Collegium at Twenty


Collegium at Twenty


By David O’Brien
David O’Brien is professor emeritus of history at College of the Holy Cross. This article is adapted from his remarks at a recent celebration of the 20th anniversary of Collegium, held at the college.

Twenty-one years ago, after a luncheon at the annual meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, a handsome young man in a Jesuit-like black suit came up and introduced himself to me as Tom Landy. Accompanied by his colleague and friend Mary Frances Malone, Tom told me about Collegium, then a mere proposal for an annual, weeklong gathering of graduate students and Catholic college and university faculty to consider the academic vocation.

Never one to let history happen on its own, Tom wanted Catholic colleges to invite their faculty, especially young faculty and prospective faculty, to make the Catholic mission of their institutions their own. Even then Tom thought of that mission as we do at Holy Cross, as forming a community of conversation about fundamental human questions of meaning and mutual obligation. Collegium would offer participants the opportunity to draw upon the spiritual, intellectual, and imaginative resources of the living Catholic tradition to enrich their teaching and research. In doing so they would enliven academic culture at the sponsoring colleges and universities and, far more important, they might help American academics in all fields rediscover the importance and value of religious intelligence and imagination.

That day in Washington, Tom and Mary Frances asked me to join a group to offer advice about the project before its presentation to potential funders. We met a few weeks later. Some of us said that you could not combine an academic gathering and a retreat; another, a provost on her way to a university presidency, said the whole idea of vocation called to mind nuns and priests and simply would not work. For my part, I argued that you had to keep people really busy or they would feel guilty about coming, so Tom should get rid of all that time for quiet reflection and certainly scrap the full-day retreat.

Then as now, Tom Landy was—among other things—a world-class listener; he acted as if we were offering nuggets of practical wisdom. But of course he did not accept this advice and, as you all know, Tom was right. Participants love the combination of conversation and silence, they welcome the chance for quiet reflection and, for many, the retreat day is a highlight of the Collegium experience.

Some 1,800 people now have been touched by Collegium. The outline of the program, the purpose of each day, the small groups and faculty mentors, even the schedule, remain close to what Tom and his colleagues originally proposed. Themes of wonder, community, sacramentality, and social responsibility are still there, all informed by Tom’s characteristic modesty. But some things have changed. In the early days there were more graduate students, perhaps because there was less space for religion at major research universities than there is now. It was easier to recruit men than women at first, but balance has long been achieved.

In the early days, people arrived a little uneasy about the whole idea of religion and academic life, even more anxious about Catholicism: Were they being trained to serve as useful guests at colleges and universities that were really family firms dominated by the really Catholic Catholics? Tom more or less banned Catholic insider talk, and made sure theologians did not dominate the conversations. He now reports that uneasiness is gone as new arrivals have been given positive reports by Collegium alumni back home.

I have not been there for a few years, but I suspect that a little anxiety about the Catholic connection persists. I recall a day at Collegeville when the New York Times carried a front-page story that the Pope had once again decided there would never be women priests and said the question was settled and no further discussion would be allowed. The wonderfully smart young scholars in my small group were kind enough to be more amused than angry at the “end of discussion” mandate. In fact, Tom’s open and trusting leadership and the honesty, generosity, and intelligence of the participants in all their religious and cultural diversity make it easier for people like me to hold on to our American and Christian confidence that the beloved community is a genuine historical possibility.

Tom’s project reflects three of his great virtues:

Faith that the theological and spiritual resources of the Christian tradition can enrich the lives of scholars and teachers and, through them, strengthen our academic institutions and deepen our shared intelligence and imagination.
Hope that religion, so long marginalized in academic life, can recover its capacity to help people find meaning in their experience, personal and historical, and inspire them to use their gifts for the building up of the human family.
And love. Tom believed that most scholars and teachers really love their work, and he wanted to name that love and affirm its importance. Others in Catholic higher education might worry about identity as difference and distance from others, but Tom never talks about us and them and almost never uses the word secular. Instead, he helps us think about the academic vocation that unites all of us who devote our lives to scholarship and teaching.

If you want to know more about the future of American intellectual life, Catholic and otherwise, talk to Tom Landy. And if you have not done so already, take part in a Collegium colloquy.

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