Reflections Upon Receiving Sophia University's "Esteemed Friend" Honor

Remarks by President John J. DeGioia

Sophia University
Tokyo, Japan
November 19, 2014

It is a profound honor for me to be here today and I wish to express my gratitude to:

  • Professor Miki Sugimusa
  • Father Toshiaki Koso
  • Professor Takahasi Hayashita

for this very special moment for me and Georgetown University. It was just over a year ago that we had the privilege of welcoming you to Washington for a celebration of your centenary. Our first exchange student from Sophia came to Georgetown in 1935 and over the past generation our partnership has been among our most valued throughout the world. My colleagues, Father Dennis McNamara, Dr. Thomas Banchoff, Dr. Joseph Ferrara, and Mr. Austin Imperato are grateful for the hospitality of your university during this wonderful visit.

Our universities share more than this now eighty-year history. We share a tradition of learning that has animated both of our missions, a tradition that originated in the imagination of St. Ignatius of Loyola more than four-hundred and fifty years ago. It is from this tradition that I wish to offer some brief reflections today, because it is this tradition that gives me confidence that our universities will be able to not only respond to the distinctive challenges that define higher education in our world today, but to provide leadership within our societies and within our global community.

My reflections today will focus on three issues:
[1] The role or purpose of the university
[2] The resources of our shared tradition
[3] The importance of place.

[1] The Purpose of the University—What Are Universities for?

I come before you today noting the challenges that face our societies and where and how universities can engage in addressing them fruitfully. Before describing these challenges, let me share with you what I believe the purpose of universities is—what are the three, interlocking and mutually reinforcing elements that must be protected and sustained if universities are to survive and thrive.

  • we provide a context for the formation of our students
  • we provide a context for the inquiry—the scholarship and research of our faculty
  • and as an institution, we contribute to the common good of the communities in which we participate.

This is a moment when we need to recommit ourselves to our purpose—to these three elements—formation, inquiry and common good—while seeking to embrace the opportunities that are present in this moment.

As a university, we pursue the truth wherever it leads. The disinterested pursuit of truth is the unique activity and contribution of the university. This is a role that we are asked to play, a role expected of us in our society. Our societies are weaker if we fail to honor this responsibility.

But for a university, the pursuit of truth also demands the construction of knowledge, the critique of knowledge, and the sharing of knowledge.

The pursuit of truth is not uniquely something that happens with isolated individuals engaging in solitary work. Rather, though it may begin at one’s desk, insights are soon shared, in rigorous and civil discourse, reflecting the pattern of engagement of the university.

This pattern – a commitment to genuine dialogue…to the exchange of ideas, especially with those different than our own…to the idea that we arrive closer to the truth when we presume the best of one another, even with those with whom we disagree – this pattern has never been more needed.

We engage in a search for truth through dialogue and debate, through the presentation of evidence, from multiple perspectives. And then, discoveries…insights…scholarship…are shared among fellow scholars, within the faculty and beyond any particular university community. But of course, this effort crucially extends to students. "Formation," the work of teaching and ensuring learning, is a principal element – and responsibility – of sharing.

As a university, we support the formation of our students, the work of discovery – the scholarship of our faculty, and a responsibility for the common good. Every university plays a role in contributing to the commonweal.

Such an aspiration requires us to acknowledge the urgency – particularly given a world whose boundaries are rapidly shrinking – of the need to connect the work of our communities ever more deeply with that being done throughout our world. As we wrestle with the challenges of access to education and health care, of the importance of the dignity of work and the need to ensure our economies can provide for the needs of all of our people, we need to engage voices from all parts of the world – scholars and practitioners whose engagement with similar challenges are producing powerful new ideas that can provide creative, imaginative, innovative solutions for our societies.

Our discourse is now global. We need to bring new voices, from throughout our world to the table. The pursuit of truth and the commitment to sharing that characterizes our life together within our universities must extend beyond our campuses, beyond our home cities, and reach throughout our world.

