Each year during one Wednesday in October all of the classroom endeavors of Saint Ignatius High School come to a halt, number two pencils are sharpened, calculators are charged, and, most importantly, each freshman, sophomore, and junior spends several hours marking in bubbles on an answer sheet for the PSAT, the practice (thus, P) version of the Scholastic Aptitude Test – the gatekeeper to college admissions.
For the seniors this is a day that focuses not so much on the hurdles that they must jump over in order to gain admission to their dream college, but on the continuation of the race after a degree is earned: the adult world of work. For the past several years seniors have been afforded the opportunity to listen to Ignatius graduates who have taken time out of their busy schedules to come back home to West 30th Street and share their reflections on their specific career choices.
This day is a call to each of the members of the Class of 2019 to take time out from the hectic world of senior year and do something very Ignatian: to focus on the process of discernment that is a necessary part of choosing a college and a career. Implicit in this Day of Discernment is the great question that the late Fr. Robert Welsh, S.J. ’54 associated with a Saint Ignatius education: “What does God want from me?”
As a prelude to this day I handed each of my seniors an article that focuses on this process of discernment and has been published on a number of college websites. In “Major Decisions” the late Fr. James T. Burtchaell, C.S.C., offers a compelling voice to the discussion of what one should study in college and why. Amidst all of the focus on a degree that is “marketable” Burtchaell moves the discussion to a much more Ignatian place by focusing on the importance of finding a discipline that you enjoy. The implicit logic behind this approach is that God has given each person specific talents and leanings. Thus, to try to force the square peg of a lover of history into the round hole of accounting or engineering is to destroy the integrity of the peg.
In the opening lines of the First Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius calls each of us to our purpose in life, as well as to the means for achieving that purpose:
“Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.”
For anyone who attends Saint Ignatius, the choice of a college major or a professional career should, of necessity, be filtered through these words of the Spiritual Exercises. If it is not, then the “Fr. Welsh Question” cannot be answered and many thousands of dollars have been ill spent.
By posing his question and by making the Spiritual Exercises so much a part of the life of Saint Ignatius, Fr. Welsh placed a burden on our graduates that they would never have had to bear had they chosen to attend some other school. Our students and alumni are called to justify their major life choices in light of whether or not they serve the purpose of praising, reverencing, and serving God. They must take an honest look at themselves and ask whether or not they are using all of their talents in pursuit of this purpose for which they were created.
Without realizing it, St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out the four great wrong answers to Fr. Welsh’s question when he noted in his Summa Theologica that men seek happiness in power, wealth, fame, and pleasure. To choose one’s major and one’s career based on any of these factors is to settle for something less than the true happiness that can be found only by following the words of St. Ignatius, but not only those in the First Principle and Foundation.
Throughout the Spiritual Exercises Ignatius Loyola calls us to find God in all things, and so implicitly anoints each and every college major and every career or profession as worthy of our efforts. To spend four years or a lifetime in the study of insects or the heavens, in poetry or marketing, in philosophy or metallurgy can be a means to answer the Fr. Welsh question, as long as the chosen pursuit is a means to the end of finding God in all things, and in doing so also finding our true selves.