A Jesuit's Perspective: Education Links Pope Francis, Philadelphia and SJU
by Daniel R.J. Joyce, S.J. '88
Pope Francis may pass through Hawk Hill during his visit to Philadelphia, but he need not emerge from the car to know the full experience of what happens in the classrooms of Saint Joseph’s University. The expert communication skills he employs are well used here, where the intellectual atmosphere captivates the unbridled curiosity of the young and the natural skepticism of the advancing learner.
The Pope believes in engaging and delighting students with the beauty of examining God’s world and offering them as much informed learning as they can muster to know. Regarded as one of the most effective communicators of our age, Jorge Mario Bergolio, S.J., may have honed this ability in the classroom — not unlike others have throughout the history of Jesuit education, and today, in our very own City of Brotherly Love.
As a young priest, Pope Francis was missioned regularly by his Jesuit superiors into classrooms of all sorts. As a Jesuit regent, while in studies for ordination to the priesthood, the young Argentinean was sent to teach high school boys in the heart of Buenos Aires, and later, to instruct graduate students in theology. His teaching skills then translated into less structured, more public roles. As a novice master to young Jesuits preparing to take their vows in the Society of Jesus, he taught them the basics of the spiritual life. His most unusual role as an educator began when he was ordained a bishop and took on the “teaching office” within the Church to instruct and care for the faithful under his leadership.
During his educational sojourn, the Pope seems to have received the classic Jesuit instruction that, in preaching and teaching, one should always take to heart the advice of Cicero’s “de Oratore”; good communicators first delight their audience, then inform them, so as to move them into action for the good. Because the Holy Father first formed his rhetorical skills in the Jesuit classroom, teaching literature to 15-year-olds, he may well owe his outstanding communication skills to the obtuse nature of adolescent learners, not known for their attentiveness.
Philadelphia’s Jesuit classrooms still echo with the same nurturing of eloquentia perfecta — elegance and erudition in learning and communication, whether in public speaking or writing, that the Holy Father employed and that was begun nearly three centuries ago. In 1734, Joseph Greaton, S.J., and Robert Harding, S.J., established themselves in a rented building on Chestnut Street where the U.S. Customs House now stands. It is believed they opened a Jesuit- sponsored school, most likely staffed by lay teachers who took on the same challenging task to engage students, inform them of the basic knowledge of each discipline, and move them to use that learning for the sake of God’s world. Jesuit education created a more permanent set of classroom experiences in 1782 when Robert Molyneux, S.J., established the first parochial school in the United States. This small school, now named Saint Mary Interparochial, in the heart of the city’s historic district, persists as a powerful example of the quality and lasting value of Catholic education, having some of the highest test scores among Philadelphia Catholic schools.
The very formation in the art of teaching and effective communication that the Pope received in his Jesuit education became a permanent offering in Philadelphia with the creation of Saint Joseph’s College, the foundation of both Saint Joseph’s University and St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, known affectionately as “The Prep.” Felix Barbelin, S.J., founded these schools in 1851, making the pedagogy inspired by St. Ignatius a fixture of the civic life in one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities. Generations of teachers, both lay and Jesuit, have come to enjoy the opportunity and challenge of the classroom, from Saint Joseph’s beginnings in Society Hill, to North Philadelphia, and then to City Line Avenue in Wynnefield and Lower Merion.
The Holy Father would fully understand the opportunity to inspire a student’s use of that knowledge for the greater good. This may be why those of us who have been through the Jesuit classroom can easily see him as a most effective teacher for instructing and inspiring all to that greater good — the magis.