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Holbert Interviews SHC Chancellor, Rev. Greg Lucey, SJ

The following interview between Gentry Holbert and the Rev. Greg Lucey, SJ, was conducted for StoryCorps, a national initiative to record stories and conversations. A link to the conversation is contained within the U.S. Library of Congress and is accessible here.

Holbert: My name is Gentry Lankewicz Holbert. I am 47 years old. Today’s date is February 27, 2017, and we are in Mobile, Alabama. I am here with Father Greg Lucey, who is a colleague at Spring Hill College, where I am the Library Director. 

Fr. Lucey: I am Father Greg Lucey. I am 84 years old. I am the Chancellor at Spring Hill College on this February 27, 2017, in Mobile, Alabama. As I said, I am Chancellor at Spring Hill College. I’ve been there at Spring Hill, off and on, for 20 years. 

Holbert: So, Fr. Lucey, so, you are a Jesuit priest…

Fr. Lucey: Correct! 

Holbert: …in an educational situation, so tell us what your role has been and your work at Spring Hill and within education, higher education.

Fr. Lucey: Yeah, well, I’ve been at Spring Hill as I said for 20 years. I showed up here in 1997 as President. And 12 years as President, and then had of sabbatical, and went off to Washington D.C. to head up the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. There are 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States.

Holbert: such as…

Fr. Lucey: Such as Georgetown, Boston College, four Loyola’s across the country, Marquette, Xavier, and so on. And there are about 200 around the world. And, Jesuit, we’re a religious community of men, primarily priests, founded in 1540 by Saint Ignatius of Loyola. So we’ve been around for a long, long time. We are about 19,000 of us in the world. There are about 2,000 in the United States right now. And besides colleges, we have high schools in parishes and a raft of other things, but at least half of the Jesuits in the world are involved in education. And I’ve been in education almost all my life, and usually in some kind of leadership role. 

Holbert: So, if there are only about 2,000 Jesuits in the United States, and we have 28 colleges, how did you fall into these leadership roles when not everyone has the capability or wants to be in administration or be a leader?

Fr. Lucey: How did I fall into them? I don’t know. Interesting little story, as a Jesuit, we go through a rather lengthy, they kind of joke about the fact that it takes us 13 years roughly. In my day, I entered right out of high school, and then it was 13 years later before I got ordained and we used to joke about well they’re a little slower. So, anyhow.

Holbert: You could’ve been a medical doctor by that time …

Fr. Lucey: I could’ve been a medical doctor and finished my residency by that time. …

Holbert: Right.

Fr. Lucey: Because we tuck a little residency into our training. We go and do ministry for a period of time. We don’t just study. But when I finished my residency, my teaching period, my uncle, who was also a Jesuit, said to me “You know, you’ll never teach again.” So I was quite taken aback that my uncle would tell me I would never teach again and here I am in this community of educators. Well it turned out he was right. At 84, I have never taught a course in higher education, but I have been an administrator all the time. That has something to do with my personality or something to do with how things just fell out. But I’ve always been kind of in charge or asked to manage things or whatever. You know me well enough to probably say, “Oh yeah, I can understand that.”

Holbert: I do, but I would say you’re in a teaching role now with mission and identity on campus, not only with the students but what you do with the staff and the faculty. How does that work? When someone comes to Spring Hill College to work, and you run a mission and identity...

Fr. Lucey: That’s interesting - the fact that there are only 19,000 Jesuits in the world today; there were 36,000 at one point in my life. And there were 8,000 Jesuits in the United States, and now there are about 2,000 Jesuits in the United States. We still have 28 schools and 59 high schools and so forth. So there’s a real change happening and one of the things that we’re realizing is that there’s a uniqueness as you know from your experience at Spring Hill, there’s a real uniqueness about how we operate and what our mission is as a Jesuit institution. And so you can play with it around culture, you know. Most companies would say, “Well, we have a company culture.” Well, we say, “We have a culture that’s more than just a culture. It’s very significant to how we live and how we educate and what kind of an experience a student has on our campus and what kind of an experience an employee has on our campus.” But, what you’re referring to is that every student or every employee that had a job, got a job there while I was president for 12 years went through an orientation program with me, personally.

Holbert: Which I remember, and I found interesting because I was a faculty member, but I could be sitting next to someone that was a groundskeeper. And we were all there, and you started by saying, you gave a little talk about Ignatius, and the history of the Jesuits, but then you talked about core values, which was scary. And then it said, “Turn around and talk to the person next to you about what are your core values,” and that was very scary at the time, but at the same time that you even cared. But then I ended up turning around to a groundskeeper and having this conversation about “What are your core values?” I was like, “Who asks that? What employee cares or even asks you that?”

