Jesuit Heritage

A centuries-old spirit animates Georgetown University: the spirit of the Society of Jesus. A spirit first articulated in the 16th century by St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, a religious order of men in the Roman Catholic Church.

A spirit appropriated in a uniquely American way at the birth of the nation by John Carroll, the founder of Georgetown, the oldest Catholic college in the United States. Georgetown students share in a heritage nearly 500 years old, a gift given to more than one million students over the ages by St. Ignatius, a gift made our own on account of John Carroll’s legacy to this university. The lives, spiritual visions, and educational aspirations of these Jesuits provide an understanding of Georgetown’s mission in the 21st century. In large part, Georgetown University remains the lengthened shadow of these two men.

Ignatius’ story is a timely one, for it is set in early modern Europe, an era as dynamic and full of possibility as our own. He was born in the Basque region of Spain in 1491, the youngest son of a minor nobleman. Though raised Catholic, Ignatius hardly had the youth expected of a saint. He sought power, privilege, and prestige through the exercise of arms and the ways of a courtier. While defending a castle against a French onslaught, he was struck by a cannonball. It shattered his leg and his dreams of glory. Bedridden for several months at his family’s castle, he became desperate for diversion. Out of boredom he turned to the only books available in the castle’s limited library: lives of Christ and the saints. At first he found these works dull and uninspiring compared to the tales of chivalry that he formerly loved to read. But he ultimately began to imagine fashioning his life after the saints, and such daydreams awakened in him a deep desire to serve God. By paying attention to his inner experience, he gradually discerned that God was calling him and that this call gave him a sense of peace or “consolation.” This process of discovering God’s will for him by attending to his deepest thoughts and feelings became a hallmark of his “way of proceeding” throughout his life and a model of what he would teach others.

In the years after his recovery, Ignatius’ conversion continued. His newfound desires moved him to leave behind his sword and his castle. He traveled widely – begging, preaching, and caring for the poor and sick. Along the way, he recorded his spiritual insights and methods of prayer in a manual, Spiritual Exercises. This handbook provides the paradigm for retreats that Jesuits and many others continue to make even today. During this phase of Ignatius’ deepening conversion, he recognized his lack of formal training in the humanities, philosophy, and theology, so Ignatius became a peripetetic scholar. While finishing his studies at the University of Paris, Ignatius’ experience of God and his boundless spirit captivated other students. Soon, in a chapel outside Paris, Ignatius and six other men professed religious vows of poverty and chastity to bind themselves more closely together in their dedication to God and “the help of souls” (later they would also take a vow of obedience).2 These companions, who called themselves “friends in the Lord,” would eventually become the first Jesuits, officially known as the Society of Jesus (hence the S.J. behind Jesuits’ last names).

While Ignatius never originally intended for Jesuits to open schools, he soon discovered how greatly people’s lives could be improved by an education rooted both in gospel values and the humanistic revival of the Renaissance. As one early Jesuit put it, “all the well-being of Christianity and of the whole world depends on the proper education of youth.”3 The Jesuits quickly built a reputation as teachers and scholars. Students from all over Europe flocked to the burgeoning Jesuit schools, and Jesuit missionaries opened schools where none existed before. Even prior to the establishment of Georgetown, Jesuits were operating more than 800 universities, seminaries, and especially secondary schools almost around the globe.

The religious experiences and convictions of Ignatius and the early Jesuits marked the schools they founded. For that reason, Georgetown continues to offer its students a distinctive education. Certain characteristics, grounded in the vision of the founder and his companions, are of paramount importance for universities in the Ignatian tradition.

