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Remarks by President John J. DeGioia

John Carroll Society Dinner

Washington, D.C.
April 5, 2002

Thank you, Judge Gajarsa. Good evening, Cardinal McCarrick, Cardinal Hickey, Bishop Olivier, Msgr. Vaghi, ladies and gentlemen. It is a great honor to address the members of this Society, who embody talent and achievement in our nation's capital. I am deeply appreciative of your interest in Georgetown University, the vision of your namesake and our founder. I am delighted to have this opportunity to share with you some thoughts about the nature of the institution where I've spent my collegiate and professional life.

When you were an undergraduate, did you ever say, "If only I ran this college??" Well, I am one of the rare few who had a chance to live that dream. I arrived on the Georgetown campus in the fall of 1975 as a freshman, and I have never left. I survived eight years of cafeteria food and an era whose musical legacy is, regrettably, disco. My collegiate years spanned the presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and a national fascination with new technology that brought us Pac Man.

As Judge Gajarsa mentioned in his gracious comments, about 9 months ago I assumed the responsibility of President. I would like to share with you tonight some thoughts about what it is like to lead Georgetown University at this moment in time. I consider this to be the most exciting and most urgently important time to be wrestling with the challenges that confront higher education in general and a Catholic and Jesuit university in particular. I am deeply inspired by the opportunities that I have to engage these challenges.

House of Intellect

Let me begin by first talking about the idea of the University. This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of a book that more than any other has defined how we think about the nature of the University. John Henry Cardinal Newman's The Idea of the University is a collection of lectures and essays written as he assumed the role as first President of the Catholic University in Dublin. For Newman, the University was a setting for the engagement with knowledge, specifically the transmission of knowledge from wiser, older teachers to young men, and from young people who together wrestled with questions of ultimacy in the most impressionable period of their lives. He so revered the special bond between tutor and pupil that he considered, "an academic system without the personal influences of teachers upon pupils (as) an arctic winter." [ 1 ]

A century after Newman, Jacques Barzun offered a contemporary interpretation of the idea of the university when he called our community of learning "a house of intellect." What does it mean for us to be a modern university? What does it mean today to be a House of Intellect?

Every university has always had a role in sustaining a national culture. We in America saw the full flowering of that role in the decade after World War II. With the G.I. Bill, investments in Big Science, and efforts to capture and celebrate America's cultural history, higher education helped create and sustain the new idea of America as a global super-power.

But in America, the university has now evolved to play a new role in critiquing culture. In the last half century, faculty in every discipline have come to understand their role as questioning, challenging, and criticizing received wisdom about culture, from history to economics, from literature to law, from knowledge to ways of knowing.

This development is manifest in the multiple methodologies, schools of thought, and academic specialties. Each has its own assumptions and inclinations; each offers a unique way of making sense of reality that may resonate deep within us. The university is now home to a great number of these interpretive communities.

In the modern university then, we sustain and experience a dual drive to both create culture and to critique culture. This dual drive brings us inevitably into states of tension and turmoil-- most of it productive and virtually all of it healthy for a democracy.

Yet this is inadequate as a description of a Catholic university like Georgetown. We recognize additional responsibilities that were understood by Cardinal Newman and, 50 years earlier, by John Carroll.

I've always admired the way Father Tim Healy, president of Georgetown from 1976 to 1989, challenged us to think about our responsibilities when he so eloquently posed the question, "What is the difference between a university that believes in God and one that doesn't?"

House of Faith

A start to answering this question is that, as an authentically Catholic and Jesuit university, we are urgently engaged in the formation of character. Cardinal Newman described the epitome of 19th century character when he wrote the following, "All that goes to constitute a gentleman, the carriage, gait, address, gestures, voice; the ease, the self-possession, the courtesy, the power of conversing, the talent of not offending; the lofty principle, the delicacy of thought, the happiness of expression, the taste and propriety, the generosity and forbearance, the candor and consideration, the openness of hand - these qualities, some of them come by nature, some of them may be found in any rank, some of them are a direct precept of Christianity?"

We acknowledge that character formation continues to be a responsibility of a Catholic university. As Jesuit Superior General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach has said, the real measure of our Jesuit universities lies in who our students become.

And, there is a further dimension to what it means to be a university that believes in God. I mentioned earlier that the university has a responsibility to sustain a multiplicity of interpretive communities as it builds and critiques culture. That said, at a Catholic and Jesuit university, we privilege one tradition, one "way of proceeding" that is animated by a spirituality and an idea of education that is nearly five centuries old.

But traditions are not abstractions. They are concrete, organic, evolving, living human creations. One sees our Catholic and Jesuit tradition in so many vibrant ways-- obviously in the curriculum and our community service programs and our recruitment of Catholic intellectual leaders to the faculty. But less programmatically and more subtly you see our Catholic tradition in the habits and practices of individual men and women who believe the work they do with students or in scholarship is serving a larger religious vision. You see that tradition in the respect a faculty member shows her students, in the extra time a Jesuit dean takes to interpret a policy in a way that helps a student, in the way students from various religious traditions will invite each other to their services as a way of deepening friendship.

