by Kathleen Dolan
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation at Chestnut Hill College, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Rev. John Dear visited campus and gave a lecture on shifting the current state of violence, destruction, and injustice to one of peace, unity, and all-inclusive love.
Dear, who spoke at the institute’s inaugural event 10 years ago, spoke at the College on March 20 for “Take Heart: Take Action,” an event dedicated to pursuing justice, nonviolence, forgiveness, and reconciliation in hard times.
College President Carol Jean Vale, SSJ, Ph.D., opened the event by expressing gratitude and praise for the institute’s ongoing work. Cathy Nerney, SSJ, Ph.D., the director of the Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation and an associate professor of religious studies, spoke next, commenting on how quickly 10 years had passed. She thanked the institute’s planning committee, students, and community members for their participation.
The mission of the Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation is to carry out the legacy of the Sisters of Saint Joseph by helping and healing all in a world deeply divided, one in need of repair and better direction.
The institute’s three goals lay out its strategy for providing an alternative way of living. It teaches nonviolent means as a response to the current culture of violence, where forgiveness serves as a way to move forward toward peace, both personally and globally. Sister Cathy said the institute allows people to face these hard times “boldly and lovingly.”
Introducing Dear, Sister Cathy listed the various roles he’s fulfilled as a peace activist, priest, spiritual leader, and teacher. She highlighted several awards of which he’s been the recipient or nominee, saying they “point to the character of this man.” Among these honors are the Courage of Conscience Award given by the Peace Abbey Foundation and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.
Dear has written 30 books and traveled the world, visiting battle zones and giving lectures on peace and nonviolence. He’s been arrested 75 times for acts of civil disobedience while protesting war and nuclear weapons, among other things. In the 1990s, he enlisted Mother Teresa's help in requesting clemency to men on death row; together, they saved eight lives.
Dear began the lecture by initiating a standing ovation for the institute and expressing his admiration for the “high vision and challenges” its three goals establish. He praised it for institutionalizing nonviolence, conflict resolution, and the teachings of Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi. He suggested that, by doing so, the institute has normalized this way of teaching.
Dear asserted that the teachings of the institute were necessary if the culture was to shift from the current state of violence, destruction, and injustice to a culture thriving with peace, unity, and all-inclusive love — for one another, for every creature on the planet, and for Mother Nature herself.
Although the presentation was accentuated and often lightened by his sense of humor, Dear was effective at conveying a sense of urgency. He expounded on the grim reality of the world and said it can only change “from the bottom up,” but only if people refuse to give up. He encouraged the audience to believe in the power of love and forgiveness, calling everyone “to rise to the occasion.”
Much of Dear’s work comes in the wake of war and in response to the political, social, and economic support for warfare. He said that in times of revenge and retaliation “we kill people who kill people to show that we don’t kill people.” Echoing the institute’s purpose, along with his own teachings and those of peace movements sprouting up across the world, he called for an end to this way of living.
“There is no cause for which we are willing to take a single human life. The days of killing are over — that’s what we are saying,” he said.
At the beginning of the lecture, Dear entreated the audience to envision the teachings of the institute becoming mainstream, “the norm in Philly.” And he concluded the evening with concrete guidelines for the audience, from forgiving oneself to meditating to practicing the politics of forgiveness and reconciliation. Then, he urged everyone to strive to achieve these goals.
“Take action, take a stand, take new risks,” he said. “I think it’s the best thing we can do with our lives.”