A Conversation with Brother Alvaro Rodriguez Echeverria, FSC, Superior General of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools
Q. Brother Alvaro, as the first superior general from Latin America, what are your thoughts on the new pope, the first from Latin America?
A. I am very happy, for three reasons. First, because he’s from Latin America, but Papa Francisco is for all the Americans. Second, because his focus is religious (rather than structural or focused on the "new movements" in the church). It’s a very good sign for religious life. Third, it signals a shift from a Church that’s more European to one that’s more universal. Today, the reality is that Catholics are more present in the Americas, in Africa, in some countries in Asia. The Christians with more life, with more enthusiasm, are on this continent now, so it’s important to take a great interest in this continent. It’s a new moment in the history of the Church.
Q. How did your childhood in Costa Rica and your early service in Guatemala influence your view of your vocation and how you carry out the work of John Baptist de La Salle?
A. The years that I lived in Guatemala were very important to me because it was a difficult moment for the Church, for the country. There was true persecution of the Church. More than 30 religious and priests were killed, including Brother James Miller. Our (Christian Brothers) institute was identified with the poor people, so because of this we suffered.
As a result, I always give special priority to service to the poor, to people in difficulty, to young people who don’t have the means to live, or who are living with the “new poverty,” as we say, who are not loving or who have lived a very sad experience in their lives. The priority for us is to respond to the needs of young people and to be very close to the reality, to know what are the needs of young people today.
Q. What inspires you in the words of De La Salle?
A. For me, one of the great inspirations of the Founder is that we are “brothers.” Our order’s first name was Teachers of the Christian Schools. John Baptist de La Salle changed it to “brother.” And I think it was a very nice evangelical intuition, not to impose from above to below, but to be a companion. And for me, to be a brother is not only for the Brothers in our institute, but for all the Lasallians. All the Lasallians are invited to be brothers and sisters. I think it’s the gift of our mission to the world - to create community, fraternity, sorority.
Q. In recent years, there has been a shift from speaking of “Brothers’ schools” to “Lasallian schools.” What has that shift meant for our mission here and globally?
A. Today our schools, universities, apostolates are the responsibility of the Brothers and lay people together. I think it’s an exciting experience that we are living today, with the engagement of the lay people. Never in our history have we had the number of lay people engaged in the mission, our spirit, our charism, our tradition. It’s a wonderful reality.
Certainly today we have less Brothers than we have had in the past, but we have more students than when we had more Brothers. Thanks to the lay people engaged in the mission, we are ready to continue in another way. And we have this new spirit. We feel that we need one another.
The fact that in your university you will have a lay president for the first time is a sign of the new reality we are living today. And the future of the Lasallian mission depends on our association of Brothers and lay people. We are living a very nice moment in our history, but in another way, different from the past. And we need to look to the future and not only have nostalgia for the past.
Q. What is the special role that the Brothers have in this new era?
A. First, I think they need to be witness of the Lasallian values and to transfer to others - more with their lives than with their words - the Lasallian spirit, the Lasallian mission, the Lasallian charism, the Lasallian spirituality. And second, to be very present in the animation of the pastoral work in our schools and universities.
Q. What advice might you give to the new president of Saint Mary’s in terms of expressing the Lasallian spirit here?
A. The most important thing is the capacity to live relationships of great quality - very strong, very warm relationships. For me, this is the secret of the Lasallian spirit. More than to have very important ideas and projects alone, it’s important to work together to discover what is the best for young people and what is the way to accomplish the will of God, which always is the will of salvation.
Q. What’s the essential thing for lay people to know in order to live as a Lasallian?
A. It’s important to offer the witness of their lives, because today I think the students learn more from the witness than from the words. To be Lasallian means to be a man or woman open to the needs of the students and with a great sensitivity and great love for each student. The Founder said, “We need to be the good shepherd who knows every sheep.” And not only to be a teacher - it’s important, it’s our mission to be teachers, but it’s not enough - it’s important to be able to reflect the face of God through our lives.
For me, the principle intuition of our Founder was this: First he had a vision of the reality of his time. He discovered that there were children and young people “very far from salvation” without the possibility of a human and Christian education. He was able to know his own reality and discover in this reality the call of God for him. He illuminated this reality with the Word of God, which he found in a letter of Saint Paul to Timothy: “God wishes the salvation of all people.” Our mission was born in this reality and the illumination of the Word of God.
Q. What is the greatest challenge that we face today?
A. Always today, we have the danger of individualism and isolation, a society that creates barriers. It’s very important for the Brothers and educators and parents to open our students and daughters and sons to be very sensitive to the needs of the poor and to work for the transformation of this reality, where we can live as sons and daughters of God and brothers and sisters of one another.
Q. Where do you see the Lasallian vision going in the future? If you could imagine what the mission of the Brothers and lay partners would be 50 years out, what would it be.
A. It is not easy to imagine the future, but we need to create the future now, and I think we will have a great future if we create the conditions for the future now. To work for Brothers’ vocations and to work for lay Lasallian vocations - both together - and to continue this mission together. To feel that we are responsible, one another, for the future of the Lasallian mission.
We will have a future if we are able to continue responding to the needs of young people today, and not just to repeat the structure that we had in the past. And to do that we take great inspiration and hope because we know that God wishes the salvation of all people.