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For graduate students, a time and place to consider religion and culture
Inside Boston College’s Murray Graduate Student Union, which occupies a large Tudor Revival on Hammond Street, a group of graduate students is assembling in the front parlor room. Above the fireplace hangs a portrait of the building’s namesake, John Courtney Murray, SJ, as illustrated on the cover of Time magazine on December 12, 1960 (back when theological ideas were discussed more readily in the secular media). After being effectively silenced by the Holy See during the 1950s for his writings on religious liberty, Murray would emerge at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) as a leading theological architect of the Catholic Church’s opening to the modern world.
Periodically, the portrait is moved elsewhere—to make room, say, for Christmas decorations—but Murray (if not always his likeness) serves to inspire members of a loose-knit community that for nearly three years has materialized every month or so for discussion over pizza about what the Catholic intellectual tradition has to say to them as graduate students at Boston College. They call themselves the Murray Circle.
Like Murray, the student-run group is principally concerned with social questions, with “the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time,” in the soaring words of the Vatican II declaration Gaudium et Spes. Topics of discussion are announced in advance of the colloquies, and the organizers have a penchant for choosing timely ones. For instance, four days after Black Friday—which launches the Christmas shopping season on the heels of Thanksgiving—and one day after the online shopping promotion known as Cyber Monday, the students came together to consider consumerism.
The dinnertime gathering on November 30 drew nine students, a fairly typical showing, although as many as 15 have crowded the room for some other Murray Circle confabs, squeezing into billowy sofas and chairs around a coffee table blanketed with pizza boxes. Doctoral students from the theology department on the main campus, and master’s students from the School of Theology and Ministry (STM) on the Brighton Campus, were preponderant, although typically other disciplines are represented—philosophy, social work, political science, to name some.
Each meeting begins with prayer, usually led by Kevin Ahern, a theology doctoral student who founded the Murray Circle after serving four years as president of the Paris-based International Movement of Catholic Students, which encourages the formation of small reflection groups such as this one. A brief presentation follows, on this occasion given by Seth Wispelwey, who is in his last semester of pastoral ministry studies at STM, and who glanced at notes on a laptop displaying a “Make Trade Fair” bumper sticker on the lid.
Wispelwey, who has been an organizer for faith-based social action groups and plans to resume this work after earning his master’s degree, targeted first the glibness of a slogan that lately could be found emblazoned on car magnets and decals, button pins and canvas tote bags. “You can’t just say, ‘Keep Christ in Christmas,'” he began. There are “deeper forces” that can grind down the spiritual essence of Advent, consumerism being the ultimate grinder, he suggested.
This is a subject known to evoke hand-wringing and dark pronouncements, and there was a little of that, particularly when a young man, working on a slice of pizza laden with toppings, declared, “We’re decimating the earth” as a result of over-consumption, and a young woman with dangling earrings added, “I wonder if we’re devolving” as a species. The dourness, however, was more than offset by admission of the unavoidable ironies. “Advent is about waiting for a gift to come rather than seeking [acquisition] on Cyber Monday,” noted Wispelwey, who added with a chuckle—”although there were some sweet DVD deals yesterday.” And, while recommending the Better World Handbook, an activist guide that includes a catalogue of products friendly to workers and the environment, he also asked: “How about the people who could only afford to shop at Wal-Mart?”
The group’s leader, Ahern, who received his bachelor’s in religious studies from Fordham University in 2003 and would like to eventually combine his theological training with social-justice advocacy, will frequently interject to impart Murray’s hearty theological sensibility, his desire for a sympathetic dialogue with secular culture. Just as often, Ahern will nudge the conversation closer to home, as he did when the consumerism question flowed naturally into environmental considerations, asking, “How would we take these issues back to our experience of Boston College?” Then, conversation ensued about the need to provide more and better water fountains around campus, as an alternative to environmentally dubious bottled water.
A few years ago, Ahern felt a lack of such interchange among graduate students at Boston College, so he walked over to Murray House to talk to Joy Galarneau, now associate director of the Office of Graduate Student Life. In addition to her duties there, Galarneau was wrapping up a Ph.D. in systematic theology at Fordham at the time, and had, as she puts it, “rescued Murray” while rummaging through the Hammond Street building’s basement, where she discovered the framed reproduction of the Time cover. Galarneau quickly secured modest funding for a graduate student discussion group (enough to provide refreshments and leaflets for promoting events) as well as a place to meet, agreeing there was a need for more conversational “spaces” to draw together graduate and professional students from different schools and departments, especially for discourse “at the heart of the Catholic intellectual and social traditions,” she recalls. The Murray Circle met for the first time in September 2008; there have been 20 gatherings altogether, linking faith to social challenges ranging from human trafficking and Christian-Muslim relations to domestic violence and solidarity between students and campus cafeteria workers.
Theology doctoral student Katie Grimes points out that graduate students everywhere are a notoriously fragmented set, tucked away in their own disciplines. She seeks a wider community in the Murray Circle. “I’ve had conversations here I would never have otherwise,” she says, citing exchanges with a non-Christian political science student from China who has turned up a few times (and chose not to be named in this article).
Grimes, who plans a career in academe, led a lunchtime discussion just before the midterm elections last November, on the theme of “faithful citizenship” with special application to the immigration debates. She started off with a short video documentary, One Border, One Body, which highlights an annual Mass joined on either side of the 16-foot fence that separates the United States and Mexico in rugged desert, commemorating those who have died while attempting to immigrate.
Afterward, Grimes floated the question: “What is more real? Our discipleship or our citizenship?” There was talk of tension between the two, between welcoming the stranger as a member of the body of Christ (discipleship) and asserting national identity over and against the stranger (citizenship).
Members of the circle say they find support and encouragement in its company, but they also throw down challenges—to one another and to the Catholic social tradition. During a February event titled “Is Government Good?” theology doctoral student Michael Jaycox was lucidly reviewing Catholic social principles such as human rights and the common good (which must be fostered by government), when Katie Sellers ’09, who is completing her master of theological studies at STM, noted that there were no women on the long list of references compiled by Jaycox.
“Just to be clear—I didn’t exclude women from the list on purpose,” Jaycox said with a slightly embarrassed look as everyone laughed. “I’m sure you didn’t,” Sellers smiled.
Her point was that a tradition formed primarily by men will speak primarily to male concerns, but Jaycox pressed her to be specific. Which aspects of Catholic social teaching are invalid? he asked in a friendly though provocative way. “Are you arguing against human rights?” No, said Sellers. “I’m talking about”—she opened her arms—”broadening human rights.” In her view, the social teaching would be different, more concrete, if women were notably at the ecclesiastical table, articulating tangible issues of immediate concern to mothers and children, such as the right to safe drinking water. And this example took the graduate students into another surge of dialogue about the missing ecological component of most official Catholic social teaching. “You can’t talk about human well-being without talking about creation,” argued Sellers, who would like to do work that somehow blends faith commitment with environmental activism.
With organizations such as Boston College’s Church in the 21st Century Center and the National Catholic Student Coalition, the Murray Circle has also sponsored a couple of daylong conferences open to the public, including one last July on the task of putting Catholic social teaching into action. But Ahern says the group will continue the small-is-beautiful approach, gathering students around a coffee table for an hour or two and leaving the rest to them.
Read more by William Bole