As we celebrate our 50th Anniversary, Bearings Online will highlight profiles of persons closely associated with Collegeville Institute’s history—that great cloud of witnesses who has accompanied us since 1967, and will journey with us into the future.
Harry C. (Bob) Piper Jr. was a member of the Collegeville Institute’s Board of Directors for fifteen years, the last six of them as its chair. Chair of the Board and CEO of the Minneapolis-based financial firm Piper, Jaffray & Hopwood, Bob was legendary in Minnesota as a business leader and philanthropist. As a fund raiser (and generous contributor himself), he was instrumental in putting the Collegeville Institute on solid financial ground.
In 1990 Father Hilary Thimmesh, OSB, monk of Saint John’s Abbey and president of Saint John’s University, wrote to Bob to tell him he had been selected to receive the Pax Christi Award, the highest honor bestowed by Saint John’s University, in October. In years past, the Pax Christi Award had been given to many notable figures, including the founder of the Collegeville Institute, Father Kilian McDonnell, OSB, and Robert Bilheimer, organizer of the first three assemblies of the World Council of Churches and an early executive director of the Collegeville Institute.
When, in August, Father Hilary learned that an aggressive recurrence of cancer was cutting Bob’s life short, he arranged for the award to be bestowed on Bob at his home. Since the Abbey’s woodworking shop did not have time to build the wooden case in which the award was customarily presented, the statue was handed to Bob wrapped, appropriately, in a Saint John’s “Johnnie Bread” plastic bag, four days before he died on August 19.
Bob’s family asked Patrick Henry, then executive director of the Collegeville Institute, to fashion the talk Bob had started to plan in response to the award. Using a brief outline that Bob had worked on, and a few other materials, Patrick constructed the following speech, and delivered it to the Collegeville Institute’s Board of Directors and guests in The Great Hall at Saint John’s University on October 18, 1990.
Bob Piper belongs in the category of Collegeville Greats not just because of his significant financial and institutional contributions, but for the example he set as “a representative of the millions of laypersons who are committed to the church and its search for unity.” This moving speech shows Bob’s midlife encounter with Father Kilian, one that set him on a new path where he encountered God’s grace.
I will be mercifully brief. After all, I have just been named an heir in spirit of Saint Benedict, and chapter 6 of the Rule is called “Restraint of speech.” “Indeed,” Benedict says, “so important is silence that permission to speak should seldom be granted even to mature disciples, no matter how good or holy or constructive their talk.” I have never been known for doing things halfway, so I will be the best Benedictine I can be, and having been granted this most uncommon permission to speak, will not say much.
When the president of Saint John’s University, Father Hilary Thimmesh, wrote and said Saint John’s wanted to give me this award, and would I accept it, I said, “No—I don’t belong in that crowd.” His letter intimidated me by naming Father Kilian McDonnell and Bob Bilheimer as previous recipients. Those are my mentors, ecumenical pioneers and geniuses. Then, when I got the list of all the Pax Christi awardees, I knew I was out of my league entirely—Cardinals, Professors, Eminences, Right Honorables, His Holinesses, Most Reverends. My Masters degree in Religious Studies, something of a big deal, or at least a notable oddity, in the circles I usually move in, seemed a paltry thing in the midst of all that theological learning and ecclesiastical clout.
Saint John’s had clearly made a mistake, and by saying “No” I would save a great university from a great embarrassment.
But within a day or two I had completely reversed field. I do belong in that company, not as their peer in publications or churchly prestige, but as a representative of the millions of laypersons who are committed to the church and its search for unity. Besides, Saint John’s knows the power of symbolism, and if they want to make a point to their students and alumni, they can point to someone who has had some success in the business world and say, “Look—you can live the kind of life we value here at Saint John’s in places outside the church.”
I’m not claiming to be an ideal human being, but I think it a safe bet that more Saint John’s students these days aspire to emulate Bob Piper than to become a cardinal. And I want the young men and women of Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s to know that this really is a land of opportunity. I don’t—really don’t—have any great talent. I have done some very simple things. Thomas Merton helped me understand the importance of simple things. With the help of others and the grace of God, I have achieved some recognition, though I have not sought it.
