Jesuit Spirituality, Social Justice Priorities for Georgetown's Lay President

By Fox, Thomas C. | National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 2004 | Go to article overview

Jesuit Spirituality, Social Justice Priorities for Georgetown's Lay President


Fox, Thomas C., National Catholic Reporter


At first, it might seem odd to some that the most visible--and arguably the most articulate--advocate of Jesuit spirituality is a layman.

With a moment's thought, it begins to make sense, especially given the position and personality of John "Jack" DeGioia, president of Georgetown University.

In the three years since he was chosen to become head of the nation's oldest Catholic university, DeGioia, the first lay person to take on the task, has been an indefatigable advocate of Catholic identity and Ignatian spirituality. At a time when many clergy prefer not to wear Roman collars, DeGioia wears his Catholicism on his sleeve.

DeGioia believes the Washington-based Georgetown University is in a unique position to place before students, faculty and the wider social-political arena Roman Catholicism's unyielding demands for human rights and social justice.

These are at the core, he says, of Ignatian spirituality.

Jesuit Fr. Julio Giulietti, director of the Center for Ignatian Spirituality at Boston College and formerly on the faculty at Georgetown, said flatly: "DeGioia knows the Spiritual Exercises [of Ignatius] from his soul."

Said Jesuit Ft. Robert F. Drinan, "When DeGioia speaks of Jesuit identity, it has a certain ring to it. It has credibility. Jesuits can talk about it and people simply expect it." Drinan, who teaches law at the Georgetown Law Center, has specialized in human rights issues.

When I spoke with Drinan earlier this month he was sky high because a strong-human rights advocate had just taken over as dean of the Georgetown Law Center. Earlier this year, DeGioia chose Alexander Aleinikoff to become the new dean. Aleinikoff, one of the nation's leading immigration law scholars, held several high-level positions in the Immigration and Naturalization Service at the U.S. Department of Justice during the Clinton administration.

"He is first-rate on human rights," Drinan said of Aleinikoff.

One of DeGioia's early moves as president was the creation of a Jesuit seminar for members of the Georgetown board of directors and other senior university officers so they could discuss Catholic and Jesuit traditions. He initiated another seminar for senior university officials so they could familiarize themselves with Catholic social teachings. He also initiated an annual Jesuit heritage week that draws noted Jesuit-educated celebrities to the campus to talk about their work.

To help coordinate these efforts DeGioia appointed Jesuit Fr. Phil Boroughs as vice president for mission and ministry. Boroughs works fulltime on programs aimed at enhancing Catholic and Jesuit identity. From his office he has reached out to enhance interreligious dialogue and the roles of lay men and women.

"Jack has brought to the university a deep personal commitment to social justice," said Melanne Verveer, a Georgetown graduate. "He believes that a university like Georgetown has an obligation to the students, as well as the wider community, to advance a just society globally."

Verveer chairs the Vital Voices Global Partnership, a nonprofit group in Washington that works to strengthen the leadership capabilities of women globally. With DeGioia's encouragement, Vital Voices has been collaborating with Georgetown University to provide training for women viewed as emerging leaders in their countries.

"Jack has been very supportive," Verveer said, adding that the initiative not only benefits women, but also benefits students who have the opportunity to interact with women leaders on the frontlines of some tough global challenges.

After the United States went to war in Afghanistan, Georgetown hosted an international summit to aid reconstruction. It brought together government officials and nonprofit organizations from Afghanistan, the United States and elsewhere. Georgetown then helped train Afghans on campus.

Another recent international Georgetown initiative focused on bringing faith-based groups together to plan strategies to confront the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa. …

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