly called “the Jesuits”—about nineteen thousand worldwide—was founded some four hundred seventy years ago by a Basque gentleman who become known as Ignatius of Loyola. Take a look at that heroic bronze sculpture in front of the Reinert Alumni Library, portraying him striding into the wind, cape billowing. Ignatius began life as a minor nobleman, a rather conventional north Iberian Catholic who spent the first part of his adult life as a courtier-soldier indulging in the vain and rowdy lifestyle of his peers. After a battle wound forced him into the solitude of a lengthy convalescence, he experienced a religious awakening that prompted a search to know God and God’s purpose in his life. A subsequent pilgrimage issued in a period of religious experimentation, solitary meditation and prayer in a cave in North Eastern Spain, near a town called Manresa. He emerged with a new sense of himself, of God, and of his relationships with other people and the world at large.

Ignatius shared his newfound spiritual freedom  with others by teaching them to meditate and pray as he had been led, by following a program he called the Spiritual Exercises. Realizing that he needed to acquire a Latin-based university education to be properly credentialed in the wider world of human affairs, he decided to attend the University of Paris. Having shared with his roommates and college companions what he had learned at Manresa, he convinced ten of them to coalesce as a kind of fraternity with a desire to serve God by “helping souls.” In 1540 this small group received papal approval as a new religious community called the Companions of Jesus. (Eventually their adversaries nicknamed them “Jesuits.”)

When Ignatius realized that others who wanted to join the group were poorly educated, he established so-called colleges (collectives)—which initially were simply residence halls for Jesuitsin- training at nearby universities. In time, some of those colleges were offering courses of their own. Eventually, city officials of Messina, Sicily, convinced Ignatius to start a college where their sons would be taught by Jesuits. Thus began Jesuit universities. In the sixteen years before he died, Ignatius founded thirty-six such colleges and universities.

Drawing on his experience as a student in Paris, Ignatius developed a formula to guide the curriculum and conduct of these fast-growing schools.

Four things were key to his idea of a university: (1) an emphasis on communication skills (mastery of the written and spoken word); (2) an orderly appropriation of the best current synthesis of the Christian vision; (3) a dialogue between the Catholic tradition and the best of secular learning; and (4) the cultivation of individuals committed to the Christian vision in ways consistent with their own salvation and the betterment of the world. So successful was that concept of a university that it became the dominant mode of higher education in Europe for the next two hundred fifty years, earning Jesuits the sobriquet “schoolmasters of Europe.”

Over time, the Jesuits founded hundreds of colleges and universities, some of which eventually were taken over by secular authorities. Today, the more than two hundred Jesuit colleges and universities (twenty-eight in the United States) form the largest higher education network on the globe. All of them are informed by the founding vision of Saint Ignatius, which is why the term “Ignatian,” rather than “Jesuit,” is the more accurate one, while Jesuit remains the brand name.

Catholic and Jesuit Today
How does a twenty-first-century U.S. university  compare with the medieval European university? Many modern universities support cutting-edge research in all disciplines and equip their students with professional skills to compete in such varied fields as business, law, and medicine. Ignatius would approve of these efforts, but he also would insist on emphasizing the development of young men and women who can integrate learning and expertise with a vision of faith that makes sense of the whole and motivates them to use their learning and expertise to serve the needs of others. Creighton University embraces the ideals of the medieval Catholic university and Ignatius’ program in order to serve others for the glory of God.

It is not necessarily easy to achieve and sustain a successful integration of Ignatian ideals. Like all universities, Creighton is organized into colleges and schools, and each of these is further divided into academic departments. Most faculty members are experts in a single discipline. Because students take courses in various subjects, there is the ever present possibility of fragmentation. In order to develop and sustain an integrative vision, it is crucial that the university as a whole, as well as every student and staff and faculty member, allows time for reflection. Ignatius wanted his students to reflect seriously upon their own expet experiences and to consider those experiences within the framework of human history—and to find their place and purpose within the rich, wide, and deep context of God’s reality.

If this description of being Catholic and Jesuit  makes sense to you, you will understand the rationale of Creighton’s challenging core curriculum. It compels students to explore a range of academic disciplines, to go further than they may be inclined, to write and speak more actively and analytically than they have before, and to make time to serve real human needs.

One way to summarize the essence of Ignatius’ view of education is to consider six values it embodies regarding students and those who serve them:

1. Forming and educating agents for change. The aim is not simply to get credentialed in order to secure gainful employment. Ignatius would have students aim higher. If a student aspires to enter one of the health professions, for example, our hope is not only that he or she qualifies as physician, nurse, therapist, dentist, or pharmacist, but that she or he actually strives to “heal” the profession itself, by making it more compassionate and accessible. Or if a student’s goal is to become an attorney, our hope is not only that he or she passes the bar but that she or he performs in a way that renders the legal system more just. If, say, a student is a Buddhist with contemplative inclinations, or a Muslim with concerns about Western materialism, or an atheist with an interest in Marxist doctrine, we expect the Catholic and Jesuit nature of Creighton will expand their outlook in ways both energizing and meaningful.

2. Ad majorem Dei gloriam. This Latin phrase, meaning “For the greater glory of God” reminds us that our purpose is not simply to improve or advance ourselves but also to cooperate consciously with the Creator.

3. Magis. The Latin word for “more” reminds us to be vigilant regarding the greatest human needs—especially the needs of knowing and loving— and to seek the best ways to address those needs. The point is not more in the quantitative sense but in the qualitative sense of better and greater—which has more to do with discernment than with mere effort.

4. Union of Minds and Hearts. Ignatius’ actual words were “union of minds and hearts,” a reference to the unity of individuals in community. This is its primary meaning. But Ignatius was also interested in the internal unity of the person— mind, heart, and spirit—and he expected students to integrate their faith with their culture actively. For him, there was no conflict between faith and reason, or between science and religion.

5. Cura Personalis. These Latin words—meaning personal care—characterize the attitude of faculty and staff toward its students. Nearly seven thousand students attend this University, and they are served by nearly three thousand employees. We strive to help one and all meet their needs, and develop their individual gifts, to meet the needs of this learning community and the world around us.

6. Men and women for and with others. This expression reminds us that we become agents of change only when we accept the reality that we were not made for ourselves alone. Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, as superior general of the Society of Jesus, spoke of educating the whole person in solidarity with the real world. We were created by a loving God to find our purpose by using our gifts in the service of one another. As a community of learning and faith, Creighton University is ever mindful of this responsibility.

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