2016 Convocation Address

Together and by Association: In a Pluralistic Society

Convocation AddressPresident Donahue, Vice President Swain, members of the Saint Mary's boards of Regents and trustees, students, faculty and staff, and my fellow Brothers and my guests, I am deeply honored and deeply humbled at this honorary degree that I rightly share with all who have accompanied me on my journey as a De La Salle Christian Brother. This includes family, Brothers, friends and Lasallians who have all been examples to me throughout my journey. I am also honored to be counted today among the many Saint Mary’s alums that have so often exemplified service others in so many ways.

Several years ago when I was in Rome, Br. Alvaro Rodriguez our former superior general, was about to come here to receive an honorary degree. He called me on the phone and he asked if I would come into his office and he said to me, “What is a Gael?” So I explained to him the team name, I explained to him the nickname of the college. Now today, I really know what it is to be a Gael, so thank you very much.

This week you have been celebrating the Lasallian Heritage through the concept of Together and by Association. This afternoon, I will reflect on this idea in terms of Lasallian higher education in a way that I hope will have some meaning within the reality of Saint Mary’s College.  

The Meaning of “Together and by Association”

The words together and by association come from the vow of De La Salle and his first Brothers on November 21, 1691, when they made a vow of Association just as the Brothers do today. A vow “to remain in society with the Brothers of the Christian schools to conduct together and by association schools for the service of the poor.”

The purpose was not only to create a community with one another for their own sake but also to join together for the sake of young people. It was a vow that expanded the horizons of the small group beyond the first schools in Rheims, France when they were called to open other schools in Paris. The gratuitous Christian school was no longer a local project in that city. But it was becoming a movement pushing their geographic and personal boundaries. With this vow, De La Salle and his first Brothers realized that their work was not an occupation, was not a temporary service or a job; but a vocation, something they had to do to be faithful to themselves, to each other, and to God.

The late theologian and Lasallian scholar Brother Luke Salm once pointedly told a group of Lasallian university professors, not at Saint Mary’s but at another school, that together and by association does not simply mean working together. The military works together, corporations work together, plumbers work together. You get the idea. The notion of “together and by association” implies being together, in a local community where life and values are shared, but also associated across the borders for the sake of a human and Christian education of the young.

The late, renowned Lasallian Brother Michel Sauvage saw this expression as demonstrating a dynamic and fertile tension between “to keep, together” and “to be associated” or between the “local community” and the worldwide “Society” or “Institute.” This is a two-way concept in that the local community or ministry is challenged, nurtured, and supported by the larger Lasallian network. Conversely, the local community also tests ideas, creates projects, and challenges the larger Lasallian network. Ideas come from the top and from the bottom so to speak.

For us it implies that our being Lasallians is not simply something local in this one place here, but something that connects us with a greater worldwide network created for the sake of providing a “human and Christian” education. It means a personal educational commitment to our young people, especially those on the margins to develop them spiritually, with the knowledge they need to live a full life that includes service to others.  

The mission statement of Saint Mary’s College echoes this notion of “together” by saying:

To create a student-centered educational community whose members support one another with mutual understanding and respect.

It is always together, locally with our fellow educators and with our own students and by association with the larger Lasallian world that our mission is carried out.

To be in association, in the sense we speak, is to understand that the Lasallian Mission is greater than any one ministry or institution. Therefore, we are challenged by this notion to look beyond the confines of our campuses to see how we can cooperate and share this mission.

I can share one example how this sense of association can cross cultures and religions. To meet the needs of refugee children fleeing Syria in a current civil war, our De La Salle Christian Brothers are joining with Marist Brothers in the Fratelli project. Fratelli means Brothers in Italian. Marist Brothers and De La Salle Brothers as well as lay people from Lebanon, Spain, France, and other countries are uniting to create an educational center for kids who have no chance of education since they left their land. Many of them live in tents in cities, in displacement camps, and on the streets. Is this a risk for us? Yes. Could it fail? Sure. Do we know exactly what it is going to be like? No. But it is time to act together and break down even the boundaries that separate religious congregations at times for the sake of the young people who need it.

The point is that we are part of an international network, as President Donahue said, of 900 diverse schools, universities, colleges, and educational centers. We share one mission that is lived in diverse educational works and agencies. When we talk about the Lasallian mission in one District, we always need to have an eye open on the larger or global picture. We value both the diversity of our ministries and the balance and unity within a District, Region, or the Institute.

There is a relatively new International Association of Lasallian Universities. It would be too long for me to discuss it here, but I hope that this network can in the future assist universities to collaborate internationally to fulfill the Mission, share solutions and create new programs to meet new needs and that faculty, staff, and students can benefit from this international network.

Yet, Lasallian colleges and universities of all ministries are not cookie-cutter copies of one another; we are not McDonald’s or Starbuck’s but each work is designed to meet local needs, and each ministry has a unique culture that it also shares in common with our worldwide mission.  

A Lasallian College in a Pluralist Culture

So what does this mean in the pluralistic culture of the world and even in our own country and even in our own campuses?

Sometimes I have been asked that after living seven years in Italy, what have I noticed that has changed in the United States. Well one thing is that people don’t use directional signals anymore when they drive. But more importantly, I notice the pervading sense of fear in our country. I see that in so many personal conversations that I’ve had and news stories that I have seen emphasize fear. We seem to be less the “home of the brave” and a little bit more of the “home of the afraid.” I was happy to see an article in the Collegian this morning, I picked up a copy of that, that emphasized that when you travel and do foreign studies, don’t be afraid of terrorism. Our culture reminds us so much to be fearful.

