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Christians ought to be like giraffes.
They should have tall necks, so that they might have a global vision of the world, its challenges, and its sufferings.
January of 1996 was snow-clogged and bitterly cold, even by New England standards. So for a kid from Mississippi, trudging across the Boston College Campus in old sneakers and the warmest jacket I owned—a few threads above a windbreaker—I was Shackleton braving the South Pole.
I was a high school senior and had flown up to interview for a Presidential Scholarship. But after two days of trying interviews and unrelenting winter, I felt impossibly out of place. Not only were the cold and the distance from home unbearable but I was an unrefined public school kid and these future Presidential Scholars had been reading Homer in ancient Greek since third grade.
I was ready to declare defeat and find a school south of the Mason-Dixon. But then I ended up at a dinner in McElroy, sitting across from an older gentleman wearing a tweed jacket, maroon and gold rep tie, and a warm smile. He claimed to be a Jesuit priest, which I had a hard time believing. He was so witty and bright and normal—and most of the priests I knew from childhood were not. This was of course the legendary Fr. Bill Neenan, who would become a friend, mentor, and the person who personified a BC Jesuit education for me. (He would also be the one who’d say to me, when I was hemming and hawing over whether to join the Jesuit order, “Jeremy, sh*t or get off the pot.”)
Another Jesuit priest, Adolfo Nicolas, former superior general of the worldwide order, once remarked that Christians ought to be like giraffes. They should have tall necks, he said, so that they might have a global vision of the world, its challenges, and its sufferings. And also like giraffes, their hearts ought to be big enough to pump blood up that tall neck. Someone with a wide vision of the world’s struggles and a big heart to respond to them, that is a true Christian, said Fr. Nicolas.
Bill Neenan had both, and he and Boston College attempted to instill both traits in me. Bill was a world-class economist—the first Jesuit to serve on the faculty of a public university in the United States (University of Michigan) before arriving at BC—and he was also a caring and committed priest. The intellectual and the spiritual melded so seamlessly in him, and that is what St. Ignatius of Loyola wanted in his priests. Catholicism wasn’t supposed to be an endeavor that eschewed serious intellectual inquiry or that ran and hid from the real world and its challenges. Rather “the world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it. And our job as Christians, Ignatius taught, was to point out and lift up and bless God’s activity in the manifold places it is to be found. It was Ignatius’ key insight that grace is always at work in unexpected places: jail cells and brain cells, boardrooms and classrooms, laughter and tears.
At BC, I spent the summer after freshman year living and volunteering with a dozen other Presidential Scholars. Each Friday afternoon, after a week of work in prisons, food banks, and homeless shelters, we would sit around in a dorm lounge, grappling with the social and economic factors that created situations of such great suffering for our clients. We would pore over philosophical and theological texts too, trying to figure out why God would permit such conditions to exist in the first place and what we could do to assist in bettering them. That summer, along with Kairos retreats and philosophy seminars, urban immersions and Sunday night Masses, volunteer days at the Campus School and weekly prayer groups at St. Mary’s Jesuit residence—and of course plenty of long talks with Fr. Neenan—these are the experiences by which BC taught me to be, God-willing, a Christian who thinks critically and acts lovingly.
There are Catholic universities that have let Catholic identity slip away as they have taken pains to avoid offense; to be hyperinclusive and politically correct. And there are Catholic universities that have tacked in the opposite direction, becoming so rigidly Catholic—narrowly, tribally, insularly Catholic—that they have forgotten the fundamental mission of Christianity is giraffe-like, aimed at making the whole world more human and therefore more Christlike. I appreciate that Boston College is intentionally and unabashedly Catholic while simultaneously open to diversity and all manner of intellectual inquiry.
And I am convinced that today, the mission of Boston College and Jesuit education is more critical than ever. Whether they are fleeing perpetual civil war in Mosul or facing heroin addiction and joblessness in the Rustbelt, human beings are crying out for reasons to hope. And yet, many of us seem to have abandoned God as a life-giving source. Millennials continue to flee religion at a faster pace than any previous generation, and their parents are not that far behind. So the Jesuit university is a place that says: wake up; God is still beckoning. Yes, right in the midst of this world, in the midst of all its tragedies and heartaches.
At a birthday party last night, I had a random conversation with a bright 20-something who was raised with no religion and said he was agnostic. But when he found out I was a Jesuit, he declared Pope Francis, that good Jesuit, the most inspiring person on the world stage right now. And he later christened Martin Scorsese’s Silence—about 17th-century Jesuits encountering another faith tradition in a time of persecution—the most inspiring film of the year. Augustine’s famous dictum—that our hearts restlessly seek God, even in a world that shuns God—came to mind. And I was grateful again to be associated with this great Ignatian tradition, with Fr. Bill Neenan and countless other women and men who’ve cultivated tall necks and big hearts through it and taught others to do the same.
Boston College is a keeper of that tradition. That is why its mission is so necessary. That is why I am grateful for it.
Jeremy Zipple, S.J.,'00, Th.M., M.Div. ’14 is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and serves as executive editor of America Films at America Media. He wrote this reflection for C21 Resources, a publication of the Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College.