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History of Religious Life
St. John Baptiste de La Salle

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

St. John Baptiste de La Salle was French - 1651 to 1719. Chronologically he fits in between Vincent de Paul and Alphonsus. As a matter of fact except for Vincent there could not have been a John Batiste de La Salle. He is the founder of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. Date of foundation and Church's approval - 1684.

Among the writings, I would especially recommend the Method of Mental Prayer. It was written for his own members; simple, clear, detailed. St. John Baptiste did not want priests in his community, though he himself of course was a priest, canonized rather late - 1900 and has since been declared patron of teachers.

He founded the Brothers to teach schools without tuition. If you want a single one sentence recommendation for the apostolate of the future may I suggest that you pray that the Lord inspire people to found a system of education that will be given to those who deserve it and not just to those who can afford it. As one who has been in education all my life, this is one of the great liabilities of the education apostolate in the Catholic Church. All I know is there are a lot of worthy students who cannot get the kind of education God would want them to receive because they don't have the money. We must totally reassess our whole educational system, and I speak as a member of the largest teaching Order in the Church, if teaching Orders are to survive. That's the way Ignatius began, that's the way De La Salle began.

Then, as you would expect, teaching the poor. As his schools became more popular and highly respected he wanted to make sure that rich people didn't sneak in. There are schools for the more wealthy, for those who can afford them. God bless them; but my schools are only for the poor.

His primary concern was to train the teachers, being sure that if his teachers were properly trained, not merely pedagogically but especially spiritually, they would be effective apostles. There are four features of his apostolate of teaching that I think bear some emphasis.

First of all he did not hesitate to include in the curriculum secular subjects. There were those who felt religious should not be engaged in teaching secular things. De La Salle thought that was a mistake; because while it's true when you teach arithmetic or spelling you are not exactly teaching religion, and we don't arbitrarily sprinkle holy water say on geography, De La Salle realized that no matter how secular the subject may be, if a religious teaches it, it will no longer remain secular but will be sanctified. You respect the autonomy of the subject, but you teach it as only those dedicated to training the young to bring them closer to God can do it.

Secondly, Christian doctrine. De La Salle was very methodical. I'm currently working on a popular catechism that will not have big words in it but questions and answers, and among the models we used was a standard catechism with over a century of history, used by the Brothers of the Christian Schools. They were just good in knowing how to teach: never a wasted word, in the catechism never a wasted question, just the right balance and always methodical. Method is not unimportant in the pursuit of holiness. Honest.

We speak of our rule, the rule of life. Now rule in Latin: is regula; and all you've got to do is put the letter 'r' at the end and you've got what all sound and sane religious life is - it's regular, methodical. And part of the sacrifice of the spiritual life is to put up with the monotony, the routine. But it is that regularity built on method which belongs to the heart of all sound spiritual life. You adjust, you adapt, you have exceptions here and options there, but there are certain things that like the sun rises so you rise at a certain time.

De La Salle's idea, the purpose of education - Catholic schools - was to enable the students when they finished school to live good Christian lives. And I really believe if our Catholic schools reexamine their purpose from that perspective there are not a few things they are doing now they wouldn't be doing, things they are not doing they would. Our schools, not just the Catholics schools but schools in general in a country like United States have become mainly either places of academic learning or learning a skill. But the principal purpose of a Catholic school is to prepare the person for life. And we can't say it's none of our business; it is. The parents do expect that the children entrusted to our care will be trained for life and not just to learn reading, writing and arithmetic.

De La Salle wanted exclusively Brothers. It was a very wise provision, and being the originator of a life for men religious under simple vows with no priests, that triple combination was De La Salle's contribution to the Church, a community exclusively of men under simple vows and no priests but just brothers. Communities that have formed since De La Salle, that have not taken him that seriously have all had trouble, where they would begin to include priests when the original purpose was to have just Brothers.

