Leaning into the Tension

"Leaning into tension" story cover

April 27, 2020
Kate Vanskike

Admittedly, going out into the world is messy. And that’s why we cling to another longstanding Ignatian tradition: practicing presupposition. It means we assume the best in others, approach people - even in the tension and discord - with the assumption that they have good in them, and that they come to the table with a shared concern for the truth.
Father Stephen Hess, S.J.


Oftentimes, matters of faith and spirituality are not as straightforward as people would hope. Even within a common belief system or shared religious identity, conversations about such things are tough. Add the dynamics of politics and the social issues of the day and tension will be present. 

Lean in, says Father Stephen Hess, S.J., alumni chaplain. It’s Jesuit to embrace that tension, wrestle with it, individually and together, he says. 

Gonzaga grads are asking for opportunities to do just that - to explore today’s challenging topics through the lens of the Jesuit tradition they experienced during their student years, and to engage their intellectual curiosity alongside their spiritual cravings.

That’s what calls Fr. Hess to the road several times a year, meeting with alumni in pubs and other gathering spots for spiritual conversation, and it was the impetus for a Spirits & Spirituality event that drew more than 150 Zags to Cataldo Hall during Reunion 2019. He eases into the conversation with this question: How do you live your Gonzaga experience in your life today?

Innocuous as the question may sound, the discussion inevitably turns to harder questions: What does it mean to be Catholic? What issues demand our response - and how does one know the “proper” response when there’s so much consternation among people who all seem to care so deeply?

“It is crucial that we engage in respectful dialogue with those thinking differently than ourselves - to enter into the tension,” says Father Hess. “It is not about swaying the other to our side, but about understanding each other more deeply. When we allow ourselves to do this, we can see where God is working in our lives.”

At the fall reunion, Abe Ritter (’99) admitted he had questions about religion when he came to Gonzaga. He wasn’t Catholic, and his professors knew his viewpoints. “They embraced me even in my confusion and didn’t push me away,” Ritter shared. “That led me to where I am in my faith.” Today, he and his family practice the Catholic faith in the Latin tradition.

Joe Caravalho (’79) attributed his deeper understanding of Catholicism to the exposure Gonzaga provided in philosophy and comparative religion courses, and in a less formal but equally powerful manner, to the way fellow students accepted him as a person, even when they didn’t agree with the concept of ROTC - an integral part of his college identity. “This is where I learned compassion and how to lead through inspiration,” Caravalho shared. He used those traits throughout his Army career, and then, as a general, he further integrated spirituality into his leadership style, even during times of war.

Fellow alums on the panel with Ritter and Caravalho listed by name the people at Gonzaga who had impacted their faith journey: David Lindsey, Father Jim Meehan, Father Frederic Schlatter, Sue Weitz … and fellow students.

“The social currency of being a student here was so rooted in kindness,” said Andrea Woods (’09). “I stumbled into social justice because the people I wanted to be around were doing that.” Today, she’s an attorney with the ACLU in New York, working to address the inhumanity in our system of mass incarceration, something she first learned about through her Jesuit Volunteer Corps experience.

Fellow attorney Peter Ruffatto (’89) says his Gonzaga experience also led him to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, because, “We learned not just to be impacted by the world but to impact the world. That was a challenge to me. GU gave me the tools and discernment to evaluate what to do with that.”

Danielle Cendejas (’04) is a political strategist in the Los Angeles area who shared that while she had been Catholic-educated for years, Gonzaga taught her how to think and discern. “Now that I work in politics, I know how to formulate the argument in a way that addresses not just the black and white areas, but the gray areas, too.” And the bedrock of her client advising is ethics - likely a distinction from others in the field.

Questions of Catholic Identity

While their experiences are similar, and representative of what generations of students have experienced in the Catholic intellectual tradition, many alumni today question whether Gonzaga remains true to the faith. At this alumni gathering, attendees raised questions: Isn’t the university focused too much on social justice? How can a Catholic university host lavender reunions for the LGBTQ community? How liberal is GU going to go before it’s too far?

“We’re grappling with these questions, but we’re doing it honestly,” Fr. Hess said. “I’d say that, more than ever, our faith life is so integral to who we are, and our students can experience that not just in chapel but in the classroom as well.”

After a recent Mass on campus with an unusually high attendance, one nonCatholic student told Fr. Hess, “I’m beginning to see Catholicism in a new light.”

For Ritter, the value of his Jesuit education at Gonzaga supersedes the conservative-liberal debate. “I attend a very traditional Latin Mass, where people would say GU is as liberal as it gets, but I will definitely be encouraging my kids to come here,” he stated. For him, it comes down to the essential gift of his experience: “Life is hard but I’m able to handle what’s tough because of what I learned here.”

Woods, the N.Y. attorney, added, “When I encounter people who believe differently than me - even those who I believe are creating suffering - I must remember that they have infinite worth. And while everybody suffers, not everybody is oppressed. My Jesuit education leaves me with a clear True North: Though accepting the infinite worth of everyone, we are called to fight against oppression.”

The university’s role, added Fr. Hess, “is to expose students to a variety of viewpoints and give them critical thinking skills within the Catholic context and then to go out into the world and build bridges.” 

Admittedly, going out into the world is messy, he said. “And that’s why we cling to another longstanding Ignatian tradition: practicing presupposition. It means we assume the best in others, approach people - even in the tension and discord - with the assumption that they have good in them, and that they come to the table with a shared concern for the truth.”

Check to see when Spirits & Spirituality events resume, or request to host one in your local chapter.