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By Rachel Amiri

Tom Reynolds

Can a Jesuit college or university be “Jesuit” with a decreasing number of Jesuits?

Ensuring that the answer to this question continues to be “Yes” animates the daily work of Thomas Reynolds, provincial assistant for higher education in the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province since 2017.

“A little bit of a consultant, a little bit of putting on programs, a little bit of liaison, a little bit of evaluation,” is how he self-deprecatingly describes his efforts in the role, one he took on following retirement from full-time administration at Regis University.

The only lay provincial assistant for higher education among the provinces of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, Reynolds’ experience and outlook reflect a transitional time in Jesuit higher education.

“This is a pattern slowly happening in a lot of places,” he said of lay leadership. “If you look at our high schools and colleges, it’s typically someone who’s the first lay president.”

Each of the four universities and two colleges sponsored by the U.S. Central and Southern Province have appointed lay presidents in the past decade. Across all member institutions in the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU), only four Jesuit presidents remain.

Reynolds’ efforts involve empowering lay colleagues to promote and maintain the Jesuit, Catholic identities of their institutions. With forward-thinking optimism, he looks to the future with confidence and trust.

Facing Challenges

Tom Reynolds combines decades of experience in student affairs and mission with his own Ignatian formation as a lay colleague to guide the next generation of leaders. It is not a responsibility he takes lightly.

“The priority is that there be an active effort at each of our schools to do formation work—you might call it Jesuit lingo for faculty and staff development,” he said. “How do we coach people to learn more about the tradition, to contribute to it? To really feel drawn into it over their careers, as they move into successively more responsible positions?”

As provincial assistant for higher education, he serves as a liaison between the provincial and the various institutions of higher education in the province by cultivating relationships through annual visits and leadership gatherings. He also liaises between the provincial and the AJCU and assists in facilitating the lay formation and mission-related programming at the province’s colleges and universities.

The tradition of Jesuit higher education in the 21st century faces two primary challenges. First, short tenures in leadership roles have become common, leading to faster turnover and the need to introduce an increasing number of administrators to the traditions of Jesuit education.

“This is all kind of new and foreign territory, to presidents and provosts,” he said.

Second is the integration of the religiously unaffiliated into administrative roles in Jesuit institutions. “You need to work a little harder and differently to help them engage in this tradition,” he says.

One of Reynolds’ main tasks is to prepare university administrators to carry out the Mission Priority Examen, both for their own institutions and, later, for peers. “The Mission Priority Examen is from the Jesuit tradition and Ignatian spirituality, a self-reflective experience, examining what we’re grateful for, what we hope to aspire to, to improve. Then, a peer visiting team comes in and does their own assessment based on that self-evaluation.”

Geared toward discerning the continued sponsorship of the institution by the Society of Jesus, the results of the MPE are ultimately evaluated by both the provincial and the Superior General of the international Society, who reaffirms the institution’s Jesuit, Catholic identity.

Reynolds himself, as the provincial assistant, helps to manage that process. Reynolds points out that some administrators tend to approach this as analogous to accreditation, and his job involves guiding them into understanding that, “it’s a slightly more reflective process,” and one rooted in collaboration.

Engaging in the MPE effectively requires personal formation. Reynolds enthusiastically describes the offerings of Jesuit institutions, as well as the AJCU, to support lay formation, including the intensive 18-month Ignatian Colleagues Program for new faculty and administrators, as well as the Trustee Forum and Leadership Institute.

He enjoys engaging in the process with colleagues. “The Jesuit experience has always helped me find that way, and to help others have some of their own ‘aha!’ moments. It isn’t that we’re expecting them all to sign up for RCIA classes to become Catholics, but the hope is they will really find something that’s meaningful in their own lives and deepens the work they do.”

Ignatian Insights

His experiences of Ignatian spirituality began as a senior at Loyola Marymount University and made the “Exercises in Everyday Life.” After beginning his career in student affairs at his alma mater, Reynolds moved to Regis University in the early 1990s. Later, at Sacred Heart Jesuit Retreat Center in Sedalia, he “got a chance to kind of renew my exposure to the Spiritual Exercises,” and began promoting Ignatian spirituality to colleagues in student affairs at Regis University even though it wasn’t part of his job description.

Eventually, he began chairing a spirituality group and leading retreat teams and, in 1999, was asked to shift roles to mission and ministry. Eventually, he was named vice president for mission, the role from which he retired in 2017.

Reynolds’ enthusiasm for Ignatian spirituality is clear. “The Exercises for me have always been a pretty profound experience, giving or making them,” he said. “Ignatian spirituality is a place that kind of explains why Jesuits are often seen as distinctive and why folks in our places are pretty distinctive.”

The distinctiveness for Reynolds is rooted in an understanding of how he’s learned from so many Jesuits that God approaches the world: with love, rather than suspicion. “It’s a simple statement, but think about that. How many of our religious traditions of any kind—Catholic, other Christians, other faith traditions—how many of them really at their heart live that out?”

This core conviction, a foundational element of the first week of the Exercises, is the opening through which others can enter Ignatian spirituality and appreciate it for themselves.

Reynolds says that Ignatian spirituality has also taught him that the conversions of heart that shape men and women are gradual. Patience with this slow work of God cultivates the ground of Jesuit trust in those same men and women who will be entrusted with carrying forward the mission of Jesuit institutions of higher education into the future.

“That is at the core of the Spiritual Exercises, and that’s why I have found Jesuits to be very trusting and willing to completely partner with lay colleagues,” he said. If we approach others in our work with trust rather than suspicion, the way God works with us, that’s a different way of doing things.”

It is his experiences of Ignatian spirituality that have led Reynolds to that same posture of trust as he supports colleagues in the province’s higher education ministries in carrying forward the work of maintaining the sponsorship of the province and the Society of Jesus.

“This is a spirituality of trust. And it’s a spirituality that hopes to mirror God’s affection for us. It is a spirituality that keeps deepening in me.”