At the same time, "globalization" itself poses its own challenges, manifest in global warming; increasing inequalities; worldwide economics and social stresses—limitations—of our political and economic processes; expanding violence and the emergence of "networks" of terror around the planet; surveillance technologies and practices that alter hard-won citizen privacies; gaping holes in health care systems that allow the development and spread of virulent disease across all borders.

This is by no means a complete list of what we all confront.

There is nothing "natural" about these problems. The planet has warmed and cooled in waves in the past, but indisputable evidence points to how we, through our own behavior, accelerate global warming today. We approach what Brian Fagan calls a "threshold of vulnerability" (The Long Summer), which demands concerted action by all of us.

There is nothing “natural” to the inequalities that define our world today, an inequality that in a tweet to his nearly five million followers Pope Francis called “the root of social evil.” (McElroy 14-18). We are on a trajectory that seems to almost regularize the idea that there are very very rich and very very poor throughout the world.

The limitations of the current systems we have developed for organizing our lives together have become more apparent. How can we imagine anew ways of building our communities that enable all of our people to flourish?

Can we meet the new needs for security and safety that emerge as the differences that separate the peoples of the world become more immediate?

Can we protect and care for the health of one another as new viruses spread and we see inequalities exhibited in medical treatment worldwide?

These daunting problems emerge at a time when our universities are also facing challenges. The same forces that appear to drive our societies to the problems I just sketched also confront our universities. The demand for "relevance" is ever-present, based on assumptions that we provide "services" that seemingly ignore the purposes I mentioned before: creating a context for formation, a context for inquiry, and the pursuit of the common good.

[2] What Our Two Universities Uniquely Offer—The Resources of Our Shared Tradition

Our two universities share resources of incalculable worth: the wisdom of four centuries of Jesuit education. These resources include the example of Alessandro Valignano, the Jesuit who came to Japan in 1579, just thirty years after Francis Xavier. We know Valignano as the father of the practice of inculturation—a practice adapted and extended by Mateo Ricci. Valignano envisioned a way of being, a way of knowing—of getting to know—cultures different from our own. This entailed an open embrace of customs and practices and a desire to connect with individuals at a deeply personal level, to seek to understand their inner lives, of what Father Nicolas describes as the “system by which the others [live] and on which they have built their self-identity…”. (Nicolás 31)

Valignano also brought us “one of the world’s first ‘international’ and even ‘intercultural’ colleges, where both Japanese and European students studied in the same classroom” (O’Malley 14). The school he establish at Funai taught students through the study of classical Japanese and Chinese texts.

In Valignano we see a figure dedicated to seeking truth…to pursuing a deeper understanding of peoples and cultures…to building bridges through exchange and learning. Exchange…learning…understanding at ever deeper levels—what better foundation on which to build a friendship—friendship like the one we celebrate today, one with an arc rooted in one of the greatest traditions of learning the world has ever seen, and that stretches to this present day, to all of us, here, together.

There are two other aspects of our tradition that I wish to emphasize this afternoon.

First, there is a characteristic style that animates our schools. In introducing the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius shares with us an insight that informs the tradition in which we engage in this work of learning. He presents the “Presupposition.” It goes something like this: "let it be presupposed that we be more ready to save our neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If we cannot save it, inquire more deeply its meaning; and if [one] means it badly, [seek to] correct it…with charity."

Another way of saying it: our tradition asks us, always, to seek the best in one another—to presuppose the best in one another, and in so doing, we will find the best in ourselves.

Second, Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, writes of the need for “people-building:” "It is an on-going process in which every generation must take part: a slow and arduous effort calling for integration and a willingness to achieve this through the growth of a peaceful and multifaceted culture of encounter." (220)

The Holy Father’s conception of “people-building” has a profound resonance with the tradition of our institutions. We provide a context for the kind of work that sustains such encounter. And we recognize that our traditions are never static, never fixed in time: they require our continuous reimagining, ensuring we are always responsive to the demands of this moment.

