Fanning the Embers of the Great Gift of Scranton: Community
Ryan Maher, S.J., and his colleague Ryan Sheehan are energized as they discuss the Jesuit practices of reflection, conversation and prayer, which they believe can help people find God in all things. It is a way of proceeding they want to share with Scranton’s faculty and staff. This is the mission of the almost-two-year-old Jesuit Center on campus.
“Scranton has always supported its students well,” Fr. Maher said. “But the faculty and staff also deserve attention and formation. Formation means developing the imagination to see that all we do is inspired by the Ignatian vision.” Fr. Maher said infusing that vision into faculty and staff’s daily work, in turn, helps the University form men and women for others. “The big questions all adults on campus should be asking students are ‘who will you become,’ ‘what will you do with the knowledge you are receiving’ and, especially in the age of Francis, ‘how will it impact the poor.’”
The Jesuit Center offers a variety of programs. There are retreats to Chapman Lake and on-campus seminars. “Our job is easy because staff and faculty already feel connected to the students,” Sheehan said. In one quintessentially Scranton example, a student grappling with the meaning of an in-class film, “Lars and the Real Girl” got unexpected insight from dorm maintenance staff who had also seen it at one of Sheehan’s on-campus seminars.
In addition to local programs, the Center also invites faculty and staff to participate in mission trips to El Salvador, Nicaragua and the Kino Border Initiative straddling Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Although the trips differ in approach, the faith-based emphasis is always the same: experience, reflection, action.
Fr. Maher calls the El Salvador trip a pilgrimage to a place as sacred as that of Chaucer’s pilgrims and one that shares with Canterbury the source of its spiritual power — people of faith martyred for defying an unjust government. When pilgrims stand in the garden and residence where six Jesuits and two women perished, they are aware of the presence of the divine. The experience is heightened by the fact that Universidad Centroamericana is still a working university, so the shrines are oases of silence in an otherwise bustling place. Such a profound moment is best treated with quiet contemplation, but later Fr. Maher begins the conversation as he asks, “What is your experience of God in this?”
The Nicaragua trip follows a “faith in action” model in which participants build homes and coach sports. It is ideal for faculty and staff eager to put their faith into concrete action. “After a day of work, we engage in reflection on our experience,” Fr. Maher said. “These people are better at it than they think. Sometimes when I look around during the day, I get no signals about what’s going on inside them, but then later, during reflection sessions, they offer up diamonds of insight.”
The Kino trip is a mixture of pilgrimage and education. Participants work in a soup kitchen in Nogales, Mexico, and also go into the desert where immigrants cross into the U.S. This barren landscape is strewn with abandoned belongings, a reminder of the human devastation that occurs in a small stretch of land where 30,000 people live north of the border and 300,000 populate an area to the south.
When Scranton staff and faculty return from these trips refreshed in soul, Fr. Maher and Sheehan remind them that “although the initial fervor will pass, the experience and its lessons were real.” He and Sheehan nurture the flames through continued conversation and guided prayer. “There are a million ways to pray,” Fr. Maher said. “People can journal and then prayerfully revisit that journal.
For some people that revisitation comes in the form of photographs of the trip, music or even souvenirs. The Catholic imagination knows that physical things can be windows into the spiritual.” But experience and reflection are only the beginning, according to Fr. Maher. “Next we say, ‘Now DO something.’” That “something” is meant to help further the University’s Catholic and Jesuit mission.
Learn more about the Jesuit Center at scranton.edu/jesuitcenter.