Stephen Pope became interested in theological ethics, a discipline that explores how Christianity helps people live better lives, during his time working at The Catholic Worker House of Hospitality in Los Angeles.
“I was a high school teacher for three years, and in that time I started taking my students to an organization called The Catholic Worker House of Hospitality in Los Angeles,” Pope said. “We would spent a good part of the day there, and talking to the people there, seeing what they were going through … really showed me that there’s a very important part of the Christian life which is in relation to those who are most disadvantaged, who are marginalized, who are oppressed and alienated.”
Following this experience, Pope decided to go to graduate school to become a professor. After finishing his doctorate, he began teaching at Boston College.
Pope finds a great environment at BC for the vocation of helping others.
“What I find here most compelling is the Jesuit commitment to the faith that does justice, to forming men and women for others, to using our intellectual gifts and talents to benefit other people who don’t have our advantages,” Pope said. “That commitment permits us to also learn from people outside the campus, in the communities—especially the marginalized—about our humanity, about our weaknesses, about our blind spots, and about how we can become more Christ-like. The usual conception of service is people who are well off helping people that are not well off, and what throughout the years has changed my thinking the most about that is seeing partnership and mutuality, instead of paternalism, as the real mark of what Christian service is about.”
But for Pope, what makes teaching at BC so fulfilling is not only the Jesuit ethos, but also having the ability to get in contact with students and inspire them.
“I love being a college professor because I can help students see their responsibilities, their connections to other people, and their capabilities for making a difference in the world,” Pope said.
Inspiring students is not an easy task, however.
“I think the biggest problem in our society is that people are fatalistic and apathetic,” he said. “They think they can’t really change anything. That’s not true—the world is, to a great extent, the way we make it, especially on issues of equity and justice. I think one thing BC does very well in what refers to social justice is in helping students have hope that they can make a difference in the world.”
Pope believes that, specifically, three social trends make it difficult for inspiring students: the hyper-competitiveness of the education system, the consumeristic environment, and the focus on careerism.
“Consumerism creates an identification of worth with wealth, and if you identify worth with wealth, you can’t help but look down on poor people and on the marginalized,” Pope said. “You dehumanize both yourself and other people. We either thrive together as a community, or we live as isolated individuals who are going to be unhappy.”
For Pope, the key to a fruitful, happy life is human contact and relationships.
“I really believe that human happiness really resides in relationships, in friendships, in communities of people that really love and care about each other and show each other the respect that they’re due,” Pope said.
Pope is adamant that it is necessary for service to be a vocation in which comfort is set aside in favor of the other. “We need to get outside our comfort zones to see the worth of other people, especially the marginalized,” he said. “You need to make yourself vulnerable, but it takes courage to do so.”
He believes that the question of service is, in the end, a question of love.
“I think BC, with its Jesuit education, is something unusual in the American higher education because it seeks to break open the self-centeredness of college and help you see it as a privilege that allows you to care for others in a better way,” Pope said. “The question then becomes, ‘Is your privilege a chance to act in a way that’s entitled, or is it a chance of giving to others so that they can be enriched, and you yourself are enriched by giving?’ If you really love, you can’t lose.”
Featured Image by Alberto Troccoli / For The Heights