Brothers of the Christian Schools

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The Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools (FSC, Official Catholic Directory #0330), whose members are often known as Christian Brothers, or de La Salle Christian Brothers, to distinguish them from the members of the Congregation of Christian Brothers or irish chris tian brothers, is a congregation of lay male religious founded by St. John Baptist de la salle about 1680 in Reims, France, for the direct or indirect service of the poor through education.

Origin, Spirit, and Government. John Baptist de La Salle, born in 1651 of a well-to-do family in Reims, was appointed canon of the cathedral at Reims at age 16 and ordained to the priesthood April 9, 1678. His privileged upbringing and ecclesiastical honors were in no way a preparation for his later service in education; he was led to his lifework imperceptibly and through difficult decisions as he became aware of the educational needs of the urban poor. Once convinced that God was calling him to the work, he resigned his position as canon and gave his fortune to the poor. In 1682 he took up residence with a group of schoolteachers who had been gathered in Reims by Adrien Nyel, an energetic but inconstant founder of schools. By 1686 de La Salle formed the teachers into a community with a distinctive habit and the title Brothers of the Christian Schools. At the end of the retreat that year, the principal brothers with de La Salle took a private vow of obedience renewable annually.

The 30 years that followed saw his institute spread to all parts of France, so great was the demand for quality education by dedicated teachers for the children of the artisans and the poor. In spite of misunderstanding and opposition, both from the educational and local ecclesiastical authorities, de La Salle trusted divine Providence to prove the worth of his innovative methods in

education and the unique character of his religious community of lay teachers as a new form of religious life in the Church. The rule, composed by the founder in 1694, was ratified by the brothers in a general chapter that elected him as superior, but established the principle that thenceforth the institute would remain exclusively lay. During the lifetime of the founder, the brothers took vows of association to keep gratuitous schools, stability and obedience, all centered on the educational mission. Vows of poverty and chastity were added after the founder's death when the institute won approval as an institute of pontifical right by a bull of approbation from Pope Benedict XIII Jan. 26, 1725.

As men committed to a religious lifestyle in a celibate community, the brothers consecrate themselves to procure God's glory through the work of Christian education. De La Salle made the spirit of faith the spirit of his institute. With this spirit, cultivated by meditation on the Scriptures and often recalling the presence of God, the brother is encouraged to see things as God sees them. Accordingly, children in the classroom are not to be judged by appearances, by emotional likes or dislikes, not even by ability, but as persons to be formed in the image of Christ. The spirit of faith overflows into a spirit of zeal for the salvation of those entrusted to the care of the brother in the conviction that God wills all of them "to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth." The spirit of zeal rooted in faith leads the brother to make no distinction between his personal spiritual development and his teaching ministry. In addition to the spirit of faith and zeal, the founder wanted the brothers to develop a spirit of community, manifest in the religious house where everything is done in common, and in the schools conducted "together and by association."

The government of the institute remained basically the same from its early development until after Vatican Council II when structures were introduced to provide for subsidiarity and wider participation by the members in policies and practices that concern them. Authority over the whole institute is entrusted to a superior general, elected by and responsible to the general chapter for a period extending to the chapter following. The general chapter, constituted as the image of the entire body of the institute, is composed of delegates, the majority of whom are elected while a limited number of the higher superiors participate by right of office. The chapter also elects a vicar general to replace the superior as need arises, as well as the members of the general council, usually six in number, who with the vicar general assist the superior general in the government and animation of the institute. The local unit of government is the community, usually composed of brothers associated in a specific educational ministry. Communities are grouped in districts or provinces governed by visitators, appointed by the superior general after consultation with the brothers. Each community is headed by a director appointed by the visitator, also after consultation. The motherhouse, located originally in France, then in Belgium, has been in Rome since 1936.

Growth and Apostolate. De La Salle's initial contribution to education was to reform the system of elementary education in France for the sons of the artisans and the poor. His brothers conducted schools as a team, using the simultaneous method rather than the tutorial approach of the isolated schoolmaster then in vogue. He pioneered in using the vernacular French instead of Latin as a vehicle for learning to read. Unlike the charity schools of the time, the Christian schools, as they were called, were known for their insistence on attendance, discipline, good grooming, good manners, and regular religious observance. Religious instruction and school prayers, frequently recalling the presence of God in the classroom, were well integrated with imparting basic skills in reading, writing, and calculation.

De La Salle gave special attention to the importance of the teacher, his training, competence, dedication, in short, transforming the once-despised function of teaching school into a profession and a vocation. On three occasions, de La Salle established teacher-training institutions, the first of their kind, to train young laymen to teach in the country parishes. To reach working teenagers who could not attend classes on school days he opened a Sunday Academy where they could learn practical subjects while receiving instruction in the truths of their religion. Since the days of de La Salle, the Christian Brothers have conducted elementary and high schools, colleges, agricultural schools, technical and trade schools, child welfare institutions, student residences, and retreat centers for students.

