How Brothers and lay partners are spreading the Lasallian vision

In the early days of the Christian Brothers, when John Baptist de La Salle was struggling to hold together his tiny band of brothers, it's said that he would often exhort them to carry on by uttering an Old Testament saying: "O Lord, the work is yours."

For De La Salle, the words were a reminder to trust in divine providence, but these days, "the work is yours" takes on a new meaning. That's because, as the Brothers' centuries-old experiment enters the 21st century, one of the principal forces reinvigorating Lasallian life today is the spread of the mission through lay partnerships.

At Saint Mary's—and throughout the Lasallian world—there are countless examples of people who have taken up the challenge to carry out the work of the Brothers. There are lay teachers, of course, but also undergraduate students who have helped rebuild New Orleans and Haiti after natural disasters struck and graduate business students who offer their knowledge to transform struggling businesses in the developing world.

"The Christian Brothers have been in the forefront of reaching out to lay partnerships," said Carole Swain, Saint Mary's vice president for mission, who oversees many of these partnerships, such as the Lasallian Educators Fellowship program, both at Saint Mary's and beyond.

It's not surprising that the Brothers would be on the cutting edge of this transformation, since De La Salle himself set the tone back in the 1680s, when he had the radical idea of offering free, high-quality Christian education for children of the poor. To carry out this scheme, he reached out not to his fellow priests, who dominated the teaching profession, but to a handful of laypeople—ordinary schoolteachers who were, by all accounts, a rather uncouth lot—to become the first "brothers" and educate these young people. He invited them to form an entirely new kind of society, a community of consecrated laymen devoted to educating students.

It was a shocking innovation, and it was met with bitter opposition.

"For a person of De La Salle's background and position as a priest to accept these laymen as his equals and colleagues, as his brothers, was beyond belief for the society of the time. Many in his family thought him to be imprudent, if not crazy," said a history of the founder compiled by Brother Gerard Rummery called In the Footsteps of De La Salle.

While De La Salle may have paved the way for lay partnerships, the involvement of non-Brothers in the Lasallian mission languished for hundreds of years, flourishing again only after Vatican II breathed fresh air into the Church.

In the 1980s, even as the number of Brothers steadily declined, a new spirit of inclusion flowed into the order. And with the election of Brother John Johnston as superior general of the order in 1986, it really took flight. He was a passionate leader—passionate about human rights and about spreading the Lasallian mission to lay partners.

In a 1993 pastoral letter, fittingly named "Transformation," Johnston wrote: "Increasingly, we realize that if we want our schools to be truly Christian and Lasallian, we must have the informed and enthusiastic participation of our lay colleagues."

To carry out his vision, he initiated a host of outreach programs, such as Lasallian Volunteers, which sends graduates of the order's colleges out to teach in Christian Brothers schools. Every year, the largest number of Lasallian Volunteers are from Saint Mary's College.

From that point on, the movement to engage lay partners has grown and helped to spread the mission of De La Salle around the world. As the Lasallian educational network grew, more lay teachers—both men and women—joined in the mission of the Brothers.

Today, there are about 4,600 Brothers around the globe. Of those, about 1,700 Brothers—and more than 88,000 lay partners—serve as teachers to nearly 1 million students in schools, colleges and universities in 78 countries worldwide, according to the Office of Education at the De La Salle Institute in Napa.

"We have more students now than when there were more Brothers," noted Brother Álvaro Rodríguez Echeverría, the order's current superior general.

This year, half of the six Lasallian colleges in the United States will have lay presidents—Manhattan College, Christian Brothers University and Saint Mary's—while Brothers continue at the helm of the other three: Lewis University, St. Mary's University and La Salle University.

And this "shared mission" has spread beyond the walls of academia to Lasallians engaged in social justice work, and even beyond Christianity, as the Brothers reach out to many nations and many faiths. Lasallian schools have spread throughout Africa, Asia and particularly Latin America, and the order even operates a Lasallian School in Pakistan with 95 percent Muslim students.

It's all part of the constantly evolving relationship between the Brothers and lay partners.

The transformation continues to amaze even Brothers like Gerard Rummery, who often leads retreats to educate lay partners in Lasallian history and mission.

"For me," he said, "the continuing miracle that I have witnessed is that what began in one small school in France in 1680 has become a worldwide movement for over 300 years and has transcended the restraints of country, language, religion and gender."

The work, indeed, is yours.

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