25 Sep September 2023 Reflection – Michael McFarland SJ

A Strong, Engaged Board


Earlier this month, we held our first board retreat for the Gregorian University Foundation.  The retreat was held at the Loyola University Water Tower campus in Chicago because it is a centralized location for a board that has become much more diverse geographically than in the past, when it was mainly centered around New York.  In addition to our continued New York presence, we now have trustees from Boston, Washington, Florida, Chicago, Texas, Phoenix and Los Angeles.  This is part of our ongoing efforts to broaden our donor base and raise awareness around the country of the Gregorian University and its importance to the Church.

The purpose of the retreat was threefold.  The first was to help the trustees get to know one another and the Foundation better.  Most of them have joined the board in the last four years, during the COVID era, and have had limited opportunities to be together.  The second goal was to deepen the trustees’ commitment to and involvement with the Gregorian University, the Foundation and their work.  Many have already been helpful, not only in donating themselves, but also by identifying and reaching out to other potential donors, hosting or sponsoring receptions and other events, attending our annual Colloquium in Rome with friends and associates, sharing emails and social media posts and generally telling the story of the Gregorian and the crucial work it does for the Church throughout the world.  We need to continue to grow that activity if we are to reach our goals for fundraising and do our share in meeting the needs of the Gregorian and its very talented and dedicated students and faculty.  Finally, we wanted to look ahead and set some goals and directions for the next three to five years.

After an opening prayer, introductions and orientation, we entered into the retreat with an Ignatian Examen.  This is a cornerstone of Jesuit spirituality that we are learning to use in communal settings, as well as individually.  The Examen is a way of discovering how Christ has been present and at work in us by examining our interior movements, that is, the consolations and desolations we have experienced in our lives and work.  It encourages us to go beyond our ideas, analysis and plans to the depths of the heart, where the Spirit touches us most deeply.  We began with consolations, asking each participant to reflect on where he or she found joy, energy and fulfillment in their involvement with the Gregorian, while the rest listened.  Everyone was then asked to reflect back on what they heard, from which some common themes emerged.  Many noted how they had initially been brought in by a friend, family member or Jesuit whom they knew.  As they came to know more about the institutions, they were strongly impressed with their mission and the quality, diversity and dedication of their students and faculty.  Those who had visited Rome found that to be an especially moving experience, helping them develop more personal and immediate ties with the institutions and their people, and deepening their commitment to be a part of their work.  It is always important to begin with the consolations, to be aware of how much we have received from Christ in His love and generosity and to respond with gratitude and service.  Then we went on to the desolations, reflecting on where we found resistance and frustration.  Many noted the disappointment they encounter in themselves and others because of the Church’s scandals and lack of responsiveness, transparency and compassion.  Another frustration was the lack of awareness of the Gregorian University and all the vital work it does.  These are definitely challenges, but they are also opportunities to change perceptions, so Christ is present in them also.

The next morning, after Mass in the breathtaking St. James Chapel at the Archdiocesan offices, the group viewed a presentation from the Gregorian’s rector, Fr. Mark Lewis, SJ, which was prerecorded for us, since he had to be away at a planning meeting with his deans.  Fr. Lewis, entering his second year in office, discussed the new strategic plan he has formulated with the faculty, covering the next three to five years.  In particular, he highlighted the two highest priorities for the coming year: enhancing and updating the pedagogy at the Gregorian, and strengthening their internal communications and fundraising structures.  For the first, he wants to create a new Center for Teaching Excellence to foster more active learning and to develop new teaching methods that use technology to supplement but not replace in-person lectures, seminars and mentoring.  The second involves creating a centralized office for communications, marketing and development at the Gregorian, which should make it easier for us to coordinate our efforts with theirs.  Following the video, the trustees discussed their reactions.  The trustees were especially interested in having closer ties with Rome so that they can learn more about the activities and plans there and do a better job of promoting the Gregorian.  They also suggested that we publish a schedule of planned events for the Foundation around the country so they can invite people they may know to attend.

That afternoon, after viewing a draft of a new video we are developing, the trustees broke into three work groups.  One dealt specifically with advancement strategy, one with messaging and one with developing a cohort of younger leaders and donors.  A committee will take the recommendations of these groups and refine them into specific proposals for the December board meeting.  The day concluded with a Chicago architecture boat cruise and dinner at the Chicago Athletic Club overlooking Grant Park and Lake Michigan.  Our honored guest was Cardinal Cupich, who spoke warmly of his experience as a student at the Gregorian.  The retreat concluded the next morning with Sunday Mass, brunch and the regular September board meeting.  The trustees left energized and with a renewed sense of identity, mission and purpose.  The plans conceived there should also lead to some new initiatives that will strengthen our fundraising and our support of Gregorian and its affiliated institutions in Rome.

Michael C McFarland, SJ
President, Gregorian University Foundation