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.
James “Jim” P. Shannon lived a storied life; you can read about it in detail in his autobiography Reluctant Dissenter: A Catholic Bishop’s Journey of Faith. When he was appointed the youngest president of the (then) College of St. Thomas in St. Paul in 1956, he became the youngest college president in the United States. Jim was invited by Martin Luther King, Jr., to Selma, Alabama in March 1965, to participate in the funeral for James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist pastor from Boston, who had been murdered during the marches on March 9. Along with King, he was an early opponent of the Vietnam war. In 1965 he was appointed auxiliary bishop of St. Paul. In the wake of changes in the Roman Catholic Church following Vatican II, Jim hosted a nationally televised program on NBC titled The New American Catholic. About his appearance on that acclaimed broadcast one reviewer wrote, “the auxiliary bishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis has emerged as the most sought-after liaison between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the American public.”
Following the promulgation of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, which articulated the Catholic Church’s opposition to the use of artificial birth control, Jim stepped down from his position as bishop when he couldn’t square the church’s teaching with his pastoral conscience—a move that create a national stir. Following his work in the church Jim received a law degree and practiced law in New Mexico, then returned to the Twin Cities region where he worked in the field of philanthropy. He first became the executive director of the Minneapolis Foundation, a community support trust, then was appointed associate director of the General Mills Foundation and later became the Foundation’s vice-president and executive director, a position he held until his retirement in 1988.
Jim was a member of the Collegeville Institute’s Board of Directors from 1984 until his death in 2003, and served as its chair from 1990 until 1994. The following speech is from the Collegeville Institute’s spring luncheon at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, on April 27, 1995. Here are edited excerpts.
A Dozen Years of Grace
Such a personal presentation makes me nervous. My late father, a taciturn man, could say nothing worse of someone than “That fellow is mouthy.” I can imagine his walking out with me today and remarking, “Well, we were certainly full of ourselves today, weren’t we?”
The adventuresome spirit of the Institute was implanted at the beginning. Father Kilian McDonnell, OSB, was sent by Saint John’s Abbey to Germany to study for a doctorate in Protestant theology. Today nobody would think this so remarkable, but in the early 1960s it was a daring assignment. Thanks to the financial support of Patrick Butler, whose foundation had funded Kilian in Europe, and the encouragement of Abbot Baldwin Dworschak, OSB, Saint John’s acted on Kilian’s suggestion that the abbey host a center for interested, serious students of theology to come together to talk about their bonds of unity. Thus was the Institute born in a bold act of imagination.
My first contact with the Institute was a letter from Kilian, within a year or two of the Institute’s opening, inviting me to be a Resident Scholar. I wasn’t able to accept, but I never forgot that Kilian thought of me in those terms.
When Bob Bilheimer, then Executive Director, first invited me to join the Board, I turned him down. I said I thought I brought some negative baggage [Jim Shannon resigned as auxiliary bishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in 1968] and I would not be an aid in the Institute’s mission. He waited one year and repeated the invitation. I tremble to think: what would have happened if Bob hadn’t been persistent enough to ask me a second time? I would have missed one of the most important spiritual experiences of my life.
The older I get, the more firmly I believe in the providence of God. And I firmly believe, in a very serious, literal sense, that Bob Bilheimer was an agent of God in my life.
A “Certified Philanthropoid” Surprised
For the past twenty years I have worked in the field of philanthropy; in the trade, I am called a “certified philanthropoid.” In 1985 I had my first Institute conversation experience, the Faith and Ferment Conference. I was discussion leader for a group of ten. Everyone was asked to speak in the first person. No one was to cite what others are saying or what the consensus is today or what the politically correct position is.
We asked them to talk about their faith, what role it plays in their lives, how they manage to live their faith, and how they construct their own standard of living each day according to the gospel. I was surprised to learn how many had, in their spiritual journey, switched denominations, not just parishes in the same denomination.
Not long after, a nationwide Gallup survey found that people who change churches are more likely than non-changers, by a margin of 71 to 58, to describe religion as very important in their lives. These figures contrast sharply with the experience I have had in all the subsequent Institute consultations I have participated in, where people who came tended to have a commitment not only to the gospel, but also to their denomination, usually the one they had grown up in.
