One of the great joys of my transition presidency in St. John’s has been the chance to meet and be inspired by students from the University and College of St. Benedict. Their commitment to service and making a difference gives me great hope for the future they will inherit. An example of this commitment is the Benedictine Volunteer Corps, which is truly an icon of St. John’s.
When Br. Paul Richards watched different volunteer organizations descend on our campus every year to recruit our students, he wondered, “Why not a Benedictine volunteer corps? In 2003, he began looking for graduate Johnnies who wanted to serve other Benedictine communities around the world and in the United States. The qualities he looked for in candidates were reliability, resilience, an ability to work alone and with others, and someone who tends to believe in God. They didn’t need to be Catholic, but they needed to understand and appreciate the Benedictine philosophy of seeking God in the context of community.
The first chapter of the BVC focused its energy on St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, NJ, where volunteers served as teachers, coaches, and even librarians for a year. In a few years, the Corps traveled the world, from India to Israel, from Rome to Colombia. Next year there will be 21 volunteers at 12 sites. His brother monks helped support his vision in its early days, but since then generous donors have helped fund the volunteers’ travel, healthcare and a modest stipend for their year of service.
Cohort formation begins in early fall and is appointed before Christmas of that academic year. As new members, the Johnnies are invited to a multitude of events including retreats, meals, liturgies and conferences. Immediately after graduation, they begin an intensive two-week immersion experience in monastic life. During this time, they are introduced to the rigors of getting up early for prayer, manual labor, careful reading of the Rule of Benedict and monastic history. This is important because volunteers actually live in the monastic community they serve, so it is good for them to get used to the lifestyle that will be expected of them while they serve. Likewise, at the end of their time at the BVC, they return to St. John’s for reflection, renewal and refreshment.
What is extraordinary is the number of former volunteers who return to St. John’s for various reasons. Some join the monastic community. In fact, seven of the 10 most recent vocations were to corps members. One of them is today a monastic superior as director of formation. Another is a university chaplain and yet another works at the Arboretum. Other volunteers have found non-monastic vocations on campus including the current director of residential life, the director of housing and a third serving as a wrestling coach for the university as well as managing the office of residential life. Finally, a former volunteer assisting Fr. Paul actually ran the program and served on the lower campus area as a faculty resident. Obviously, this program has become an important part of many facets of the St. John’s community.
It is not uncommon to hear freshman men arriving talking about their intention to be a Benedictine volunteer as part of their life plan. The ongoing narrative among students and alumni is that the program is life-changing and indispensable as a character-building organization. It is an opportunity to take one’s intellectual training and apply it directly to global realities.
Living in these communities that share Benedictine and Catholic roots with St. John’s allows volunteers to feel connected in a meaningful way. It validates the fundamental Benedictine belief that unity and peace are attainable by showing hospitality, meeting the intellectual and spiritual needs of students and neighbors, and building bridges across gender, national, and economic differences. For a liberal arts college, there could be no greater hope for its graduates.
– Dr. James Mullen Jr. is the transition president of St. John’s University, Collegeville. To a Higher Degree features the opinions of the leaders of central Minnesota’s four largest institutions of higher education and is published the fourth Sunday of the month.