Living this tradition is a privilege that makes possible certain kinds of experiences. This was never clearer than in the hours, the days, and the weeks that followed September 11. On that day, hundreds of students, faculty, and staff gathered spontaneously for prayer and then attended services for each faith tradition. The religious leaders of the city of Washington chose our campus for its interfaith service. Then on Friday, more than 1000 students attended a 12:15 mass after the national moment of silence requested by President Bush.

We see this come alive in a Catholic university in the focus on the care for the individual person, what in the Jesuit tradition is called cura personalis. It requires that we invest extra resources and an unusual amount of time in students' social, moral, spiritual and personal as well as intellectual development.

We make this disproportionate investment because we expect our students to make a disproportionate difference in the world, person by person.

This unique fusion of commitment to a tradition while focusing on the formation of every individual in our community makes us more than a house of intellect; we are also a house of faith. And this expansiveness of our mission brings us closer to what it means to be a Jesuit university.

House of Justice

I have often grappled with that expansiveness. At different times and at different moments in my 27 years at Georgetown, I would have answered the question, "What does it mean for Georgetown to be Jesuit?" in different ways. At 22, I probably would have focused on the value of community service, on the power of experiencing a liturgy with other students every Sunday, offered by a Jesuit who would preach a homily directed at our lives. It taught me the crucial importance of the sacramental presence.

When I was in graduate school, I would have emphasized the intellectual tradition, perhaps the emphasis on natural law. As Dean of Students, I saw how our Catholic identity calls on us to build community within diversity. And, it wasn't until almost 20 years after I graduated that I felt able to articulate the mystery of Jesuit spirituality, the values and questions and sensibilities that we all absorb as if by osmosis and that we appropriate into our belief systems before we can give them a name.

Today, in the aftermath of September 11, when I ask myself, what it means for Georgetown to be authentically Catholic and authentically Jesuit, I see yet another dimension of our identity--one that demands that we ask ourselves a question that Jesus asked of each of us.

In our lifetime we have had the privilege to be guided by the wisdom of contemporary prophets like Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II; Father Pedro Arrupe, Superior General of the Jesuits from 1965 to 1981, who called on the Society to address the issues of social justice; and current Superior General Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, who continues to articulate a responsibility for social justice.

Thirty-five years ago Paul VI wrote what has been called the first encyclical of the 21st century, Populorum Progressio, offering theological reflections on issues of global poverty and development. In 1987, the 20th anniversary of the encyclical, Pope John Paul II issued his letter On Social Concern. In a prophetic challenge, he asked each of us to see ourselves in solidarity--solidarity--with one other. Whatever our national, racial, ethnic, religious, economic, or ideological differences, we must acknowledge that we are inextricably linked in ways that demand of us to live the love command, to live that question of Jesus' to love our enemies, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love one another in ways that have never before been experienced given the new nature of our interconnected world.

Fr. Howard Gray, a friend and colleague who is examining the characteristics of Jesuit higher education, has taught us that only through solidarity, only by working together can the human family meet the worldwide challenges of hunger, ignorance, disease, and violence. Solidarity means extending care to those close at hand who have been ignored or abandoned within our society. Solidarity demands a commitment to change the economic, political, and social structures that enslave and destroy the human person. Solidarity demands that we acknowledge our brotherhood and sisterhood in order to authentically engage the crises we face.

Can we inspire people to reach out beyond the so-called boundaries of nation, class and culture to see the humanity that binds us all?

Can we acknowledge the roles we can play in helping the half of the world that lives on less than $2 a day?

Can we help citizens of the world resist the twin forces of secularism and sectarianism that blunt the appeal of religion for young people, the future of our planet?

Can we offer a compelling vision to young people, our hope for the future, who have so much to give, but in a strife-filled world are at risk of throwing away life in nihilistic gestures of alienation and hopelessness?

For the past 10 days, I have found it impossible to shake the image of an 18-year-old girl. Last Friday, while my wife Theresa and I were playing with our son, this girl wired herself with explosives, walked into a Jerusalem market, and died taking the lives of innocent people.

It brings back to all of us the memory of the15-year-old American inner-city child for whom violence was such an inescapable reality that she spent her days planning her own funeral.

These two gestures represent a sense of hopelessness among the young to which America, the church and higher education simply must offer a powerful response.

Within the Catholic and Jesuit university we have a responsibility to be a House of Intellect and a House of Faith. We are now called to be a House of Justice.

There is no institution other than the Catholic university that can play this role, uniting these three powerful commitments in a dynamic and interdependent relationship.

I think John Carroll would be pleased at the way his little academy has responded to the challenge of fulfilling its mission--in keeping with a sacred trust--at this extraordinary time in history.


1 Office and Work of Universities, Newman, 1856

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