By Deborah Lohse
On August 1, Father Dorian Llywelyn, SJ, began his tenure as the new executive director of Santa Clara University’s Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, the center on campus that is charged with promoting and enhancing the Jesuit, Catholic tradition of education at Santa Clara and beyond. He recently sat down to answer some questions about his perspectives and passions —and how SCU’s mission is like pizza.
Q: Tell us about yourself – What animates or invigorates you?
A: I'm a Welshman, and I started being a serial immigrant when I was 17. I’ve lived in eight countries in five continents, and visited 26 others. So inevitably that exposure to a great diversity of cultures has deeply shaped how I look at the world.
Q: Why did you become a priest?
A: I tried very hard not to. God kept on knocking at the door.
Q: Why did you join the Jesuits after being a diocesan priest?
A: I did my priestly training in Spain and at the Jesuit School of Theology. In Wales I was a pastor in a rural area, and I also spent time back in Spain working in a national seminary there, and then as a senior research fellow at Stanford. The life of the parish was fulfilling, but it was a small world with little outlet for my intellectual passions: I come from a whole stable of teachers, so learning and teaching are in my blood. I found myself fully as a priest by becoming a Jesuit.
The other big piece was spirituality. Even before I joined the Jesuits, I had already done the full Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. Twice. I’d taught Ignatian spirituality at the University of Wales. And I’d been quite busy as a spiritual director. I’d discovered in the Exercises a framework for negotiating life that makes sense for a wide range of people.
Q: What has been your career trajectory?
A: I graduated from Cambridge. I did six years of British Peace Corps, in Egypt and Indonesia. I was a seminarian and then a parish priest. After I joined the Jesuits, I taught theology at Loyola Marymount University, directing the Huffington Ecumenical Institute and the Catholic Studies program. In L.A., I worked many Sundays in a women’s shelter, with the moms who were escaping domestic violence, trying to build a new life with their kids who have experienced terrible things. It's a place of great hope and joy that is also part of who I am today.
Q: What about Silicon Valley intrigues you, puzzles you?
A: The Valley is globally important, and SCU has found itself in the middle of a life-altering phenomenon. Civilization will never be the same after the internet. Technology has changed the basic sense of what it is be a person.
The potential for good here is immense. Technology’s negative side effects are also sobering. The pace of development outruns our understanding of the implications. So we have to try and discern very, very carefully in a very rapidly involving environment. In the Jesuits, we talk about being “contemplatives in action.” This place moves so quickly there is scarce time for contemplation. A university should be a place for reflection as well as action. If we don’t do the patient work of long-term, thoughtful analysis, who will? There’s an important counter-cultural value in hitting the ground strolling.
Q: You have said that the Ignatian Center could render a unique
service to the larger community, including the Church, the local community, and
the world —that we could be a nationally and internationally significant enterprise.
Can you elaborate a little on that?
A: The Church, the academy, and Silicon Valley can be a stronger force for dignity and freedom together than the sum of their parts. They have somewhat different purposes and ways of being but what the Ignatian Center can foster is conversation, motivation, and action. So I’m wondering what Catholicism can learn from the Valley. And vice versa. The conversation between faith and reason is deep in our Catholic intellectual DNA. Now we need to think about technology and faith. Here’s the place to do it. And if we don’t have that conversation, who will?
Q: If the Center were a person, what sort of person would it be?
A: It’d be a family, not an individual. With a soul as well as a mind and a heart. And a calm and firm sense of “This is who we are.” Phenomenal cooks and genial hosts with a great sense of humor. Doers as well as conversationalists. And they’d constantly be asking “Who isn’t yet at the table, and how can we move over and make a place for them?
Q: Any vision for making us more a part of the international Jesuit community?
A: Absolutely. Vision and concrete plans too. I feel more than passionate about this. Our 28 Jesuit schools in the United States exist too often in rivalry: who's got the money, who’s listed higher in U.S. News & World Report? We can do so much more together, for the greater glory of God and in support of the neediest. And there’s a whole Jesuit universe out there. Our American colleges have far more resources, comparatively and absolutely than our sister schools on other continents —I'm thinking now of the Jesuit college in Harare, Zimbabwe, where they don't have electricity some of the time, and where they had to close the college for a year because they couldn't afford to pay the faculty or feed the students. Getting to know our Ignatian family across the world is of mutual benefit. They have much to offer us.
Q: What are your hopes for immersion trips?
A: I’m a big fan of getting faculty and staff on immersions. Those experiences seem to be particularly effective in bringing the wide world into the classroom. I want to support those Jesuit and other projects that are just starting out—say, at the point where Homeboy Industries in L.A. or our Casa program in El Salvador were 10 years before our new first-year students were even born. There are unsung places that could do with the exposure that immersion trips can bring. Some are in faraway lands. Others are right under our noses.
Q: As you start this new job, what challenges you the most?
A: My challenge is self-inflicted: to go beyond the usual suspects. What could we do that nobody else is doing? What’s the topic that nobody else has been covering? I’d like to invite speakers who aren’t on the the conventional Jesuit college circuit. Or who have never ever been on a university campus.
I want to know who has never really been interested in the work of the Ignatian Center or who is not engaged with the mainstream discourses and concerns of our campus. And why. I think there’s a great value in striving to keep the circle open and keeping it wide.
Above all, I want to get a better sense of how much our mission feels like it really belongs to everyone. I tend to think of the mission piece of a Jesuit, Catholic university as cheese on pizza. On a good pizza, the cheese should be everywhere, not just on one slice. So the more the mission piece—and I mean the mission broadly understood, not just the churchy part or even the justice part—is on everybody’s slice, the better the whole university. I’m most interested in finding the slices that don't have enough of that cheese, or none at all, and offering to share the good stuff.
Q: To someone who's of a completely different faith, maybe an agnostic or even an atheist, what do you see as their contribution to mission?
A: Let’s imagine an atheist law student. I want to ask her: Can you do some pro bono work at the immigration clinic next Tuesday night? To the Muslim professor of economics: Can you incorporate questions that Pope Francis raises about environment and justice into your syllabus? It’s not only about different faith convictions: if you’re an engineer or a theatre major, then how you help build up the project is going to be different. There are as many faces of mission as there are people on campus.
Q: So we're not imposing religion on you, but we are imposing communal values?
A: Not quite. Religion is a relationship. You have to choose it. It can’t be forced. And ultimately a community can’t really impose communal values. It can and it should propose them, and then do the things that embody and further those values, and avoid the things that go against them. We all have to choose to seek, in this Jesuit, Catholic university, to find ourselves in those values, in the mission—in some way, at some level. There has to be at least something where you just realize, quietly: “I feel at home with this.
Q: You don't want people to walk away from here untouched by that mission?
A: If they did, I’d be really sad that they’d missed out on something that is, at its best, profoundly life-transforming.
(Source: Santa Clara University)