Saint John’s at 150 – Omaha October 25, 2007

I would like to welcome you on behalf of Saint John's University.  It is a great pleasure to be back in Omaha. Your city will always have a special place in my heart after the enthusiastic welcome you gave to the exhibition of The Saint John's Bible at Joslyn last January. Thank you, Mike, for hosting tonight's Sesquicentennial celebration.   And thank you, Bob, for sharing your reflection with us. 

Our theme tonight is history.  Since August of 2006, I have been everywhere from New York to Hong Kong and points in between to celebrate Saint John's 150th birthday.  Close 1,500 alumni, parents and friends in 18 cities have joined the celebration so far.  Your presence here tonight, as well as my travel itinerary last year, testifies to one of the great characteristics of Saint John's history - the tendency always to spread outward.  The 15 students from the Omaha area currently at CSB/SJU follow a long line of predecessors and, like them, find their horizons expanding and their expectations of themselves increasing.  I think you know the dynamic.

In this, Saint John's University's sesquicentennial year, the story of the founding of Saint John's bears re-telling.  In 1856, five Benedictine monks arrived in St. Cloud to establish a monastery and serve the growing population of German Catholic immigrants. Our founders understood that it would be through education that they could make the greatest contribution to these recent immigrants. Their goal was to produce leaders of vision, compassion, skill and faith for both the Church and society.

By November of 1857, five young men-Henry Emmel, Anthony Edelbrock, Joseph Duerr, Henry Klostermann and Andrew Stahlberger-had enrolled at the newly chartered Saint John's Seminary.  They lived, worshiped and studied religion, history, English, Latin, Greek, astronomy, rhetoric and math under the guidance of one of the founders, Fr. Cornelius Wittman, OSB, in just one lonely building on the windswept prairie.

Fast forward 150 years to 2007.  We are still committed to preparing such leaders, although times have changed in countless ways.  There are now 1,917 undergraduate students at Saint John's.  With 2,049 students at the College of Saint Benedict, we have become the largest undergraduate liberal arts college in the country.  Saint John's students are now named Samir and Jaime as well as Henry and Andrew.

The School of Theology●Seminary, which has made historic contributions to the life of the Church in liturgical renewal and ecumenism, now numbers 185 students and includes students named Susan and DaHai along with the traditional Davids and Josephs.  Over the last decades the Church has increasingly called lay people to serve with priests and religious in positions of leadership and Saint John's has changed to meet that need, offering lay men and women the same excellent education, spiritual formation and support we have always provided for our seminarians.

Our students now hail from 41 states and 46 countries.  They live, study and worship in 41 buildings - including the new Abbey Guesthouse  - located on 2,700 acres of forest, oak savannah and restored prairie, wetlands and lakes.  And Fr. Cornelius would be astounded to learn that our faculty now numbers 294 full-time and 65 part-time professors offering courses in 60 areas of study with 40 majors.

Times have certainly changed!  Fr. Cornelius and his students struggled with fundamental challenges that we no longer have to think about:  bitter cold winters without central heating, poor and scanty food, early morning prayer and late evening study lit only by the dim glow from tallow candles, and the constant threat of epidemic disease such as smallpox and diphtheria.  But what a success story!  Because of our founders' persistence in meeting the challenges of their day, here we are, in 2007, celebrating the sesquicentennial of an institution that has grown steadily and grown strong on the deep roots the founders put down. 

A sesquicentennial is a good time to look back and take stock...but it is also a time to look forward and to plan, creatively and ambitiously, for a bright future.

In 2007 we are faced with a different set of challenges-not those of a fledgling institution establishing a foothold on a geographical frontier, but those of a long established Catholic, Benedictine university preparing students for life on the frontier of a new century --  a technology-driven, hyper-connected, globally-intertwined century in which changes are bewildering and occur at lightning speed.

Let me compare and contrast our different worlds a little further by describing four major changes, each of which shapes our own times in a powerful way. 

1.  In 1857, Saint John's educated -- often in German -- the children of German Catholic immigrants to give them a head start in life.

Today, we teach students of many backgrounds -- German and Irish-American, Hmong and Hispanic - over 6% of this year's first-year students are American students of color, almost 5% are international students from places like Bosnia, China and even Mongolia.   All of our students must know how to value, respect, and work with each other, whether they make their post-collegiate lives in the rural Midwest, the great urban areas of our nation, or in Sarajevo, Hong Kong or Ulan Bator.