Originally, as we know, there were both men and women religious. Chronologically the earliest religious were women - the virgins of the first century. But already in the first century we have evidence of men living what eventually became religious life. Up to 1637 when St. Vincent de Paul had a community of both men and women - the women being the Daughters of Charity under simple vows - up to then all women were under solemn vows. St. Ignatius anticipated Vincent De Paul; in fact Vincent built on what Ignatius did. In 1540 St. Ignatius had founded the Society of Jesus. Prior to the Society of Jesus there were no simple vows among men religious, all solemn vows, which then made them all members of religious Orders, which is simply a correlative term: belonging to a religious Order or taking solemn vows are coextensive terms. What Ignatius did, and it took about a century more or less for the idea to penetrate, what Ignatius did for the first time in the Church's history was to introduce into the Catholic Church simple vows approved by the Holy See. The Society of Jesus from the very beginning and to this day has two kinds of members - those who have solemn vows and those who have simple vows. Most of our men have only simple vows although we are called a religious Order. The reason is because we do take solemn vows. But that very distinction the Church obviously had to approve.

But the Church for over a century resisted all efforts for women to be under simple vows. Now the problem is compounded. What happened was Ignatian introduced the notion of simple vows along with solemn vows all in one Order. When Vincent came along then he founded a religious Congregation. Now we have coextensive parallel: we have those that are the Orders and we have what we call Congregations. Now the Orders have remained religious Orders. Consequently with the entrance of men's Congregations under simple vows they now are and they continue to be the majority in the Church today. Most of the religious women in the Catholic Church today are Congregations - easily ninety percent belong to Congregations under simple vows.

De La Salle then founded a community of men, the first, under simple vows and no priests as members. De La Salle's idea was a very sound one. I've always recommended it to communities of men who are debating whether they should have priest members. I tell them the Church allows this but the history is it is wiser if you are starting with a group of men who are not priests to keep it that way. Among the wonderful things that this does to the Church of God is it makes clear what should be very clear: that no less than women so men can have a full, authentic, valid, God-given vocation to the religious life and not be priests. Why do I say that? Because for the first thousand years of the Church's history most, the vast majority, ninety-five, ninety-six percent of the men religious were not priests. The religious life is a vocation, the priesthood is a vocation. And as one who is trying to live both lives, let me tell you to live both lives well is hard, because the priesthood puts so many demands on your apostolic zeal if you are willing to work and exert yourself for others, but the religious life which is mainly qua religious concentrating on union with God, prayer, regularity, community. All I can tell you is you've got to be faithful to your religious duties.

Mother Teresa started a new community - contemplative. They spend up to ten hours a day in prayer." Because," she said, "I have one fear for my community - that they will go in the direction that so many communities have gone: they become so immersed in apostolic work that they will lose the spirit of union with God." And the way the Constitutions are drafted they can transfer from the contemplative to the "active" and from the active into the contemplative.

Women's communities have inherited a problem that the men's communities never had. The problem is that there never was in the Catholic Church the idea that there are men who are exclusively engaged in contemplation and others who besides praying and performing their religious and spiritual duties are also in the apostolate. Now there has developed, and Bernard was the one who started the movement, there has developed in the men's communities in the Benedictine tradition a group of men that then became more and more contemplative - Carthusians, Trappists. But that's a later development in the Church. But among women it is just the opposite. For sixteen hundred years the only women religious were cloistered contemplatives and they have quite remained intact; though as you probably know they are going through the severest trial of the history.

Consequently then you dare not, as women religious, make the mistake of allowing vocabulary to mislead you, even though there are those who call themselves contemplatives, The distinction technically is never made among the men. Trappists don't use the vocabulary. In my hearing no Trappist has ever said that he was a contemplative. What do you mean, you're a contemplative? What about me! So it is an inheritance from history. Because you women religious belonging to Congregations that are approved by the Holy See as apostolic active communities under simple vows, are you then not to be contemplative? Do you know what I'm trying to tell you? In God's name don't allow your fellow sisters who belong in "contemplative" communities to preempt the title, lest you make the tragic mistake of supposing that somehow they are contemplatives doing the praying and you are active - you do a little praying on the side. Oh no! If there is anything that the so-called active communities in the Church need more of it's more prayer - more, more.

But these things you cannot legislate; it's got to come from the inside. We've got to get young people in communities who are so in love with prayer that they will demand and insist and be able to take it until, please God, in a few years there will be established even juridically and constitutionally a deeply contemplative life in every institute.

