Universities must be vehicles for transformative change: “What then do we do, immersed in this reality? Transform it. Do everything possible to bring about the change”

May 24, 2017

By Chris Staysniak and Dan Cosacchi | National Catholic Reporter |  24 

Graduates line up outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington during the Catholic University of America’s May 2016 commencement. (CNS/CUA/Dana Rene Bowler)

With the end of the academic year comes the parade of famous college commencement speakers. It is a wide range of politicians, actors, artists, CEOs, comedians and pundits who don caps and gowns and share their advice with graduating seniors across the country. Typically these speeches are meant to inspire graduates as they head off into the “real world.” They are told to work hard, be kind, seize the moment, pursue their dreams and to make the world a better place.

At Santa Clara University’s 1982 commencement, Jesuit Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría gave one such address. Ellacuría was born in Spain but by that time was a professor at the Jesuit-run José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA) in El Salvador’s capital city of San Salvador. He was a driving force behind the school’s animating commitment to the El Salvadoran people. Ultimately he wanted UCA to be a force for positive change in the face of the country’s long civil war and its myriad of related social ills. Like the prophetic stands of many before him, his did not come without great cost. His outspokenness against the El Salvadoran government about human rights abuses ultimately led to his execution and that of five of his Jesuit brothers, their housekeeper and her daughter, by elite U.S.-trained Salvadoran forces in November of 1989.  Ellacuría’s 1982 speech is worth revisiting.

Ellacuría’s stands out in that he did not so much address the graduates as much as he did the idea, the mission, the very purpose of a Catholic university. Most graduation talks in some way reiterate the distinction between “college life” and the “real world,” as if the former somehow was totally insulated from the later. While many elite colleges are often social bubbles, in his short but powerful address, Ellacuría reminded his audience that any such divide is artificial.  He laid out what he saw as the two foundational components of an institution of higher education.

There are two aspects to every university. The first and most evident is that it deals with culture, with knowledge, the use of the intellect. The second, and not so evident, is that it must be concerned with the social reality — precisely because a university is inescapably a social force: it must transform and enlighten the society in which it lives.”

Speaking of the El Salvadoran context of UCA, he stated that in the face of oppression and poverty, “What then does a university do, immersed in this reality? Transform it? Yes. Do everything possible so that liberty is victorious over oppression, justice over injustice, love over hate? Yes. Without this overall commitment, we would not be a university, and even less so would we be a Catholic university.”

Ellacuría’s prophetic vision of a Catholic university is a challenging and uncomfortable one for those who work in Catholic higher education. It expands the obligation to recognize the social ills of the world and work to heal them. Not only is it up to graduates once they leave the ivory tower to be agents for positive change, in Ellacuría’s framework, it is also on the institution, and those who run and inhabit it, to be an active part of this process. It calls on administrators and professors to be discerning, reflective and mindful of how their university communities can be socially transformative.

It is a time for deep change, both within the university and outside of it. As Ellacuría hopefully laid out, the university can be a vehicle for transformative change with the unique tools at its disposal.

Often flagship Catholic institutions of higher education will acknowledge the radically transformative potentials of such a vision. Yes, these schools are undoubtedly sites of tremendous research, teaching and outreach. But more often than not these institutions are animated by the chase of academic power and prestige.

In many ways, the challenging and uncomfortable message of the prophet is reason enough that these types of commencement addresses are not very popular. When students graduate from elite universities, they and their families don’t necessarily want any more challenges. The hard part is supposed to be over: the credits earned and the tuition paid (or at least the loans procured!).

But, for Ellacuría, a larger part of the message is about solidarity. Not only did he believe that his award at Santa Clara was bestowed as “a gesture of solidarity and support” for the UCA; moreover, Ellacuría believed that the award was a larger gesture in solidarity with the poor and marginalized in society. This solidarity must come at the expense of a government that focuses on war and oppression. Ellacuría minces no words:

[The United States] must take into consideration the real interests of the American people; but, more important to us, it must respond according to the principles of political ethics, to the needs of a people who suffer misery and oppression, not because of their fault or indolence, but because of a chain of historical events for which they cannot be held responsible.

This is the kind of message very few graduates want to hear (or think about) on their big day.

But there is another reason why these types of prophetic commencement addresses rarely take place on university campuses: There aren’t very many prophets. As Ellacuría’s Jesuit brother and community member, Jon Sobrino wrote five years after the Santa Clara address, “Without falling into unjust anachronisms, it cannot be overlooked that Christian universities have left much to be desired in their response to the world and have even contributed to strengthening the anti-kingdom.”

