Fr. Morrison: Jesuit … and CEO

The following article appeared in Creighton’s WINDOW magazine in spring 1997.

Fr. Morrison: Jesuit … and CEO

by Michael G. Morrison, SJ

At the end of the day I frequently ask myself “What have I done today to promote the Kingdom of God?” or “What have I done to save souls?” My background, the fact that I am a priest and a Jesuit, would seem to give an answer to these questions.

On the other hand, my actual activities during the day have very little of a religious or spiritual content. At the end of the day I think — I worked on budgets; I did some fund-raising; I considered personnel problems including discrimination and harassment grievances; I wrote speeches; I traveled a lot; I sat on the bench in front of the church and talked to kids and faculty and staff; I tried to influence legislation on the city, state, county, and federal level; I worked on various hospital issues; I did some long-range planning; I ate a lot of lousy tasting chicken; I worried a lot about legal issues. I kept pretty busy, but none of it was very spiritual or religious; none of it seemed to be the work of a Catholic priest or a vowed religious. Very rarely do I hear a confession; my daily Mass is generally with a group of five to 10 other Jesuits in the community chapel. I do two or three weddings a year and a few baptisms. Not much of what I do appears to be very religious or spiritual.

But, at the end of the day, when I ask myself what I have done to promote the Kingdom of God, I answer that I worked diligently to promote the Kingdom. Even more than that, I can say at times that I actually had some success. Other times I have to admit to a lack of success, and in some cases to clear setbacks.

How can I possibly do all that secular work I described above and still claim to have promoted the Kingdom of God? I can because I believe that Creighton University is an instrument for building the Kingdom. My work at Creighton is doing God’s work. I see what I do in higher education as a ministry in service to my God and my church through work with students, faculty, and staff.

How could I possibly have rationalized the running of a University into the promotion of the Kingdom of God? I can make that leap because of the spirituality of Ignatius Loyola and the view of education that grows out of that spirituality. I see education as a religious ministry because of my background and formation as a Jesuit.

Let me digress for a moment on the distinction between Ignatian spirituality and Jesuit spirituality. When St. Ignatius wrote his Spiritual Exercises, the foundation of his spirituality, he was a layman.

Consequently, the spirituality of the Exercises can be seen as a lay spirituality not necessarily for religious. Later on in his life Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus on the spirituality of the Exercises. To the Exercises the Jesuits have added the Constitutions, written by St. Ignatius, the 34 General Congregations held since Ignatius’ time, and various traditions and practices. Thus, while Ignatian spirituality and Jesuit spirituality start from the same foundation, that is, the Spiritual Exercises, the Jesuits have added elements that are not part of the original base of Ignatian spirituality.

The work of Creighton University fits into the Ignatian spiritual tradition. Accordingly, what we teach our students is not merely different disciplines and subject matters, but the reality of God’s love for us. The subject matter of all education is God’s creation. In the Ignatian view all of creation is a gift of God’s love. It is a gift given to us for our use. The whole of reality is seen then not as an indifferent or a neutral object, but as a specific gift given by God in his overwhelming love and given for the use of each individual. This view of reality as a gift of God’s love, given for use, transforms reality. The things around us are there specifically for us as a part of a divine, loving plan.

The Ignatian view of God helps us understand the importance of education. God is not merely someone out there, transcendent. Rather, God is immanent, working, loving, acting and guiding through each part of his creation, drawing us closer to himself through knowledge of him in his creation. God is present in all of his creation, loving us, working for us, giving to us.

Creation, the subject matter of education, is further elevated by the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, became a human being, was born, lived and died on this earth. The Incarnation has elevated the human family to a dignity and worth greater than it could manage on its own. The incredible fact of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ ennobles and elevates not only humankind because of Jesus’ entry into human history, but also elevates the whole of created reality. The whole world is transformed by the realization that God became a part of it. God is not outside of his world; he is actually, through the Incarnation, now a part of this world. Again, the conclusion is that the study of the world is not a study of a neutral, non-divine reality. It is the study of a reality infused with the divinity, the presence of Jesus Christ in human history.

In short, in the Ignatian perspective, education is God’s work because it studies the realities of God in the created world. Ignatian spirituality constantly seeks to find God in all things. Education is a way of finding God. As Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet, wrote,”… the world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

A Jesuit education implies the highest quality. Quite simply, education is the study of God’s creation and of a world transformed by the Incarnation of Jesus Christ into it. Everything we study reveals more about God because God is present in all that we study. God can be found in all that we do, all that we study. It is a religious obligation then to put our greatest efforts and our best abilities into the study of God and his creation. For God’s creation to receive the respect it is due, we must approach it with intellectual rigor, creativity and critical thinking. Excellence is at the heart of a Jesuit education.

A second reason why the work of education at Creighton is helping to build the Kingdom of God is because of the traditional Jesuit emphasis on the education of the whole person. We don’t see our students as disembodied intellects, but we see them as whole persons and our educational goal is aimed at that whole person. We want to educate the mind, but also the social, moral, physical, spiritual, emotional lives of our students. If the graduate has the finest intellect in the world, but these other components of the human person are not fully developed, we have not succeeded. I think at Creighton we do a pretty good job in the education of the whole person.

