Brother Robert Schieler's 2015 Convocation Address
The following is the address given by Brother Robert Schieler, FSC at the Saint Mary's College Convocation on April 22, 2015.
President Donahue, Brother Donald, members of the Board of Trustees, Faculty, staff, students, parents and my Brothers, thank you for this honor which I humbly accept on behalf our Institute and worldwide Lasallian Family. This college does amazing things for the young who fill this beautiful campus. You are one of the most respected institutions of higher education in our Lasallian network. So to be honored by you means a great deal to me.
In response, and in true Lasallian fashion, I will offer three points, or in this case, three brief stories: my story, La Salle’s story and our story today. In doing so, I hope to point to a horizon that the Church and the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools are directing us towards.
I was born at the midpoint of the last century, 1950. The Pope declared it a Holy Year. Coincidence? That year he also declared a city Saint as the Patron Saint of Teachers. But more about La Salle in the second story. I became a teenager in 1963 and in 1968 I made a life decision. As many will recall, in 1963 President Kennedy was assassinated and five years later in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. In between those tumultuous years of the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement I completed high school in Philadelphia where on the faculty there were 45 Christian Brothers. Today in the Lasallian world we have entire Districts with fewer Brothers than that; but more on that in the third story.
Also, in the midst of those years, the Second Vatican Council concluded, bringing the Catholic Church into the modern age just as the modern age was ending.
The second most important life decision I made was to volunteer for ministry in the Philippines. In 1975 my Province, then known as the Baltimore District, sent a relatively inexperienced 25 year old young Brother in temporary vows to the island of Mindanao. In 1991 the Philippine District sent an Assistant Provincial back to the Baltimore District. I am convinced that I stand before you today in my current position because of that “beyond the border” experience in the Philippines; that unexpected turn in my journey as a Brother. In those years I received much more than I ever gave.
La Salle’s Story
Those of you who have some familiarity with the story of John Baptist de La Salle, that city saint made patron saint of teachers in 1950, know that he received a classical education, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and eventually earned a doctorate at age 29. La Salle’s century is regarded as the end of the medieval period and the beginning modernity. And in that era of transition his own life took an unexpected turn when he encountered Adrian Nyel leading to his moving from one way of being Church to a new way of being Church with a group of laymen.
“His dramatic change of “career orientation” was fired up by a passion for God and a passion for the poor. In his professional career, from one event to another, he and his Brothers, became progressively aware of their corporate identity and clearly articulated the purpose of the mission entrusted to them. Guided by the light of faith and moved by compassion, they showed little interest in academic and political controversies over religious matters of the day, they simply and single-mindedly embraced a specific vocation to announce the Good News in service to the poor.”
Succeeding generations of Brothers built on this founding event. We today are the inheritors of this legacy. It has certain characteristics that could be considered our cumulative historic memory that gives support to our dreams for the working classes and the poor today. These can be described, says Brother Miguel Campos, in the following ways:
• We are the first to promote the universal gratuity of schools. We initiated in many countries gratuitous popular schools, which eventually became national public schools.
• We defend the rights of children. We have created hundreds of programs for children and youth at risk, some initiated and facilitated by our universities and secondary schools.
• We are very exacting with regard to discipline. We value academic excellence.
• We are somewhat obsessive about order, therefore avoiding unexpected changes. We tend to respect structures.
• We do not trust trendy ideas and are somewhat resistant to change.
• We do extensive research on the background of our students to understand better the persons behind the label “student”.
• We have excelled in scientific publications, in several languages. Often the names of the authors were concealed under: “a group of authors” that remained anonymous.
• We are known in the Church as experts in catechesis. We have created editorial and publishing Houses and provided a considerable number of catechetical resources and manuals.
• We do not seek important job positions and we are reluctant to talk about our work out of humility or timidity.
• Recently, in the past 40 years, we are rediscovering in the foundational journey the Gospel dimension of our life journeys. Our collective historic memory remembers our” dangerous memory”, and it is a source of continuing conversion to the poor.
• We embrace with joy our association and we are enthused by the passion that many lay colleagues have for the Lasallian heritage.
• In spite of the current diminishment of Brothers we acknowledge our own lay vocation and reaffirm the vocation of our colleagues.
• Even though we may be perceived among some colleagues as clerical, we are deeply allergic to any form of clericalism and we occasionally criticize the hierarchy, while remaining respectful and faithful to the Church and her teachings.
In a word, today, we – you and I – are women and men characterized by: a “practical faith” attentive to the trends that announce the future which will be the responsibility of this generation. Forty years of labor by De La Salle and the first group of laymen resulted in only 22 primary schools and 100 Brothers at the time of his death in 1719. Perhaps not an overly impressive achievement but it launched a movement. The Church calls De La Salle’s and the first Brothers’ mission of human and Christian education of the young, especially the poor, a charism: a gift of the Holy Spirit for the good of humanity. Charism is a word not used in De La Salle’s life time. In fact, the term only came into general usage after the second Vatican Council. While a legacy such as ours can be transmitted from one generation to the next, a “charism cannot be transmitted from generation to generation, it can only be reinvented”.
With this in mind, I move to my third and final point, our Lasallian story today and the possibility of reinvention, or the more familiar term of re-foundation.