I came across this quote from John Chapman:

“People get so in the habit of fear that if you save them from drowning and put them on a bank to dry in the sun with hot chocolate and muffins they worry whether they are catching cold.” (The Collected Works of John Jay Chapman M&S Press, 1970)

Perhaps the attacks on 9-11, the terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussel,s and San Bernardino, the economic collapse and even the 24-7 news cycle has created this pervading sense of fear. I am not sure what the cause is, but I do see that so many people are living in fear. Of course, sometimes we have to act on well-founded fears, but fear can be deadly when we fear ideas different from ours, people different from us, and when fear governs our lives. However, it is said that the most common expression in the Scripture is “Do not be afraid.” Let’s take that to heart.

One role of the College in the spirit of association is to be counter to this culture of fear, to be universal, to open up minds, to provide new ways at looking at old and new problems, to challenge our notions and even our ideals, so that we can have well-integrated individuals who see themselves not only as citizens of the nation and the world, but agents in its development. We boast, and with good reason, of the material and career success of graduates, but we also must encourage in our students a sense of responsibility for the common good if we are to live up to our Lasallian heritage.

One of the changes we experience is the religious diversity of our students and staff and the uncertainty about the role and place of belief in a Catholic and Lasallian college today. Are we Catholic and in what way? Are we Catholic and Lasallian, how? Or are we either Catholic or Lasallian?

Saint Mary’s mission statement clearly states that we affirm and foster the Christian understanding of the human person which animates the educational mission of the Catholic Church. But the mission statement also states that recognizing that all those who sincerely quest for truth contribute to and enhance its stature as a Catholic institution of higher learning, Saint Mary's welcomes members from its own and other traditions, inviting them to collaborate in fulfilling the spiritual mission of the College.

This statement emphasizes the community building and sense of association that I am speaking about. I personally have met Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists who can call themselves Lasallian because they can take elements of the holistic Lasallian education: the notion of touching hearts and student centeredness and apply it as teachers. While Lasallian education is always based in Catholic teaching and belief, elements of it apply to people who are not Christian. Fr. John Haughey, SJ who spoke here at Saint Mary’s several years ago was very clear that a college or university is not a parish. The point is that the college has to be a place where ideas are respected but also respectfully disagreed with. The development of critical thinkers is the key to maturity, courage in the face of fear, and even spiritual growth.

Pope Benedict XVI in speaking at La Sapienza University of Rome in 2008 stated “freedom from ecclesiastical and political authorities” is essential to the university’s “special role” in society. He asked, “What does the pope have to do or say to a university?” And he answered, “He certainly should not try to impose in an authoritarian manner his faith on others."

At another gathering at Bethlehem University in the Holy Land that the Brothers sponsor and teach in, the late Archbishop Pietro Sambi, Papal Nuncio or Ambassador to the Vatican and the Holy Land,  gave his insights on Catholic identity when Catholicism is in the minority. Now I know your campus, as I understand is that 50 percent of your students are Catholic, and so Catholicism is not the minority, but I think the words that I am about to say make sense to all of us, no matter what our identity is in a pluralistic culture.

“When you are a minority, as Catholics are in this culture, you need three strong principles. The first is a clear identity, a clear sense of who you are and what you want to be. As a minority, if you lack a clear identity, you're like a drop of wine in a glass of water … you'll disappear. The second thing is a strong sense of belonging. I would express it in this way: you need a community, and the community needs you. Whoever walks alone sooner or later will be lost in the desert. Third, when you are a minority, you need a deep commitment to excellence. You must excel in human qualities, in family qualities, in professional qualities, in the qualities of Christian life, in order to be a light for others. If you don't have a sense of excellence, you will be submerged by the majority.”

I think his words remind us that we must be strong in our identity but open to dialogue as in the story of Jesus’ dialogue with the Samaritan woman at the well. He sat with her, he talked with her; he did not change his message but listened to her. Being a Lasallian provides a great opportunity for listening and dialoguing.

There is no easy answer to this question of Catholic identity and there will continue to be tensions and discussions around the issue of Catholic and Lasallian identity.  While some Catholics may say they identify more with the Lasallian charism than with the Church, we have to remember that De La Salle’s values were rooted in Catholic Christianity. He called his schools Christian schools. But I do think when we Catholics sometimes feel disaffected from the Church; it is when Church representatives are not perceived as acting with Gospel values. It is also a reminder to us that we are, many times, a representative of the church and ambassadors to Christ for the students and the people that we deal with and have to ask ourselves: How do we fulfill gospel values? I think that we may have to look back to the nature of the Lasallian college itself and to our Gospel values to continue to be our guide.

Conclusion

We journey together as one local community and in association with a great international network for the sake of all those students and fellow educators entrusted to us. Let us all be open to the challenges and blessings of our common Lasallian Mission. Let us realize that this mission of Lasallian education is a privilege. It is a privilege for those of us that teach and lead the mission, and it is a privilege for the students to learn and participate in the mission. Let us take care of our younger hearts’ desire and passion that called us to education, that called us to Lasallian education, that called us to each other and let us nourish the passion and desire of the young people entrusted to us.

Saint Mary’s community, I am grateful for this honor and for your attention to my few comments this afternoon. I wish you success in your commitment and efforts to journey together and by association with the students to new horizons so that our world may somehow be a better place.

Live Jesus in Our Hearts.

 

Works Cited:

Benedict XVI, Lecture at La Sapienza University, from the Vatican, 17 January 2008.

Claude Reinhardt, IALU CONFERENCE IX Tetela, Cuernavaca, Mexico. October 22-25, 2008

Michel Sauvage, “For a better understanding of the Lasallian Association," talk given to the Administrators of the French Lasallian Centers of the ALS (La Salle Association), November 19, 1998.

“Sectarian Catholicism”, America Magazine, May 11, 2009