All of this, of course, is not to say that there are no prophets in our world today. Two such prophets are actually popular speakers at Catholic university commencement exercises: Jesuit Fr. Greg Boyle and St. Joseph Sr. Helen Prejean. In 2001, Boyle founded Homeboy Industries, “the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the world.” He has spent his entire adult life working for justice and peace. Boyle was awarded the 2017 Laetare Medal by the University of Notre Dame for his life’s work. Prejean has been a tireless opponent of the death penalty in the United States and wrote the book Dead Man Walking, which inspired a major motion picture. For her steadfast work, Prejean was awarded the aforementioned Laetare Medal in 1996.

But what has become of their messages? Both Boyle and Prejean are frequently on the receiving ends of attacks on social media for their stances. Only recently, the Cardinal Newman Society labeled Boyle an opponent of Catholic teaching and admonished Notre Dame for bestowing on him their highest honor. At roughly the same time, Prejean was the target of an extensive harassment on Twitter. Her crime? She was carrying out her long-term advocacy against the death penalty. In this case, she was opposing the executions taking place in Arkansas in the last days of April 2017.

Despite these examples, it is safe to say that this brand of prophecy — in the model of Ellacuría — is not in vogue on commencement day. In an age of dystopian news feeds, increased inequality, climate catastrophe, unchecked militarism and pervasive sentiments of detachment and resentment, a speech like Ellacuría’s may not be the one we want to hear, but it is certainly the sort of message we need.

Chris Staysniak is a recent Ph.D. graduate of American religious history at Boston College. Dan Cosacchi is Canisius Postdoctoral Fellow and lecturer of religious studies at Fairfield University.

Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J.’s June 1982 Commencement Address at Santa Clara University

(When Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría visited Santa Clara in 1982, he was rector [president] of the University of Central America in San Salvador, El Salvador. Seven years after Father Ellacuría addressed the Santa Clara graduating class of 1982, on November 16, 1989, he, along with five of his brother Jesuits and two women colleagues, were murdered at the University of Central America.)

It is a great honor for me, and a gesture of solidarity and support for the Universidad Centroamerica José Simeon Cañas, that Santa Clara University has decided to confer upon me this honorary degree.

I am sure you intend primarily, not to single out my intellectual activity, but to commend the academic and social work which our university has conducted for more than 17 years. Our university’s work is oriented, obviously, on behalf of our Salvadoran culture, but above all, on behalf of a people who, oppressed by structural injustices, struggle for their self- determination–people often without liberty or human rights.

At present, as you know, the United States represents the major political force in Central Anterica–and certainly in El Salvador. The social and political destiny of El Salvador, whether we like it or not, depends to a large extent on the United States government. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the United States carry out a foreign policy in Central America which is both informed and just. It must take into consideration the real interests of the American people. But more important for us it must respond according to the principles of political ethics, to the needs of a people who suffer misery and oppression, not because of their own fault or indolence, but because or a chain of historical events for which they cannot be held responsible.

Some North American congressmen are looking for just solutions for the Salvadoran problems though such solutions are, admittedly, difficult and risky. Some churches and religious groups, such as the Catholic Bishops of the United States, have exerted themselves on our behalf. They have pressed the present administration not to intensify our conflicts through military reinforcement, but to facilitate a just. negotiated solution.

But American universities also have an important part to play in order to insure that the unavoidable presence of the United States in Central America be sensitive and just, especially those universities–like Santa Clara–which are inspired by the desire to make present among us all the Kingdom of God.

In this task, our University, also, is engaged. We bear the name of a Salvadoran priest, José Simeon Cañas, who as a congressman in the Constitutional Assembly in 1824, moved and obtained the abolition of slavery in Central America. These are the words he addressed to the assembly: “I come crawling; and if I were dying, dying I would come to make a request for humanity. I beg before anything else that our slaves he declared free citizens. For this is the order of justice: that the deprived be restored to the possession of their goods, and there is no good more valuable than liberty. We all know that our brothers have been violently deprived of their freedom, that they grieve in servitude, sighing for a hand to break the iron chains of slavery. This nation has declared itself free; so, then, must all its people be free.”

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, forty years after José Simeon Cañas, who was a priest, a scholar and a politician, obtained emancipation for the slaves of Central America.