Our Lasallian Story Today
Saint Mary’s College is part of two Lasallian networks that I am convinced will be the main protagonists in our mission in this century. The two networks are our worldwide Institute and the International Association of Lasallian Universities (IALU); an association of 72 institutions of higher education. While those 72 institutions are just a small percentage of the 1,000 institutions we have in 78 countries, approximately one-third of the 1,000,000 students entrusted to our care are in those 72 institutions. It is my hope that these two networks will collaborate more closely going forward; especially given our context today of the rapidly changing demographics of the Institute, with the aging and diminishing number of Brothers on the one hand and the research and resource capabilities of our universities on the other.
As a worldwide Institute we cannot escape the influence of, nor ignore the challenges of such megatrends as globalization and urbanization. “While Globalization… and urbanization have created more wealth to a new set of middle class, there are other not so [healthy] trends that are left being unattended: homelessness, rural to urban dislocations, loss of family cohesiveness, plight of the street children, child labor, youth delinquency, prostitution, low wages, human trafficking, and the like. Economic growth has not benefitted everyone equally.
Many people are excluded from development because of their gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, disability or poverty. The effects of such exclusion are staggering, deepening inequality across the world. The richest ten percent of people in the world own 85 percent of all assets, while the poorest 50 percent own only one percent (UNDP).
Sometimes we wonder where the good news is in all of these situations. How can the Gospel speak to these realities? Or how can we Lasallians proclaim the Good News? Do we hear Pope Francis echoing the Gospel adventure calling us to go to those living on the peripheries and penetrate these new poverties and a culture of commodification? In our Lasallian communities and ministries, when we opt for the poor, what are we really doing? In what ways do we break bread with those who are excluded and experience God’s presence in those who live in the peripheries? How do we keep our hearts burning within us when we break bread with those who are excluded? How are we brining them to our tables?
In this time of post-modernity, effective networking is essential to realizing some of our dreams for the education of the poor, the vulnerable and the working classes and for confronting some of the challenges to those dreams. We have the technology, the communication tools to strengthen our networks globally: the international association of Lasallian Universities, the international association of former students and the Signum Fidei Movement that currently has 32,000 members, and our international movements of young Lasallians and Lasallian volunteers. And we wish to network with like-minded organizations as well. For example, with the Congregation of Marists Brothers, we have just launched the Fratelli Project; this project, the first of what we hope will be several, will be an education center for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Greater networking, continued programs of formation for Partners and Brothers, embracing the variety of ways of living vocations in the Church today, and ensuring the educational service with the poor is the norm of the Lasallian Family are paths to a possible re-foundation for the Institute today.
2000 years ago God incarnated himself bringing the Good News of salvation to our world. A thousand years later, give or take a century or two, God called Francis of Assisi to “go, repair my Church in ruins”. Another thousand years later, give or take a century or two, a Pope takes the name Francis, the first to do so; coincidence? This Francis is telling us, we “cannot leave things as they presently are. We are no longer served by ‘simple administration’. In all regions of the earth let us be in a ‘permanent state of mission’”.
Biblical scholars suggest three characteristics of the mission of Jesus: boundary breaking, foot washing and table fellowship.
• boundary breaking: Jesus challenged the customs and practices of his times and of his faith.
• foot washing: Jesus turned our human values upside down in his actions from washing the feet of his disciples, touching the lepers, and acting more like the servant than the master.
• table fellowship: Jesus shared meals indiscriminately, whether with the leaders of the community or with outcasts, sinners, and tax collectors.
To break boundaries is to witness to an alternative worldview; to engage in foot washing is to serve the vulnerable; to share table fellowship is to be in communion with all. These three characteristics were emulated by Francis of Assisi and now Pope Francis. When groups emulate them they can be an experience of “communitas”. Communitas is “a small group fired by an impossible dream and utterly committed to one another for the sake of the dream.... They produce a burst of creative energy… that galvanizes, inspires and commits them to realizing the dream”.
La Salle and the first Brothers were such a small group. Look what has been accomplished. We are a much larger body today, Brothers and Partners and Alumni, with global communication tools unimaginable in De La Salle’s time. And like De La Salle and his first Brothers we are becoming progressively aware of our global Lasallian identity and mission in the 21st century. Small bursts of creative energy are present in our Lasallian world. In this past year I have seen Lasallians networking in the slums of Lima, Peru, with street children in Abidjan, Ivory Coast and Indonesian refugees in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Recently in your own District are De La Salle Academy and an Immigration Think Tank gathering that may lead to a new ministry on the U.S. Mexican border. These are examples of Pope Francis’ call for all Christians to go to the frontiers and peripheries of our societies.
Can we harness the passion of so many Lasallians today to actually be such a communitas for the vulnerable in our midst? On the horizon can we discern a path forward? I think we can. The Pope has reminded us that our salvation came from a “yes” by a lowly maiden from a small town on the edge of a great empire. As Lasallians we are sincere and simple everyday folk ministering in cities and small towns everywhere. I want to connect our networks so these and other initiatives for the greater glory of God and the vulnerable will find the Lasallian mission wherever it is most urgently needed today.
Isn’t this something worth committing ourselves to? I think it is. Thank you.