The Ignatian Character Of Residential Campus Ministry

The following article was previously posted on July 31st, 2015.

For the feast day of St. Ignatius (July 31st), founder of the Society of Jesus (or Jesuits), I’d like to consider the Ignatian character of campus ministry, particularly in the way it is conducted on many Catholic campuses across our nation. On these campuses, ministers go out and meet students where they are, in the comings and goings of their daily lives–and anyone who has spent time with students can quickly come to realize that where the students are can range from a place of deep yearning for God to a place of spiritual hollowness (and often a student has a foot in both places at once). To go where they are requires of the campus minister a conviction that God is always already active in all things, including (and especially in the cases where most evidence points to the contrary) the life of each and every student. God can indeed be found, St. Ignatius teaches us, along the road each of us travels in our life, if only we are attentive to the workings of grace. The goal of ministry done in an Ignatian spirit is to help students attend to divine activity in their own lives and thereby assist them in becoming more receptive to the promptings of God in the deepest desires of their hearts. Perhaps most paradigmatic of this Ignatian way of proceeding are those ministers who live on campus, among the students, in their many dormitories and apartment complexes.

Living among the students is nothing new. Well before the separate incorporation of our nation’s oldest Catholic university, Georgetown, from its Jesuit Community in 1969, it was customary for Jesuit prefects to reside in the dormitories with students, living as resident authority figures, facilitating nightly “room checks,” and establishing what one Jesuit referred to as “outposts of civilization” amidst a community of “part-time adults.” However, more than the force of discipline, the Jesuit-in-residence was first and foremost available for chance encounters that might be a first step towards deeper spiritual engagement. In recent years, this role has shed its disciplinary component and has expanded to professionally trained and well formed men and women not in the Society of Jesus: both lay and religious, both single and married.

“Confections and Conversations” with Rev. Matthew Carnes, S.J. (second from right) in Reynolds Hall

“Confections and Conversations” with Rev. Matthew Carnes, S.J. (second from right) in Reynolds Hall

At Georgetown (the site of my own six years of residential ministry), as at many Jesuit and Catholic schools, residence halls include modest apartments for resident ministers (or “chaplains-in-residence” as they are also called). These chaplains live among students, do laundry with students, walk the same paths and ride the same elevators as students. With a ministry rooted in the residence halls, they are not only (or even necessarily) official ministers of their own faith tradition, but rather serve students of any faith tradition and indeed, those of no specific tradition as well. Their role at Georgetown includes (although is certainly not limited to) crisis response, spiritual programming, discernment guidance, support for the residence life staff, establishing regular “open-door” times for students to drop by for informal conversation, and offering a safe place for students to share their delicate questions and their painful vulnerabilities (one student, when asked to account for the need for such ministry said, “There are very few places for brokenness on this campus”). The work of the chaplain is primarily accomplished as a ministry of presence, living alongside students with no particular agenda save that of being always open to the possibility of spiritual encounter and deepening conversation, always attentive to the vulnerabilities that might be operative beneath the students’ often protective and confident surface.

Jesuit historian John O’Malley notes that such deep spiritual conversation has been part of the Jesuit way of proceeding since the Society’s earliest days. While it never “attained the technical status of a ministry” in the early promulgation of the order’s Constitutions, it was firmly and formally established as part of the Jesuits’ customary ministries [i]. In such conversation, O’Malley notes, “one endeavor[s] to enter gently and with love into the thoughts of a specific individual….” by approaching “individuals with love and a desire for their well-being, while carefully observing each person’s temperament and character.” This engagement is shaped by the context and needs of the individual, and is ordered toward the other’s flourishing. The Jesuits begin this ministry with a trust in God’s already active presence in the life of each person. Therefore, these spiritual conversations are invitations for individuals to enter into their own depths where—and this is the mark of the Jesuit faith in God’s presence in all things—they come to know and love the God whose “action is antecedent to ours” [ii].