Fr. Lucey: Right, and then we went on to talk about what the founder of the Jesuits’ core values were, and then we talked about what the school’s core values are. And, as you know, I have two seminars, two groups now, going all the time, so I do teach in a sense. I have these courses that faculty and staff sign up for, and we meet about every three weeks and we talk about, continue in much greater depth - that was just a two-hour session. This is a two-hour session every three weeks or so and reading in-depth, understanding the core values and understanding the mission and the environment that we’re trying to create. And, you know, I think one of the unique things is that it sounds, as I say that, it sounds almost “Whoa man, this is a real narrow gauge to, if you’re not complying and conforming to the culture, you’re out of here.” Whereas, actually it is a real, broad gauge. …Openness

Holbert: It’s quite ridiculously open. 

Fr. Lucey: Yeah. 

Holbert: This cura personalis - that is the care of the mind, body, spirit - goes way beyond religion or an ordered religion, but it’s more of a common good and a care for the dignity of all human life. So when we have employees in these meetings it has nothing to do with what religion they are.

Fr. Lucey: No, but it does, you know, and I think as I’ve done this and as I was saying to you on the way down here, a lot of these things become more clear. The old saying, “When you teach, you learn.” It becomes more clear. I was saying to the seminar the other day that, you know, we are talking about, we are really talking about the interiority of people, the spirituality of people. That’s not religion. Religion is something you do in order to live out the spirituality or the interiority or how you want to, and you might grow and have an affiliation with a community of Methodists or Catholics or Episcopalians or Jewish or Muslims, or whatever, but the basic thing is that your spirituality is evolving. And, I like to use a friend of mine’s definition that spirituality is one’s lived relationship with mystery – one’s lived relationship with mystery. So that’s really at the heart of what I try to do and nurture in the people who are working at Spring Hill so that they are more likely a part of the effort to create an environment where the students are nurtured in their spirituality. And, our mission statement says, “Spring Hill College forms students … responsible leadership in the service to others” 

Holbert: When you talk about the mystery of…the mystery. So there are phrases of God being in all things and certainly there’s a mystery of God, but how do you define this, it’s very broad, “God is in all things.” And I hear Jesuits say that or in our mission and identity; what does that mean?

Fr. Lucey: You know, just as you said that, I was thinking, it’s really another way of saying “mystery,” that spirituality is one’s lived relationship WITH God in all things. That’s what mystery is, that we find God in all things. That’s the reality. And, that works out in a number of ways. It can be an incredible, beautiful sunset that you see the beauty of that.

Holbert: Or it could be something unpleasant.

Fr. Lucey: It could be something unpleasant. It could be - I got a call this morning from a cousin who, when you mentioned, 34-year-old daughter and husband were killed in a car accident yesterday leaving a set of twin boys, 14 months old. I mean, you know, where is God in the mystery? I mean that’s a mystery in how she copes with that and how we live through this. How we deal with: It’s not a why, it’s not an evil, it’s just a reality but how do we cope with reality? And how do we walk through that? And then there are the violence and the different evils that exist in our society that are. Again how do we deal with those, but. 

Holbert: You talked about, on the way here, a colleague or someone that you went to school with in El Salvador. Can you share that with me?

Fr. Lucey: Yeah. You know, back in ’89, there were six Jesuits at the University of the UCA, the Jesuit University in San Salvador, who were killed by the government troops. Came in. And one of them I had gone through theology with and saw a picture of him lying on the floor of his bedroom in a pool of blood and next to him was a book called “The Crucified Christ.” And I thought, you know, “That’s who he is, the crucified Christ.” I was telling you, you know, in Africa they look on Good Friday as deeply significant as Easter Sunday in terms of Christ entering into our lives and into our suffering as much as our resurrection. I think that really a lot of the significance, really at the heart of the significance of Spring Hill College, or any of the Jesuit schools, is the deep understanding of the incarnation of, you know, God not only is with us in creation, but God chose to enter into our, into our lives, into creation, to be with us in our life and in our death.

Holbert: That’s deep. That’s amazing. That’s a lot to think about. So how do we transfer that to our students when we think about guiding them educationally but also toward where they’re called in life to a profession, to a life, in that formation?

