Fr. Paul Kollman, C.S.C.
Faith Seeking Understanding In New Environs
I first met Holy Cross at Notre Dame as an undergraduate. While my intellectual world expanded so did the possibilities for my vocation beyond the medical profession that, following my father’s footsteps, I had planned. CSC priests and brothers I met in classrooms and residence halls led lives suggesting hope and faith, as well as intellectual integrity.
During my second year I left the pre-med track, focusing on more compelling subjects: theology and history. I also began to speak to the vocation director, all the while enjoying living in Morrissey Manor with friends. When I entered the candidate program after graduation I knew little of Holy Cross except Notre Dame.
I gave little thought to what work I would do in Holy Cross before and even after I entered. I am not sure what I was thinking except that this seemed a way to live gratefully, deepening my appreciation that life was a gift worth receiving with the fullest possible awareness. I sought to grow as a person of prayer, attending to my experiences in all their depth, trusting that improved attentiveness would not be in vain as I discerned God’s call.
During my first year of vows—after the candidate program and novitiate—I grew aware that I desired to study theology for a bit somewhere away from Notre Dame. Having been an undergraduate theology major and having imbibed the assumption that location shaped experience—including theological reflection and formation—I sought a different setting in which to pursue some of my education.
Providentially I was able to go to Nairobi, Kenya, where Holy Cross had a fledgling seminary program. There I spent 18 transformative months—discovering (sometimes painfully) the challenges of living amidst cultural differences, enjoying the vitality of the church in Africa, and glimpsing the rich potential of theology as faith seeking understanding in new environs.
Being a seminarian in Africa introduced me more fully to my fragility and vulnerability while prompting consideration of the implications of the exciting and sometimes confusing nature of the growth of Christianity and Holy Cross. Upon final vows and ordination I spent three wonderful years at St. Joseph Church in South Bend, where a wise and patient parish community that embraced its own priestly identity endured and also molded me.
When I thought about doctoral work, desirous of contributing to our mission in higher education, pondering more deeply puzzles left over from my time in Kenya seemed an obvious place to start. After deliberating among several options, I embarked on a course of study in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, focusing on African religions.
Coursework—sometimes grueling, always valuable—only intensified my wonder at how religious faith, culture, and history intertwined. My dissertation research sharpened an ongoing interest in just how African Christians have come to be what they are. These days my research strives after precise understanding of just such social processes, especially in eastern Africa, and their theological implications. I draw on archival research, fieldwork in Africa, and a variety of disciplinary perspectives to make sense of African Christianity.
When I teach theology now at Notre Dame I seek to bring students to understand how specific contextualized social and historical forces help form the shape of faith—and always have, not least in Africa today. For me, this is a wondrous process to be understood and appreciated—though I also try to recognize the work and discernment that unity in faith requires.
Holy Cross has generously supported my growth intellectually and spiritually—and for this I am most grateful.