Again, Pope Francis: "What we need, then, is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can help develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events." (223)

It is the very nature of the university to “generate” such “new processes”—processes that enable us to fulfill our distinctive mission of formation, inquiry and the common good.

[3] The Importance of Place

There is one further element that is especially relevant as I close these remarks: the importance of place.

Ignatius, in his autobiography, describes himself as a pilgrim.

Paul Elie, a member of the Georgetown community, describes the nature of pilgrimage in his award-winning book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: "A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken in the light of a story. A great event has happened; the pilgrim hears the reports and goes in search of the evidence, aspiring to be an eyewitness. The pilgrim seeks not only to confirm the experience of others firsthand but to be changed by the experience."

Pilgrims often make the journey in company, but each must be changed individually; they must see for themselves, each with his or her own eyes. And as they return to ordinary life the pilgrims must tell others what they saw, recasting the story in their own terms. (x)

As I have reflected on our time together last September and as I prepared for our visit, I have been struck by the words you use to capture the distinctiveness of your University: “Men and Women for Others, with Others.” The first words, from Father Arrupe’s most famous speech would be recognizable to all associated with Jesuit institutions. But the two additional words—“with Others”—this insight is a distinctive contribution of Sophia. It is a contribution that I think all of us connected to the work of the Society of Jesus benefit.

I look forward to learning more from you over the course of my visit, but let me share with you what these two words have come to mean for me.

“With others” recognizes that we can only achieve our promise and potential, together, in community. It is in our deepest interpersonal relationships that we have the courage to share our deepest selves and to place ourselves in a position of encounter. Universities provide a place—“a shared space for emerging relationships” (Nonaka and Konno 40).

I have come to discover the concept of ba, “originally proposed by Kitaro Nishida….” and adapted in recent times by Ikujiro Nonaka and Noboru Konno. They write: "…ba can be thought of as a shared space…for knowledge creation. Ba provides a platform for advancing individual and/or collective knowledge…Ba [is] a shared space that serves as a foundation for knowledge creation…". (40)

Universities are shared spaces for knowledge creation. They are shared spaces for transmitting that knowledge to the next generation—the work of formation. They are shared spaces for embracing the work of building the commonweal—both locally and globally.

Shared spaces can only be built together—with one another and I am grateful that through my encounter with you, I have been given this insight. Such a gift is only a possible when we come together, like this—“for Others, with Others.”

Both Sophia and Georgetown are “place[s] of pilgrimage, [both] a home and a destination…where the self encounters the other…where personal experience and the testimony of the ages can be reconciled.” (Elie 29)

With one another.

It is a profound honor for me to be here and to share this moment with you. I look forward to deepening the encounter between our two universities, building the places—the spaces where together we can be the universities that we are called to be.

Works Cited

Elie, Paul. The Life You Save May Be Your Own. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Print.

Fagan, Brian. The Long Summer. Basic Books, 2004. Print.

Francis I. Apostolic Exhortation: Evangelii Gaudium of the Holy Father Francis to the Bishops, Clergy, Consecrated Persons
     and the Lay Faithful on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World. 24 Nov. 2013. 17 Nov. 2014. Web.

McElroy, Robert. “Market Assumptions.” America 3 Nov. 2014: 14-18. Print.

Nicolás, Adolfo. "Interreligious Dialogue: The Experience of Some Pioneer Jesuits in Asia." The Way 50.4 (2011): 7-33.
     Print.

Nonaka, Ikujiro and Noboru Konno. “The Concept of ‘Ba’: Building a Foundation for Knowledge Creation.” California
     Management Review 40.3 (1998). Print.

O’Malley John. "Jesuit Schools and Globalization, Yesterday and Today." To be published as part of Georgetown
     University's volume on globalization under the direction of Prof. Jose Casanova.