Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #013. First published in the St. Cloud Times Aug, 26, 2008

Five years ago this week a great Minnesotan died.

I was honored to call James Patrick Shannon a friend and privileged to count him among my mentors. Much of what I know and believe about the theme of my column — the renewal of human community — I learned from Jim Shannon's words and example.

The title of Jim's 1998 autobiography, "Reluctant Dissenter," succinctly captures his identity from one angle. He was a Roman Catholic priest, president of the College (now University) of St. Thomas (at the time he was the youngest college president in the country), and an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. As a bishop, he attended the final session of the Second Vatican Council in 1965.

In 1968 he resigned as bishop because of fundamental disagreement with the total prohibition of artificial contraception in Pope Paul VI's encyclical, Humanae Vitae. He wrote to the pope: "In my pastoral experience I have found that this rigid teaching is simply impossible of observance by many faithful and generous spouses, and I cannot believe that God binds man to impossible standards."

He was certainly not alone in his reservations, but he had the courage and honesty to state, as in the same letter to Paul VI, "I cannot in conscience give internal assent, hence much less external consent, to the papal teaching which is here in question."

His dissent

Jim was, indeed, a reluctant dissenter. His love for the church was unquenchable, and the presence at his funeral of three bishops, including his longtime friend Bishop John Kinney of St. Cloud, and 60 priests was testimony to a reconciliation between the church and Jim Shannon that had taken decades to work out.

But from another angle, Jim's identity was of a keen advocate. He marched in Selma* with Martin Luther King, Jr. He served as head of The Minneapolis Foundation and the General Mills Foundation, and achieved national stature in philanthropy and nonprofit management. He understood the importance of local initiatives, and was instrumental in helping establish the Central Minnesota Community Foundation.

When Jim retired, Gov. Rudy Perpich and Twin Cities Mayors Don Fraser and George Latimer declared Oct. 28, 1988 "Jim Shannon Day in Minnesota." The Wilder Foundation's James P. Shannon Leadership Institute, with its program for nonprofit managers, reflects Jim's influence in its motto, "Renew, Recharge, Rededicate."

Jim Shannon was on the board of directors of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical & Cultural Research, where I was executive director. He chaired the board 1990-94, so for those years he was my boss. He was a master at leading gently and firmly. He had a knack for bringing out the best in everyone.

This skill had its grounding all the way back in his seminary days. Seminarians, Jim wrote in his autobiography, "regard the success of others as a sign that their community life is healthy." This resonates deeply with a motto of another of my heroes, Paul Wellstone: "We all do better when we all do better."

Learning from advice

At Jim's funeral, a niece told of a time when she was at serious odds with her boss in a new job. She asked her uncle for advice, which he did not give immediately, because he believed she had a genuine grievance.

She said his eventual response changed her life: "I have never been disappointed when I have spoken only well of others."

The foundation of Jim Shannon's vision of a renewed human community was laid in his college days, where he learned this: "The good life means, above all else, to be something, not to get or to have something. ... No one does this alone. One does it as a weight-bearing member of the human community. ... You get by giving. ... That insight turned my world around."

"A weight-bearing member of the human community." We need all of these we can get, people who demonstrate the integrity and honesty and tenacious friendship Jim Shannon lived every day.

[* He did go to Selma at the invitation of King, but it was not for the famous “Bloody Sunday” march itself (March 7, 1965). It was on March 15 to attend the funeral for the murdered civil rights activist Unitarian Universalist pastor James Reeb, who died on March 11 from injuries inflicted by whites on March 9.]