How the Four New Jesuit Universal Apostolic Priorities Support Social Enterprise


In February, Jesuit Superior General Arturo Sosa, SJ promulgated four Universal Apostolic Preferences to guide the Society of Jesus for the next 10 years. What does this mean for Jesuit educational institutions like Santa Clara University and its Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, which I directed for nearly nine years?

First, a confession: I am not a Catholic, let alone a Jesuit. To use an increasingly common phrase, “I’m more spiritual than religious.” My interpretation of the Four Universal Apostolic Preferences is that of a secular, though dedicated to advancing social justice for the poor and vulnerable, with an intentional focus on the impacts of climate change. As Father Sosa quotes in “Laudato Si’: “The earth itself, burdened and devastated, is among the most abandoned and abused of our poor.”

The four preferences, discerned during a 16-month process, were confirmed by Pope Francis to guide “the mission of reconciliation and justice in all apostolic services” of Jesuits, including their lay companions. In my role at the Miller Center, accelerating entrepreneurship and manifesting the Jesuit mission to end poverty and protect the planet, I have found each of the preferences deeply resonant.

1. Show the way to God through discernment and the Spiritual Exercises

Prior to my tenure at Santa Clara University, I probably would have found this preference inconsistent with my personal beliefs, primarily because of the use of “God.” But as I have learned about Ignatian spirituality and integrated it into my training as a neuroscientist, I can simplify this idea to “God = love”, an equation that resonates with my spirituality and what I perceive to be an authentic interpretation many religions.

In my experience, Ignatian spirituality is an invitation and not an imposition. The Ignatian tradition helps me to notice transcendence: when I see and approach what is true, beautiful, just and loving, I witness the divine.

At the Miller Center, while we don’t explicitly use theological language, we create “holy ground” when social entrepreneurs and students realize their unique promise as people, promote the dignity of fellow human beings, and work for a more just, humane and sustainable world.

We create “holy ground” when social entrepreneurs work for a more just, humane and sustainable world.

In fact, I sometimes refer to the Miller Center’s social enterprise acceleration programs as “Silicon Valley spiritual exercises.” Like retreatants who work their way through the different phases of the Spiritual Exercises, our social entrepreneurs progress through a structured program accompanied by trusted advisors. Trusted Advisors are Silicon Valley executive mentors, similar to the Spiritual Directors of the Exercises.

For Ignatius, mentoring or accompaniment is essential to the retreatant’s growth. With the help of the spiritual director, the retreatant discerns the movement of grace in his life and makes decisions faithful to his vocation. Similarly, mentors help social entrepreneurs identify their own pathways to operational excellence and investment readiness that will allow them to expand their impact in serving the poor. Like good spiritual directors, mentors help them notice what wants to be noticed. For example, through conversations with her mentors, a social entrepreneur who designed a high-priced solar-powered lantern transitioned to a pay-as-you-go system that makes lanterns accessible to poor families. (They make weekly payments equivalent to what they would normally pay for kerosene until they own the lanterns.) We offer intensive residential programs similar to retreats, as well as mobile apps and adaptations in line that make spiritual exercises more accessible in the modern age.

2. To walk with the poor, the excluded from the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice

The second universal apostolic preference promotes “the change of economic, political and social structures which generate injustice”. In my view, this is systems-level thinking – upsetting unjust social balances to create fairer ones, is how pioneers Roger Martin and Sally Osberg describe social entrepreneurship in their historical book Go beyond the best.

Father Sosa suggests “going to the human peripheries and to the margins of society, adopting a style of life and work adapted to the situation so that our work is credible”. This exhortation evokes the social entrepreneurial practices of human-centered design thinking and learning from those we seek to serve, who are often excluded from conversations about how to end poverty.

In my view, this is systems-level thinking – upsetting unjust social balances to create fairer ones.

This is very similar to the mission statements of the social enterprises that we have had the honor of supporting. In particular, Fr. Sosa says, “We confirm our commitment to care for migrants, displaced persons, refugees and victims of war and human trafficking.” Last year, the Miller Center launched a Social Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program at the Edge for social enterprises serving or led by refugees, migrants and survivors of human trafficking. To our knowledge, this is the first of its kind in the world, and we are hoping to secure funding to operate a second.

More recently, we have begun accompanying Catholic charities locally, as well as Jesuits and Catholic Sisters in Africa, as they explore how entrepreneurial principles can advance the missions of their social ministries.

Our mentors, students, staff and donors all find that in serving, we learn from those we serve: Accompanying those on the margins is transformative for us, in the relationship of solidarity.

3. Accompanying young people in creating a hopeful future

As Father Sosa writes, “youth is the stage of human life when individuals make the fundamental decisions by which they insert themselves into society, seek to give meaning to their existence and realize their dreams”.

One of my greatest joys at Santa Clara University is the opportunity to mentor students in our award-winning Global Social Benefit Fellowship, an action-research program that adds real value to social enterprises while training young leaders. So far, eight of them have won Fulbright scholarships and three have been valedictorian; all demanded “authenticity of life, spiritual depth and openness to sharing the mission of life”, as Father Sosa expresses it in this universal apostolic preference.

The Miller Center’s work represents the practical way we educate for justice, transforming students into leaders capable of shaping a more just and sustainable world. For some it is an expression of faith in action.

On a larger scale, many of the social enterprises we support are dedicated to promoting the dignity of young people, giving them a sense of agency through meaningful work like selling solar products, learning to code or practicing sustainable agriculture while generating income to support their families. These social enterprises respond to theological place of poverty and youth, which can be found in the words of Father Sosa: “Young people, most of whom are poor, face enormous challenges in our world today, including the reduction of job opportunities, economic instability, increasing political violence, multiple forms of discrimination, progressive environmental degradation…”

4. Collaborate in the care of our common home

The resolution of the Jesuits “to collaborate with others in the construction of models of life based on respect for creation and on a sustainable development capable of producing goods which, equitably distributed, ensure a decent life for all human beings on our planet” links “Laudato Si’” to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. These have been the beacons of the Miller Center since 2015, when we noticed a striking resonance between these goals and our mission.

The “ecological conversion” to which Pope Francis calls is the very essence of social entrepreneurs whose mission is to promote sustainable and regenerative agriculture; those who create circular patterns of consumption and production like those found in nature; and, more broadly, those who seek to preserve the ecosystems on which their communities depend for their livelihood and health.

“The destruction of the environment caused by the dominant economic system inflicts intergenerational damage,” notes Father Sosa. Social entrepreneurship can both bring systems-level change and “help heal the wounds already inflicted on the delicate ecological balance.” It is a powerful means to advance the universal good.


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