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Videos extend the Ignatian family

The legacy of St. Ignatius of Loyola, rooted in the Renaissance, is being transmitted in the electronic age via a three-part video series made at St. Louis University.

“Shared Vision: Jesuit Spirit in Education” was developed as an effort to communicate the Jesuit mission to non-Jesuit faculty and staff working at St. Louis University. The videos were conceived as a way of passing on the heritage of the Society of Jesus at a time when the order is experiencing dwindling membership. Now widely used at other Jesuit colleges and high schools across the country, the videos have been translated into French, Spanish and Chinese and have been shown in Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa.

“Shared Vision” got its start in 1994 when Ronald Modras, a professor of theology at St. Louis University, turned to his colleague, Jesuit Fr. J.J. Mueller, to see if there was a better way to discuss Jesuit mission and identity than the one-day BEST program the university then offered. Modras floated the idea of a video; Mueller responded that three would be necessary. Both of them wanted to develop a project that would not only inform an audience but would evoke a response. The result was a project intended as a video-discussion program.

“From the beginning we wanted people to come not just to see the video as spectators but to be participants in sharing the vision,” Mueller said.

At St. Louis University, there are 14 sessions each semester in which lay faculty and staff can meet to watch the videos and discuss them. Since the spring of 1996, more than 2,000 people at St. Louis University have seen at least the first of the three videos. “Beginnings” tells the story of St. Ignatius and his spiritual vision while “Transformation” looks at how the vision was carried forward by Jesuit missionaries in different cultural contexts. The final tape, “Transitions,” looks at how the Ignatian vision was received and transformed in America. Each video is 20 to 25 minutes long.

In the videos, live interviews with historians and scholars are interspersed with woodcuts, prints, paintings, drawings taken from rare books and videotape of historic locations in Ignatius’ life and the lives of his followers. Renaissance music helps impart the flavor of the time. Each video in the PBS-quality series cost roughly $25,000 to make.

The video was produced by Lawrence Johnson, who had earlier won kudos for “Sacred Encounters,” an audio-visual museum exhibit that looked at the Jesuits’ relationship with Native Americans. Jesuit Fr. Tom Rochford was the executive producer. Modras wrote the video script.

Though it was his idea to make a video, Modras said he was initially reluctant to take on the responsibility for the video script because he is not a Jesuit.

“At first I thought Jesuits know more about this than I, but then I realized that this was really aimed at people like me: non-Jesuits,” Modras said.

As it happened, Modras was about to go on sabbatical at the time. “I was looking for a project that would last a few months. It may turn into the rest of my theological career,” Modras said. He is now at work on a book titled Ignatian Humanism: A Spirituality for the 21st Century.

Modras said the greatest challenge in making the videos was distilling the essence of Ignatian spirituality. After researching the subject, he decided the two most important points he wanted viewers to come away with are that Ignatian spirituality is rooted in the spiritual exercises St. Ignatius wrote and that the Society of Jesus is firmly rooted in the Renaissance. Ignatius’ emphasis on “finding God in all things” means that God is present in all human endeavors, that nothing human is negligible or merely secular, he explained.

Modras uses the term “spiritual humanism” to describe what he thinks of as distinctively Jesuit characteristics. The 15th century humanists saw the study of the humanities as leading not only to insight and understanding but to eloquence and action, Modras wrote in an article in America, in which he described the Jesuits as descendants of a humanistic tradition that tries to marry insight and action and attempts to strike a balance between contemplation and action.

Since the videos were completed, Modras has heard from scores of enthusiastic viewers, including at least one grateful Jesuit who wrote to thank him for explaining his Jesuit charism to him.

“Sometimes living in the forest, these people didn’t appreciate where they were,” Modras said. “At a distance, I knew enough about theology and history to know how they (Jesuits) were different. Benedictines built their monastery on mountain tops; Cistercians built them in valleys; and Jesuits built them in cities.”

At St. Louis University, 40 trained facilitators, all laity, lead their lay colleagues in a discussion following the video presentations. Modras notes that conversation was an important part of the ministry of Ignatius --“That’s how the exercises got started” -- and remains a Jesuit ministry today.

“What the video has done for me and for hundreds of people is to make us more conscious members of the extended Ignatian family,” Modras said.

-- Margot Patterson

National Catholic Reporter, April 13, 2001