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St. John Baptist de la Salle (April 7)

April 7, 2011

In France of the 1600’s, social structures were unbending.
There were the cultured, refined rich (who were growing richer)
and the unmannered, largely vice-ridden poor (who were becoming poorer),
and it was unheard-of for the two to mix.
Rich children were tutored privately at home
until they were ready for expensive, cultured schools.
Poor children generally ran wild,
sporadically attending free schools associated with parishes.
Even there, the education available left a lot to be desired–when they were open at all.
The teachers were generally incompetent, brutal, and inclined to vice themselves.
Teachers taught one student at a time, in Latin (a language the students didn’t know),
while the rest of the class either amused themselves
or did manual labor to supplement the teacher’s income.
Chaos was the “order” of the day.

John Baptist de la Salle was one of the fortunate ones.
Born in 1651 into a devout, wealthy family in Rheims (about 50 miles southeast of Paris),
he was devout, intelligent and winsome from his youth. Everyone loved him.
His father hoped he would carry on the family heritage in a career in law,
but it quickly became clear that the boy had a religious vocation.
He received the tonsure (indicating an intention to enter the priesthood) at age 10,
and at age 16, he was made a canon of the Cathedral of Rheims.
This meant that he (even before being ordained) joined a community of priests
who prayed the Divine Office together, served the Cathedral
and served as advisors to the Archbishop.
It also meant that he would have a comfortable income from the church for life.

At age 18 he went to the seminary of Saint- Sulpice in Paris to further his studies,
but when both of his parents died within a year and a half he returned home.
The eldest of 7 surviving children (four died in infancy),
he was left in charge of his parents’ estate and his siblings’ education.
He continued his studies in Rheims, however,
and was ordained to the priesthood in 1678.
Two years later, he earned a doctorate in theology.
In the meantime, he had sought spiritual guidance from fellow canon Nicolas Roland,
who guided him in good works and advised him to give up his position of canon
in order to be a (relatively poor) parish priest.
John submitted his resignation, but the archbishop did not accept it.

One of the works of mercy John took on
was helping to manage and advise an orphanage for poor girls
which Fr. Roland already served.
When Fr. Roland died the year John was ordained,
he entrusted the orphanage to John’s care
and selected Fr. Nicholas Barre to take over as John’s spiritual director.

Unbeknownst to him, John’s mission in life was beginning to unfold.
It was during a visit to the Sisters who ran the orphanage that Fr. John met Adrien Nyel,
a layman who ran a school for poor boys in Rouen (roughly 100 miles northwest),
who’d been urged by his relative, Madame Maillefer (a wealthy widow)
to see about starting one in Rheims.
Madame Maillefer asked John to help with the boys’ school, which he did as a courtesy, never dreaming it would become his life’s work.

It was in visiting with the teachers of this school and trying to encourage them,
that he realized how ill-equipped and unprepared they were for their work,
especially after Adrien Nyel returned to Rouen.
John invited them to his home for meals, meetings & prayer,
to give them guidance (and teach them table manners).
This was the beginning of his troubles.
His relatives, especially his younger brothers,
were horrified that he was associating with such riff-raff
–never mind bringing them home!

Even at this point, Fr. John didn’t realize where God was leading him.

Indeed, if I had ever thought
that the care I was taking of the schoolmasters out of pure charity
would ever have made it my duty to live with them,
I should have given it up at once.
In fact, it was a great trouble to me when I first took them into my house,
and the dislike of it lasted for two years.
It was apparently for this reason, that God,
who guides all things with wisdom and serenity,
whose way it is not to force the inclinations of persons,
willed to commit me entirely to the development of the schools.
He did this in an imperceptible way and over a long period of time
so that one commitment led to another
in a way that I did not foresee in the beginning.
-John Baptist de la Salle

When money for housing the teachers ran low,
Fr. John first rented a house for them and then,
at the suggestion of his new spiritual guide, Fr. Barre, invited them to live with him.
His family liked this even less, so he finally moved out of his family home
to join his teachers in a poorer part of town in 1682.
A year later he resigned as canon, thus giving up his source of income.
A year after that (1684), again at the advice of his Fr. Barre,
he gave away his wealth to the poor
who were suffering from an especially severe famine.
He was determined to rely on God,
and to place himself on an equal footing with his teachers.
They took a vow of obedience, began calling themselves Brothers,
and adopted a simple, distinctive habit.
John had intended that the leader of this group of teachers would be a priest.
However, when his most promising candidate, Henri L’Heureux,
fell ill and died shortly before ordination,
he took this as a sign that His brothers were not meant to be priests,
with the extra duties of the priesthood.
They were to devote themselves completely to their ministry of teaching.

There were many other decisions to be made in the development of this new way of life.
The bishop of Rheims had offered to assist them
as long as they limited themselves founding schools within his diocese.
Fr. John, seeing the widespread need for schools for the poor,
had already promised a priest in Paris (a different diocese) to help start a school there.
He declined the bishop’s offer.

Methods of teaching had to be adapted
to meet the real needs of the students they served,
so Fr. John advised his teachers to group students by ability
and teach whole classes at once.
This method wasn’t new, but it wasn’t commonly used.
Subjects were to be taught in the language the students already knew,
instead of in Latin.
Religion was woven throughout the entire curriculum,
and the subjects taught were to be made relevant to the children’s daily lives.
Mathematics was taught using the French monetary system and business contracts
so students would be equipped to better their lot as adults.
Students near the sea learned navigation and seamanship
in addition to their other subjects.
The texts used to teach reading also taught manners and morals.

Fr. John instructed his teachers to have a special tenderness for their poor pupils,
and to treat each boy
as a child of God,
to give him even more esteem than they would give to the son of the king.
These teachers were to model what they taught,
especially faith and courtesy.
They kept individual records, not only of a student’s progress,
but of his personality
and of what helped or hindered his ability to learn.
In place of the usual
chaos and cruelty
that reigned in poor schools,
the Brothers fostered
an atmosphere of order,
focus and love.

This success, especially in the schools the Brothers opened in Paris,
did not go unnoticed.
Parents of wealthy students began sending their children to these free schools
instead of paying tutors,
which provoked a flood of legal troubles as fee-charging instructors sued Fr. John
for threatening their livelihood.
Members of the Church hierarchy weren’t prepared to accept Religious Brothers
who never became priests,
nor were they prepared to approve of such novel forms of instruction.
With his usual aplomb, Fr. John weathered the storms.

If my work does not come from God, I would consent to its ruin.
I would join our enemies in destroying it . . .
But if God declares himself its defender, let us fear nothing . . .

His habitual response to any news, good or bad, was “God be blessed.”

It was on this date in 1719, which was Good Friday that year,
that St. John Baptist de la Salle, entrusted his soul into the hands of God with the words,

In all things I adore the will of God in my regard.

At his death, there were 274 Brothers, 27 communities and 9000 pupils in a community, now known as the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools,
that has since spread across the entire world.
Known as the father of modern pedagogy even in secular circles,
he was declared the patron of Christian teachers in 1950.

St. John Baptist de la Salle,
you who allowed God to lead you into an entirely unexpected vocation,
please pray for us, that we may be as open to His leading
and as noble in the face of opposition as you were.

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