As we celebrate our 50th Anniversary, Bearings Online is highlighting profiles of persons closely associated with Collegeville Institute’s history—that great cloud of witnesses who have accompanied us since 1967, and will journey with us into the future.
Joan Chittister, OSB, made her first connection with the Collegeville Institute 42 years ago, in the summer of 1976. She and five colleagues from the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania, spent six weeks at the Collegeville Institute analyzing data from their study of change in the life of monastic women since the Second Vatican Council in 1965.
They wanted to characterize accurately what was arguably the most dramatic transformation of religious life in any decade ever. Sister Joan, with her Ph.D. in social psychology from Pennsylvania State University, was the right person to oversee the project. What resulted was Climb Along the Cutting Edge: An Analysis of Change in Religious Life, published in 1977.
Joan was elected to the Collegeville Institute’s Board in the fall of 1976 and attended her first meeting in the spring of 1977. That was the year that Robert S. Bilheimer, then executive director, began to consider a major interdisciplinary study of Christianity in Minnesota. He knew that Joan would be an ideal interpreter of the data collected by anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists.
So it was that Joan was recruited to co-author, with church historian Martin Marty, Faith and Ferment: An Interdisciplinary Study of Christian Beliefs and Practices, published in 1983, with Bilheimer identified as editor, by Augsburg Press and Liturgical Press. The book received extensive notice, including a two-page spread in Newsweek. It registered a seismic shift in ecumenical reality. No longer were the most salient divisions between denominations, but within them.
When Joan retired from the Board in 1996, after 20 years of service, the Board in its resolution of thanks noted how much they “value your presence, the strength and originality of your contributions to discussion, your evident excitement about the [Collegeville] Institute’s mission and your commitment to its work.”
The Board resolution further observed that “we never know where you’ll show up next. A recent newspaper column told us that you have received write-in votes for President of the United States. If you care to make it official, we’ll register as your Campaign Committee.”
The Collegeville Institute is indeed fortunate to count Sister Joan Chittister among its Greats. Through her more than 50 books, her countless lectures, her regular columns in National Catholic Reporter, her path-breaking efforts on behalf of women around the world, her contributions as leader in many institutions and organizations—and, of course, her interview by Oprah—she is one of the major hinge figures in religion as the 21st century has made the turn from the 20th.
Chittister turns 82 next month (and still gives the Energizer Bunny a run for its money). If asked what has been her proudest achievement, Joan would likely point to the establishment of Monasteries of the Heart, an online movement to share Benedictine spirituality with contemporary seekers. Today it has more than 14,000 members worldwide.
Below are excerpts from the Collegeville Institute’s Occasional Paper No. 13, “Faith and Ferment: A Study in Contemporary Christianity” (January 1981), in which Sister Joan outlines the shape and significance of the Faith and Ferment study as it was in process. The categories and questions are as alive today as they were nearly four decades ago.
Excerpted from Joan D. Chittister, OSB, “Faith and Ferment: A Study in Contemporary Christianity,” Occasional Paper No. 13, [Collegeville] Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research (January 1981)
My mother was Roman Catholic, Irish descent. My father was Protestant, German. Everything in my culture told me that their religious convictions were unalterably opposed and incompatible. I never found much proof for that. But I was a youngster then, fooled perhaps by love and goodness. Now I’m older and have a sharper eye.
If Christians are a deteriorating breed; if the revelation is a series of truncated opposites embodied in polarized denominations; if it is diminishing in its effect on personal and social development, this time I will not be so easily misled. This time, thanks to the [Collegeville] Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, I will be looking at the Christian in a very different way.
The fact of the matter is that my Roman Catholic and Presbyterian parents—like the rest of Christian America, were living in a different kind of world. Their world came before satellite TV; before birth control pills; before test-tube babies; before Third World independence; before nuclear defense; before world energy shortages; before the population explosion; before the civil rights movements. If my parents had been discussing these issues instead of labor unions, family life, and movie censorship, would their attitudes have been so similar; their notions of what was and was not moral so consonant; their ideas of what “church” was all about so certain?
At any rate, the questions are not idle ones. Walter Buhlman writes that, if the present trends continue, by the year 2000, 60 percent of all Christians will live in the Third World but that only 16 percent of the world population will be any kind of Christian at all. If Christians are to be a sign of Christ’s love, someone should be wondering what kind of sign they’ll be.
And we are wondering.
In Minnesota this year, church members and ministers from every stream of the Christian tradition are being asked to respond to what they believe are the basic tenets of Christian faith, to express their own attitudes toward emerging concepts of morality and belief, and to identify the practices and behaviors which they believe are impelled by the Christian commitment. […]
To know what is in the catechisms and theology texts of a given faith is certainly one way to determine the depth or orientation of a religious tradition; but not only is that not the only way, it may not even be the most substantive.
In the first place, what the books teach and the people believe may be two different things. On the other hand, the various facets of the Christian community may accept a common concept but read its implications quite differently.
All Christians, in other words, may accept without question that the Christ came for the upbuilding of the Kingdom but differ markedly in where they believe the Kingdom is to be built—here or in the next world—and how it is to be done: by charity or by justice; by prayer or by action; by withdrawal or involvement. […]
My Catholic mother and Protestant father would have liked to know how affirmingly close or dangerously apart they were in values and hopes. They could have profited by it. So, perhaps could have the church.
This time we are going to look with a sharper eye.
To read the full text from “Faith and Ferment: A Study in Contemporary Christianity,” please click here.