Since April 2006 we have told the story of founding of Saint John's & the key characteristics of the last century and half with exhibits and talks, a great book edited by Fr. Hilary, a terrific CD produced by Fr. Bob Koopmann (where the Men's Chorus in 1955 singing "Can't you dance the polka?" comes between the first recordings of chant from this space and wondrous chamber music performed ever since). We have had parties and picnics, liturgies and concerts, videos and talent shows. We are near to completing almost two dozen Saint John's at 150 parties across the country and from Hong Kong to the Bahamas. And the benefactors of Saint John's have helped us achieve a huge milestone in the largest capital campaign in our history - surpassing the goal of $150 million by our Sesqui. homecoming - 21 months ahead of schedule.
We ought to have sesquicentennials more often!!
But even the best party has to end. In 1996, midway through the solemn events and perorations marking the 150th celebration of the founding St. Vincent's Archabbey, one SV monk coined a new word, "sesqui-dementia." Since SJ's sesquicentennial observance would stretch to over 19 months (because it took longer than one year to get fundamental parts of Saint John's up and running), we decided from the start to conduct our celebration with a light touch. Announcements for today's closing celebration are in keeping with that goal. They hearken back over a century:
monks w. very stern faces, hold an assortment of horns under the message:
"One last time, everyone. 1,2,3..."
long line of students cross country skis away from campus, under the plaintive
headline: "Wait, don't leave. The Sesquicentennial isn't quite over!"
my favorite: an early basketball team, 9 in number, each looking like they are about
to face the Last Judgment, with big Js on their jerseys perhaps for that final
reckoning, except for one player: "I survived the Saint John's Sesquicentennial"
We all have!!
The celebration of a great anniversary like this inevitably focuses on the founders, their stamina and courage, their creativity and resilience, great plans that succeeded (and some that failed) with consequences sometimes foreseen, often absolutely unanticipated. In recalling the story of how we got to be where we are, it is easy to forget perhaps the fundamental quality of our relationship to Saint John's founders. Gregg Bourland, chair of the Cheyenne River Sioux, said it more powerfully than I can:
"Seven generations ago, our ancestors loved us so much that we are still here as a people."[i]
The novelist, Robert Girardi, writes of each place having "its own soul." As we close our celebration of this great anniversary, let us fix the soul of Saint John's deeply in our hearts. Perhaps our celebration has been as long as it had been so as to keep faith with Girardi's observation that "it takes a lot of time to get used to [the soul of a place]; you've got to know how the air smells after it rains, watch how the sun hits the trees in the morning every day for years to get a real handle on it. Maybe you've got to bury your people in the ground before you can understand a place... it could take generations."[ii]
The Saint John's sesquicentennial has been about a place, as Abbot Timothy says, that was holy before the first monks arrived, a place cared for through diligent, hard work ever since. But, at its heart, the Sesquicentennial has been about people - about people who lived on a great stage and have died, some of them buried here, most others far away, the memory of each sacred; but also about their descendants in this age, all of us gathered here, our colleagues and friends, students and alumni, people across the US and around the globe for whom "Collegeville" is a word of hope; and about those who one day will stand in our place, able to make extraordinary contributions to the human saga because we have handed on the traditions and fundamental commitments of Saint John's from one generation to the next.
When the monks first arrived in Central MN 150 years ago, they came to serve a people in the midst of great cultural dislocation on what was then a geographic frontier, a land wrested from its original inhabitants and about to undergo a deep transformation as resources which seemed endless were manipulated and extracted to support first an agricultural economy, then an industrial one. Saint John's early graduates set out into a state too new to know its identity, into a nation torn apart in a wrenching civil war, into communities desperately needing grounding in the life-giving religious traditions of their ancestral homelands. Generations of monks and faculty, students and staff, alumni and friends have worked with creativity, diligence and good humor to make the world they inherited a little bit better than they found it. We stand in their debt.
As we close this Sesquicentennial observance, let us resolve to take up the great task our founders have bequeathed to us, to look with daring, wisdom and compassion at the deep and unsettling challenges of our own times, and to engage those challenges with faith and full hearts for the sake of others, for the sake of the generations to come, people not yet born whose lives will one day be enlarged by entering into the life of St. John's.
Saint John's is a nationally significant Catholic liberal arts college, an exceptional college preparatory school, one of the great publishers of liturgical, theological and monastic works, anchored in a place of great natural beauty, nurtured by the witness of faithful monastic life, inspired by world-class theological education, enhanced by a wondrous relationship with our sister community Saint Benedict's Monastery and the College of Saint Benedict, and renewed by deep encounter with the art and culture that makes our lives worth living.
The next big celebration of Saint John's founding is many years off. (Though, beware, Saint Xavier University in Chicago just completed its year-long celebration of its 160th anniversary!) But let us for a moment imagine the bi-centennial of Saint John's founding, (pray God) its 250th anniversary, its 300th, 400th and beyond... Years from now our successors will look back with gratitude to the initial founders and their great and generous successors in every age who made Saint John's possible. But I am convinced that because of the quality of our lives, the depth of our commitment to Saint John's mission, years from now people will look back with gratitude to the monks and faculty, students and staff, alumni and friends of this era and number us too in that remarkable lineage of persons across time whose hopes and dreams, risk-taking and generosity have made Saint John's - at times almost in spite of itself - into such a force for good in the world.
It is good to celebrate a sesquicentennial. But it is even more important to care for one another, to support one another in our deepest aspirations and to recognize that by so doing we take a great tradition, make it relevant to our times and, by doing so, pass it on stronger than for the future, renewing the fabric of community from one generation to the next, ever striving for excellence, ever grounded in Benedictine tradition.
[i] Time, 8/26/96, 38
[ii] The Pirate's Daughter, NY, 1997, p. 26