Fr. Lucey: I think, I don’t have, at my age and activities, I don’t have a lot of contact with students, but I …

Holbert: You’re in the cafeteria all the time. 

Fr. Lucey: Well I am.

Holbert: Laughing, talking.

Fr. Lucey: I am. I am. I am.

Fr. Lucey: But I do have, this year I started a new little practice of, the head of Campus Ministry, Maureen and I, have, we invited seniors to have a reflection group. So we have a very small group of seniors. This is our first year. We meet every two weeks and we reflect on what’s happening. And, our last session was one of the best sessions we’ve had. These people are just phenomenal. And it was, you know, I’m not sure what the answer to your question is, “How we do it?” but we do it. I mean, what those four students had to say about where they are, what two to three months before graduation? They’re all … three of the four of them are off doing, having an international immersion experience this week. 

Holbert: Instead of Mardi Gras.

Fr. Lucey: Instead of Mardi Gras. Two of them are leaders of their group of 10 students in Belize or Dominican Republic. I mean one of them volunteers two days a week at Victoria Clinic [Victory Health Partners]. She is planning to go to med school and also get a degree in public health, a master’s in public health, while in med school. I mean, these people are, they get it. They get it. They get it. The idea of service for them has really become part of their identity. For a long time I thought service, you know, kids do service. 

Holbert: You check off a list and you say, “I read to some kids.” 

Lucey: Yeah, right. “I do service. I went over and I poured soup into a, you know.” Well, service, service is, it’s part of our identity that we do service; it’s part of who we are. I can tell you, those students, and I’m sure not all of our students got it the way these four have, but they have a sense of what their identity is in terms of serving. They are going to make a difference in the world. And that’s, you know, Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, he realized his relationship with God: that he was created, loved into being by God, and that his responsibility was to serve, to help others. That’s a simple thing: to help others. And that is the whole of life, and so when we say that we form students to be responsible leaders in the service of others. And, I think…

Holbert: So that’s a broader, not just going to the soup kitchen, but a way of life …

Fr. Lucey: No, no. It’s a way of life.

Holbert: … And way of being. 

Fr. Lucey: It’s is an integral part of… and one of the faculty members in the seminar the other day was explaining, she telling me how she explains to her children that why she can’t stay home and play with them all day. That she needs, she’s, “I need to serve. People need to understand Biochemistry. And so someone has to do this and if we’re going to have the kind of knowledge of science and so forth, I’ve got to serve.”

Holbert: So she’s not just a faculty member at Spring Hill, she sees it as serving.
Fr. Lucey: She is serving. The other thing I think is really important in our approach to, you know, all, all of our areas of knowledge are of incredible importance. The whole of creation is good, and seeking and understanding the deeper knowledge of every aspect of that is extraordinarily important. So, I mean, her courses in biochemistry are as significant as Fr. Viscardi’s course in systematic theology. 

Holbert: Right.

Fr. Lucey: So there’s a real consistency in the importance of knowledge and knowledge for purpose.

Holbert: Another thing that strikes me about Jesuits is the way that they are open to enter into conversations and sometimes difficult conversations or conversations that are not of their own beliefs. So that if we had a student group, it was my understanding, that wanted to start an atheist club, well they needed a faculty sponsor and that one of the priests, our younger priest, stood up and said, “Sure, I’ll do that. We’ll have a conversation about it.” Not an immediate “No, you cant do this.” You also told me about interviewing a faculty member who stated that he was agnostic. Tell me how that conversation went.

Fr. Lucey: Yeah, he said… I always ask at the end of the conversation, this was back when I was President, and when I was interviewing new, potential faculty members, and I said, “Do you have any questions?” And he said, “Well, yes, well, it’s not, it’s sort of a question, but you know, I’m an agnostic.” I said, “Really?” I said, “I don’t know that I have ever had an opportunity to visit with somebody who was a professed agnostic. Tell me about yourself. What does that mean to you that you’re an agnostic?” And, he said, “Well, I have my doubts.” And I said, “Put her there. So do I, we all have doubts.” He meant it I’m sure much more fully than that but I mean I always see diversity as richness. I had a good talk in the seminar just the other day we were talking about diversity and where do, where do you draw the line or is there a line? We were talking about the importance and really, well we were talking about, and this was a very interesting conversation, we were talking about what if there were no Jesuits at Spring Hill and what would bond it. Could it be a Jesuit school with no Jesuits? And they’re saying, “Yes, if you have a Jesuit mission.” If it’s more than culture, if you have a mission and you have enough people like yourself who really understand and are committed to that mission, then you are Jesuit. You have that understanding and accountability for that kind of a mission. That’s what it is to be a Jesuit university. And, so, that has implications for your hiring policy but that doesn’t mean that you have to have people who are already conforming to that, but they, would have to be not hostile, or they’re not going to be, behave themselves in a way that… I remember a few years ago we used to have a policy that, there was a policy of positive environment. Whatever the issue was, if you were a sore head all the whole time and created it impossible for a committee to meet because you were there, and if it wasn’t done the way you wanted it. Well, the same way, with whether it was about the mission of the school, you couldn’t be in opposition or hostile to, but certainly you could be saying, “Well that’s not, I don’t really buy that fully.” Or “I don’t, I’m an atheist, or I’m Jewish, or I’m whatever,” but, and there is, the benefit of the diversity is…

