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By Mark McNeil

Mark McNeil visits with his friend and colleague Br. Casey Ferlita, SJ, a longtime Jesuit presence at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory School who died in 2021.

The Preamble to the Constitutions of the Jesuit Secondary Education Association (1970) offered a response to some troubling and pressing questions regarding Jesuit education. Chief among these was, “Does it really make sense to call a school ‘Jesuit,’ when many or most of those teaching and working in Jesuit schools are not Jesuits?” The positive answer posited by the preamble’s Jesuit authors may be understood as an invitation to collaboration: “If the faculty at a Jesuit school are men and women whose lives are inspired by the Ignatian vision, then the question about the percentage of Jesuits on the faculty is not an overriding issue.”

Now in my 13th year working with adult formation in a Jesuit high school, I am convinced that forming genuine collaborators requires fostering a true sense of shared history and ongoing growth in appreciating and experiencing the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. When both are present, Jesuit schools will thrive with a sense of shared mission and vision.

Shared History

By definition, a Jesuit priest or brother lives a life “inspired by the Ignatian vision.” Jesuits undergo a lengthy formation, complete with experiences that laypersons simply do not and cannot share. So, is lay collaboration with Jesuits largely superficial, extending only to taking care of tasks but not reaching the deepest motivating ideals and aims of Jesuit schools?

Hiring decisions in Jesuit institutions are crucial to building a truly Ignatian community. If laypersons hired at Jesuit schools do not have a fundamental desire to live a faith-filled life “inspired by the Ignatian vision” in some way similar to that of a Jesuit, then it is difficult to think of them as more than filling support roles. However, if there is a sincere desire by the lay faculty or staff member to join in the mission of the Society of Jesus, we may then think of Jesuits and committed laypersons at Jesuit schools as engaged in a meaningful, lasting and effective formation process that draws from the same rich sources of inspiration, albeit with differing formative paths.

After working in a Jesuit school for nearly a decade, I had only a surface appreciation of the history and spirituality of the Society of Jesus. This changed dramatically after hearing a passionate and insightful presentation on the life of St. Ignatius. This inspired in me a desire to learn more about the early Jesuits and the source of their remarkable achievements through the centuries. Not long later, I joined colleagues on a pilgrimage to Spain. We rented two cars and fumbled around the country for a week, looking for places connected to St. Ignatius. This journey was transformative.

Ignatius became very real to me as we read his autobiographical reflections in the places where he experienced the most important moments in his early spiritual development.

I felt a connection with his human struggles with stubbornness and scrupulosity, as well as his intense desire to figure out how to listen to the call of God in the inner recesses and movements of his soul.

This connection with Ignatius naturally led to a desire to know more about the Spiritual Exercises, but my sense of closeness to Ignatius also made me feel increasingly connected to the Jesuit charism. This growing sense of connection was deeply enhanced through the years in my work with various Jesuits who warmly welcomed me to labor alongside them.

In my formation work with adults at our school, we quickly begin the process of getting to know Ignatius and other early Jesuits. From this familiarity flows, in time, a sense of connection with that history, an ongoing history that we have a share in creating.

Mark McNeil, right, and colleagues from Strake Jesuit College Prep deepen their understanding of Christ’s life during a visit to the Sea of Galilee.

Spiritual Exercises

It is often noted that St. Ignatius developed the Spiritual Exercises before the formation of the Society of Jesus. He shared the Exercises with laypeople, believing that sincere and committed Christians could benefit from the spirituality that would eventually become the basis of the formation of Jesuits. Therefore, laypersons may participate in the same animating spirituality that forms Jesuits. When this is truly the case, they are co-laborers toward the same aims.

Ignatian spirituality is a wonderful gift Ignatius left for the Church and the Society of Jesus. Although not everyone will experience the full Exercises, there are many ways to grow in appreciating them. Creating paths for this growth is vital to the ongoing formation of Jesuit institutions.

My first efforts to experience the Spiritual Exercises were clumsy but sincere. I spent many lunch periods in my office, a copy of the Exercises in hand, experimenting with Ignatian contemplative prayer. Later, I would experience an eight-day Ignatian retreat and twice the 19th Annotation form of the Exercises; the second being one of the most important formative experiences of my adult life.

Uniting my hopes, dreams and experiences with the life of Christ, examining my deepest motivations and desires, and experiencing the gentle but firm press of my director to discern God’s call at that moment in my life added much depth and richness to a sense of belonging and connection with the Jesuits. Our formation work at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory involves a regular effort to make such experiences available to all.

Recently a second-year novice attended a formation meeting at our school during which we discussed some of the forms of prayer in the Exercises. After the meeting he excitedly said, “Have you done the Exercises? You talk like someone who has had that experience.” This reminded me of an old friend who moved from the United States to Mexico nearly 20 years ago. He mentioned to me a while back that a taxi driver in Guadalajara expressed surprise when my friend told him that he grew up speaking English. “You sound like one of us!” he replied. Similarly, I feel a true sense of belonging to the Society of Jesus. Not, of course, as a Jesuit, but as a collaborator.

St. Ignatius and his Exercises belong to us all and, if we laypersons truly embrace them, this sense of belonging justifies calling Jesuit institutions “Jesuit.”

Mark McNeil is the assistant principal for formation at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory in Houston.