A Rare Bird I Never Thought I’d Be: 12 Years of Jesuit Education

As a freshman at Boston College High School, Boston’s all-boys Jesuit school nestled in Dorchester along the outer reaches of Boston harbor, I heard about vaunted “triple eagles,” guys who went to BC High, BC, and BC Law. It sounded like too much school, and I never understood the appeal. I certainly never thought I’d be one of them.

Although my father and his father had gone to a Jesuit high school in Barcelona, following suit was never on my horizon, and I wasn’t even aware of that legacy until I applied to BC High. I had never heard of the Jesuits, could count on my fingers the number of times I’d been to church, and was ambivalent about single-sex education. But my mother suggested applying, I did well enough on the entrance exam, and one day I found myself riding the commuter rail on my way into the city and my new school. Despite this somewhat thoughtless initiation (at least on my part; my mom knew what she was doing), entering the Jesuit tradition of education changed my life, giving me a sense of purpose that I didn’t know I needed and that is driving me through law school and into a career dedicated to public service.

The Jesuits are members of the Society of Jesus, an order (or type) of Catholic religious officials, members of which are priests. Franciscans and Dominicans are other types of religious orders, although their members are not typically priests. Becoming a full-fledged Jesuit takes over a decade and involves years of study. The Jesuits were founded by the Spanish saint Ignatius of Loyola who, after having his leg shattered by a cannonball in battle, requested books about chivalrous knights to read while recovering. Instead he got books about the saints, and experienced a religious conversion. A series of long (really long) walks and several stints reflecting in caves later, Ignatius realized he was called to serve God by forming the Society of Jesus (sometimes translated from the Latin as Company of Jesus, which recalls Ignatius’s days in the military).

Jesuits are unique because they serve at the beck and call of the Pope (currently Pope Francis, the first Jesuit Pope and first Pope from the Southern Hemisphere—he’s Argentinian). If the Pope, or a Jesuit’s superior, tells him to pick up and go somewhere, he goes. This reflects the vow of obedience. Jesuits also take vows of poverty and chastity.

The primary focus of the Jesuits’ ministry is education. They run hundreds of schools at all levels of education around the world. A typical Jesuit joke goes like this: A Jesuit, Dominican, and Franciscan are walking down the road, debating which order is the best. Suddenly, the Holy Family appears in front of them: Joseph and Mary praying over baby Jesus. The Dominican falls to his knees in supplication. The Franciscan faints from the overwhelming beauty of the apparition. The Jesuit puts his arm around Joseph and says, “So, have you thought about where you’re sending him to school?”

The first thing a novice student at Jesuit school learns about the Jesuits is their knack for conceiving pithy catch-phrases. To properly index them all would require a blog of encyclopedic dimensions, so I’ll share three of my favorites. “A.M.D.G.” is stamped on basically everything the Jesuits touch. It stands for Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam: for the greater glory of God. The phrase captures Jesuits’ commitment to live completely for God’s will, as evidenced by their obedience to the Pope. Most folks have heard that a cornerstone of the Jesuit education is molding “men and women for others.” This ethos is captured in the expectation of kindredness that envelops the students at the Jesuit schools I’ve been to. Finally, Saint Ignatius is rumored to have told his disciples to “go, set the world on fire.” Jesuits were notoriously aggressive missionaries, becoming some of the first westerners to enter a cloistered China in the sixteenth century. At BC High we were taught with the expectation that we would combine these ideas and lead lives dedicated to serving those less fortunate.

All of their slogans and the ideas they represent are fantastic, but what has impacted me most is the Jesuit notion of a calling. The idea is that, through a process of discernment, you can figure out what God is calling you to do (in pious terms), or what you were meant to pursue in life that will bring you fulfillment and the world justice (in secular terms). This is not a fatalistic purpose that will passively come to you one day; it is a focused endeavor that requires taking the time to reflect and listen to what the world, or God as the Jesuits have it, is specifically beckoning you to do. Also, your calling is never perfected because it’s part of your life’s work (and that takes a lifetime). The Jesuits believe that those who have the privilege and means to spend their lives dedicated to pursuing and developing their calling should seize the opportunity.

Thomas Merton eloquently captured a version of this idea, writing “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. They never get around to being the particular poet or the particular monk . . . who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives.” In its most intense version, the process of discernment entails making the Spiritual Exercises, a thirty-day, largely silent guided meditation retreat that mimics the period of time that Ignatius spent alone in a cave in Manresa, Spain, when he discerned God’s calling in his life. I never pulled off the thirty-day silent meditation, but, surrounded at BC High by teachers who believed in and advocated for the success of this process of discernment, at some point I began to figure out what my calling was.

While I never expected to attend BC High, going to Boston College for undergrad felt preordained. I was surrounded by BC growing up and always saw myself as a student there. My mother is a BC professor and I remember having her students over to our house for dinner and, on days when I was sick in elementary school, being dragged into her office to camp out in a sleeping bag while she taught. Boston College was a bit less intense in its Jesuit teachings. You couldn’t really escape it at BC High; at BC, engaging with the mission was up to the individual student. I sought those opportunities and found, through classes like Pulse, which combines theology and philosophy coursework with a weekly volunteer placement, and groups like 4Boston, which sends students into Boston communities for four weekly hours of community service, the space where I could continue to develop my calling.

I knew before graduating BC that I would continue my education at social work school, and applied to BC’s because of its convenience (no GRE!) and familiarity. After being accepted, I learned about the dual-degree social work and law program, in which I could get both degrees in four years, and applied and was accepted to the law school. In neither graduate school was the Jesuit tradition explicitly discussed much. Social work school, despite teaching a profession very much aligned with Jesuit ideals about social justice, shied away from religious discussions, in part because those in the profession want it to be viewed as evidenced-based, and sometimes (although certainly not always) discussions of faith can stymie those intentions. Law school similarly lacks many of the more obvious expressions of a Jesuit identity, but it comes across in the school’s and students’ ethos. Like at the undergraduate university, the opportunities are there, and it’s up to each student to have the courage and desire to seize them. Take, for example, the immigration clinic or the spring break trips. (I went to New Orleans to work at the City Attorney’s Office my 1L spring break, and it laid the foundation for me to return last summer to work on death penalty appeals.)

I am not so smitten by the educational institutions I’ve attended that I cannot acknowledge the stances they have taken and continue to take that, in my opinion, directly conflict with the principles of Jesuit formation they espouse. Something similar can be said of most large institutions, which, of course, are made up of people, and no one is perfect. I would rather have the opportunity to push my schools to more often align with their core values than be somewhere without those values to begin with. Some of the most important goals of education are learning who you are, what you’re good at that brings you joy, and how you can use those talents to improve the world. Jesuit education emphasizes all of those.

I started to hear my calling when I volunteered as a BC High freshman at the Boys & Girls Club and helped a young boy calm down after he tore an office apart. I continued to feel it at BC when I watched a seven-year-old fight through her tears of frustration to read her first full page in a picture book. And I continued to feel it when, as part of a social work internship with the juvenile public defender’s office last year, I was sitting in an ICE detention facility with a Salvadoran teen who was caught up in the immigration system’s efforts to expel young men who are guilty of little more than grasping for community. After graduating and clerking, I’ll continue working towards my calling to serve disadvantaged children. I’m thankful for my Jesuit education and a tradition that has surrounded, guided, and inspired me over the past twelve years and is about to send me out, ready to set the world aflame.

Alex Bou-Rhodes is a 3L at BC Law. He loves hearing from BC Law Impact readers. Reach him here.

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