(L-R): Rev. William McCormick, S.J., Rev. Jeremy Zipple, S.J., Froyla Tzalam (Governor General of Belize) & Br. Glenn Kerfoot, S.J. (photo courtesy of St. John’s College)

St. John’s College in Belize is unique among the members of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU). It is the only full member institution location outside of the United States (two associate members are located in Canada) and may also well be the most culturally diverse Jesuit school in the hemisphere, reflecting Belize’s position as a bridge between the Caribbean and Central America. It is also, as far as I know, the only Jesuit school in the world whose students share their campus with several resident crocodiles.

St. John’s was founded by Jesuits of the British Province in 1887. At the time, it was the only Jesuit school in Central America, and its students were mostly the sons of well-to-do families from Spanish-speaking neighboring countries whose parents wanted them educated in English. In 1893, the Belize mission was transferred to the former Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus (now part of the U.S. Central Southern Province) who have staffed it ever since. Today, St. John’s educates nearly 2,000 students across three divisions: the original all-boys high school, a co-ed junior college founded in 1957, and a new university division that just opened its doors in August 2023.

Though small in population and landmass, Belize is a kaleidoscope of peoples and languages, all wonderfully apparent in St. John’s student body. A culture day organized on campus this spring featured presentations from student groups representing Belize’s Kriol, Mestizo, Garifuna, Maya, East Indian, Taiwanese, and Chinese communities. Belizeans are proud of the way that all of these groups contribute to a distinctive national identity.

Members of the St. John’s community at prayer (photo courtesy of St. John’s College)

This diversity also manifests itself in unique expressions of Catholicism and informs our Campus Ministry programming at St. John’s. Every November 2, our Spanish-speaking students from northern Belize, near the Mexican border, construct a colorful Dia de Los Muertos altar in the Mexican style and put on a vibrant All Souls Mass. Later in November comes Garifuna Settlement Day, a major national holiday marking the arrival of the Garifuna people to Belize in 1802. An Afro-Carib population who resisted enslavement and ultimately gained freedom from the British, the Garifuna continue to exert an outsized influence on Belizean identity. In mid-November, St. John’s holds a Settlement Day Mass, featuring traditional Garifuna drumming, dance, prayers, and a moving rendition of the Our Father sung in Garifuna. Garifuna students lead the liturgy in their traditional attire, and many non-Garifuna students dress up as well. (Cultural appropriation is typically viewed here as a mark of respect.)

In addition to its invaluable cultural resources, Belize’s natural resources—pristine tropical forest, the largest barrier reef in the hemisphere—contribute to the uniqueness of St. John’s. Our campus is a living laboratory for environmental studies and biology students. Situated yards from the Caribbean Sea on a tropical mangrove, the campus hosts up to 150 species of birds (both local and migratory), iguanas, massive boas, and several crocodiles (the largest and most people-friendly of whom our students have affectionately nicknamed “Bubbles”).

As global warming and rising sea levels affect the world’s coastal regions, our campus can feel like a front row seat to the climate crisis. We’ve been hosting ongoing conversations on Laudato Si’ with groups of students, teachers and administrators—it’s evident that Pope Francis’ hopes and concerns very much resonate with the St. John’s community, too. For our annual faculty retreat this year, we selected Laudato Si’ as the theme: the sharing that occurred throughout was as impassioned and profound as I’ve ever heard. My colleagues were unanimous in acknowledging Belize’s diverse ecosystems—and our campus itself—as invaluable gifts from God, the stewardship of which has been entrusted to us.

Members of the St. John’s community at prayer (photo courtesy of St. John’s College)

In general, I find that our students and faculty are proud to be part of a Jesuit institution and eager to deepen their personal and collective ties to the Ignatian tradition. Religious faith is more natural and organic in Belize than in the U.S., and the great majority of Belizeans identify as Christians and believers even if they’re not active churchgoers. But as can be seen in the U.S., many of our students express skepticism about institutional religion. “Religious people are judgmental,” “Church is boring,” are common refrains I hear among our students. So at St. John’s, we try hard to meet students where they are, offering spirituality in cultural forms and language that make sense to them.

Our students are hungry for a spirituality that helps them make sense of their challenges and life experiences. The Encounter retreat, which uses the same model as the Kairos retreats offered at many U.S. Jesuit schools, is hugely popular among our students. (We have space for about 100 participants every academic year, and could easily fill double that if resources permitted.) The retreat model relies on student leaders who offer personal testimonies to their peers, sharing key moments of their life and faith journeys. As Belize is an undeveloped country with very limited health care, and particularly mental health resources, the Encounter retreat is often the first opportunity that students have to confront past and present traumas, particularly ones that accompany childhood and adolescence in a low-income, developing country. Encounter becomes an important opportunity for students to begin to process these traumas in a supportive community, and to encounter God’s presence and healing care at work in their lives.

It strikes me that St. John’s is a modern day manifestation of a long and venerable Jesuit tradition of cultural encounter and Gospel inculturation. We try to help our students discover how the Gospel might find authentic expression in their idioms—Belizean and Gen Z. And, of course, in their fears, hopes and desires, our students have plenty to teach us, too—about where God is to be found in our midst, often in quite beautiful and surprising ways.

By Rev. Jeremy Zipple, S.J., Director of Pastoral Ministry, St. John’s College