The Jesuits have been affiliated with the University of Sudbury since 1913. Photo courtesy University of Sudbury

Jesuit influence on rebound in Sudbury

By 
  • October 17, 2019

Jesuit Fr. John Meehan believes Catholic post-secondary education is facing the same issue at the University of Sudbury that Catholic colleges and universities are facing around the world: it’s quite fragile in a world that is increasingly secular.

“Catholic education is fragile everywhere from what I can see,” said Meehan, who on Sept. 4 was named president and vice-chancellor at the Catholic university at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont.

However, Meehan also believes it’s a great opportunity to re-establish the Jesuit way that has been slipping at the university the Jesuits first created as a francophone place of higher learning in 1913.

“The Jesuits have never really left completely, but for a while we were kind of hanging on by a string,” said Meehan, the first Jesuit to lead the university in two decades.

This fragility will continue to be a topic of conversation for Catholic colleges and universities. These are generally small, federated colleges on larger, secular universities. There have been plenty of talks among administrators at these colleges, including in early October when Meehan attended a gathering of the Association of Jesuit Colleges of the U.S. and Canada in Washington. The question was, “How do we promote Jesuit mission when there are no more Jesuits at your institution?“

For Meehan, the answer is obvious: It’s time to put the Jesuits on the front burner again. He has experience at it, having been president at Campion College, the Jesuit college at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, for five years (2013-18).

“I want to do what we did in Regina,” he said. “You highlight the Jesuit values, which come from a Jesuit Catholic tradition, but you let people know they can live out these values whether or not they’re Catholic.”

In the few short weeks Meehan has been in Sudbury he has started staff discerning what the school’s Jesuit identity is and has set up a committee to put that identity and mission front and centre.

“Unless we’re able to say what makes us unique, what is our value added to society, then why do we exist?” he asked.

It follows the Jesuit way, very much part of the way of Jesuit Pope Francis’ focus on a culture of dialogue. The Pope says difference is not something to be feared and we can only learn from those who are different than us. 

“The Jesuit approach is one of discernment,” said Meehan, who for the last two years was rector at the L’Église de Gesù in Montreal. “We build bridges, not walls, as Pope Francis is trying to do, to promote spaces where people feel safe and able to be themselves and in that space we promote dialogue, encounter and ultimately reconciliation and healing.”

If you’re going to dialogue, Sudbury is the place. It may seem like it’s a city off the beaten track, tucked inland off the northern shores of Georgian Bay. In reality it encompasses the three solitudes that make up Canada: English, French and Indigenous. 

It’s also at the centre of some of the most important conversations taking place today in Canada, particularly with First Nations. It’s not unlike the conversations Meehan was having in Regina, where Campion shared a campus with, among others, First Nations University. 

He sees parallels between the Indigenous way of education and the Jesuit. Both are very holistic and centre on the body, mind and spirit and forming men and women who will work for others, for their community.

“We’ve lost that sense of the wider community (on secular campuses),” said Meehan. “We need Indigenous education and Jesuit education to remind us of the deeper spiritual values of connection to God and each other.”

Meehan has already been queried if reinvigorating the Jesuit identity is going backwards or moving forward. It’s full-steam ahead, he told his inquisitor.

He recognizes the identity challenge remains and is also conscious of the budget cuts post-secondary education face in Ontario. But Meehan is looking forward to the challenge over his two-year term and is excited by the potential of bringing the attributes of the Jesuit identity to the forefront.

“You have to be intentional about them,” he said. “If you don’t promote them actively, they kind of wither away. I think we have a lot of catching up to do.”

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