All Main Campus Library facilities are open and operating at full capacity to Georgetown faculty, students, and staff. The Library will be closed to external community members and guests through December 2021, with limited exceptions. Find the most current information available on the Library's COVID-19 FAQ.

or browse databases: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z #

You are here



The Founder's Day Convocation

Georgetown University

Thursday, March 22, 1956

Address by

The Reverend John Courtney, S.J., Woodstock College, Md.

Four hundred years ago, on July 31, 1556, a little man of 65 died suddenly in Rome after a long illness, In stature he was a little man, only 158 centimeters, hardly more than five feet, But against the receding horizon of history his figure towers immensely tall, At his death his name was known and his influence felt in all the cities of Europe, and in far off countries to East and West beyond the seas. Even at the moment when he left the scene of earth, he was reckoned among the small group of men who in their lifetimes have altered the course of history.

Yet hardly more than 20 years before his death he was unknown. He was an indigent student in Paris finally finishing his education at the age of 43. His six years in Paris had left no mark on the university. In boyhood his education had been scanty—reading and writing almost nil. When he took up his studies again at the age of 34, he began badly and continued amid distractions. He was no scholar. To the end of his life he wrote bad Spanish and bad Latin.

Yet this indifferently educated man, who took his degrees in Paris without distinction, had left before he died a genial imprint on the enterprise of education in his own day, and he had launched an educational tradition that is still vitally alive today.

This fact is the more remarkable in the light of the further fact that it was not until 1548, eight years before he died, when he was 57 years of age, that Ignatius first turned his mind seriously to the problem of education.

On this historical fact there hangs a tale that is worth some brief spinning. Ignatius Loyola was the most purposeful of saints; but his concrete purposes were rarely set by himself; they were almost always set by events, circumstances, sheer contingencies.

It is a commonplace of hagiography that a cannonball, by shattering his right leg, also shattered the first purpose, the earliest dream of his life the dream of a soldier's glory.

But this was only the beginning of the story. Its further unfolding brings on in turn a Franciscan friar who knew his own mind, and a ship that wasn't there.

Inigo met the Franciscan in Jerusalem in 1523, and was sent by him out of the Holy Land back to Europe. Banished to his own country, the pilgrim went to school, in Barcelona, Alcala and Salamanca; and in Paris. Not interested in a career, he only wanted to be a priest. For the rest, a lingering vision still obscured his view, of what his life should be. It was not finally banished until 1536, by the incident of the ship. It happened that there was no ship at Venice to carry Inigo and his six companions and all their Parisian learning back to the Holy Land.

Thus, in the providence of God, a sensible Franciscan and a missing ship turned Inigo away from his second great dream. It was a dream of sanctity on the medieval model. He would live the life of the legendary pilgrim, spending his days in prayer and penance on the periphery of Christendom where it met the Moslem world, It was a gallant dream. But he was dreaming it out of time. It was a medieval dream and the Middle Ages were over. In following it Inigo was seeking a way out of the present into the past, away from the center out to the periphery.


But it took the force of events to dispel the dream. Inigo and his companions were obliged to stay in Europe. Blocked off from a return to the past, they were forced to confront the future, to meet the modern world and all the problems created by its modernity. This they did.

Within a decade the little Company of Jesus, directed by its Founder, had begun to play a decisive role in the three great movements that were shaping the modern Church in the modern world: the missionary movement, the Catholic reform and the Counter Reform.

The Company was not founded to further any of these movements. It was founded only to do whatever needed doing. And these were the things that needed doing in the 1540's.

Curiously, the work that would become central, the work with which the Jesuit name would become most intimately associated, had not yet appeared. There is no mention of education in the first Formula of the Institute of the Society of Jesus, approved by Paul III in 1540.

The fact is curious. Ignatius and his first companions were all university men. On their arrival in Rome in 1537 they were introduced to Paul III as "Parisian theologians," a title of intellectual dignity that they had consciously sought. But the original ideal of the Company was wholly sacerdotal.

It was only in 1548, 14 years after the first vows at Montmartre, and eight years after the juridical foundation of the Company, that the ideal of the pedagogue came into view, the ideal of the priest as scholar and teacher in all branches of human learning, allied as time went an with laymen who were also scholars and teachers.

Characteristically, the new ideal was not consciously formulated in the initiative of Ignatius himself. What had been done by the Franciscan Provincial in Jerusalem and by the missing ship at Venice was done again—this time by the Viceroy of Sicily, Don Juan de Vega. In the name of the city of Messina he petitioned Ignatius in 1547 to open a college in that city, not for aspirants to the priesthood but for boys in quest of a general education, including, as it must, a knowledge of their Faith.

