Thayne McCulloh congratulates a member of Gonzaga's 117th graduating class

A note from President Thayne McCulloh

During this first year, as I have traveled around the nation visiting with alumni and friends, I have been asked many questions about the present and future of Gonzaga: How are enrollments faring? How has the recession affected fundraising? Where do I see future opportunities for growth in programs?

There is, however, another question I am asked as often as any other: “What is it like being the first lay president?” Not infrequently, this question is accompanied by an expression of desire, or sometimes concern: “I hope you can continue to maintain and strengthen the Catholic and Jesuit character of Gonzaga.” The issue of affirming and continuing our identity as a Catholic and Jesuit university is so central to the work that I thought I would take this opportunity to offer some reflections about it as my first year draws to a close.

Gonzaga today finds itself – in the words of Pope Benedict XVI to the Jesuit General Congregation 35 – engaging in the work of educating women and men “. . . in a period of great social, economic, and political change, sharp ethical, cultural, and environmental problems, conflicts of all kinds, but also of a more intense communication among peoples, of new possibilities of acquaintance and dialogue, of a deep longing for peace.” The world of our students is filled with confusing messages and a great deal of noise; yet I am constantly amazed at the thoughtfulness with which our students and faculty successfully engage difficult issues. Gonzaga University celebrates its Catholic and Jesuit identity at a time when the Church and society needs and counts upon us to do this work well, and I daily see evidence of the fruits of our labors.

On a deeply personal level, I joyously and with deep gratitude embrace the daily opportunity of serving as a Lay Companion of the Society of Jesus. From the earliest days, our founder Saint Ignatius of Loyola sent forth his companions to bring the good news of Jesus to cultures around the world; critical to their way of proceeding then (as it is today) was an authentic communion with lay people whom they could entrust to carry out their works long after they, as individual Jesuits, had moved on to other works.

Many of us, myself included, have been blessed throughout our lives by Jesuits and the opportunity to work and live in communion with the Jesuits. On countless occasions I have seen the impact that Jesuits have had on our students, faculty, and staff – as teachers, scholars, priests, chaplains, administrators, traveling companions, presiding at weddings, baptisms and funerals. I count among the greatest gifts of my presidency the unwavering support of our Provincial, our Jesuit community, and the welcome embrace I feel as a true companion in the Society’s higher education apostolate.

Second: on a daily basis, I am grateful to do my work at a Catholic university where, together with many lay and religious colleagues, we daily have the opportunity to serve the Church at its very heart.

This past year has allowed us to serve our local Church in a very significant way: we were blessed to host the installation of the new bishop of the diocese, the Most Reverend Blase Cupich, at an event deeply meaningful to the entire university and diocesan educational community. Bishop Cupich has made it a point to attend every significant university event this year, culminating in the celebration of our Baccalaureate Mass on Graduation Weekend. As a lay president, I find our Bishop’s willingness to provide guidance and perspective invaluable and the prospect of building on our already strong relationship a source of great comfort.

The purpose we serve – our fundamental mission – is the noble pursuit of truth through teaching, scholarship, and service; through these we bear witness to our faith. I see Gonzaga as an essential part of the Church in service to faith: a mission of bringing the hope that is the Good News to a world in desperate need of it, by educating capable women and men and enjoining them to go forth and inspire the world.

Gonzaga’s Jesuit heritage and mission calls us to prepare our students to take significant leadership roles in whatever profession or work they choose to be a part of. We also strive to educate our students to be women and men with a deep desire to serve others – especially those of our brothers and sisters who are “at the margins.”

To do this work effectively in the context of a Catholic university requires helping each student to construct connections between key social issues and contemporary perspectives for interpreting and understanding them. We want students to evaluate social issues of the day – such as the morality of capital punishment, the evils of human trafficking, respect for dignity in the workplace, the vital need for sustainability – in the public square of debate. As this evaluation is done through various and multiple lenses – some controversial – students understandably are forced to move outside their comfort zone. We believe that framing such exercises within and in relationship to, rather than outside of, Church teaching is the most certain path to the truth.

Engaging the work of finding truth by examining issues from multiple perspectives is often difficult work, and students struggle with it. For this reason, I am so grateful to our dedicated faculty and staff for the countlesshours they spend in individualized instruction with our students. Characteristic of a Jesuit way of proceeding, we acknowledge that each student is uniquely gifted, and our faculty recognize this in the personal attention they give. We remain intent on being a place where cura personalis – the care of the whole, yet individual person – matters.

Third: a key dimension to our work as university today is that it takes place in the context of daily opportunities for active expression of one’s faith, in both our academic and co-curricular activities. Gonzaga is blessed to have the active involvement of a vibrant, Jesuit community which ministers daily to our students, faculty and staff through a host of pastoral activities. Joined by diocesan priests and women religious, our students can worship at one of several Masses offered every day; they have opportunities to attend retreats held frequently throughout the year; and they are invited into Christian Life Communities and opportunities for sponsored participation in Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises.
The aim is to equip our students with the skills for discerning God’s call for each of them and their full participation in the faith communities of which they are a part. As Catholic, we are and remain a university open to, and supportive of, women and men from many faith traditions and maintain relationships with the local denominations to support an active faith life for all who desire it.

These, to me, are characteristics of a vibrant Catholic, Jesuit and humanistic university.

Finally: as we begin our planning for the upcoming academic year, we are filled with hope. As this issue reaches you, we will be welcoming our new Vice President for Mission, Fr. Frank Case, S.J. Much of his efforts will involve engaging the community in dialogue regarding the affirmation of our mission and the ways in which our mission identity manifests itself in the daily work. I look forward to welcoming him to the administrative leadership team.

I want to thank you for your ongoing support of this important work. Many of you have been warmly generous in your response to our call for additional scholarship support; you make Gonzaga possible for our remarkable students. I am constantly humbled by your faith in this University and thank you for it. During these busy summer months, may the peace of Christ be with you and yours, always.

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