On the part of a Jesuit, such conversations are marked by cura personalis, or care of the concrete individual. This cura personalis, as former superior general Peter-Hans Kolvenbach observes, “is not a matter of transmitting learning or doctrine, of imposing a method or one’s own ideas, but of offering the mysteries of the life and person of Christ so that the other person may receive them.” Intended to guide the directors of the Spiritual Exercises, this personally focused way of proceeding aims not at developing the retreatant’s theological proficiency nor even a spiritual formation according to the vision of the director, but to make the one receiving the Exercises “responsible, which is to say capable of responding to what the Lord wills and desires.” Thus, within the formal structure of the Exercises, the director is vigilant against over-reliance on his or her own interpretations and recommendations—however wise, however pertinent—directing the retreatant’s relationship with God. Instead, in “Annotation 15,” the spiritual director “is impelled to give himself, without making himself a barrier, able to renounce in putting anything” and is instructed to “leave the Creator to work directly with the creature, and the creature with the Creator and Lord.”

Residential ministry, however, translates the cura personalis to the college campus in an echo of the instructions for faculty and staff in theRatio Studiorum—the structure of Jesuit education established in 1599. On this, Kolvenbach notes: “The educators and teachers must grasp that the example of their personal lives brings more to the formation of the students than do their words. They are to love these students, knowing them personally… living a respectful familiarity with them.” Chaplains-in-residence offer themselves as spiritual companions, and invite students into their lives lived attentive to the activity of God.

There are certainly many types of ministry in which the minister’s own spiritual life is not directly pertinent to the matter at hand (clinical pastoral work, or direction of the Spiritual Exercises, for example). Ministers are often trained specifically not to tell their own stories and not to offer their own lives as examples.

Certainly such formation stands upon the reflective wisdom of the work at hand. And while judicious judgment is likewise necessary in engaging students on campus (that is, the context of a chaplain’s conversation with students might very well require just such personal distance), what makes the chaplains-in-residence different from other campus ministers is that their foundational role is to be fully themselves semi-publically within the community. Rather than focus on one’s work on campus (whether as faculty, staff, or campus ministers), the chaplain’s role—strangely put—is to be without a well-defined role, but instead to offer a whole person to the students. The role, the persona, of the chaplain, then, is to be fully him- or herself and fully engaged with each student as a unique person.

“Sounds of Silence” meditation with Anne Elisabeth Giuliani in Copley Hall

“Sounds of Silence” meditation with Anne Elisabeth Giuliani in Copley Hall

This personalized spirituality breathes well outside of church walls attentive as it is to God’s activity in all things (even—or particularly—in the students’ own lives), and concerned with ordering all activity towards the students’ coming to “praise, reverence, and serve God” (as put in the “Principle and Foundation” of The Spiritual Exercises). Such adaptive focus invites the students to follow an Ignatian way into their own particular depths, faithfully hopeful that once open to the deepest desires, they will recognize the draw of God (even if that God remains ambiguous or unnamed).

While each not unique to this context or exhaustive of this work, these encounters are characterized by place and orientation. First, there is the question of place. Certainly there is a real sense in which these ministers are “going to where the people are”—and, for good or for ill, find themselves (in the words of Pope Francis) living with “the smell of sheep” (or cheap beer, as the case may be). But in living with the students, the ministers offer a place set apart from the daily goings-on of college life (a place, it is hoped, where the smell of the pasture is slightly less pungent). It is, indeed, a strange, even paradoxical, mission: The chaplain is to go into the students’ world, and there offer a place set apart for reflection; all the while with a parallel goal of bearing witness that one could live a life of active faith in the world.

Second, within this place the chaplain offers an orientation and a (hopefully) inviting example of life lived towards God. Here, the particularity of the Ignatian cura personalis is visible in its irreducible tension. On one hand, the goal of such ministry is not to form students into a particular vision of Christianity, but to invite students into deep awareness of being loved and called by God. On the other hand, in offering precisely oneself as witness, the chaplain is, as moral theologian Jessica Wrobleski, observes— both receptive “to the guest on his or her terms,” and also “is really present to her guest, offering herself—her values, opinions, gifts, and vulnerabilities—as a point of orientation.” The chaplain both places few demands on the students (besides, perhaps, basic civility) and, at the same time, orients the students by letting them know what kind of place or encounter they are having (that is, the students are speaking with a member of campus ministry, and, as such, this encounter, no matter its context, is one ultimately ordered toward the student’s deepening responsible relationship with ultimate meaning). Each chaplain’s own engagement is framed by who he or she is and thus takes its unique form from the integrated gifts, limitations, and personality of each chaplain. As one student notes of this highly contextualized particularity (speaking about chaplains with families, but insightful generally as well):

