An interview with the new President of the Centre Sèvres.

Etienne Grieu SJ has just taken up office as President of the Jesuit Faculties in Paris, otherwise referred to as the Centre Sèvres, after the street where it is located, SJ Europe spoke to him about how he sees his new role.

Etienne, you’ve just started as President here in Paris. What’s your vision for the Centre Sèvres?

Obviously we’re trying to be a university institution helping people understand their faith better. This involves us in a number of struggles – struggles we share with many others involved in education, and not just inside the Church.

But you seem such a peaceful person. Why are you talking about struggles?

Well, perhaps the language is a bit dramatic. But ‘struggle’ is the best word I can think of in English. For a start, it’s become a struggle to insist on proper thinking and on the use of reason. Many factors in today’s societies encourage us to go for the quick slogan and the easy answer. University education is a matter of learning to listen closely to what is actually going on in the cultures within which we live. We have to get beyond being frightened of what’s unfamiliar and unknown. Obviously this isn’t a matter just for the Church – we are in this struggle along with lots of other good people.

But the Centre Sèvres is also a Jesuit institution, part of the Church?

Indeed so. And within the Church there’s also a struggle to insist that faith has everything to gain from being submitted to proper rational scrutiny. We need to learn to express our faith convincingly, to listen to why people find faith difficult and objectionable, and take what those people say seriously. At the same time we also have something to say in return, even though it’s always true that what we’re really talking about goes far beyond our understanding.

So how does this encounter of faith with reason work?

Along with the rest of the Church, we believe that rational thought – and this is another point of struggle – operates better when it takes faith seriously, and doesn’t just write it off as an intellectual cop-out. There’s something profoundly true and human about committing yourself, about taking the risk, about trusting a reality beyond yourself. If the academic life blocks out that possibility, it can end up running round in circles. It can become something of a game, with nothing really serious at stake any more. University life in the West these days is in danger of falling into that trap. Religious believers have an important mission to help the university world be true to itself.

But isn’t there a more evangelical way of thinking about this? After all mission is meant to be about converting people.

Of course. This struggle about the quest for truth and seriousness can – if we stay with it long enough – become an encounter between human reason and the newness of the Gospel. The process here involves lots of tensions: hard-nosed reason and the gift of grace; the simplicity of the gospel message and the variety of human languages; the development of human culture and the seeming negation of the Cross.

There’s a real power in your voice as you say this.

Yes indeed. To borrow a phrase, I have a dream. If we can really do this kind of work, and stay with the struggle of living the Gospel in an academic setting, I believe that we will be able to reach out to people who would otherwise never go near a university, people who found school a dead end or even a nightmare. And these people in their turn have things to say that will enrich the university. When that kind of encounter happens, the Gospel comes to life. That’s my deepest desire for the Centre Sèvres and for other faculties like it.

What does all this mean in practice?

These struggles I’ve been talking about may sound a bit up in the air, but they play out in the daily life of the institution, in how we work together, how we deal with each other: teachers, students, administrators, the people who work in the building, the people who work with us in different ways. Everyone is involved in the learning process, and it needs constantly to be under review. That’s why we are in the middle of a process to redesign our teaching structures.

Is there anything Ignatian in what you’ve been saying?

Well, obviously anyone serious about the academic life brings their whole self to the enterprise, and many of us here have been formed in the Ignatian tradition. Ignatius teaches us to let Christ, in all his humanity, come near to us, whatever our situation is. If we can do that, then we believe that he himself will lead us forward, and that we can gradually learn to respond. In that process, we discover a God who is endlessly patient with us. Yes, I’ve talked about struggles, and I don’t want to deny that there’s something of the Cross involved here. But as we engage in the struggles, the Spirit will help us be patient with human shortcomings, not just those of others but also our own. And a sense of humour will never be far away.

Thank you, Etienne – and good luck.