Catholic Health East Conference: Reflections on Mission and Identity at Georgetown and Beyond

Sawgrass Marriott
Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
June 1, 2009

It is with deep humility that I join you today to offer some reflections on mission and identity. I imagine that we have all been living with these questions for so long, with such intensity, that the words blend together – as if they are one word.

The challenge is to always breathe new life into these words—because we recognize the importance of sustaining and deepening the mission and identity of our institutions.

But we have so many daily responsibilities…so much pressing on us… so much right here in the immediacy of the moment. You have patients to care for,
regulations to address, accreditation standards, getting the billing codes right,
ordering supplies. Do we really have the time; can we really commit the energy for the work of identity?

We know that, fundamentally, everything is at stake with this question.
If I draw an analogy from my family, isn’t it enough that I am providing a roof over their heads, food on the table, a quality education, Cub Scouts, Legos…?

What is at stake is our very soul.

As I prepared these remarks, it became clearer that the only way I could provide an authentic witness to the “lived” reality of engaging the questions of mission and identity was through some personal reflections on my own journey.

I have lived these questions for nearly a quarter-century, in one institution, and I will offer a perspective through an Ignatian lens. Georgetown is a Catholic and Jesuit university, founded in 1789, and until 2001 it was led by a Roman Catholic priest. Three weeks before beginning my service as president, my son, JT, was born—which led some students to joke, “Well, we may have lost a priest, but we gained a father….”

I don’t offer these words to advocate on behalf of a single religious order, although, I am sure you are familiar with the story of three devout men, a Dominican, a Franciscan, and a Benedictine, who were all proclaiming the primacy of their tradition. They finally drafted a letter asking God for clarification and the response came back: “My children, stop your quarreling. You know I love you all equally.” It was signed, “God, S.J.”

I offer these thoughts from a life lived as a layman in one tradition in the hope that they might provide some thoughts as you wrestle with some of the important challenges you face as an organization in the coming years.

I. Multiple Manifestations of a Tradition

I have put at your places a card that captures what we call “The Spirit of Georgetown.” If you came onto our campus in the opening days of the new academic year, or during our commencement week, you would see a series of banners placed throughout the campus, capturing characteristics of the spirit of our community. Some of these characteristics are self-explanatory and don’t really differentiate us, others are more distinctive.

Over my more than three decades at Georgetown, our Catholic and Jesuit identity has come to mean different things to me. All of them true, all authentic, but if you think of our identity as a mosaic, some came into greater relief at certain moments than at others. For example, as an undergraduate, the commitment to social justice had prominence. As a graduate student, our commitment to academic excellence and to the Catholic intellectual tradition had priority. For seven years I served as Dean of Students, and at that time, the theme of ‘Cura Personalis” – a focus on the “individualized attention to the needs of the other” became the focus of my understanding. There are many manifestations. What they capture is the multiple ways in which we can describe our identity.

II. First Principle and Foundation

But I also came to understand that underneath these manifestations, there was something even more powerful. At your places is a second card, and I would like to read it to you.

First Principle and Foundation

The goal of life is to be with God forever.
God who loves us, gave us life.
Our own response of love allows God’s life
to flow into us without limit.
All the things in this world are gifts of God
presented to us so that we can know God more easily
and make a return to love more readily.
As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God
insofar as they help us develop as loving persons.
But if any of these gifts become the center of our lives,
they displace God and so hinder our growth
toward our goal.
In everyday life, then we must hold ourselves in balance before all these created gifts insofar as we have a choice
and we are not bound by some obligation.
We should not fix our desires on health or sickness,
wealth or poverty, success or failure,
a long life or a short one.
For everything has the potential of calling forth in us
a deeper response to our life in God.
Our only desire and our one choice should be this:
I want and I choose what better leads
to God’s deepening his life in me.

This is one of the clearest articulations of the vision of Ignatius. What emerged for me, and this took place between the mid-1980’s and through the 90’s, was that, ultimately, what animated the work of a Catholic and Jesuit university was a spirituality. Ignatius, the founder of the Order, developed a methodology that evolved from his own experiences, which he shared in spiritual conversation and friendship, as he followed his own journey to an ever deepening “response” to his “life in God.”

III. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius

As one contemporary member of the Society of Jesus has shared:

…he [Ignatius] systematically engaged others in spiritual conversation about God and the things of God, and this led to the gradual formation of the Spiritual Exercises, from what God taught him through his personal experiences of the action of the Spirit in his life, and from his encounters with others. It also led to the formation of spiritual friendships which constellated around him and his work. This program of spiritual conversation, spiritual exercises, and spiritual friendship is at the root of the Ignatian identity….” (Jean-Marc Laporte, Ignatian Identity and Mission: Beyond GC 35)

Being a member of the Georgetown community, I had heard of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, but I could not find an easy way to access them. I remember asking one Jesuit: “How can I start doing them….?” as if I was talking about an aerobics class. I did not have a vocabulary, a grammar, a syntax for spiritual conversation.

