The official, public launching of the Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation at Chestnut Hill College (CHC) took place with a public lecture given by the Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Jesuit peace activist John Dear, SJ on Wednesday evening, March 25, 2009. Father John Dear’s inspiring presentation, entitled “To Change the World We Must Change Ourselves” underscored the conviction with which the Institute undertakes its healing work. Nonetheless, to appreciate more fully the ceremonial events and daring commitments that marked this two day inauguration of CHC’s Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation, one must situate them within the long history and legacy of the Sisters of St. Joseph (SSJ), whose mission of unity and reconciliation gave birth to Chestnut Hill College as a liberal arts college for women in 1924. That same reconciling mission continues to direct and impel the college’s purpose and goals as a co-educational, inclusive catholic community today and into the future.
The Institute Promotes a Culture of Non-Violent, All-Inclusive Love
The birth of the Institute is a concrete demonstration of CHC’s founding mission. As a college-wide community, we seek to grow in awareness of our own need to give and receive forgiveness and to move always toward the fullest possible reconciliation of all that divides us. Therefore, we desire to become “the change we hope to see in the world” (Gandhi). From that space of growing self-awareness and commitment to personal and communal change of heart and behavior, the Institute emerges to serve as an agent of change in a city and world where violence, hatred and revenge threaten to become the cultural norm of human behavior. To this culture of violence, we say “NO” and commit ourselves to witness to and work for an alternative.
Forgiveness and Reconciliation within the Mission of the Church
As a Catholic institution of higher education, Chestnut Hill College takes seriously its responsibility to serve the mission of the Church as “a sign and instrument of communion with God and the salvation of the whole human race” (Lumen Gentium1). It does this primarily in its distinctive role as an academic institution, whose commitment is to the education of the whole person, body, mind and spirit, and to the formation of an inclusive community where all persons are respected for their intrinsic human dignity and encouraged to achieve their highest possible potential. Integral to the achievement of this goal is the need to help heal and reconcile all that hurts and divides human persons and communities both inside and outside the college. Flowing from the prayer of Jesus “that all may be one” (John 17:21) and challenged by Jesus’ radical witness and call to unconditional forgiveness and enemy-love, Chestnut Hill College takes seriously “the ministry of reconciliation entrusted to us” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). The spiritual legacy of the Sisters of St. Joseph brings a particular gift to bear on this contemporary, all-pervasive need for healing divisions.
The Mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph within the Mission of the Church
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Founded in LePuy, France in 1650 by the Jesuit missionary Jean Pierre Medaille, the Sisters of St. Joseph “live and work to bring all people into union with God and with one another.” Their mission of unity knows no exception; their call to love of the “dear neighbor” is always and everywhere “without distinction.” Their earliest constitutions recommend that the sisters “divide the city into various sections …and make every effort to learn what disorders prevail in each area. Then, they are to try to remedy these problems themselves or seek the help of people who have some control over the persons involved in these disorders” (Original Constitutions of the Sisters of St. Joseph, 1693). As the centuries passed, this legacy of reconciling love continued, undeterred by the French Revolution, during which five sisters were martyred at the guillotine, witnessing to love’s enduring presence in the very midst of evil.
In response to that same unifying mission, six sisters came to the United States in 1836 where they ministered to the children of black slaves as well as their white slave owners in the racially divided world of 19th century St. Louis, Missouri. Coming to Philadelphia in 1847 to open an orphanage for young boys, the Sisters of St. Joseph showed themselves “ready for any good work” once again. With a gesture of all inclusive love which refused to exclude anyone from their care and active support, the Sisters of St. Joseph continued to expand their presence and ministries to serve the dear neighbor without distinction, at a time when many congregations of women were unable to minister to young boys. Though historical times and social locations changed, the SSJ mission remained the same: to help heal the personal and social disorders that kept people divided from one another and unaware of the great love God has for them and for all. Serving the wounded on both sides of the Civil War, opening a home for widows and for single mothers, caring for those suffering from scarlet fever, small pox, pneumonia and measles outbreaks, especially severe among abandoned children, the Sisters of St. Joseph proved themselves “no pollyannas concerning their surroundings” (Coburn and Smith, 207). Where there were wrongs, they were there to try to right them, working to heal divisions wherever they existed in our fragile, hurting human family.