In 1703 de La Salle sent two brothers to establish a school in Rome. Only one of them, Brother Gabriel Drolin, remained despite his isolation and the difficulty in gaining acceptance in an educational system dominated by clerics. In 1705 Brother Gabriel was accepted temporarily as a teacher in the regional schools; it was not until 1709 that he obtained his license to teach in one of the papal schools. He remained alone as the presence of the institute in Rome until he was replaced in 1728. In the light of the antipapal Jansenism of the time, the reason that de La Salle expressed on his deathbed for sending the brothers to Rome was "to ask God for the grace that their Society be always submissive to it." It is now considered unlikely that the founder intended during his lifetime to seek papal approval for his institute. That would come only after his death.

The congregation grew rapidly throughout France. At the death of the founder (1719) there were 100 brothers in about 20 houses, some serving more than one school. By 1790 there were 123 houses and almost a thousand brothers. During the French Revolution, when the brothers refused to take the civil constitution of the clergy, they were driven from their schools and effectively suppressed. Many were imprisoned and several put to death. Brothers Solomon LeClercq, Léon Mopinot, Uldaric Guillaume, and Roger Faverge have since been recognized as martyrs and beatified. By 1798 only 20 brothers, all of them in Italy, were wearing their habits and teaching in the schools.

Pius VI, recognizing the difficulties under which the institute was laboring, in 1795 appointed Brother Frumence Herbet, then in Rome, as vicar general to act for Brother Agathon, the superior, who died in exile three years later. Under Brother Frumence a reconstruction was begun from a center in Lyon and by 1810 a general chapter could be held that elected Brother Gerbaud, giving new impetus to the reunification and revival of the institute in France. The opening in 1817 of a school on the Island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean marked the beginning of the missionary activities of the institute. The greatest expansion both in France and in mission countries took place during the generalate of Brother Philippe Bransiet, who was superior from 1834 to 1878. During the last years of the 19th century the hostile education laws in France seriously curtailed the numbers of students until the laicization law of July 7, 1904, abolished teaching by religious congregations and forced the closing of more than a thousand schools in France. The motherhouse was moved to Lembecq in Belgium, many brothers returned to secular life, while many more went to mission countries to open new foundations or to bolster those already in existence. The 20th century saw the institute expand further both numerically and geographically so that by the end of Vatican Council II in 1965 there were more than 16,000 brothers conducting schools in 80 countries.

Despite the expansion of the institute throughout the world and its implantation in a variety of cultures with extensive adaptation to new educational needs, the governmental structure, the detailed prescriptions and outdated practices of the brothers' primitive rule, little changed since the founder's day, remained in force. The global upheaval of World War II was followed by the call of Vatican Council II for adaptation and renewal in religious life. The sources were to be the Gospel as the first rule of life, the charism of the founder, and the signs of the times. In the renewal general chapter of 196667, the institute took bold steps to move in a new direction. The thrust of the renewal is expressed in a landmark capitular document The Brother of the Christian Schools in the World Today: A Declaration. This declaration provided the framework for changes in governmental structures, a complete revision of the rule, a more person-centered approach to religious and community life, new initiatives in catechetics and human education, with a strong call for a return to the service of the poor. The effective internationalization of the institute, hitherto dominated by the French, was signaled by the election in 1966 of the first non-French superior general in the person of Brother Charles Henry Buttimer, an American with a doctorate in Latin from Catholic University. At the general chapter of 1986, the revised rule, which had been in force on an experimental basis for 20 years, was reexamined, revised in the light of experience, and presented to the Holy See for approval, which was granted on Jan. 26, 1987.

The euphoria attendant upon the conciliar call for renewal and adaptation gave way in the postconciliar period to the harsh reality of dispensations from religious vows, an aging personnel, and few new recruits. This phenomenon, experienced throughout the church generally, was not without its benefits. It challenged the institute to reexamine its priorities in the allocation of personnel in favor of educational works for the poor. Lay consultants, men and women, were invited to take an active part in a general chapter for the first time in 1993, leading the institute to realize that its Lasallian mission and Lasallian spirituality were riches to be shared. In the absence of uniform rules and external signs of identity, the person of John Baptist de La Salle and a renewed interest in his life and vision, has become a bond of unity and identity for the brothers and lay partners alike. The traditional brothers' schools are now more accurately known as Lasallian schools. As with other congregations, the brothers are examining structural forms to bring their lay and clerical associates into closer relation to the institute. As of October 2000, there were 6,522 brothers, 2,692 of them active in the educational ministry in 80 countries on all six continents; there were 859,433 students, male and female, enrolled in 1,000 educational institutions staffed by 66,706 teachers: brothers, priests, religious sisters, lay women and men, constituting what is now known as the worldwide Lasallian family. While vocations to the institute have declined in Europe and North America, there are thriving formation centers in Third World countries, especially Latin America and Africa.