But something extraordinary was emerging and things began to open up in the mid-1980’s. A group of Jesuits, often working alone, sometimes together, took the call of the Second Vatican Council to re-connect, to re-capture, the animating sources of our traditions, and began to re-imagine how this spirituality could be made accessible for a modern age. Some, like John O’Malley and John Padberg focused on history: Who was Ignatius? Who were his first companions? How did the ministries of work emerge and evolve? Others, like Howard Gray and Brian McDermott, George Aschenbrenner, and David Fleming, focused on spiritual formation: What are the kinds of experiences that enable us to experience the presence of God, the love of God? How can spiritual direction provide support in this process? Could the Exercises be adapted in ways that could be relevant for our own eyes, our own ears, our own hearts?

I was introduced to my first Spiritual Director, Father William Sampson, and for more than a decade we met regularly – for much of those years, every Friday morning. These weekly meetings set the stage for longer eight day retreats and ultimately a 30 day retreat, where I was directed through the “four weeks” of the Exercises. Through this process, I was introduced to a “way of proceeding” in my spiritual life. I was always a very serious practicing Catholic. I was raised this way as a boy, and I never felt any need to resist. It came easy and was very comfortable. But I didn’t know I could have a spiritual life, that I could engage in spiritual conversations, that there are words – a vocabulary – for such conversations.

I learned that the goal of such engagement is to experience, in the deepest part of one’s being, the affective knowing, with certainty, the truth, that we are loved by God.

I had such experiences many times in my life. But I didn’t have a way of talking about it. Through my work with Father Sampson and Father Gray, through reading Father O’Malley, I found that I could put words to this profound feeling – this feeling of knowing that I am loved.

This feeling is one that Ignatius calls a “consolation.” And as I said, throughout my life I have had many moments of consolation. We struggle with our vocabulary. Let me describe what I mean by a “consolation.” Last week, I spoke to our graduating class about such moments. During the days prior to Commencement, I would often be asked by members of our senior class: “What do you remember most about your undergraduate years here at Georgetown? What is the most powerful memory you have of those first years – those undergraduate years – for you, on this Hilltop?” I shared this reflection:

It is the experience of a feeling, a feeling with which I know you can identify…a feeling that emerged in four different contexts, each context ever deeper…a feeling of consolation…a feeling of wholeness…a feeling that I am, in that very moment, my very best self…a feeling I came to understand during my undergraduates years here on this Hilltop. How many of you have had such a wondrous experience?

The first context was in athletics. I was a student-athlete when I was an undergraduate at Georgetown. But as any of my classmates will attest, it is not false modesty when I say I didn’t have much talent or ability. You just couldn’t have told me that. Despite obvious indications, I was the last one to understand the limits of my skills. Yet everyday, I was out there, and everyday I was practicing and competing, and from time to time, something very special would happen. After all the work, every so often I would find myself doing things that I didn’t know I could do. It was fantastic, and the feeling that came with it was incredible.

Well, somewhere in my sophomore year, near the end of the semester, I was writing a paper and I had that feeling again, only this time it wasn’t on a field, it was in a quiet classroom, late in the evening…I began writing and I didn’t know where the words were coming from. I had read the material; I had studied the work as hard as I had ever practiced a sport; and there it was, that same incredible feeling – so hard to describe, and so incredible. I had that feeling, only this time it was by engaging my intellect, and as I continued in my studies, I had that feeling again on a few more occasions. I know you can identify with this feeling.

A third context – where I could be my very best self – was in the friendships, the relationships that I discovered [at Georgetown]…. The experience wasn’t new, but understanding that I could have an experience I first had as a boy; a feeling I had growing up; a feeling I experienced first at home – with my Mom and Dad, with my brother – the feeling that comes with knowing you are loved – a feeling that comes in our deepest relationships, was remarkable.

And then there were moments…when we gather together as a community in celebration of the Mass. Why? What is it about these moments…It is…when we gather together in prayer, in the sacrament, in celebration, in community, that we know we are loved. We are loved by a God, a God who “is love.” A God who “sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him….”

The extraordinary promise that is offered us, is that this experience of being our best selves, where we have that feeling of coherence, of depth, that feeling of consolation — this feeling is always available to us….(Baccalaureate Mass, Reflections, May 17, 2009)

I was trying to share this insight with our seniors. It is affective. You can’t call it at will. You have to place yourself in a position to be available for grace. But when it does happen, as you know …there is nothing quite like it.

But we also know when it doesn’t happen. Moments when we lack any coherence; we feel at loose ends, fragmented, frustrated, angry. In Ignatian terms, these are moments of “desolation.” And I have come to appreciate that it is in such moments, that being a part of a common work and an on-going work…a common conversation about what matters most in our lives…a common conversation and an on-going conversation…can be so valuable.

IV. The Examen

I am worried that I may be losing you in all this spiritual talk. You all have many hospitals, which are among the most complicated organizations to manage. We all sit here in June 2009, amidst the worst financial crisis in our lifetimes. The words “cost containment” dominate health care policy reform discussions. We live in a nation with 46 million uninsured. You’ve got so much work to do, and what does any of this work have to do with talk about consolations and desolations?