Distinctive Mark of a Chestnut Hill College Education
With the founding of Chestnut Hill College in 1924, the Sisters of St. Joseph once again responded to a pressing need. This time it was the education of young women, at a time when inequality and prejudice deprived most women of the opportunity to develop their gifts for the good of all. The purpose of a Chestnut Hill College education was described from the beginning as one in which graduates would learn how to make a living, because they must, but more importantly, Chestnut Hill College students would learn how to live. Living in such a way that all are welcomed and embraced as sisters and brothers of one another and children of the same, loving Creator has continued to distinguish a CHC graduate.
As we embarked on the 21st century, changing social and economic realities provided the necessary conditions to re-examine the purpose of a Chestnut Hill College education and to reaffirm its foundational mission. This critical re-examination led to the college’s decision to become a co-educational institution in 2003. The inclusion of young men afforded CHC a unique opportunity to reclaim its original story as a vital part of the larger history and legacy of the Sisters of St. Joseph who founded this college, and under whose sponsorship it continues to lead and serve.
A Catholic Institution of Higher Learning in the SSJ Tradition Today
Beginning in 2003, the college administration, under the leadership of Carol Jean Vale, SSJ, Ph.D., President, undertook a five year intensive study and formation process to infuse the history and spirituality of the Sisters of St. Joseph throughout the college community. From orientation days for students, faculty and staff, through day long and weekend long retreats and seminars, the entire college community was invited to partner in mission with Sisters of St. Joseph here and throughout the world in claiming the work of forgiveness and reconciliation as core to why we exist and what it means to be a catholic institution of higher learning in the SSJ tradition today. As the community continues to reflect on the needs of our church and world and the gifts we’ve been given to share, awareness heightens that the mission of reconciling love empowers all of us.
The End is our Beginning: the CHC Mission Births the Institute
A February 2007 retreat weekend entitled “Pathways to Forgiveness” for faculty, administration and staff served as a launching pad for creative action, as it invited participants to discern how they might commit themselves more concretely to walk this path of forgiveness and reconciliation together after returning to campus. The question posed by our retreat facilitator, Nancy Conway, CSJ, provided the prophetic stirrings that seized our communal imaginations throughout the following year: “What would Chestnut Hill College look like if everyone there made a commitment to lean toward forgiveness rather than holding grudges in every relationship within and beyond the college?”
By the February 2008 retreat, the time had come to shape our response to that compelling question with some concrete actions. The College’s Garden of Forgiveness was planted in seed form that retreat weekend. Likewise, the budding idea for an Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation took root in the minds and hearts of many during that same retreat. The desire to bring the power and inspiration of our SSJ legacy to bear upon the issues of our day, the concrete needs of people we serve and our human family, near and far, continued to nurture the question “what are we being invited to do?” We began to understand at a deeper level the responsibility we share to help provide an alternative way to address the wounds and wrongs that so many people have suffered in our families, communities, churches and world. The CHC/SSJ spirituality of unity and reconciliation and the needs of our time for forgiveness and healing converged in a call to live into the gift we were being offered anew for the sake of our hurting world.
In October of 2008, the college community created its own Garden of Forgiveness on campus as a sacred place for releasing past hurts, facing oneself and others with forgiveness and repentance, remembering victims of violence throughout our city and world and moving toward healing and reconciliation together for the sake of a new future. That these concepts and skills might be promoted, the community prepared in multiple ways for the public inauguration of an institute for forgiveness and reconciliation in March 2009. Sister Carol Jean Vale asked Sister Catherine Nerney to direct the newly emerging Institute and to gather together a diverse planning committee to give shape and direction to this new college initiative, Chestnut Hill College’s Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation. The official public launching of the Institute took place with Father John Dear’s stirring address on Wednesday, March 25, 2009 and the college commissioning service the following day.
Plans and initiatives for the on-going work of the Institute are underway as the need for this reconciling work grows with each new day. Standing on the shoulders of all who have gone before us and strengthened by the Healing Spirit of Love, CHC’s Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation dares to move forward in confidence, ready and willing to do what we can, and to reach out to others to partner with us to achieve what alone we cannot.
1Carol K. Coburn and Martha Smith, Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped the Catholic Culture and American Life, 1836-1920. Chapel Hill; University of North Carolina Press, 1999, 207.