So, I gratefully accept this award for myself, but even more, on behalf of all those heirs of Saint Benedict whose days are spent in a world called by such picturesque names as “dog-eat-dog,” “rough and tumble,” “cut-throat,” “rat race.” I thank Saint John’s for being the sort of place it is—if it weren’t for monasteries, the vision of a priorities-straight, ordered life might vanish from the earth. I commend Saint John’s for recognizing that others, living in the heart of the city far removed from Lake Sagatagan (and far from Lake Wobegon), can take their bearings from that same vision.
When I was growing up, if somebody had said to me I would one day receive the highest honor given by a university run by Roman Catholic monks, I’d have laughed. God moves in mysterious ways, but God’s not crazy! Until I was about 50, the whole notion of such an honor would have been totally preposterous.
I was on the make, and making it well. But the doubts came, and so did the beginnings of too much to drink. I did a deal with a wealthy guy, and asked why, with a roomful of money, he wanted more. He said, “That’s only one room.” I finally woke up to the fact that I was saying to him what I needed to say to myself. Cares about earthly things were about to do me in.
I thought I needed to know more, to understand more, so I enrolled in United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. The class I wanted to take was full, so I chanced into a room where a visiting professor was talking about the theological significance of the Second Vatican Council. I was prepared to be bored out of my mind. Within a very few minutes that visiting professor, a Benedictine monk from Saint John’s named Kilian McDonnell, had absolutely captivated me.
I intended to take just a course or two, but the next thing I knew I was finding out what it would take to get a degree. And while I was getting a degree the Christian gospel was getting through to me in a new and powerful way. I had been losing myself in alcohol, and when you do that you just lose, period. But when I lost myself in the seminary, I found myself. I can’t name a date and time, but seminary for me was at least an occasion for a genuine conversion experience. And my wife Ginny noticed the difference immediately.
It was an experience of grace—I was crucified with Christ and raised with him. But then the question loomed large: What was I to do with this grace? What difference does it make? For me, it was mainly a turn outward, a change of priorities—and to the extent I kept an inward reference, it was to Christ in me.
For the first time I really considered the lilies of the field, really pondered the mustard seed and the leaven. I realized there is much to be done, but my job is to cooperate, to get things started, to sow the seed, to invest the faith I have inherited, and leave it to God to give the increase. The turn outward is reflected in the new mission statement we wrote at Piper, Jaffray & Hopwood. Our mission used to be to become the best regional brokerage firm in the country. Now it says our mission is to serve our clients first—and the firm really tries to live by that.
Along with the patience—waiting for the seeds to grow, for God to give the increase—came a conviction of urgency: the kingdom of God really is at hand, it is really time to repent and believe the gospel. And the immediacy of the kingdom drove me not only to action on behalf of others, but also to prayer, and to scheduled as well as to spontaneous prayer. The weekly early morning gathering of our Bible study and prayer group has something in common with the regular routines of community prayer in the monastery. And as I studied the New Testament, I noticed how often Christ himself prayed. I suspect his authority, his command presence, the “immediately” of the gospel with almost no “maybe,” derives at least in part from the focus and clarity Christ gained in prayer.
“A gratitude to God that overflows in an earnest zeal for the welfare of others”: this is one of the inheritances from Saint Benedict that a Pax Christi awardee is supposed to exhibit.
During the past twenty years I have spent a lot of time and energy raising money for others, and it is gratitude to God that has motivated me. And that gratitude is reinforced sometimes by frustration, even anger: it seems to me just plain obscene that with all our techniques, know-how, machinery, we can’t figure out how to stop the carnage of starvation. We have accomplished much of what God asks of us, but what we have left to do far outstrips anything we have done. One of the most appealing characteristics of you Benedictines—of us Benedictines—is the claim to be no more than beginners on the path God has set before us.
This award testifies to Saint John’s appreciation for the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research—the authenticity and importance of its work. I am more grateful than I can easily say for my fifteen-year association with this place. It has linked me with some of God’s great ones.