Ignatius grew throughout his life in his awareness of God’s deep love for him, not just the general love of God for all people, but a personal, intimate call by Christ to follow him. This call filled Ignatius with great zeal and enthusiasm to serve God in whatever ways would give God greater glory. Ignatius was motivated by a restless desire for excellence grounded in gratitude for all that God was doing for him. He was forever asking, “What can I do for Christ?”4 Appropriately, Ignatius and his fellow Jesuits chose as their motto, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, a Latin phrase that means “for the greater glory of God.” The word “magis” is a Latin term for the kind of greatness to which Ignatius aspired. These terms are found around the top of Georgetown’s own Gaston Hall and in the university’s mission statement, which commits Georgetown to creating and communicating knowledge “for the glory of God and the well-being of humankind.”

The establishment of Georgetown by John Carroll is an example of the Jesuits’ commitment to the magis. As a result of their desire to exert the greatest possible influence for the sake of the common good, Jesuits have traditionally worked in centers of politics and commerce. In the fledgling republic of the United States, Carroll founded the first Catholic college in the country, drawing up plans for Georgetown in 1789. Two years later, just as Georgetown welcomed its first students, the federal government also chose to make its home along the banks of the Potomac and moved here in 1802. Carroll had experienced the effects of religious intolerance as a boy in the colony of Maryland. As a result, he was sent by his parents to Jesuit schools in Europe. Upon his return as a Jesuit priest and later as the nation’s first Catholic bishop, he intuited that among the greatest ways to serve the young nation he loved was to found an academy open to students of all social classes and of every religious profession. Carroll’s vision was also cosmopolitan. Intended in 1789 to cultivate citizens who would preserve, protect, and defend the nation’s brand new Constitution, Georgetown also recruited students from around the world by publishing its first catalogue in three languages other than English. Carroll’s revolutionary, inclusive, and international vision of greatness, grounded in the spirit of St. Ignatius, has animated Georgetown for more than 200 years, and it continues to mold the university as it moves into a third century of learning, faith, and freedom.

At the beginning of his religious conversion, Ignatius discovered that God worked with him through his deepest desires, and as his faith grew he recognized that God worked in all that was good in the world around him. This world, “charged with the grandeur of God,”5 is, as the current Jesuit Superior General writes, “the arena of God’s presence and activity.” Moreover, “we can find God if we approach the world with generous faith and a discerning spirit.”6 Because Ignatius believed that we can confidently seek God in all peoples, he sent Jesuits around the world to spread the gospel. Jesuits remain the largest missionary order in the Catholic Church. Georgetown likewise educates students to respect cultural values and practices other than their own and to look beyond the comfortable confines of its campus to the wider world. Students at Georgetown have ample opportunities to study in other countries, and every day they move beyond Healy Gates to learn from and serve the citizens of Washington, D.C. Georgetown’s location in the nation’s capital offers a privileged opportunity to students. The political, economic, cultural, and intellectual facets of the city enable students to learn the lessons of history and the complexities of the contemporary world. When they participate in the life of this city, students embrace the “gritty reality of this world,” so that in a very Ignatian way “they can learn to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering, and engage it constructively.”7 Georgetown students also benefit from faculty members and classmates who represent the human experience in all its complex diversity. An education in the Ignatian tradition encourages students to recognize that everything good in the world can be celebrated as the locus of God’s loving activity.

The desires that first drew Ignatius to serve God led him from the pursuit of worldly fame to a genuine, inner freedom. As a result, Jesuits have always believed that education should likewise liberate students. They endorsed in their first schools the Renaissance notion of a liberal curriculum, and Georgetown’s core curriculum today still exposes students to the full range of academic disciplines and modes of inquiry, encouraging them to challenge previously held assumptions and opening their minds to a true, and therefore liberating vision of the world. As the words from the Gospel of John at the entrance to Lauinger Library state, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (8:32).Ignatius believed that this new vision of the world’s goodness and God’s work on its behalf would draw forth from us loving appreciation. And it would also reshape our desires. The Ignatian vision raises serious questions: What is my vocation? What are my talents and gifts and the deep desires that accompany them? What kind of work gives me joy and energy? How can I preserve and enhance the goodness and beauty I have discovered around me? The variety of subjects required by a liberal arts education can help students discover for themselves the way of life that draws forth from them their most passionate response, the work to which God is leading them. Because a liberal education, especially one in the Catholic humanist context, celebrates the goodness of the world, it also works to transform the personal ambitions of students into great desires for the promotion of justice and the common good. These great desires can be achieved through embracing Georgetown’s conviction that “life is best lived generously, working in the service of others.” As a result of its Ignatian vision, Georgetown hopes to graduate “women and men for others.”8.