Holbert: It makes us a richer campus to have those that are Jewish or Muslim on campus. So I often hear how Jesuits will go to the margins. What does that mean: Going to the margins to the underserved, that they would be directed to go to what sounds like the difficult places?

Fr. Lucey: Yes, I think from the very beginning Ignatius, back in 1840, you know he sent Xavier, one of his dearest friends, he sent him to India and off to China back in the 1540s, to go to the ends of the earth or to go where no one else is willing to go. That’s always been kind of our approach or our tack. And so, I think whether it’s the most needy, but to go to the margins, but that has a whole range of meanings, I think, of “What are the margins?”

Holbert: Well for a student or employee it could just be out of your comfort zone …

Fr. Lucey: True

Holbert: … to a place that’s a little bit difficult and you’re not sure, but going there

Fr. Lucey: Yeah, to go to the horizon. Another way I like to look at, and maybe it’s totally different, but I think equally important in Ignatius’s approach to things is to go to whatever you’re approaching with the deepest attention. Whether you’re speaking to another human being. You know, I mean, to the extent that this is working among our students, and, I think, fairly so. For a teacher to be attentive to a student and be attentive and accepting, and this is the kind of richness and that openness that you were talking about, to be attentive to this person and to really hear them out wherever they are, and then to be reverent to that reality and not be judgmental, not bring a bias, not bring a pre-judgment. That, you know, what the experience of an 18-year-old having a professor hear them out in an attentive way. But I think that’s the model. It could be you’re looking at an azalea or you’re looking at anything, but to have that kind of attentiveness, and then responding to that with a reaction of support or giving or doing whatever needs to be done for that reality, I mean that’s really at the core. But it’s not just in your comfort zone as you’re saying, but going to the margins and saying “Okay, what?” And, I think… I was thinking today about, you know, all of the issues that we have in our society today, all of the problematic difficulties of a ... whether it's refugees or immigration or whatever, to... Well the head of the Society a few years ago started a Jesuit refugee service so, “Where are the refugees that are least attended to and how do we or do we set up an accompaniment for people who are?” That kind of attentiveness would be an example of that, going to the margins. 

Holbert: So we’re here in Mobile, Alabama, and Mardi Gras is going on around us. Tomorrow is Fat Tuesday, and then we go into Lent. So this dichotomy of all this excitement and then this time of reflection leading into Easter, but you also mentioned on the way here, in a group, having discussions about “reconciliation.” What is that? 

Fr. Lucey: What is that? 

Holbert: What’s going on with that? What are those discussions? And what does that, what does that mean? It’s not a word that I just use all the time or would tentatively might look it up before…

Fr. Lucey: Well, you know it’s interesting. Some people would, when I throw out the word “reconciliation.” It’s another word for the sacrament of penance in the Catholic Church. A more, I’d say, a little more healthy kind of, a more modern kind of word term is “reconciliation, to reunite.” But the Jesuits just had, our community just elected a new general last fall, and when we get together for these international meetings, and we look at our mission. It was very simple. Ignatius said we need to help others. Well, at the meeting last fall and also back in 2008 when they had a meeting, they talked about the word “reconciliation.” That the need in our society today is reconciliation. You know, I mean you think of all of the things that are happening in our society, all of the conflicts and reconciliation. I mean, I was reading something this morning about the situation in South Africa years ago and that thinking about Mandela as a reconciler. And he spent 27 years in prison, and he was a firebrand when he went into prison, but he became a reconciler. When he came out of prison, he became president of the country and was part of the whole reconciliation process. Well, that’s kind of the kind of thing that I’m thinking about. But, the Society of Jesus, in their last, this general congregation that we just had, said, you know, “We ought to think of our mission as Jesuits as primarily or of focus ought to be reconciliation. How do we foster, encourage reconciliation with God?” And it’s not that we have to reconcile ourselves to God; God has reconciled himself to us. All we have to do is accept it. But there’s a lot there. There’s a whole reconciliation of humanity with humanity. And then, Pope Francis is saying we really need to reconcile ourselves with creation and the whole of our environment. 

