Embodying our Traditions: The Inauguration of Brother Ronald Gallagher, FSC

Story by Brother Ronald Gallagher, FSC


On “much more of an Irish day than I would have expected,” Brother Ronald Gallagher, FSC, was formally inaugurated as the 28th president of Saint Mary’s College of California, in a ceremony on the Saint Mary’s College Chapel plaza on September 23.

Brother Visitor Stanislaus Campbell, FSC, and Ray Larkin, chairman of the Saint Mary’s board of trustees, bestowed the inaugural hood and medallion. Brother Vincent Malham, FSC, president-elect of Christian Brothers University, delivered an inaugural address on leadership that praised Brother Ronald’s “sense of humor, accessibility, and welcoming manner,” along with his “passion, tenacity, and courage.”

The inauguration culminated a weeklong celebration of the school’s core traditions, led off by the Holy Spirit Mass on September 20, officiated by Bishop Allen Vigneron and concelebrated by Bishop Emeritus John Cummins.

What follows are excerpts from the inaugural response of Brother Ronald Gallagher. He addressed the crowd of dignitaries, faculty colleagues, staff, administration, students, and members of his family come to share in the celebration, and started out by setting the scene of the windswept day.

In front of us lie Dante and Galileo, two giants who represent the Arts and Sciences, and are emblems of our liberal arts traditions. Dante, the pilgrim, whose Divine Comedy examines the ethical, literary, historical and spiritual scope of human society of his day. Galileo, the astronomer, who looked outward to the cosmos.

Behind us, and at the center of this campus, lies the Chapel, dedicated to Mary. Here is the place where we celebrate the liturgy, the heart of the Catholic tradition of the College. And here we find representations of Mary, the mother, maiden, example of spirituality, whose soul “magnifies the greatness of Lord.” I can’t imagine a better model for us, who in this Catholic tradition of higher education seek to discover the greatness and depth of all that is human and in doing so can discover the greatness of the Lord and the many truths of creation.

Along the corridors hang banners of our Lasallian tradition, representing the many Brothers who have been the responsible leaders of this institution for 142 years. When we walk along that arcade, we are walking through one aspect of the history of the College. These are the precursors who have carried here on the Pacific Coast the educational vision of Saint John Baptiste de La Salle: give a human and Christian education to the young, especially the poor.

And in front of us stands, or better, kneels De La Salle, facing all who enter this campus, making a gesture to a book, reminding us that we are in the holy presence of God.

We as a college community are challenged today to embody these traditions. In the vision of De La Salle, spoken to the Brothers more than 300 years ago, he says:

“God has called you to your ministry to procure his glory and to give students the spirit of wisdom, the insight to know him, and to enlighten the eyes of their hearts.”

Today we are all partners in that ministry. What we do here is not just a job, it is a call, a ministry.

In reflecting on Catholic higher education, the late Pope John Paul II wrote eloquently in Ex Corde Ecclesiae about the challenge and importance of this ministry of higher education today:

“The dialogue of the Church with the cultures of our times is that vital area where 'the future of the Church and of the world is being played out as we conclude the 20th century.

“It is essential that we be convinced of the priority of the ethical over the technical, of the primacy of the person over things, of the superiority of the spirit over matter. The cause of the human person will only be served if knowledge is joined to conscience.

“Men and women of science will truly aid humanity only if they preserve ‘the sense of the transcendence of the human person over the world and of God over the human person.'"

I arise today
Through the strength of Heaven
Light of sun
Radiance of moon
Splendor of fire
Speed of lightning
Swiftness of wind
Depth of the sea
Stability of earth
Firmness of rock
I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me
God’s eye to look before me
God’s wisdom to guide me
God’s way to lie before me
God’s shield to protect me
From all who shall wish me ill
Afar and anear
Alone and in a multitude
Against every cruel
Merciless power
That may oppose my body and soul

— excerpt from Deer’s Cry

You also have an example of this dialogue of the Church, people of faith, with human culture in “The Deer’s Cry,” which was so beautifully rendered in song by the Saint Mary’s NightinGaels. This song/prayer/poem combines Celtic poetry from pre-Christian Ireland, invoking the powers of nature, with a Christian consciousness, seeing the world through the eyes of faith. For me, it represents an expression of the intersection of faith and the world, and an example of what John Paul II calls “the dialogue with the cultures of our times.” The Irish monk, or whoever composed this poem, expressed both a sense of his or her own ethnic and poetic tradition infused with a profound faith in Christ.

As an educational institution with our core traditions, we are uniquely positioned to be a place where that encounter with the culture and world of today takes place. In fact, our whole mission encourages us

  • to probe deeply the mystery of existence
  • to affirm and foster the Christian understanding of the human person
  • and to create a student-centered educational community whose members support one another with mutual understanding and respect.

So what are we doing here to achieve these goals and what challenges face us as we approach our 150th birthday? I am happy to say that we have considerable momentum in promoting and deepening our traditions.

We are embarking this year on a Core Curriculum review, a multi-year project with a goal of providing an even greater and richer educational experience. We have heard from eloquent speakers this week about the value of a Catholic liberal arts education and its importance for our society. In the last nine months I have heard from numerous alumni that what they value most from the Saint Mary’s education is the great books seminar experience, which has made them thoughtful and articulate citizens, and given them a broad vision and a critical mind. This review of our curriculum will enable us to enrich this experience for all of our students.