I’d like to take a moment and try something right now. I’d like to guide you through a reflective experience.


Thank you. Now, no doubt, you all have your own experiences in prayer – both individual and communal. We all have our own styles and forms. This prayer, the one that I just took you through, connects all those engaged in the form of prayer of the Society of Jesus. The most basic manifestation of the spirituality of St. Ignatius is this short experience in which we reflect upon our day, looking for those moments when God was present in our day…looking for those moments of consolation…of joy…and for those moments of desolation.

Do all the members of Georgetown University engage in this style of daily reflection? No.

Do all of those engaged in the work of Georgetown even know of this concrete manifestation of the spirituality? No. Most will experience our Catholic and Jesuit identity through the other forms I described, and which are captured in the handout I shared with you.

But I have a seven-year old son who attends a Jesuit elementary school in our neighborhood, and everyday he and his classmates close the school day with their own version of the Examen.

I share this with you because, like you, I have a responsibility to ensure that the animating vision of our work is sustained, re-imagined, re-interpreted. This vision needs to come alive today, just as it did in earlier days. And what gives me hope is the resources we have to draw upon – outstanding people…strong institutional structures…careful articulations of our understanding of our identities…a deep engagement in the work…networks of relationships. But, again, what is most important, even more so than all of that . . . is a spirituality that animates everything that takes place in our work.

V. We Face Some Challenges

We are in environments that will go through even more wrenching change in the years ahead. Our operating margins are already small, and yet we face a new paradigm of cost containment. The poor will be impacted the most by the current financial crisis, placing ever greater burdens on our systems. And the very nature of healthcare will be changing. So much of health care in the past century was delivered in institutional settings – in our hospitals – but we know this will change. You are well positioned – you are the largest provider of home health care in the nation.

Will you be able to sustain the unique Catholic character of your “way of proceeding,” of your style, your way of caring, when so much of the work of CHE will be taking place outside of institutional settings?

You also have 54,000 employees in CHE, and 79 Women Religious working within CHE.

How do you respond?

You have always responded to every challenge that has confronted you. The extraordinary history you have lived in coming together as this system—driven by a vision and a mission for caring for those at the most vulnerable moments in their lives, and animated by the “faith that God has called [you] to this work as a manifestation of the limitless healing grace of God.”

You know who you are.

You know who you want to be.

You know the work you are called to do.

You have proven to be extraordinarily adaptive and resilient.

And you now face a new set of challenges that will demand, again, the very best of every one of you.

I would like to offer one thought. You come together – ten different Sponsors. Some of you are animated by the vision of St. Francis of Assisi…others by the vision of St. Vincent de Paul…others—the Sisters of Mercy— by that extraordinary daughter of Ireland, Catherine McAuley. All of you have, at the heart of your community, a vision that holds you together. From your respective traditions, is there a spirituality that can emerge, a spirituality that can serve to hold you together in ever deeper ways, that can hold together communities of lay people and religious, in ever deeper bonds of spiritual kinship?

In other words, is there a spirituality that can transcend the day to day challenges you face and lift you – all of you – to an even higher level of service?

I ask this coming from my own experience. There was a deeper way for Georgetown to be true to its identity – but it required a different kind of work. It is not work for everybody. In fact, there were roles I had at Georgetown in which I would have viewed such work as, at best, a luxury, and, at worst, a distraction from the essential work of the university. If we stayed committed to academic excellence and to one or two of the other manifestations of our identity, we’d be fine.

But others did identify a different kind of work—a work of capturing what is at the core of what animates everything else and makes available the resources to build and strengthen a community, consistent with this core.

I believe that there are spiritualities present among us, waiting to be articulated…Spiritualities that enable us to experience ourselves, our work, one another, and our God, in ever deeper and more profound ways. Some of these spiritualities are fully formed and fully articulated. Others are emerging. What they have in common is a desire to know and love God ever more deeply, and to make this experience ever more central to our daily lives. For example, I see in the work of Jean Vanier and the L’Arche Communities, a spirituality of presence, of companionship, of friendship. I see in the work of some of the twelve-step programs what is best described as a “Spirituality of Imperfection.”

And I believe that right here, in the work of Catholic Healthcare East, there, too, is a spirituality arising from the resources of your original and distinctive traditions that can be adapted, together, to serve your extraordinary community of caring and healing…and the needs of a complex Catholic health care system in the eastern part of the United States.

It is, truly, a different kind of work. We have no roadmap, no paradigm for how to meet the new demands on our spiritual resources. But we do have a dynamic of rhythms, movements, affinities that link us to our forebears as pioneers, as searchers, as questioners.

We may face a different kind of work than those of the founders. Today, we have to find our own way through what God tells us now and it is through this work that you will find new ways of handling the challenges, sustaining your extraordinary ministry, and finding your best selves in your response to the call of God.

Thank you.