Holbert: And he’s a Jesuit …

Fr. Lucey: A Jesuit Pope.

Holbert: … which is fun. There’s an ancient curse that’s supposed to be “May you live in interesting times,” which it seems that we do. And as you mentioned there’s so much going on that needs reconciliation just with humanity. So this seems very overwhelming, how would one focus?

Fr. Lucey: Well, it’s interesting you ask. I mentioned that I was thinking about it because next Saturday, I’m going to spend a day. I have a group of 25 or so people coming to spend most of the day talking about reconciliation. So I’ve been spending a day thinking about “Just how am I going to approach that with them?” And I like to start out by asking people where they are. We’re all in a box.

Holbert: Right.

Fr. Lucey: We’re all in a box and that box excludes people. And so if we want to reconcile, first we have to figure out what are limits that we have set up and how don’t we include? I’m still kind of thinking through where to take people, and I hope, you know, the wonderful thing is to learn from them, get them to engage in their space and how they’re trying to reconcile with wherever the brokenness is. That’s a thing I think as, you know, if you’re not, we’re, none of us are happy reconciled in all of reality, and so. 

Holbert: We’re all broken in some way, or breaking. 

Fr. Lucey: So where is the brokenness? And the more I think about the box, we underestimate the extent of our brokenness. We all live in kind of cultural box, and so, once we kind of solve maybe some personal things, there’s a whole other range of cultural dimensions to our box that are still out of line or are not reconciled.

Vera Carothers, facilitator, Mobile StoryCorps: I’m curious, if someone asked you that question like, “Where are you? What box are you in? Where would your answer be?”

Holbert: At 84.

Fr. Lucey: At 84. You know, I was asking myself that this morning actually. Thinking about that, trying to figure out what box I’m in, and to some extent I’m in a box of my limited experience. I’ve been limited to working in higher education. I’ve been limited to working in the United States. When I had a sabbatical, ten or seven, four or five years ago, I went down to Belize and worked among the Mayan Indians for three months just to get myself out of. I went to the margins to try to. But, you know, I don’t have the breadth or depth of experience of, the extent of the what, brokenness. I’ve been protected. I haven’t worked in a refugee camp. I haven’t worked among migrants in the way that… A student was telling me in my group the other night about this priest down in Haiti that has just worked with getting kids into school and getting them a sliver of education. 

Holbert: Right.

Fr. Lucey: So I’m limited by...

Holbert: You’re limited, but you’ve worked with students that you’re opening the possibility to do that kind of work. 

Fr. Lucey: Right. 

Holbert: So you’re fostering that in a different way.

Fr. Lucey: Yeah, well I am. But I can only do so much, but I think that’s, that’s part of my box. Our life experience is our box.

Holbert: Is there anything else about, say, your legacy of being a Jesuit in higher education that you would like to have people think of you or say about you or…?

Fr. Lucey: You know, this has been a wonderful time. What has happened in the last, I was ordained in 1964 right at the end of the Vatican council, which, you know, growing up as a Catholic and graduating high school in 1951 and entering the seminary in a Pre-Vatican church and then in a Pre-Vatican Jesuit society. And seeing what’s happened since Vatican, since 1965, in terms of the understanding of who we are and what our spirituality is and the living out of what Ignatius spirituality, it has just been phenomenal, phenomenal. The richness is terrific.

Holbert: So the direction of your life and your choices those were the right ones? Those were the right choices?

Fr. Lucey: Oh, I think so, yeah, yeah. I decided at 12 years old where I was going. What’s that 72 years ago?

Holbert: That’s a calling so. I know were wrapping up a little bit, but I appreciate you being so open and sharing on some topics that aren’t exact or easy. I wanted people to hear a little about what it meant to be a Jesuit in higher education from someone with such a long legacy within. Thank you.

Fr. Lucey: Well, thank you for initiating this. This was a great idea, as you so often do.

Holbert: Thank you. It was fun. So. 

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