What De La Salle did therefore was to establish a Congregation of men where priests of course would have to be available but would not be members of the Institute. He established the first Normal Schools in the history of education. One of the pities of our modern educational system that I had again brought home to me so pathetically in Boston last week is that all the schools in the western world were founded by the Catholic Church - all of them. Every college, every university in the world was originally a Catholic institution. Yet in so many of these we are now on the outside looking in. Much of it I think is due to our own weakness in not having insisted enough on what we want to be and holding on to it. All Normal Schools, with the training of teachers, the whole idea was first dreamed up by De La Salle.

Now the features of his spirituality. As with all the great founders so here there is an aspect or perspective of Christ which De La Salle had his men imitate. It is Christ the Teacher. One of the finest things for those engaged in teaching, in whatever shape or form, would be for some time to concentrated on Christ the Teacher as reflected in the gospels. It is remarkable what insights you will gain when you look for what He said and how He said it. There is not an abstract syllable in the gospels. Christ was teaching the human race; He used parables. You will notice that the parables of Christ are short. One of the longest, for example, is the prodigal son. As a good Teacher He knew the span of attention of most students is short. He would regularly speak from at height. In any case, standing above an audience just helps. It has nothing to do with dominating people; it's just having a command of whom you are talking to. Christ wanted eye contact with His audience.

The vocabulary He used: He talked not down to them; He talked from their level and raised them to His. He was a Teacher Who indeed instructed the mind, but He never stopped at the mind; He went through the mind to the will, and this is really what every good teacher should do: to so instruct the mind as to motivate the will. Because unless I am moved to action, the knowledge that I have can be informative, interesting, self-satisfying but it will not produce the virtue, which is the purpose that Christ had.

Remember the closing of Matthew's gospel? The purpose of all Christian pedagogy, and De La Salle recognized it, the purpose of all sound, Catholic pedagogy is that the commandments of God be observed and beyond the commandments the counsels, to know what God wants and how to do it and always, of course, why I should.

The imitation of Christ the Teacher. Then the famous phrase "Evangelizare pauperibus misit me"- he sent me to evangelize the poor. Christ speaking of His Father. Well, that was also De La Salles' motto of his community: to preach the good news to the poor, those poor in knowledge but also those physically, socially and economically deprived.

The stress on cooperation with grace. De La Salle, being in the tradition of Vincent de Paul and behind him of Ignatius, for De La Salle he would define actual grace as an invitation to the human will. That's one of Ignatius' descriptions of grace. Grace is that which invites the human will to cooperate. So true is this that unless we cooperate with grace we are worse off than if we had never had the grace in the first place.

Daily Mass for students. That bears emphasis in our freewheeling, libertarian, democratic society. De La Salle never had any fears, never a qualm about requiring his students to attend daily Mass. Makes sense. It's part of their training for Christian living. There are a lot of things nowadays that are not being demanded of students for fear of imposing on their liberty. Of course there are ways of imposing on people's liberty. But you are not imposing on anybody's liberty by telling them they are supposed to do something which is good for them.

Daffy Mass for students. I think a lot of people in schools don't require daily Mass - they are not shrewd enough in knowing how to make daily Mass obligatory and make it seem optional. That's the secret: to make the necessary pleasant, to make the required appealing, to make what people have to do what they want to do.

Regular intervals to recall the presence of God. By the way this would not be a bad idea. It's the regularity. Pretty soon you are going to start thinking of God between times. For a lot of people prayer is only an interval in a busy day. It shouldn’t be.

Every subject and activity directed to faith. How can you possibly teach arithmetic or spelling from the viewpoint of faith? I read a book years ago, and I was getting papers from my high school students with atrocious spelling, "Spelling and Will Power." Those who don't know how to spell don't care. If you want to learn how to spell you will. What's wrong with telling the 'birds' in class to learn how to spell and to give them some religious motivation for practicing whatever mortification you need to pay enough attention to a new word or look it up in the dictionary so you know how to spell it?

The one thing that I believe De La Salle brought out to his teachers and they in turn to the students: at the very least, the motive behind whatever you do in class should be religious, no matter what you are teaching.