Dedication to service, a concern for the common good, and a commitment to promoting justice have always been implicit in the Jesuits’ works and world view. In recent decades, Jesuits and their colleagues have made more explicit these dimensions of their shared ministries. At a worldwide meeting in 1975, Jesuit leaders posed the question, “What is it to be a companion of Jesus today?” Their answer echoes on our campus, shaping our priorities in teaching, research, and institutional initiatives: To be a companion of Jesus today “is to engage, under the standard of the Cross, in the crucial struggle of our time: the struggle for faith and that struggle for justice which it includes.”9 This assertion continues to reinvigorate Jesuits and those with whom they labor so that all people might participate in the promise of Christ who came that we “may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Georgetown tries to keep this promise in numerous ways, especially through its primary work of rigorous intellectual reflection on and analysis of the full range of justice-related issues facing people today. Members of the university community also promote justice through many other means, such as the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service; the Center for Intercultural Education and Development; and abundant efforts to reach and improve the lives of disadvantaged and marginalized people in our city and around the world.

Like other Renaissance educators, early Jesuits sought through their schools to educate the whole person – mind, body, and spirit; thus Georgetown focuses not only on conveying information and intellectual content, but also on building a home for wisdom, where all dimensions of students’ lives will be enriched. Early Jesuit educators tried to follow the pattern found in God’s providential dealings with Ignatius. During the time of his conversion, Ignatius experienced God not as distant and removed, but as a teacher personally involved in his life. God worked directly with Ignatius to educate him in the ways of prayer. Early Jesuit educators similarly worked to develop a reverent familiarity with their students, which allowed Jesuits to educate them on an individual basis, according to the particular needs and gifts of each student. The Latin phrase associated with this Jesuit focus on the individual is “cura personalis,” (literally meaning “care of the person”). Caring for the person means knowing the student beyond what a transcript can reveal. Georgetown faculty and administrators strive to know students personally – their backgrounds and life histories, their strengths and limitations, their struggles and hopes. They seek to build personal, trusting relationships with students so that they will be free to ask questions, take intellectual risks, make mistakes and learn from them.

St. Ignatius believed that as we come to understand the world and develop a truer vision of it, we will be led to act in new ways. He understood the integral connection between knowing and acting, and hoped that Jesuits and graduates of their schools would be “contemplatives in action.” Jesuit schools try to foster this “way of proceeding” by educating students with an appreciation of their own agency. Ignatian pedagogy not only requires students to read, take notes, and write papers and exams. It also motivates them to think and learn on their own. Such active learning empowers students with a confident sense of their own ability to change the world: to engage it and work fruitfully in the struggle to make it more just and gentle. Ignatius often closed his letters with words intended to challenge and inspire, fitting words for every Georgetown student: “Go, and set the world on fire.”

However, Ignatius also believed that the deeper truth of the world is best discovered when we engage in serious and sustained reflection on our reality. He encouraged prayerful consideration and frequent examination of conscience. He did not want us to have the experience but miss the meaning. It was during his forced convalescence that Ignatius first found the time to reflect on his life’s meaning, an experience that changed him dramatically. No one forces Georgetown students to reflect, but opportunities to do so are plentiful. Retreat programs, for example, are available for students of every faith tradition and those of none, and generations of Georgetown students have greatly benefitted from them. On retreats students can consider what really matters to them, their deepest convictions and hopes, and who they want to be. Ignatius Loyola is “the patron saint of retreats,” and Georgetown students live out the heart of his spiritual legacy when they develop as “contemplatives in action.”