The undertaking was new to the point of being revolutionary. No major religious order had theretofore assumed charge of institutions of liberal education. Ignatius meditated the move into this new field with his usual deliberation; but when he decided to move, he moved with his usual energy, He decided, his secretary, Polanco wrote, "to fall short in other directions in order to comply" with the Viceroy's request, Although he had too few men at his disposal, he sent 12 to Messina, And he picked 12 of the best, including Nadal and Canisius. In 1548 the first Jesuit college opened.


It was only an experiment. But, as he watched it succeed, a new vision opened before the eyes of Ignatius, who had the intuitive capacity to catch sight of visions, and the administrative genius to summon them into the actuality of organized existence.

A year later, in 1549, when he sent his favorite son, Pietro Ribadeneira, to the college in Messina, he said to him: "Pietro, if we live 10 years, we shall see great things in the Company. What am I saying, if we live? If you live, you will see them* As for me, I do not think I shall live that long." He was right—in 7 years he was dead. But Ribadeneira saw the harvest that in 10 years sprang from the seed planted in Messina: 35 colleges scattered through Europe and Asia, seven more in process of erection. In 1606, when the Company commemorated the semi-centenary of the death of its Founder, Ribadeneira was still alive to see a widening harvest: 293 colleges throughout the world, 38 of them in Latin America, India and Japan.

These numbers were great things to see. But when Ignatius spoke to Ribadeneira of great things, the subdued excitement in his voice had another source than a vision of great piles of brick and mortar, large numbers of colleges -- not impressed by numbers. In the college at Messina, and in the others that followed in quick succession (seven in Spain and Portugal, several in Italy, others in Prague, Vienna and Ingolstadt) Ignatius must have felt that he had at last come upon the major vehicle that would embody his deepest inspiration, develop it, articulate it, commend it to the heart of youth, set it at the well springs of their thinking, and multiply the foci of it throughout the world.

The Ignatian inspiration was basically religious; but it clamored for expression through the medium of a school. This proposition is not immediately evident. Certainly it was not immediately evident to Ignatius. From the time the inspiration began to take shape in 1522, it took him 26 years to see that its essential implication was a dedication of himself and his Company to the work of the school. But from the moment when he saw the relation between his religious ideal and an ideal of education his Society became a teaching order.

Perhaps the vision of this relation is the thing we ought chiefly to recapture today, lest it get lost or dimmed in the routine of 400 years. It is interesting to study the changes that have been made in the curricula of Jesuit schools over the last four centuries. It would be interesting to discuss the changes that are being made, or that ought to be made, today. But more important than the changes is the unchanging inspiration that lies at the source of all the change and all the continuity. Only this inspiration spans all the differences between his age and ours, between the college of Messina in 1548 and Georgetown University in 1956.

The differences are formidable. Four centuries of history have pretty much shoveled the world of Ignatius into Trotsky's famous "dust bin." Old ideas are dead; old institutions changed; old patterns broken. But there is a common measure between the transitional period that was the middle 16th century and our present age, which is likewise transitional.


Ignatius lived in the morning of modernity, when the times began to be modern, when the spirit of modernity was swinging into its work. Now the day of modernity is sloping to its close. We are near to the end of modern times. In our generation the spirit of modernity has almost done its full work. As Ignatius strove to convert the modern age in its youth by infusing a new inspiration into the school, so by the same means the Jesuit college of today is striving to convert the modern age upon its death bed.

The modern age. They say it began with man's discovery of himself, when he first experienced the full surge of the powers resident in his nature, in his individual self. This discovery and experience ensued upon that recapture of antiquity which is called Renaissance, in its third decisive stage, the quattrocento, when man woke to the wonders of the prose and poetry, the painting and the plastic art, the politics and philosophy of Greece and Rome. Men then caught a vision of all the knowledge acquired, all the beauty wrought, all the moral heroism achieved, before the Incarnation of the Son of God. They realized what men had done, and what men could do. They discovered man's virtu—man's power in its full sense.

In that day man fell in love with himself, with his own creative powers, and with the things he had created. This new vision of man dimmed the old vision of God as the Creator, and of man's creatureliness. It blurred the old vision of the Redeemer and of the price of redemption. It altered man's concept of his destiny, which he began to locate upon earth.

This in brief was the problem raised by the Renaissance. It was the problem of man, the creature, cut off from the vision of his Creator by the new vision of his own nature, by the dark opaqueness of the world, by the dazzling brilliance of his own creations. It was the problem of man, who needs redemption, but who has forgotten whence redemption comes, in consequence of the illusion that man can redeem himself, by obeying the maxim that "knowledge is virtue," a fallacy as old as Socrates.

This as the basic problem faced by Ignatius, not Protestantism. He had been sent back from Jerusalem to face it. To meet the central problem of the times, this man from Basque country, educated and pious, settled himself at the center of the Christian world, in Rome. Say it was the problem of humanism, of man as the measure, situated at the center of anthropocentric universe, confronted with a human ideal, and convinced that he himself could realize it.

