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Georgetown appointment is a sign of health

We welcome the appointment of John J. “Jack” DeGioia as the first lay president of Georgetown University.

The Georgetown search committee says it set out to find the person most suited for the job. After checking for character, leadership, academic and administrative qualities, after determining who could come to the post “feet on the ground and running,” after giving serious thought to preserving Georgetown’s history and Ignatian character, the committee settled on DeGioia.

Meanwhile, the committee denies that in making the choice it was making a statement about either the state of Catholic lay leadership today or the state of the Jesuits. We take the committee members at their word. In the end, the choice came down to four finalists -- three laypersons and a Jesuit. Given the above criteria, DeGioia came out the winner.

We wish him the best in the daunting task of guiding Georgetown in a particularly complex time. Balancing the secular and sacred is never easy in a Catholic university. There is reason to believe that DeGioia is up to the task.

It is useful to view this decision in a broader context. Despite protestations, the Georgetown search committee, in choosing DeGioia, made a significant statement about the state of things Catholic. The committee reminded us that the Jesuits, like the wider church, is in a state of transition. Perhaps this is always the case. It is especially so today.

The appointment recognizes that the Jesuits at Georgetown understand the nature of change and are willing to embrace it. This is a sign of Jesuit health, not Jesuit illness. In contrast, other forces we commonly see in the church today attempt at every turn to resist change -- at great institutional cost.

The DeGioia appointment speaks positively about a Jesuit attitude and commitment that has been emerging at least since the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s. It affirms decisions made when 223 Jesuit leaders from around the world gathered in 1995 for the order’s 34th General Congregation. That congregation reaffirmed a Jesuit commitment to inclusiveness and justice. With a healthy sense of realism, it also affirmed a willingness to work with laity and generated, among others, a document called “Collaboration with the Laity.” In that document, the order says that “a reading of the signs of the times since the Second Vatican Council shows unmistakably that the church of the next millennium will be called the ‘church of the laity.’ ”

“A layperson can be the director of a Jesuit work,” they wrote.

The ranks of U.S. Jesuits, now fewer than 4,000, have decreased in the past generation. Perhaps more important, the number of Catholic lay leaders, many of them formed in Jesuit institutions, has grown substantially. There is reason to believe these trends will continue. All the more important that the Jesuit mission be upheld today and that this aim not be sidelined by a debate over whether ordination is necessary to upholding that mission.

DeGioia has been described as an intellectual, a first-rate administrator, a “terrific person” and a man steeped in years of Jesuit formation. He has had a Jesuit spiritual director for years. While he might not share some of the insights that come from living in a Jesuit community, he brings the rich experiences of married life. As an expectant father, he will soon add the experiences of parenting.

As one Jesuit involved in the search process remarked: “This is really a celebration of the kind of people we have trained. It is a good moment.”

Life, like faith, is full of risks. DeGioia’s success will depend, in good measure, on the way he is received -- specifically the openness to change that currently exists among the Jesuits and those they have trained in recent years. If he succeeds, as we expect he will, it will speak well not only of DeGioia, as Georgetown president, but also of today’s wider Jesuit community and the Catholic family.

National Catholic Reporter, March 16, 2001