Jesuits have cared for Georgetown from its earliest days. Histories of the university celebrate their numerous contributions as teachers, scholars, administrators, chaplains, and counselors; and many Georgetown buildings bear the names of these men. Hundreds of other Jesuits, along with generous alumni and benefactors, have also worked tirelessly to build Georgetown, both literally and figuratively, into the university it is today. Through the years a significant number of Georgetown alumni have entered the Society of Jesus, and in recent decades graduates of Georgetown have joined the order in greater numbers than graduates of any other Jesuit school in the United States. After entering the Society, these men pursue a decade-long course of studies and spiritual formation before being ordained to the priesthood. Some also earn advanced degrees in a wide variety of academic disciplines. For instance, the Georgetown Jesuit community has been home to actors, astronomers, poets, politicians, playwrights, physicians, lawyers, sculptors, painters, and professors of every sort. Also, not all Jesuits serve as priests. There are Jesuit brothers, several of whom live and work at Georgetown, including “the Minister,” or administrator of the community.

Jesuits continue the work of their predecessors, contributing to all aspects of university life. Most of these men live in Wolfington Hall, Jesuit Residence, in the Southwest Quadrangle. Others serve as chaplains-in-residence in residence halls and student apartments. The Jesuit community is led by its local religious superior, called the Rector, and is connected to the worldwide Society of Jesus through a regional superior, known as the Provincial. Ultimately, all Jesuits come under the jurisdiction of the Superior General, who resides at the Jesuit headquarters in Rome.

This brochure begins to describe a distinctive set of characteristics, most of which Georgetown shares with the other 27 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States and the nearly 200 Jesuit institutions of higher learning around the world. For example, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, describes four objectives that influenced St. Ignatius and the early Jesuits to become involved in higher education. These directives still determine the work of Ignatian educators today. They strive to: 1) provide students with knowledge and skills to excel in whatever field they choose; 2) contribute to the education of women and men as good citizens, people of competence, conscience, and compassion dedicated to the service of faith and the promotion of justice; 3) celebrate the full range of human intellectual power and achievement, viewing reason not as antithetical to faith, but as its necessary complement; and 4) affirm a Christian understanding of the human person as a creature of God whose ultimate destiny is beyond the human.

These same principles guided John Carroll when he first announced his plans for Georgetown, plans at once modest and grand. In a letter to friends, dated 1788, he writes,

We shall begin the building of our Academy this summer. In the beginning we shall confine our plans to a house of 63 to 64 feet by fifty, on one of the loveliest situations, that imagination can frame. Do not forget to give and procure assistance. On this academy is built all my hope of permanency and success to our holy religion in the United States.

The Jesuit college that Carroll’s imagination framed so long ago still stands as a living tradition of which every Georgetown student is a part. Every student shares in the responsibility for keeping this heritage alive. Georgetown University is not “Jesuit” merely because Jesuits live and work here. Ignatius’ inspiration is for all men and women, and John Carroll’s imagination shapes the experience of all Georgetown’s daughters and sons.

  1. The expression “our way of proceeding” was the early Jesuits’ “most inclusive and pregnant expression of their style of life and ministry,” and it appears often in the writings of St. Ignatius and other foundational Jesuit documents (John O’Malley, The First Jesuits, 8).
  2. According to O’Malley, no expression occurs more frequently in Jesuit documentation than “to help souls”: “In the Autobiography, Constitutions, and his correspondence, Ignatius used it again and again to describe what motivated him and what was to motivate the Society. His disciples seized upon it and tirelessly repeated it as the best and most succinct description of what they were trying to do” (18).
  3. Pedro de Ribadeneira, Monumenta paedagogica Societatis Jesu, 2nd ed. rev, 1:475.
  4. Spiritual Exercises [53].
  5. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., “God’s Grandeur.”
  6. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., “The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in American Jesuit Higher Education,” 5.
  7. Kolvenbach, 7.
  8. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., former Superior General of the Jesuits, first used this phrase in an address delivered in 1976 at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA.
  9. “Jesuits Today,” Thirty-First and Thirty-Second General Congregations, 401, no.2.

