by Nancy Tuchman
I returned from an extraordinary meeting of the presidents of the 211 worldwide Jesuit universities that has made an impact on me from the perspective of an ecologist who is greatly concerned about the state of our planet.
The conference took place at Universidad Deusto in Bilbao, Spain near the birthplace of the founder of the Society of Jesus, Saint Ignatius Loyola, and was attended by nearly 400 delegates from the worldwide universities. What happened at this meeting was remarkable, hopeful, and truly inspires and enhances work for the environment and the people who are most impacted by environmental degradation.
For decades, the presidents of the worldwide Jesuit universities get together every five or so years to discuss the most pressing social problems of the time and evaluate whether we are addressing these issues as effectively as we could within our universities. Social issues that are priorities historically include poverty and economic disparities, peace and reconciliation, racism and discrimination, AIDS, access to education for the marginalized, refugees, etc.
Not until the 2010 meeting in Mexico City was ecology and sustainability on the agenda. The Father General of the Society of Jesus, Adolfo Nicolás SJ, addressed the delegates in Mexico City, and following the meeting, put together a Task Force on Ecology that worked for over a year to evaluate the state of the planet and develop a white paper for the Society of Jesus called Healing a Broken World. The Father General sent this paper to all Jesuits in 2011 with a requirement that the environment must be a priority for Jesuits to address in their work.
Between the Mexico City meeting and the next conference which was held in 2015 in Melbourne, many Jesuit universities including the one I call home, Loyola University Chicago (LUC), came a long way toward advancing our environmental commitments.
For example, LUC launched the Institute of Environmental Sustainability, transformed the campuses with 13 new LEED-certified buildings, a comprehensive water conservation system, green roofs, and a super-efficient heating and cooling plant, and was ranked #4 greenest campus in the US.
We also published the Healing Earth online textbook to extend our impact globally, particularly to people at the margins. At Melbourne, LUC was invited to present concrete ways in which environmental issues could be integrated into University curricula and introduced Healing Earth as a tool for reaching college freshmen and high school seniors. We also heard from other schools about their progress toward integrating environmental issues into their curricula and greening their campuses, and it was clear that the seeds had been planted worldwide and the Society was moving forward on the environment.
In 2015 Pope Francis issued his encyclical Laudato Si’: Care for our Common Home, which enormously reinforced and spurred on the call for action within the Society of Jesus and well beyond. Laudato Si’ reached more people, it is thought, than any other document written by a recent world leader.
Such movement within the Society to educate ourselves and our students about environmental justice and call our university communities to action to mitigate the damage has been hopeful and inspirational to me and makes me ever grateful that I am a part of the Jesuit network, and that I am working with such a dedicated team at Loyola University Chicago.
Yet, the pace and scope of climate change, the destruction of biodiversity, and pollution of our oceans and atmosphere, not to mention the growth of human populations are orders of magnitude faster than the responses we are collectively making in our own heads, hearts, and institutions.
This is what keeps me up at night; while we are clearly raising awareness and making positive impacts, even leading and motivating others, the raging economic forces of consumption are driving climate change and pollution forward at an unprecedented rate that we are not keeping pace with.
Back to Bilbao
What happened in Bilbao was extraordinary on many fronts, but from the environmental justice perspective, I found it particularly valuable and hopeful. The Secretary of Higher Education, Michael Garanzini SJ led the nearly 400 delegates to formalize a global network called the International Association of Jesuit Universities (IAJU). Delegates from each of the six world regions signed a Charter with a draft Strategic Plan to form the IAJU.
The historic signing of the Charter took place at the Sanctuary of Loyola, making it a very special, moving, and symbolic event. The current Father General of the Society, Arturo Sosa SJ, presided and gave the homily which spoke about how cooperation stems from generosity, and the value of the formation of the IAJU to leveraging the important work of the Society of Jesus.
Imagine the impact that can come from a robust international network structure that facilitates communications among our universities, enhances the leveraging of our combined resources and talent, and connect us directly with the Secretary of Higher Education and the Father General, not to mention the other branches of the Society such as the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat, and the Secondary Schools Secretariat.
I find this particularly hopeful for environmental issues which are not only urgent and global in scope but ultimate in their conclusion. Because we must act more swiftly to push an enormous transformation, the IAJU structure will leverage more impact and provide a much broader reach for our collective work.
The Secretary of Secondary Education of the Society of Jesus, José Mesa SJ, is developing a similar worldwide network of the 2,300 presidents of our Jesuit high schools. In 2018 in Rio, they too developed a global network that they are calling Educate Magis.
The two global networks in Higher Education and Secondary Education provide organization and cooperation around shared missions and priorities – a very promising platform for advancing and leveraging our work.
Enormous challenge ahead
The present is an enormously challenging time to be an ecologist. It is impossible to push to the back of our minds the enormity of the problem we are up against, when we are working with environmental data on a regular basis and have a deep appreciation for the human suffering that is, and will continue to be, a consequence of broad-scale degradation of ecosystems.
I find it helpful being educators of environmental sustainability and bringing hope to our students through solution-based innovations, but even our own good work is a slow-paced endeavour, transforming one student at a time.
The formation of the IAJU has given me a boost. There are millions of students worldwide in Jesuit high schools and universities, and we educators are all being mandated by Pope Francis and Arturo Sosa to do more around the environment.
Being formally networked with established working groups and a shared mission not only puts us all in the same boat, but our oars are synchronized and pulling in the same direction toward a more just, peaceful, humane and sustainable world. That gives me hope.
Nancy Tuchman, PhD is the Founding Dean of Loyola University Chicago’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability and actively engages with the Ecojesuit network, providing valuable inputs in Ecojesuit activities and joining gatherings. Nancy is Co-Chair of the Task Force on Environmental and Economic Justice that presented a position paper during the 2018 Deusto World Assembly of Jesuit Universities in July 2018 in Bilbao, Spain.