In the Institute’s consultations I suddenly realized I was in a congenial atmosphere to talk about religion, my faith, my spirituality, about my prayer life. This is a luxury in which most people in philanthropy can’t indulge. It is regarded as bad form to be too open and overt about one’s personal spirituality and personal odyssey of faith.
At the Institute I discovered I was in a whole new company of people who put a priority on identifying themselves as followers of Christ and who were willing to talk in the first person, to share with one another in candor, with courtesy, kindness, and generosity, and to ask how they could reinforce each other, both in their faith and in the way they translate the faith into action in society. This was a very big discovery for me. I felt I now had permission, outside my crowd of philanthropoids, to talk openly.
Customs and Traditions
Early on I realized we need to make a distinction between the words of the gospel, the traditions of our denominations, and their customs. Customs can be changed.
When I was a teenager in South Saint Paul, anyone who wanted to receive Holy Communion in the morning had to fast from the preceding midnight. I thought this was part of divine law. I had been accustomed all through grade school to walk with my father to church for the 7:00 a.m. Mass every morning during Lent. When I was in high school I had to catch the streetcar at 7:30. It was all right to go to Mass, but not to receive the Eucharist, because I didn’t have time to eat afterwards, and my mother wouldn’t let me go to school without breakfast. I went to Mass every day for four years and did not receive the Eucharist. This was a custom.
One reason Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council was to reexamine the customs in the Catholic Church. The custom that kept me from the Eucharist those four years has been changed.
It is astonishing how quickly trust builds in the Institute summer consultations. People are frank, and talk about problems and stumbling blocks in their own traditions, but there’s no denomination-bashing, no tattling, and courtesy and restraint hold participants back from picking on other traditions.
Nevertheless, the civility of the dialogue couldn’t mask my discovery that many of the other persons around the table knew vastly more Scripture than I did. Their habits of personal piety, of prayer, their spiritual exercises humbled me. My admiration for them as Christians grew. I kept asking myself: Why didn’t I find out about this earlier? How come this is so late in my career? I was in my mid-60s.
A Clearing in the Forest
We’re certainly not in business to homogenize Christian denominations. The Institute is here to have what Father Kilian and Abbot Baldwin talked about in 1967, a kind of clearing in the forest, a place where Christians of many persuasions can come to explore their bonds of unity with one another. In this setting I have had an education in what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ.
I knew very quickly after I came on the Institute’s Board that there was something different and special about this group of people. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was, but I figured it out by way of contrast with other experiences I was having.
The Institute Board faced up to the mission obligation early on, saying to prospective Board members: This is who we are and this is what we do, and if you can accept these premises, we would like to invite you into the dialogue. Commitment to the mission makes this board such an uncommonly good and dedicated and effective group.
You should visit the Institute, an idyllic place for thinking and research and some leisure. During my years as Board chair I would drive periodically to Collegeville. There was always a special lift to those days, not only because of the drive, but also because being at Saint John’s Abbey put me in the company of many immensely talented people. Saint John’s, the largest Benedictine monastery in the world, has what a coach would call “bench. “
The Magic and Grace of Saint John’s
The Rule of Saint Benedict, which has guided monks in their search for God for 1500 years, begins with the word Listen!
This admonition is for the monk, and especially for the abbot. The Rule is an extraordinarily wise document, establishing and maintaining a creative community. The abbey is a scene in which there is an amazing affection and devotion of the members to the work that they do.
My father might have tweaked me for being “rather full of myself” in this account of what the Institute has done for me, but at the moment I was asked to speak on this subject, even though I initially hesitated, I knew I would say yes. These twelve years since Bob Bilheimer first approached me have been for me an occasion of grace, and I want to say again what I said before: the invitation to serve the Institute, an invitation that had to be extended twice, was an act of God’s providence in my life. God bless us all.
This speech was originally published in Ecumenical People, Programs, Papers, May 1995, pp. 1-2, 22. It was edited for length.