Georgetown This Week

Georgetown This Week: On Civic Engagement

November 2, 2020

This is an important moment in the life of our nation.

Tomorrow, we join together as a people and participate in a defining American practice of citizenship. We go to the polls, we vote. It is one of the responsibilities we share as citizens of this republic.

There are three characteristic elements that constitute the university. We support the formation of our young people, the inquiry, the scholarship, and research of our faculty, and we contribute to the common good of the communities in which we participate.

Each of these elements has a resonance with the responsibilities of citizenship.

Formation in each of our lives as we wrestle with the questions that will enable us to establish our own integrity and authenticity, as we seek to discover the individuals that we are called to be. This requires that we come to terms with the responsibilities we have for each other. Inquiry, in many disciplines ranging from history, to philosophy, to sociology, and of course, in government, in law. Our faculty examine and seek a deeper understanding of the nature in place of a democracy in our international system. And common good. This has a special resonance for a Jesuit university. The last sentence of the mission statement of the Jesuits, the “Formula for the Institute,” written by St. Ignatius himself, ends with these words.

“Moreover, he should show himself ready to reconcile the estranged, compassionately assist and serve those who are in prisons or hospitals, and indeed, to perform any other works of charity, according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good.”

Father John O’Malley spent the last 15 years of his more than 60 years of teaching and scholarship here at Georgetown. John retired this past May. John identifies Cicero’s “De Officiis” as a foundational influence on Ignatius, and the first Jesuits. Cicero was a favorite author. The early Jesuits knew his work by heart. “De Officiis” is often translated as “on public responsibility.”

Father O’Malley identifies this passage of Cicero as having foundational resonance within our tradition.

“We are not born for ourselves alone. We, as human beings are born for the sake of other human beings that we might be able mutually to help one another; we ought therefore to contribute to the common good of humankind by reciprocal acts of kindness, by giving and receiving from one another, and thus by our skill, our industry, and our talents work to bring human society together in peace and harmony.”

Father O’Malley calls this the foundation of a civic spirituality. In the tradition upon which this university is built, we acknowledge that we have a civic commitment to seek the common good. At every moment in our history for more than two centuries, we have tried to live up to this public responsibility. A commitment to the common good changes everything. It acknowledges that there is truth to be discovered and good to be realized when we engage in our work together.

Over the years, we have tried to build, sustain, and continually strengthen a community that could support this commitment. We are emphatically a work in progress, always seeking to realize our promise as a university community.

Universities play an invaluable role in the life of our nation. We prepare an engaged citizenry, we contribute knowledge that shapes both discourse and policy, we contribute to the commons, the shared civic project of which we are all responsible.

Our university community has been inextricably linked to the American project. We are a community more than two centuries old, founded at the dawn of our nation. We call Washington DC, our capitol city, home. We have been connected throughout our history to the struggles of our nation, to the ideals of the American project, and to its failures.

As we look back over the past two centuries of the American project, we can see the role that each generation has been asked to play in fulfilling the promise of our nation. The success of our democracy requires an engaged society, a public that has been prepared to engage to ensure that democracy itself flourishes. An engaged society in turn requires that every institution fulfill its responsibility to our common project.

For today’s presentation, I wish to share with you a brief film, a representation of how we have sought to inspire and fulfill this civic commitment to our nation.

For two centuries, the members of this Georgetown community have accepted the responsibilities that come with sustaining a democracy. We have sought to be a place of truth, a source of hope, a force for peace, of reconciliation, of love. It is right there in the words on our shield, the Latin words, “Utraque Unum,” both into one. The source of our motto is found in the second chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and I wish to close with these words.

“He has made both into one and has broken down the dividing wall so that he might create one new humanity in place of two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

I wish each of you the very best.

Take care of yourselves and everyone around you for every Hoya everywhere.