Two years ago, Boston College professors, one of whom was Jewish, were having a conversation. The Jewish professor joked that BC’s “men and women for others” programs were so inclusive that he felt like he could be a Jesuit himself. The other professor earnestly replied that you don’t have to be Catholic to become a Jesuit. Moving past the hilarious image of Father Leahy’s reaction to this story, I feel that this anecdote has a solid point. Over the past few decades, volunteer organizations at BC have exploded in popularity. The Student Service Organizations homepage lists over two dozen programs. In addition, hundreds of students join the PULSE program, simultaneously learning philosophy in the classroom and engaging in community service in the greater Boston area.
In his inaugural address, former President George H.W. Bush likened volunteer organizations to “a thousand points of light … spread like stars throughout the nation doing good.” BC’s numerous service organizations embody this idealistic vision of selfless volunteerism. This explosion in service programs creates a conundrum, however. The Volunteer and Service Learning Center’s mission statement claims the Center promotes “conscientious service in the context of Catholic social learning and contemporary Jesuit education.”
This bold statement reminds me of a conversation I recently had with an ordained faculty member. He praised the rapid increase in student service participation, yet questioned the legitimacy of its underlying Jesuit foundation. “Men and women for others,” he claimed, “could have been Gandhi’s slogan, and Gandhi was neither Catholic nor Jesuit.”