  • Brodrick, James. The Origin of the Jesuits. New York: Image Books, 1960.
  • Clancy, Thomas H. An Introduction to Jesuit Life. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1976.
  • Curran, Robert Emmett. The Bicentennial History of Georgetown University: From Academy to University, 1789-1889. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1993.
  • Durkin, Joseph. Georgetown University: First in the Nation’s Capital. New York: Doubleday, 1964.
  • Lacouture, Jean. Jesuits: A Multibiography. Washington, DC:
    Counterpoint, 1991.
  • Loyola, Ignatius. A Pilgrim’s Journey. Translated by Joseph N. Tylenda. Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1985.
  • Lucas, Thomas. Landmarking: City, Church and Jesuit Urban Strategy. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1997.
  • O’Malley, John W. The First Jesuits. Cambridge: Harvard University
    Press, 1993.
  • Silf, Margaret. Inner Compass: An Invitation to Ignatian Spirituality.
    Chicago: Jesuit Way, 1999.
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    University Press, 1984.

“LXR,” or Loyola, Xavier, Ryder: Loyola is named for the first Jesuit, St. Ignatius. Francis Xavier met Ignatius while they were studying at the University of Paris. This brilliant student and talented athlete became Loyola’s closest friend, and he numbers among the “first companions” who pronounced vows together in 1534. After the Society was officially established in 1540, Loyola sent Xavier to preach the gospel in India and Japan. James Ryder was an alumnus and president of the university from 1848 to 1851.

White-Gravenor, Poulton, Gervase, and Copley: These buildings memorialize members of the original 17th century Jesuit mission to the Maryland colony. Andrew White, John Altham Gravenor, and Thomas Gervase arrived with Lord Leonard Calvert on March 25, 1634. They were later joined by Thomas Copley and Ferdinand Poulton, who are known as “the pioneers of Jesuit education in America” for establishing schools in Newtown, St. Mary’s City, and Bohemia, Maryland. The White-Gravenor and Copley buildings bear iconography that represents these men and the important events in their lives in colonial America.

Mulledy: Thomas Mulledy was an alumnus and twice president of the university, first from 1829 to 1837, and again from 1845 to 1848. Another Mulledy, Samuel, also an alumnus, was president from January 10 to September 6, 1845.

McSherry: William McSherry was an alumnus and president from 1838 to 1840.

Maguire: Bernard Maguire was an alumnus, acting president in 1853, and president from 1866 to 1870.

Healy: Patrick Healy was president from 1873 to 1882. He is sometimes known as the university’s “second founder,” and he was the first African-American college president in the United States. Another Healy, Timothy, was president from 1976 to 1989.

Nevils: William Coleman Nevils was president from 1928 to 1935.

Bunn Intercultural Center: Edward “Doc” Bunn was president from 1952 to 1964.

Henle Village: Robert Henle was president from 1968 to 1976.

Walsh: Edmund Walsh was the founding dean of the School of Foreign Service.

McDonough Arena: Vincent McDonough was a faculty member and director of athletics from 1916 to 1932. He was also the keeper of the university mascot, a Bull Terrier named “Hoya.”

Sellinger Lounge: Joseph Sellinger was dean of Georgetown College and later long time president of Loyola College in Maryland.

Yates Field House: Gerald Yates was a professor of government.

The Jesuits at Georgetown would like to acknowledge and thank Kevin O’Brien, S.J., C’88, and the Jesuits at Fordham University for their assistance in preparing this publication. Some material that appears here was published in The Heritage of Jesuit Education: A Guide for Fordham Students (2000).