2.  Our earliest students went out into a state too new to know its identity and into a nation already divided over the issue of slavery and on the eve of a Civil War.  The need for leadership was acute and pressing.

Today the need for leadership is no less pressing, but the scale is far larger.  We must prepare our students to be engaged citizens and thoughtful leaders in a world rent by war and terror and misunderstanding.

3.  Previous generations of students set out in an economy in the middle of a transition from an agricultural to an industrial base, orchestrated with the presumption that natural resources -- timber, iron ore, water - were unlimited. 

Our students today face an economy that is technology-driven, knowledge-based, and global.  Competition is intense.  Natural resources worldwide are strained, and the goal of a sustainable ecosystem is nearly out of reach.  

4.    Our earliest students - immigrants and children of immigrants, beset by massive challenges of making their way in a new land - needed to cultivate the skills to build churches in their new communities and to participate in them so as to be grounded in the life-giving religious traditions of their ancestral homelands.

Today our students live amidst the greatest material prosperity the world has ever known, yet at a time when the gulf between the haves and the have-nots is deeper than ever.  They are buffeted at every turn by messages that life's meaning is to be found in achieving, possessing and consuming.  Now they need to cultivate the wisdom and the skills to see beyond those false promises and  enter into something larger than themselves. They need to learn how to join with others to participate in centers of worship and spiritual teaching - to participate in them and renew them - along with centers of community and hospitality to the poor and the marginalized.  The fate of our society, of our souls, depends on this.

Right about now, I imagine Fr. Cornelius saying to us: Okay, I did my part back in 1857, what are you doing to meet the challenges of your era? 

How will all who believe in the mission of Saint John's address the challenges and opportunities of this unfolding century?  Certainly with energy and the best creativity we can muster, and with a focus on five key areas, each of which we share with our partner College of Saint Benedict:

  1. Providing scholarship support in order to:
  • remain affordable and accessible to students from all walks of life,
  • attract outstanding students and
  • increase the geographic, cultural, racial and ethnic mix of the student body.
  1. Strengthening our liberal arts curriculum in the humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, and fine arts so it prepares students exceptionally well for careers, family and service to the larger community.
  2. Fostering the kind of faculty in the future who have made Saint John's great in the past -- scholars deeply conversant with their discipline, committed to our Catholic Benedictine liberal arts mission, yearning as their first priority to teach and mentor students known by their first name.
  3. Giving focus and new energy to the monks' historic legacy of bringing the resources of Catholic and Benedictine tradition - at its best - into dialogue with the hopes and dilemmas of the young, so as to foster faith, conscience and character strong enough to last a lifetime. 
  4. Strengthening gender education and development at Saint John's and St. Ben's, in two colleges unique in America - a college for men and a college for women, attending with extraordinary care to the well-being, creativity and generosity of men and women, separately and together, for the sake of the lives they will live long after leaving campus. 

None of us can predict what SJU will look like 150 years from now.  But I am convinced that wise and generous support for scholarships, curricular renewal, faculty vitality, the transmission of Catholic and Benedictine values, and the formation of men and women will go a long way to ensuring that Saint John's educational mission is pursued with vigor and imagination long after we all have passed on to a far distant shore. 

Saint John's is a nationally significant Catholic liberal arts college, anchored in a place of great natural beauty, nurtured by the witness of faithful monastic life, inspired by world-class theological education, and renewed by deep encounter with the art and culture that makes our lives worth living. 

As we care for each of those precious characteristics of Saint John's we look back with gratitude to the initial founders and their great and generous successors in every age who made this possible.  But what you need to know is that none of this would have been possible without you.  It was the effort to educate you and the alumni before you, to keep up with your remarkable, unpredictable growth and development, that kept Saint John's alive, on its toes and always stretching.  Your finger prints are all over everything that we are and everything that we strive to become.  

Whenever I spend time with alumni I become more deeply convinced that - far more than what we plan - it is the trajectory of your lives that sets the horizon for Saint John's hopes.  And when I spend time with the parents of alumni and, of course, with their wives, I meet those who know far more intimately than I ever can the significance of Saint John's long-standing mission commitment "to prepare students for full, integrated lives of faith and reason, action and love."

Because of the quality of your lives, years from now people will look back with gratitude to the alumni and spouses, parents 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.

And so as we celebrate this Sesquicentennial there is perhaps no act more appropriate than to spend time with you, to look into your eyes as deeply  as I can, and to say "Thank you!"  I think the best is yet to come.