The Spirit of Georgetown: Talking About Religious Diversity and Finding Meaning, Belonging and Purpose on the Hilltop

An image of a historical document. The proposal for Georgetown University written by John Carroll

“Proposals for Establishing an Academy, at George-Town, Patowmack River, Maryland.” John Carroll’s 1787 proposal to establish what is now Georgetown University.

In her final semester at Georgetown, Shana Shin (MSB ‘22) explored what it meant to be Buddhist at Georgetown and shared a first-person essay based on a conversation she had with other students about their religious journey on the Hilltop. Shana continued that conversation x with Fr. Greg Schenden SJ, director of Campus Ministry. Among the many topics discussed were John Carroll’s foundational proposal, the Spirit of Georgetown, religious diversity, and finding meaning, belonging, and purpose on the Hilltop. Below, is an excerpt of that conversation.

Shana Shin: As the oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution in the United States, why is it important for Georgetown to welcome students from various religious traditions, and how does this diversity bring value to the school?

Fr. Greg Schenden, SJ: You bring up a very good point here, in terms of Georgetown being the oldest Catholic Jesuit university in the United States. A lot of people ask this and want to know how this squares with our Catholic identity.

Religious diversity isn’t something we just dreamt up in the past 20 or 30 years in order to be relevant. John Carroll included it in his original proposal — written in 1787 — for this academy. There is a line that states students of all religious traditions will be admitted to the academy and encouraged to live out the faith traditions of their families. 

Shana: Why would John Carroll, a Catholic and Jesuit priest say that? 

Fr. Greg: John Carroll wanted to establish an academy open to all students regardless of religious affiliation because he grew up in Maryland at a time when there was an element of religious persecution against Catholics. In order for him to receive an education, he had to go to Europe and so, this in part served as his motivation for including this sentence in the proposal. When people ask why Georgetown has an Imam, a Rabbi, or a Protestant minister, I explain it’s because it’s our foundation.

Shana: How does having a religiously diverse campus benefit students and the Georgetown community?

Fr. Greg: That’s the most amazing thing about being here and being the Director of Campus Ministry. Imam Hendi, the director for Muslim Life, is not just an Imam to Muslim students, he’s an Imam to all of us. Similarly, Brahmachari is not just a spiritual leader to students from Dharmic traditions, he is here for everyone in the community. Georgetown is not better or worse than other universities, but in terms of the breadth of what Campus Ministry represents here, it is really unique. 

Do you remember When you were a first-year, at NSO [New Student Orientation] for the Jesuit values panel in McDonough Arena,?

Shana: Yes, yes. Kind of.

Fr Greg: Well, there was a lot going on during NSO! All of Campus Ministry’s chaplains were on stage in McDonough talking about Jesuit Values from the depth of their unique traditions. That’s powerful. 

These Jesuit values we talk about are not uniquely Catholic or Jesuit values. When we talk about Cura Personalis, care of the whole person, that’s a humanist value. But what’s unique about Georgetown and about a Jesuit education is that these values and their faith-based foundations are integral to the whole process that is Georgetown.

Shana: When talking with people from different religious backgrounds, how do you manage potentially conflicting perspectives?

Fr. Greg: I think, it goes back to relationships. You can talk about different aspects of different faith traditions on a theoretical and academic level. You can also talk about them on a relational level. 

I can have a conversation with Imam or Rabbi and there are some real foundational, theological tenets on which we disagree. But, can we still come to the table and say that’s not my belief, but I understand where you are coming from with that. Imam always says, can we agree to disagree out of love — I think that is such a huge part of understanding different perspectives and, because relationships are so important to this process it involves listening as well as speaking, doesn’t it? 

Shana: Yes, absolutely! Recently, I talked to several Buddhist students, and I learned that some of them were not religious at all before coming to Georgetown. However, once here they became interested and began participating in religious activities on campus. I found that they decided to become religious because they liked the community, not necessarily because they agree with the religious values. It seemed to me that for these students a sense of community came before deciding which religion to follow. I found that interesting and would like to hear your thoughts on this.