In order to maintain a quality educational experience for the whole person, we will also begin a review of the student life experience. Like the curriculum review, the student life review should reflect our liberal arts, Catholic, and Lasallian values. We need to ensure that our practices, policies, and activities, on this campus and in all of our programs, whether graduate, professional or undergraduate, embody Lasallian principles.

I am pleased to say that we already have great momentum in renewing this ethos at Saint Mary’s. Active participation in service work by students and faculty has demonstrably grown in recent years. Concern for social justice is evident in the curriculum and outside the curriculum. Many faculty, staff, and students have participated in programs, workshops, and retreats to learn more about the Lasallian tradition so they can more deeply participate in the mission. We Brothers are grateful for your participation and desire to share our mission.

Another challenge in the next eight years is to keep SMC affordable. The cost of higher education continues to grow. We need to find ways to make our operations efficient. And we need to expand our efforts to build our endowment for scholarships, programs, and facilities. We need to renovate some of our aging facilities, and provide a variety of new facilities to enhance our education and athletic and residence life areas.

We have already begun the strategic planning to meet many of these challenges, and I look forward to a wide participation of faculty, staff, students, alumni, trustees and regents in this planning process. We are in for some exciting times, and I am confident that we can together fulfill the mission of Saint Mary’s College.

In closing, Brother Ronald thanked the week’s organizers, speakers, and performers, some of whose remarks and images can be found in these pages. He also expressed thanks to his family, especially his mother Ruth, noting, “I have to say that I have been uniquely prepared for this job by coming from a family nearly the size of Saint Mary’s College.” A small portion of the Gallagher family is pictured here.


At the inauguration, gifts were presented to Brother Ronald Gallagher to represent each tradition.

  • A crucifix from Glenstal Abbey in Ireland was selected to represent the College’s Catholic tradition and “the land of saints and scholars” that is the ancestral home of Brother Ronald.
  • A certificate proclaims the establishment of the new Lasallian Educator Fellowship Scholarship to honor how Brother Ronald has “inspired and challenged Fellows to embrace teaching as a life-giving vocation and spiritual journey.”
  • A 1734 first edition of The Adventures of Telemachus, Son of Odysseus represents the College’s liberal arts tradition, along with Brother Ronald’s vocation as a Lasallian educator and professor of English with a specialization in Irish literature.

Dubbed “Core Traditions Week,” September 19-24 brought many distinguished speakers to campus for special events surrounding the presidential inauguration, including a Lasallian seminar, community engagement fair, concert, and inaugural ball. On September 22, three panelists discussed the College’s core traditions, and excerpts from their presentations appear here.

Catholic Tradition Lasallian Tradition Liberal Arts Tradition
“The inauguration of a new president is an appropriate time for a college to reconsider its own place within this rich and comprehensive intellectual and faith tradition and to reflect upon its implications for the future... Let me suggest five principal obstacles in the realization of the Catholic college’s distinctive mission:
1: The contemporary emotivism of an increasing number of undergraduates.
2: The remarkable strength of the individual disciplines, each claiming a certain autonomy not only of method but of influence within the academy.
3: The fundamental agnosticism of the academy.
4: The loss of the conviction that either faith or reason has truth as its object and so, as Rabbi David Novak has pointed out, the only thing left is at best, compromise or conquest.
5: The prevalence of a technological culture, which manifests itself in increasing tendencies to instrumentalize all aspects of human life...
Because of [these] obstacles... It is unrealistic to assume that an authentic renewal of Catholic identity can occur without the creation of new programs, and here I am led to congratulate the College on its work to develop a program in Catholic Studies.”
“One of the most significant innovations brought to elementary education by De La Salle and the first generations of Brothers usually goes unnoticed, namely, the grouping and teaching of children all together in the same classroom, just as it was done in the colleges and universities of his time; whereas previously children had to learn and recite their primer (in Latin!) individually, while the rest of the group waited to do the same. By this one innovation, elementary education became available to many more poor boys, all the more so because of his insistence that the school was gratuitous and open to all who wished to come. The achievement was not that they were all taught simultaneously, but that there were different activities at different levels of reading, writing, and calculation all going on at the same time. Monthly tests were held and the results passed on to the parents and/or guardians, and the first place in the bench for each subject was taken by the boy who came first. This practice in itself, indeed, leads one French historian to speculate that perhaps De La Salle’s greatest achievements in that 17th century class-ordered society may well have been to make it possible for the poor boy and the better-off boy to sit next to one another on the same bench.” “A deep, though not uncritical, regard for tradition is the most urgent precondition for education, for growth as a person. What Cicero observed about history is true in a much broader sense of humanistic endeavor: ‘not to know what happened before you is to be a child forever. For what is the value of life unless the memory of what came before is woven up with the lives of those who preceded us.’
“A deep, though not slavish, regard for tradition teaches humility. Human society, its achievements, its values, and its norms are not reinvented in each generation. Koheleth observes in Ecclesiastes: ‘Is there a thing of which it could be said, See, this is new. No, it all has been seen in the ages that were before us.’ Koheleth didn’t envision the internal combustion engine or nuclear fission or the information superhighway; there are many things of this world that are indeed new. But Koheleth challenges us to look inside the human heart, without the hubris of belief that its story begins in our day. In that regard, we do well to remember that many great minds and great souls have preceded us.”
Dr. Don Briel
Koch Chair of Catholic Studies
Center for Catholic Studies
University of Saint Thomas
Saint Paul, Minnesota
Brother Gerard Rummery, FSC
Adjunct Professor
Australian Catholic University
Melbourne, Australia
Dr. Michael Poliakoff
Director, Division of Education Programs National Endowment for the Humanities Washington, D.C.