Published October 24th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
In mid-November, the Rev. Thomas B. Curran, president of Rockhurst University, will set modesty aside and accept an award that he says, “I’m not real comfortable receiving.”
It’s the Henry W. Bloch Humanitarian Award, given by the Jewish Community Relations Bureau/AJC (American Jewish Committee). Curran, a Jesuit priest who sometimes teaches women prisoners at the Chillicothe Correctional Center in northern Missouri, is the first member of the clergy to receive the honor.
“It’s not false humility on my part,” Curran told me. “I just don’t know that anything I’ve done individually or collectively rises up to the level of being recognized for the award. But for me the award I see more as an invitation to do more in terms of the pursuit of what we mean by justice and being in harmony with God and one another.”
The award, to be given to Curran Nov. 18 at the JCRB/AJC’s annual “Human Relations Event,” is an opportunity for him to explain how the Jesuit (or Society of Jesus, as the order is known formally) version of Catholicism shapes him and why he doesn’t tire of talking about that to anyone who asks.
“The Jesuits are accompanists of Jesus,” he says. “We live in companionship. In relationship with God we are companions or co-laborers. It provides a way of proceeding. I hope I model that. That’s how I strive to live. I hope people experience me that way. I’m not proselytizing but accompanying.”
Which is why, for example, when Rockhurst created a program through which women at the prison in Chillicothe could earn college credit, Curran insisted on going in person to welcome them into the program and not simply mail a welcoming letter.
That program has 20 prisoners and 20 corrections officers enrolled, and so far, Curran says, “those cohorts have completed 34 college credits.” In two and a half years of learning in prison, he says, the women can earn a Rockhurst associate’s degree.
Curran once was asked to teach a class there called “Human Geography,” which has to do with sociology, migration and physical geography. He acknowledged to the students that he’d never taught the class before but said he’d learn along with them. In other words, accompany them on their educational journey.
Over the centuries, the Jesuits have become known primarily for their commitment to — and leadership in — education.
“We fell into or backed into education,” Curran explains. “In 1548 in Italy, an invitation was given to Ignatius (of Loyola, the order’s founder) and his followers, his companions, to provide education. We kind of grew into this network today in the U.S. of 27 Jesuit colleges and universities, 180 institutions worldwide. We clearly have an articulated statement that we will always be intellectual proselytes, but for us that’s a means, not the end. So we’re known for that. All of it is a way of accompaniment.”
Pope Francis, a Jesuit himself, is “one of our biggest promoters,” Curran says. “The idea that to be a shepherd you need to smell like a sheep is really an expression of being in accompaniment.”
As for his own education, Curran has degrees from DeSales University, DeSales School of Theology, Georgetown University, the Catholic University of America and Saint Joseph’s University.”
But he’s also learned from other Kansas Citians, including the late Henry Bloch, since Curran became president of Rockhurst in 2006, a position he plans to leave next spring.
“I got to know Henry very well,” Curran says. “On a few occasions I even went to him to seek his counsel. A very, very practical man.” Bloch was not Catholic, but Jewish, and his legacy in this area and nationally goes far beyond founding, with his brother Richard Bloch, the H&R Block tax preparation company.
The list of Bloch’s charitable works and civic engagement included support of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Henry W. Bloch School of Management at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Saint Luke’s Hospital.
But, as Curran noted, Bloch, despite his fame and wealth, was a modest man. Over the years, in fact, I’ve seen him quietly slip into the back of the sanctuary for Shabbat services at the New Reform Temple in Kansas City and I’ve run into him doing his own shopping at the Midtown Costco.
Curran, too, fits that mold, though motivated by a different faith tradition from Bloch’s.
He says he and his fellow Jesuits “talk about the service of faith and the promotion of justice. Or as we like to more commonly say it’s faith that does justice.”
As the JCRB/ACJ noted in announcing the award for Curran, he serves on the board of directors of the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City; the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C.; St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia; John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio; the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce; and the board of trustees of MRIGlobal, in addition to being the Catholic chaplain for the Harry S. Truman Good Neighbor Award Foundation.
Clearly, Curran is a companion on many journeys.
Bill Tammeus, an award-winning columnist formerly with The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and formerly for The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.