Chaplains provide a window into the discernment process, and how one can continually incorporate earnest discernment into day-to-day decisions as well as bigger, life-altering ones. While ministering to students, married chaplains or those who are married with children must balance responsibilities or jobs, must set a positive example for students, and must honor their vocation to their families and chaplaincy all while remaining true to their faith. In some ways, seemingly a herculean task, but altogether very important when present in a university community setting. . . . Who they choose to be friends with, how they are raising their children, how they choose to spend their free time or who they decide to socialize with… all represent the living, breathing example of how God is active… and present to all of us in every aspects of our lives…

For college students who are significantly concerned with the careful construction of an often compartmentalized identity (certainly a demanding exercise in normal social interactions on campus and in the classroom, but exacerbated by social media), the incarnate integrity of a chaplain’s life can stand as an invitation to expand the students’ imaginations to include the possibility of responding to God’s integration and orientation of their own lives.

Uniquely accented here is a how this integrated faith is marked by its temporality. The adage that a Jesuit’s home is the road might also be metaphorically true of the temporality of Ignatian spirituality [iii]. Reinterpreting this “road” not as an imitation of Christ’s itinerant ministry but rather as the revelation of God’s presence playing out in the course of a journey, the road becomes “home” not only as a place for the day-to-day living out of one’s faith (faith in God, certainly, but also in one’s other commitments), but this road becomes home in offering a directional context for a quotidian living that plays itself out in time.

This fidelity in time, over time, offers to the students not just singular moments of spiritual mentorship but the movement of the chaplain’s own life as striving for some unification of these many moments and decisions—a unity not self-sustained but engendered by love responsibly and intentionally oriented (as stated in the “Principle and Foundation”) “towards the end for which we are created.” But again here, this “end” need not be characterized by the illusory stability of an “abiding now,” but instead as a specific incarnation of the Jesuits’ “apostolic pilgrimage”—this on-going life lived in service towards God. This is spiritually animated by hope that living toward God is itself a mark of the real presence of God on the road. Thus, while such ministry would seem to be driven less by religious content than some particular method, this Ignatian way of proceeding reveals a content that is itself radically methodological—that the only possible time we have to find and respond to God is time on the road. Residential ministry fosters an understanding of the chaplain’s life as an apostolic pilgrimage wherein his or her whole life becomes open to the incarnate chance encounter with God in the students’ own genuine search for God. Temporally located, these encounters quicken the hope that the real presence of God may offer integrity in time, over time—that is, to offer to chaplains, families, and students the possibility of finding a spiritual home on the road.


[i] John O’Malley, The First Jesuits (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993), 111: O’Malley notes that much of the support for such an understanding came from Jerónimo Nadal, an assistant of Ignatius who played an instrumental role in the order’s early self-understanding.

[ii] Documents of the Thirty-Fourth General Congregation of the Society of Jesus (St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1995), 57-8.

[iii] Cf. Joseph F. Conwell, S.J., Walking in the Spirit: A Reflection on Jerónimo Nadal’s Phrase “Contemplative Likewise in Action” (St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2003): Conwell argues that Nadal saw the apostles as the model for the Jesuit way of ministry. He writes (quoting Nadal) “The apostles were pilgrims on the road with no place to stay together, but were always trying to help others; this as well ‘is the principal end of the Society, not merely to live in community of brothers but to be on pilgrimage and to fish for men and women, and most of all where we see no other fisherman’” (87).

Andrew Staron is an assistant professor of theology at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia

This article was written by Andrew Staron, a former Georgetown Chaplain-In-Residence, and was originally featured on the Daily Theology website on July 31st, 2015. The original article is available online here.