Fr. Greg: When you start talking about religion, as you just described, it is about placing oneself – in a communal situation. I don’t think you can separate the two. To somebody who gets involved in a religious tradition… I don’t know if it’s solely for a sense of community. Is whatever one considers the transcendent — there are a lot of different names for this — not somehow working in that community? From a Christian perspective, is God working in that somehow? I would say so if that makes sense. 

Shana: What I’m hearing is it is still valid for people to explore religion, whatever the reason, whether it’s the tenets or the need for community.

Fr. Greg: You know, you think of Campus Ministry’s mission to assist folks in the community to live a life of greater meaning, belonging, and purpose. I think belonging looms large for everybody. Especially for undergraduates. I tell students they are in a privileged position because they are in this place. In the course of a week, they can experience a worship service with any of our faith communities on campus. Where else does this happen in the course of one’s life?

Some people are naturally searchers who might be looking for these things but to have it right here, on the Hilltop — take advantage of the opportunity to experience the transcendent through, say, Jewish Shabbat. It’s pretty powerful. I don’t know if that fully answered your question though.

Shana: I agree that it is nearly impossible to separate the communal aspect from religion itself. So, yes, thank you so much for your answer. If you could say one thing to Georgetown students what would that be? What would you like them to take away from their experience at Georgetown?

Fr. Greg: It comes back to the mission statement: meaning, belonging, and purpose. I think they are all part of the same entity and for those graduating from Georgetown this spring, what I hope for them is that they leave with a sense of belonging because when an individual belongs to a community, they are fully embraced for who they are. From my faith tradition, it would be ‘whose’ they are, in terms of belonging to the transcendent, to God. That is, they leave here having been fully embraced uniquely for who or whose they are and recognizing that their gifts uniquely are essential to the well-being of the community. 

What you bring, Shana is essential to this community at this moment. That’s really my hope that when students depart here and graduate they walk away feeling empowered. That’s the biggest thing, I think, is that sense of spiritual freedom … the sense of spiritual freedom that involves empowerment that allows them to recognize they have unique gifts to be used not just for themselves but for the common good. Does that make sense?

Shana: Absolutely. I love that. I have one more question. Earlier we talked about Jesuit values not being unique to the Jesuit tradition and you mentioned Cura Personalis, I was wondering if you would talk about some of the other values and how they relate to other religious traditions. 

Fr. Greg: I think, Community and Diversity. It’s that sense of having unity, ‘we are Georgetown’ but recognizing that unity contains many facets that are unique and different. It’s the ‘both and’ of being the same, ‘we are Georgetown’ while also being different, at the same time.

Another is our most recent Spirit of Georgetown value, Care for our Common Home. It is based on, Pope Francis’ encyclical, a major letter written in 2015, called “Laudato si.’” This is all about the environment and caring for our common home. I think If we look at all of these faith traditions, everybody across the board is going to agree we have obligations and responsibilities to care for and not destroy our world. 

Another is also Academic Excellence. I think all faith traditions would say wisdom is important. What I love is, if you went down the line and sat down with each of our faith leaders, you would hear them talk about this from the depth of their own traditions. There’s that unity and diversity we were just talking about. Is that helpful?

Shana: Yes, absolutely. It almost sounds like Georgetown is achieving unity through diversity, which is intriguing. Not intuitive, but I think it’s happening very effectively.

Fr. Greg: Yes, you are right. And I think in many ways it is becoming more and more counter-cultural. When you look at the larger world and especially in this city, we see people tend to gravitate to others who think, act, and look like they do. But here on the Hilltop, we aim to live out our values. We don’t do it perfectly, and we know it. There are points in our history that are incredibly, incredibly far from the ideals that we maintain today. But do we try? I think we do try. And it’s not just faith leaders or academic administrative leaders. It’s all of us.

It’s this stuff, what you are doing here right now. This contributes to the betterment of this institution. I mean really. I’m not just saying that. It’s for real. 

Shana: Wow, you are empowering me (laugh).

Fr. Greg: It’s all there, what Campus Ministry gets to do is to help foster it.