Jesuit Education Redefines Itself

The social activism of the 1960s carried over into the new decade and led to the birth of SI Outbound, which had taken the place of the student Sodality of the Blessed Virgin. Students in this organization worked as tutors in grammar schools throughout the city, visited the elderly and did other acts of community service. The success of this program led to the creation of the Community Service Program in 1980, with every student asked to complete 100 hours of ministry. (This office was renamed the Christian Service Program in 2003.)

One of its creators, Michael Mandala, a scholastic at the time, hoped that SI students would contribute “to the betterment of the San Francisco community” by tutoring students from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. In its first year, the program attracted 80 students and offered academic credit to 25 seniors. It also helped the school attract students of diverse ethnicities and races, something SI had pursued actively since the 1960s.

The start of SI Outbound was a reflection of a profound change that was taking place at SI and at other Jesuit schools. The tenor of Jesuit education had been slowly changing across the country, spurred both by Vatican II and by financial troubles at some of the high schools. In 1969, the Jesuit Educational Association, made up of colleges and high schools, disbanded when the universities left to form their own organization. In 1970, representatives of the Jesuit high schools gathered in Scottsdale, Arizona, to discuss the creation of a new organization to be called the Jesuit Secondary Education Association. (The first president of the JSEA was an SI grad — Fr. Edwin McDermott, SJ ’36.)

One of those in attendance, Robert “Jerry” Starratt, principal of Fairfield Prep in Connecticut, recalled one shocking announcement at that meeting, made by a friend of his, a Jesuit principal in New York. He told Starratt and the others assembled that “morale in his school was at an all-time low … and that if he didn’t come away from the meeting with any sense of direction, he was going to go back and close his school.”

Starratt had just read an essay by Fr. Jim Connor, SJ, the Maryland provincial at the time, “who wrote that no matter what ministry Jesuits are engaged in, they’re basically giving the Spiritual Exercises,” noted Starratt. “I began talking about what that might mean in a high school setting, citing themes from the Exercises such as the Call to the Kingdom, Finding God in All Things, Contemplatives in Action and Carrying the Cross with Christ. I spoke off the top of my head about how to translate the Exercises into the curriculum and pedagogy of a Jesuit school and thereby to recapture the Jesuit identity of our work.”

His friends told him to go to his room and put those ideas into writing. “I went to my room and said, ‘My God, what have I gotten myself into!’ The trouble was that I couldn’t remember what I had just said.” When he returned to the meeting, Starratt had in his hand what became the Preamble to the JSEA’s Constitution — one of the key documents that gave those assembled a reason to continue assembling.

The response to that document was electric. “The Preamble became a rallying cry for the schools,” said Joe O’Connell, SJ, the JSEA President who honored Starratt in 2001 with its Ignatian Educator Award. “It proved to be a transformational point for Jesuit secondary education in the United States. Had it not been for Jerry’s inspiration, we would have been in a very different place than we are now.”

That Preamble and the Constitution for the new JSEA became a catalyst for change throughout the decade of the ’70s for SI and for Jesuit schools across the country. The Preamble asks schools to “go beyond the criteria of academic excellence, important as this is, to the far more challenging task of bringing about a truemetanoia [a fundamental change of character] in their students….” It also asks Jesuit schools to “move more vigorously towards participation in community affairs” and to “honestly evaluate their efforts according to the criteria of both the Christian reform of social structures and renewal of the church.”

In 1973, during the first mandatory faculty retreat, teachers discussed the Preamble and made it “the ultimate criterion for all of our future decisions,” wrote Fr. McCurdy in the December 1973 Genesis magazine. When the faculty returned to SI, they formed committees to “evaluate every aspect of the school in the light of our stated values and goals.”

Charlie Dullea, then in his first year teaching at SI, attended those meetings and recalls how revolutionary the document was. “It was filled with ideas that today we take for granted. But that was the first time we heard of the concept of ‘magis.’ In our meetings we discussed the need for a community service requirement as a prerequisite to graduation.” Dullea was most struck by this statement from the Preamble: “If the faculty at a Jesuit school are men and women whose lives are inspired by the Ignatian vision, then the question about the percentage of Jesuits on the faculty is not an overriding issue. It is more a question of the quality of the lives of the faculty, both Jesuit and lay. The school will be Jesuit if the lives of its teachers exemplify and communicate to the students the vision of Ignatius.”

“For me, this meant I should learn the craft of teaching and develop spirituality in concert with my colleagues,” said Dullea. “Thirty three years later we have an Adult Spirituality Office that serves the spiritual needs of the entire faculty, outside of the classroom.”

The establishment of SI Outbound, and later, of the Community Service Program, was only a part of SI’s response to this call to action. In the 1960s and earlier, students and priests may have had informal conversations about religion, and certainly friendships developed and grew among them. Rarely, however, did Jesuits share their unique brand of spirituality with students beyond the senior retreat. That changed with the birth of the Christian Life Communities in the early 1970s and a new kind of senior retreat.