In addition to the founder, St. John Baptist de La Salle, canonized in 1900, recent years have witnessed many brothers formally canonized and beatified. Canonized are brothers Benilde Romancon, in 1967; Miguel Febres-Cordero, in 1984; Mutien-Marie Wiaux, in 1989; in 1999, brothers martyred in Spain: Jaime Barbal at Tarragona and the eight brothers with their Passionist chaplain at Turon. Beatified are Brothers Arnold Rèche in 1987, Scubilion Rousseau in 1989, and from Spain in 1993 the seven brothers martyred at Almería; and in 2001 the five brothers martyred at Valencia. Others causes are pending, both of brothers declared venerable by reason of their heroic virtue, or more martyrs from the Spanish Revolution.

Development in the United States. The first de La Salle Brothers to come to the United States taught in the parish school at Ste. Geneviève, Missouri, from 1819 to 1822. The three of them had been sent from France at the request of Bp. Louis dubourg of New Orleans but, once they were sent singly to isolated missions without a community life, they were unable to live out their vocation and left the institute. The first permanent institution in the United States was Calvert Hall school, established in the cathedral parish in Baltimore in 1845 and staffed by two American brothers who had made their novitiate in Montreal. In 1848 four brothers were sent from France to New York to open a parish school on Canal Street. In that same year Brother Facile Rabut was appointed visitator of North America to supervise the five communities and 56 brothers in Canada and the United States. In 1862 a novitiate and in 1864 a provincialate were opened in New York to serve as a center for the spread of the institute to the west and south. By 1873 five districts had been created, 76 communities had been opened, and 900 brothers were teaching in more than 100 schools. The last quarter of the 19th century was a period of unparalleled expansion guided by able leaders, among them Brothers Patrick Murphy, Justin Mc Mahon, and Paulian Fanning.

Meanwhile the bishops had been urging the brothers to move into the field of higher education in order to provide the immigrant generation of Catholics with access to the professions and to have preparatory seminaries to develop an American clergy. Christian Brothers College in St. Louis was chartered in 1853, followed by colleges in New York, Philadelphia, Ellicott City, New Orleans, San Francisco, Memphis, Santa Fe, and Washington, D.C. These ventures required a dispensation from the rule that prohibited the teaching of Latin and the classics, at that time considered an indispensable element in the college curriculum. Fearful that the American brothers were moving too far from the original mission of the institute, the French superiors succeeded in the general chapter of 1897 in having the dispensation revoked. Latin was thenceforth banned from the curriculum in all the brothers' schools. Some of the colleges were forced to close or survived as high schools, while the colleges that remained had to shift the emphasis to science, engineering, and commerce. As a punitive measure, the leaders among the American brothers were reassigned for a time to foreign countries. It is a tribute to their loyalty that they remained faithful to their vocation and were eventually returned to their districts. As a result the years from 1900 to 1925 were a period of decline with some losses and few gains. In 1923, at the initiative of Pope Pius XI, the general chapter revoked the prohibition against Latin, by which time the classical languages were no longer considered essential to a college education.

As high school education became the norm for education in the United States, the brothers entered the field with vigor and imagination so that, under new leaders, the years after 1925 saw an impressive increase in the number of brothers, schools, and students. The most significant development concerned the training of the brothers to ensure that they would be armed with a college degree before beginning their work in the classroom. At the same time brothers destined for the colleges were given the opportunity to study for advanced degrees. By 1965 there were seven districts, each with its own college, and nearly 3,100 brothers in some 158 communities teaching more than 96,000 students.

In the aftermath of Vatican II, the institute in the United States experienced the same problems of adjustment faced by religious congregations and the church universal. There are fewer brothers and fewer schools. With increasing dependence on lay faculty, the emphasis shifted from brothers' schools to Lasallian schools, many of them coeducational. There have been impressive gains in commitment to direct service of the poor through child welfare institutions and new initiatives, such as the specialized "San Miguel" Schools, as they are called, for disadvantaged urban youth. Cooperation at the regional level is assured by the Christian Brothers Conference, directed by the visitators of the American districts, including Toronto, and centered in Landover, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C. The conference sponsors Lasallian publications and programs in continuing formation for brothers and partners to ensure the quality education integrated with religious values and the concern for the service of the poor that are characteristic of the Lasallian educational tradition.

Bibliography: w. j. battersby, The Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in the Eighteenth Century, 17191798 (London 1960); in the Nineteenth Century, 18001900, 2 v. (London 19611983); The History of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in the United States, 19001925 (Winona 1966); 19251950 (Winona 1976). a gabriel, The Christian Brothers in the United States, 18481948 (New York 1948). 39th general chapter, The Brother of the Christian Schools in the World Today: A Declaration (Rome 1967); A New English Translation (Lincroft 1997). l. salm, A Religious Institute in Transition: The Story of Three General Chapters (Romeoville 1992).

[l. salm]

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