By Peter Finney Jr., Catholic News Service
NEW ORLEANS (CNS) — After seven years of formation as a Jesuit scholastic, Christopher Lowney discerned — in a way that clearly would have impressed St. Ignatius of Loyola — that religious life was not the purpose for which he was 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 now became his to examine: At 25, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?
If his Regis High School education and Jesuit formation had taught him anything, it was that St. Ignatius, recuperating from a cannonball that shattered his legs in the Battle of Pamplona, had been there, lying prostrate, about five centuries earlier.
Prior to his battlefield injuries in 1521, Ignatius had been a nobleman and a soldier whose major purpose in life was curating 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 gunslinging Wall Street investment banker who wants to be master of the universe,” Lowney said.
Lowney, himself then 25, wasn’t struck by a cannonball or lightning, but he had learned all about discernment from the Jesuits. Still, he had no real clue about his future.
“When I really discerned that my path was not to 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 City and all these big banks have training programs. Maybe I could get a job at one of these places, and in a couple of years, my life would be a do-over and I’ll have a little bit of money and I can do what I want.'”
Since then, Lowney went on to become a top executive with J.P. Morgan and later chairman of the board of the nation’s largest nonprofit health system with $29 billion in revenues and 150,000 employees.
Lowney also is one of the world’s foremost business leadership experts and the author of six books, including the one that thrust him into the rarefied air of the executive-speaker circuit: “Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-year-old Company that Changed the World.”
That company was the Society of Jesus Inc.
As Lowney described the genius of St. Ignatius to a business leadership symposium co-sponsored by Loyola University New Orleans and Xavier University of Louisiana in early October, he showed a slide of the famous oil painting “The Angelus,” by Jean-Francois Millet.
Completed in 1859, the painting depicts two peasants bowing their heads in the field over a basket of potatoes, with a church steeple barely visible in the background.
The bells were tolling at noon for the Angelus, and all work had stopped.
“You don’t notice any wristwatches, and there is no independent sense of what time it is. The idea is that the bell chimed, and they knew it was time to stop and pray,” he said. “It wasn’t just their sense of time but the way the whole culture was.
“It would have been as inconceivable for people in many of these towns to not have gone to church on Sunday as it is today for people in the workplace to stop and pray.”
Today at 60 Wall St. — the 55-story, 745-foot-tall skyscraper in Manhattan that is home to J.P. Morgan — people also look down from their work, Lowney said.
“Our challenge now is that the church is pretty much invisible,” he said. “There was a church somewhere around Wall Street, but nobody heard church bells because the church was pretty irrelevant to everyday life.”
“Folks were certainly looking down — not to pray but because there were endless streams of information,” he continued. “We were very focused on how our portfolios and savings were doing — maybe because we were greedy, but just as likely because we wanted to have a really great 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 listening to his colleagues in the room, where “very complex choices” were being made based on “a spreadsheet and a debate” — the idea of parallel tracks began to click.
Lowney still chuckles at the trendy leadership process called “360-degree feedback” in which managers receive “inputs” not only from their superiors but also from the people they are managing.
“When we first started this at J.P. Morgan, we were totally crowing about how we’re the ultimate ‘cutting-edge’ operation,” Lowney said. “The amusing thing is that when you’re a Jesuit and you’re on track to go to first vows or to be ordained — or to make any change in your status — they basically have the 360-degree feedback. And that’s from the 1500s.”
As Lowney moved up the corporate ladder, many of his colleagues knew his personal story as the guy who almost became a Jesuit priest. They thus considered him the “ethical” guy.
“I hope I was ethical,” he said. “My training usually made me the best ethically educated person in the group, but there’s a difference between that and someone who’s courageous enough to say, ‘We’re not going to do that deal.'”
Lowney’s biggest question about the global, economic shockwaves that hit in 1987, 2001 and, now, in 2022 is whether or not they will be “dramatic inflection points” that will “change us forever.”
“There’s a lot of press around the world of work that work is going to have to change, and we’re finally going to come to grips with creating work in a way that will be more fulfilling for people,” Lowney said.
“Are we at an inflection point where the world of work changes 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 has more resonance than ever, according to Lowney.
“The thing that strikes me is this guy cooked up this little idea in the 16th century, and it’s way more relevant in the 21st century,” he said. “We’re just in this maelstrom every day of social media, phone calls, meetings, distractions, music, three things going at once.”
“People are completely present to all these distractions, and we’re completely non-present to ourselves or our relationship with our Creator,” he added. “Ignatius had the insight, ‘You’ve got to pull yourself out of the maelstrom or else you’re just going to get swept along in this river.'”
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Finney is executive editor/general manager of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.