In that same spirit of liberation our University works today. Let me say a word about how we understand ourselves so that you can comprehend and support us more responsibly.

There are two aspects to every university. The first and most evident is that it deals with culture, with knowledge, the use of the intellect. The second, and not so evident, is that it must be concerned with the social reality–precisely because a university is inescapably a social force: it must transform and enlighten the society in which it lives. But how does it do that? How does a university transform the social reality of which it is so much a part?

There is no abstract and consistent answer here. A university cannot always and in every place be the same. We must constantly look at our own peculiar historical reality. For us in El Salvador, the historical reality is that we are a part of the Third World which is itself the major portion of human kind. Unfortunately, the Third World is characterized more by oppression than by liberty, more by a terrible, grinding poverty than by abundance.

It may be difficult for you to understand our situation, because you are such a privileged nation but a minority of the human race. We, in contrast, have daily experience of this reality, and unremitting suffering which attest to it.

What then does a university do, immersed in this reality? Transform it? Yes. Do everything possible so that liberty is victorious over oppression, justice over injustice, love over hate? Yes. Without this overall commitment, we would not be a university, and even less so would we be a Catholic university.

But how is this done? The university must carry out this general commitment with the means uniquely at its disposal: we as an intellectual community must analyze causes; use imagination and creativity together to discover the remedies to our problems; communicate to our constituencies a consciousness that inspires the freedom of self-determination; educate professionals with a conscience, who will be the immediate instruments of such a transformation; and constantly hone an educational institution that is both academically excellent and ethically oriented.

But how can a university so shape itself, or come to understand itself and its social obligations? Perhaps, just a word.

Liberation theology has emphasized what the preferential option for the poor means in authentic Christianity. Such an option constitutes an essential part of Christian life–but it is also an historic obligation. For the poor embody Christ in a special way; they mirror for us his message of revelation, salvation and conversion. And they are also a universal social reality.

Reason and faith merge, therefore, in confronting the reality of the poor. Reason must open its eyes to their suffering; faith–which is sometimes scandalous to those without it–sees in the weak of this world the triumph of God, for we see in the poor what salvation must mean and the conversion to which we are called.

A Christian university must take into account the gospel preference for the poor. This does not mean that only the poor will study at the university; it does not mean that the university should abdicate its mission of academic excellence–excellence which is needed in order to solve complex social issues of our time. What it does mean is that the universitv should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to make their rights legitimate.

We have attempted to do this. In a modest way, we have made a contribution through our research and publications, and a few men have left far more lucrative positions to work in the University for the people.

We’ve been thanked and supported in our efforts. We also have been severely persecuted. From 1976 to 1980, our campus was bombed ten times: we have been blocked and raided by military groups and threatened with the termination of all aid. Dozens of students and teachers have had to flee the country in exile; one of our students was shot to death by police who entered the campus. Our history has been that of our nation.

But we also have been encouraged by the words of Archbishop Romero–himself so soon to be murdered. It was he who said, while we were burying an assassinated priest, that something would be terribly wrong in our Church if no priest lay next to so many of his assassinated brothers and sisters. If the University had not suffered, we would not have performed our duty. In a world where injustice reigns, a university that fights for justice must necessarily be persecuted.

I would like to think–and this is the meaning I give to this honorary degree–that you understand our efforts, our mission. something of the tragic reality that is El Salvador.

And how do you help us? That is not for me to say. Only open your human heart, your Christian heart, and ask yourselves the three questions Ignatius of Loyola put to himself as he stood in front of the crucified world: What have I done for Christ in this world? What am I doing now? And above all, what should I do? The answers lie both in your academic responsibility and in your personal responsibility.

I wish to thank again your Board of Trustees and your President Father William Rewak, for giving me the opportunity to present to you my testimony on behalf of a suffering, struggling, wonderful people. In the name off the Universidad José Simeon Cañas, I wish to thank you for the distinction you have given it through its president. I thank you for the solidarity and support this represents. I thank you also for the personal honor.

Not many of us doubt the generosity of the real American people. After this occasion, I do not doubt it at all.


Taken from the June 1982 Commencement Address at the University of Santa Clara by the Rev. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., president of the Jesuit university in El Salvador, Universidad Centroamerica José Simeon Cañas.Printed in response to numerous requests from alumni and friends for copies of this major address.

Text as appears in Santa Clara Today (Alumni Newsletter), October 1982, p. 12.

This post was written by Marie Venner

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