A third reason why a Creighton education promotes the Kingdom is the emphasis on service. About 25 years ago, the then Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Pedro Arrupe, made a speech to the alumni of Jesuit schools from around the world. He called on the Jesuit alumni to be “men and women for others.” This expectation that the alumni of Jesuit schools would live lives in service for others has since then become a major theme and goal of Jesuit education. The graduates of Jesuit schools should be men and women whose lives are marked by service to other people. We want service not only as an outcome of Jesuit education but an activity performed during the years of education. All education is for the service of other people, not for selfish purposes. A commitment to service while in school and throughout life has become a hallmark of a Creighton education.

The fourth major reason why I see a Creighton education promoting the Kingdom of God is the emphasis on values. We teach that nothing is value free. If someone says that something is value free, then a value has been put on that thing. Students must learn to find and work with the value element in all issues. We are conscious that we cannot give all the answers because the students will be working in a future world where we today do not even know the questions. Rather we desire to give the students the tools so they can work through the moral and ethical issues of the future. We have courses in the curriculum of each school and college that study the value issues in each field of study. In addition we urge the faculty to bring up and discuss the value issues in their courses. I distinguish four value issues that we want to emphasize: 1. Respect for each individual as a child of God, 2. Respect for all of God’s creation, 3. A special concern for the poor, and 4. The promotion of justice.

Of course there is the problem that we don’t always succeed. Not all of our graduates live up to the excellence and ideals we try to teach them. A Dallas, Texas, newspaper in late August ran an article about Jesuit education. Three photos of famous alumni of Jesuit schools graced the front page of the lengthy article: pictures of Pat Buchanan, Fidel Castro, and Bill Clinton. No matter what your position is, you think the Jesuits failed in two out of three of those examples, and maybe you think we failed on all three. But the fact that we don’t always succeed is no reason not to keep trying.  

I think that all of us who work at Creighton can feel that we are promoting the Kingdom of God. Some of us in a more direct way because of direct involvement with students. All of us at Creighton, however, have a role in building the Kingdom of God because we create an environment or supply necessary assistance to provide a Jesuit education.

In my position in administration I can promote the Kingdom of God because of my opportunity to lead, to take on a leadership responsibility for the education of God’s people. I further believe that I have an obligation to take on the responsibility of running Creighton because God gave me the ability to do it. This ability is primarily a matter of God’s gifts of stomach, temperament, and thick skin.

Administration can be an important ministry because of administrators’ ability to influence other people. A President especially has a bully pulpit; others listen because it is the President. I have an opportunity to state a vision and sense of direction. I can put before many and diverse audiences the vision and goals of Ignatian education and of Creighton University. Very shortly after I got into university administration at Marquette 23 years ago, I realized that I could influence activities in a way I never could do as an Assistant Professor of History. The problem is to keep purity of intention, to act and speak not for personal power or personal aggrandizement but to further a religious cause. There is a need for a constant examination of conscience: Why am I doing this? What are my motives? What are the consequences of my actions and words, intended and otherwise? Are my words and actions for me or for Creighton? Are they for me or for the Kingdom of God?

I do believe that God supplies special graces to help get a job done; there is a “grace of office.” Whenever I tell my mother that I am making a fund-raising trip or call, she laughs and says, “Michael, you can’t do that; you’re not able to ask people for money.” I would agree with her except for experience to the contrary. I think I received the grace of office to do fund-raising because it is an essential part of doing my job well. I believe that God does take care of us and gives us the grace necessary to do a job.

How do I measure success? It can be done in terms of money raised, buildings built, budgets balanced, but they are superficial indicators. The real indicators are what happens to students — the education they receive, the experiences they have. Do they receive an excellent education marked by critical thinking and intellectual rigor? Do they grow as full human persons, spiritually, morally, socially, and intellectually? Are they committed to the service of others? Do they have values that are their own? This kind of success must always be seen in terms of individuals. Each individual student whose life has been influenced by Jesuit education is a success, for the student and for us.

I receive some feedback from individuals that not only keeps me going but tells me that we are succeeding. A rancher from western Nebraska raves about the outstanding education and experience his two daughters had at Creighton. I tell him that we get good kids; he tells me, “but you make them better.” A graduating senior writes to thank me for my part in the excellent value-filled education she received. A young dentist in a large multi-specialty clinic in Tampa tells me that his education was better than any other dentist in the clinic. A young Lutheran girl enrolls at Creighton because she had heard that it teaches values.

I very much believe that my job contributes to my spiritual life and is religious-priestly work. I serve thousands of people every day by helping to raise the money, balance the budgets, build the buildings, lead the planning that provide a Jesuit education. But I serve much more than that because I see my work as religious work. In my job I help to build the Kingdom of God because I help to educate people in the Jesuit tradition.