By Peter Finney Jr., Catholic News Service
NEW ORLEANS (CNS) – After seven years of training as a Jesuit scholastic, Christopher Lowney discerned – in a way that would have clearly impressed St. Ignatius of Loyola – that religious life was not the purpose for which he had been created.
As a kid from the New York borough of Queens who grew up across the East River from Manhattan – loving the Mets and hating the Yankees – the fundamental question of existence in 1983 has now become his own. to consider: At 25, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?
If his upbringing at Regis High School and his Jesuit training had taught him anything, it was that Saint Ignatius, recovering from a cannonball that shattered his legs in the Battle of Pamplona, had been there, prostrate, about five centuries earlier.
Prior to his battlefield injuries in 1521, Ignatius was a nobleman and soldier whose primary purpose in life was to retain wealth and women. Prior to the cannonball and his months of excruciating and isolated recovery, there is no evidence, Lowney said, that Ignatius ever gave much thought to self-reflection.
“He was like the 25-year-old Wall Street investment banker who wants to be ruler of the universe,” Lowney said.
Lowney, himself then 25, was not struck by a cannonball or lightning, but he had learned all about discernment from the Jesuits. Yet he had no real idea of his future.
“When I really discerned that my path shouldn’t continue as a Jesuit, I didn’t have a plan B,” Lowney said.
“My thought process,” he continued, “was no more sophisticated than, ‘OK, I was teaching economics, and I’m sitting in New York and all these big banks have training programs Maybe I could get a job in one of these places, and in a few years my life would be over and I would have some money and I could do whatever I wanted.
Since then, Lowney has become a senior executive at JP Morgan and later chairman of the board of the nation’s largest nonprofit health care system with $29 billion in revenue and 150,000 employees.
Lowney is also one of the world’s foremost experts on corporate leadership and the author of six books, including the one that launched him into the rarefied air of the executive speaker circuit: “Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-year-old Company that changed the world.
This company was the Society of Jesus Inc.
As Lowney described the genius of St. Ignatius at a business leadership symposium co-sponsored by Loyola University in New Orleans and Xavier University in Louisiana in early October, he showed a slide from the famous oil painting “The Angelus” by Jean-François Millet. .
Completed in 1859, the painting depicts two peasants bowing their heads in the field above a basket of potatoes, with a church steeple barely visible in the background.
The bells rang at noon for the Angelus, and all work had stopped.
“You don’t notice any wristwatches, and there’s no independent sense of what time it is. The idea is that the bell rang and they knew it was time to stop and pray,” he said. “It was not just their sense of time, but the way the whole culture was.
“It would have been as inconceivable if the people of many of these towns had not gone to church on Sundays, as is the case today for people at work to stop and pray.”
Today, at 60 Wall St. — the 55-story, 745-foot-tall skyscraper in Manhattan that’s home to JP Morgan — people also despise their jobs, Lowney said.
“Our challenge now is that the church is pretty much invisible,” he said. “There was a church somewhere around Wall Street, but no one heard the church bells because the church had little to do with everyday life.”
“People were certainly looking down – not to pray but because there was an endless stream of information,” he continued. “We were very focused on the state of our wallets and our savings – perhaps because we were greedy, but just as likely because we wanted to have a really nice home for the kids and the family.”
Lowney never consciously set out to write a book applying the principles of Ignatian discernment to business ethics, but as he began to listen to his colleagues in the room, where “very complex choices” were being made about basis of “a spreadsheet and a debate” – the idea of parallel tracks started to click.
Lowney still laughs at the fashionable leadership process called “360 degree feedback” in which managers receive “inputs” not only from their superiors but also from the people they manage.
“When we started this at JP Morgan, we totally touted that we were the quintessential ‘peak’ operation,” Lowney said. “The fun thing is that when you’re a Jesuit and you’re on track to make your first vows or be ordained – or to make a change in your status – they basically have 360 degree feedback. And it dates back to the 1500s.
As Lowney rose through the corporate ranks, many of his colleagues knew his personal story as a guy who almost became a Jesuit priest. So they considered him the “ethical” guy.
“I hope I was ethical,” he said. “My background has generally made me the most ethically educated person in the group, but there’s a difference between that and someone who’s brave enough to say, ‘We’re not going to make this deal.’ “
Lowney’s biggest question about the global economic shockwaves that hit in 1987, 2001 and, now, 2022 is whether or not they will be “dramatic inflection points” that will “change us forever.”
“There’s a lot of press in the workplace that says work is going to have to change, and we’re finally going to get a handle on creating work in a way that’s going to be more fulfilling for people,” Lowney said.
“Are we at an inflection point where the world of work is changing for the better or, after two or three years, are we going to have this amnesia and be sucked into the same rat race? He asked.
Ignatius’ idea of stopping and pausing and examining our daily lives resonates more than ever, according to Lowney.
“What strikes me is that this guy concocted this little idea in the 16th century, and it’s much more relevant in the 21st century,” he said. “We’re just in this everyday maelstrom of social media, phone calls, meetings, distractions, music, three things going on at once.”
“People are completely present to all of these distractions, and we are completely unpresent to ourselves or our relationship with our Creator,” he added. “Ignatius had the insight, ‘You’ve got to get yourself out of the maelstrom or else you’re just going to get swept away in this river.'”
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Finney is editor/general manager of the Clarion Herald, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.