Is not this our problem today? only how much more complicated it is. All that has happened in 400 years has aggravated it. Great human energies have been released. Man has sent forth his own spirit, rational and purposeful, and it has altered the face of the earth. The pace of man's creativeness was wonderfully accelerated when human reason mastered the secrets of science, and when the human hand was prolonged by the instrument of technology. Then nature was made to feel in her very being that man is her master.


The trouble is that in remaking the earth, man seems to have exhausted himself. The earth around him blooms; but at his own interior there is a waste land. Man is now surrounded by things of his own creation; but he, their master, feels a sense of enslavement His greatest achievement—the release of the primal energy in nature—has faced him with the spectre of self-annihilation. His most intimate experience is of insecurity, which is the obverse of his pride.

In this predicament what do we say and do? More particularly, what does a school say and do? I suggest that it says and does what Ignatius wanted said and done in his first college at Messina. He was a man for simple ideas, but infinitely subtle in implication. Certainly he had no cut and thrust solutions for the problems of Renaissance man. He did not want to see repeated the crime of Justinian, who burnt the library of Alexandria and destroyed all its treasury of pagan learning and wisdom, thinking that this vandalism would serve the cause of Christ. Ignatius was no Martin Luther, who turned with fury upon all that the Renaissance meant. He had no curses for the Renaissance. He did not reject its scholarship and learning, its art and music. He made no attempt to smother the great feeling for life, the great sense of human powers, the great desire for glory on earth, that gripped the men of his day. Above all he did not share the neurotic preoccupation with death, the sense of impending doom that was the strange other side of the Renaissance will to live.

In facing his own times Ignatius drew his inspiration from the heart of the gospel, out of which comes good news, a message of rebirth and renewal, a hope of freedom and a full life, a promise that man shall be made new, and so too shall his earth and his heavens. This is the eternal hope of the humanist, the promise that he longs to hear. And this is the hope and promise that Ignatius wanted to see fulfilled through his Spiritual Exercises, and no less through his schools.

But he was as clear as the gospel itself about the conditions of fulfillment. He affirmed the humanist ideal, but only as transformed in the fire that Christ came to cast upon earth, willing that it should be enkindled. Let your affirmation be of man, he said, but of man as created by God. Love all human things, he said; love all the things upon the face of the earth; but love them all in God. Nothing in God's creation, or in man's, is to be rejected or despised. All things that are come into being according to God's most holy and divine will. But let his will in their regard be obeyed, for it is a majestic and a good will. All things are from God; at the heart of all things he dwells; through all things he works. In all things God can be found. Seek him, therefore, and find him. This is his most holy and divine will. Obedience to it is the price of freedom and order in human life. If this prior affirmation of God is made, man is free to affirm, to love, and to seek all that is human and natural. But if man does not first affirm God, the human and the natural become, as they did for Renaissance man, bonds of imprisonment and slavery, agents of disorder and human destruction.

This is true of the individual; it is likewise true of a culture. We cannot forget that the spirit of modernity in the Renaissance stifled the Renaissance itself, as this great creative movement ran out under the impulse of its own dynamism (aided by other causes) in the arid sterilities and in the inhuman geometric spirit of the Enlightenment.


Here, I think, is the basic inspiration of Ignatian education. This in outline is the essential thing he wanted his schools to say. Nearly everything else they say changes in the course of time. Much that was said in the college of Messina in 1548 is not said today. Much else is said differently. And today (alas for today's poor students!) much else is added.

But beneath all the changes there is continuity between Messina and Georgetown, as between the world of Ignatius and the world in which we live. The spirit of modernity is still abroad. Its achievements have been many and great. By it the human heritage, accumulated by the forces of man's reason and will, has been vastly enriched. And all these riches must pass into the school, which is forever a treasury from which men bring forth new things and old. At the same time, the workings of the spirit of modernity have also been corrosive. They have progressively eroded the Christian substance of human life, in a measure that varies in proportion as the Church has been, here and there, more or less successful in resisting the erosion.

The conversion of the spirit of modernity is still the challenge. But it is late in the day. I think the spirit is about to die. But I fear it may rise again in the form of something more inhumanly dreadful, because more irrational, than itself.

If Ignatius Loyola were alive today, would he say to some later Ribadeneira: "Pietro, in 10 years we shall see great things in the Company, in the schools and colleges of the Company, here at Georgetown?" Would these words be a prediction and a promise? At least let them stand as the statement of a responsibility.

The responsibility rests on all of you—officers, faculty, and students of this great University. I myself am privileged to shoulder with you this responsibility, in gratitude for the honor which Georgetown has conferred upon me today, the dignity of inclusion in the number of her sons.