Awareness of the need to produce leaders among the bourgeois. Who are the bourgeois? In the France of his day there were only the nobility and everybody else. As industrialism developed then there developed the bourgeois class. De La Salle foresaw way back in the late seventeenth century that the future power in the world would be economics. It would no longer be the nobility. We don't even have nobles in our country. Who are the princes and queens in our country? The people with money. Money gives power. He saw that. He saw that if industrialism is growing we'd better find leaders among those who will control the destiny of society.

That by the way is a very important thing for us in our day. Sad to say there is not enough well-to-do Catholics who have a strong Catholic faith and will use their knowledge and finance and so on for the welfare of the Church.

Now the apostolic method. The principal source is a book that I commend to every teacher - The Conduct of Schools - still worth reading after over two hundred years. Class instruction meant of course that the people had to be trained to teach a large class. Unless a teacher can control a large class he can't teach. I'm sure you've had in your lifetime teachers that can control a class and others that just can't. Sometimes they are so sweet, so gentle that everybody runs over them.

We were told before we began teaching as scholastics and they told us this as a law: When you start teaching do not smile before Christmas. After Christmas you may smile, but rarely. At any rate there is a great deal of moral virtue especially of prudence in being a good teacher. Strict discipline and minimal punishment. That's sounds like a contradiction in terms. There are two stages to human behavior under authority. There is a stage of law and there is a stage of sanction. Now what De La Salle pointed out, that in order to get people to be obedient, well-behaved, in this case students in school, it is not enough to have heavy sanctions punishing misbehavior. The secret is to have good laws. And a good law is definite; a good law is specific; a good law is simple; in a word, a good law is clear.

I think a great deal of the problems in society comes not because we don't punish criminals enough. The more definite, clear and specific a law is and especially in the moral order, the more likely a person will be to keep it. Of course a good law should also be adapted to the keeping of the one who is to observe it. I've given assignments and I often have not been happy with what I got, and I found out the reason is not the student's fault but mine.

So strict discipline, definite, you know exactly what is to be done and what would happen if you didn't do it. And then it happened. If a law is broken and then nothing happens, people don't take it seriously. My first punishment in school, it was not my last, believe me, was in the first grade. There were 105 in first grade. We were sitting two in a bench, and the assignment was to make figures out of clay. I was six years old but I figured that was kids stuff. I was superior to making whatever we were supposed to make out of clay; I would engage in a more intellectual enterprise like talking. Sister came over, "Will you stop talking and make your figures in clay." My mind got the better of me; I went back to talking. So she called me up and to make an example of me held up my fingers, and she had a fifteen inch ruler. Those were the hard ones. So minimal punishment but strict discipline.

The teaching of religion is the main reason for running a school. I don't hesitate saying if the Catholic school is not teaching religion or teaching it well it should close.

The training of lay teachers. Every religious community should train the laity that work with or for the members of the community and not only in the mechanics of whatever job they've got. The larger number of lay personnel you need, in the nature of things the less control you can exercise over the destinies of that institution. The main reason for training lay teachers, lay personnel is to make sure that the religious will be benefited and at least not be harmed by the lay personnel with whom they are associated. A religious community has the duty to share and influence the lay people with whom the sisters work in spiritual matters, in their spiritual life.

Questions and answers. The pedagogy of asking questions and getting a feedback. As you see this is what I have been doing and even in graduate school where teachers just don't do that. They say this is graduate school.

More frequentation of the sacraments, making priests available especially for the sacrament of confession.

The Duties of a Christian - in three volumes, which is a kind of expanded catechism. In 1903 it had gone through 250 editions. In other words De La Salle was not satisfied with finding men to become Brothers and training them to the hilt; He was not satisfied with developing for them how they were to teach - their pedagogy; he was also concerned, and these three volumes are the product, of what these students should be when they leave; this is how they ought to behave. In other words you are supernaturally speaking a good business. And his ideas I recommend to teachers, and the Duties of a Christian - still available - I commend it to your reading.

Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life

Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
P.O. Box 410007
Chicago, Illinois 60641

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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