Christian Brothers Search for Authenticity

By Jones, Arthur | National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1993 | Go to article overview

Christian Brothers Search for Authenticity


Jones, Arthur, National Catholic Reporter


ROME - In 1990 in Geneva, on a platform alongside United Nations dignitaries, Christian Brother John Calvin Johnston accepted the UNESCO Noma Award for the Christian Brothers schools' work in combating illiteracy (see accompanying story).

It was an extremely bright moment in a somewhat mixed picture for "the brothers," the 7,800 remaining spiritual descendants of their French founder, John Baptist de La Salle, who work with 50,000 teachers and 858,000 students in 80 countries.

"All religious orders have suffered losses," said Johnston, the Christian Brothers' Rome-based superior general, "but brothers have suffered more. We're the largest order of brothers, and we have suffered most. We are down 50 percent through numerous departures, deaths and the lack of vocations."

Johnston quotes the Jesuit Father General, Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach: "The same crisis is present in the clerical orders, but many religious are hiding behind their priesthood - living like diocesan priests."

Said Johnston, who spends half his year traveling the globe visiting the largely decentralized Christian Brothers provinces and LaSallian schools, "I am convinced there are vocations, but only if we're authentic."

That authenticity has much to do with looking at what specifically a brother's vocation is: "who we're supposed to be, what we're supposed to do, and how we're supposed to do it," he said. "We were terribly dependent, all religious orders shared that dependency. Then we went through a period of excessive independence and individualism - at which point it was necessary to remind ourselves that the individual is there to serve the order, not the order to serve the individual."

Johnston, 59, said that brothers are "realizing now what they always knew: You don't have to be a brother to teach, or to catechize, or to be a youth minister or headmaster. So the question arises, |Why am I here?' and that's a healthy question, but a painful one and many decided to take another path."

The Christian Brothers vision of mission is one of collaboration with the laity. Their schools - even when there were a majority of lay teachers - were still always the "brothers' schools." That concept has changed. "That model just collapsed," said Johnston, "it made no sense." So dramatic is the lay involvement now in Christian Brothers establishments that when the order gathers in Rome in April, 17 of the delegates will be laypeople.

A former teacher, Johnston keeps an eye on today's youth. He speaks highly of young Catholics in Spain, where he recently spent two months; laments the "pretty profound" de-Christianization of France, where even Catholic schools aren't pushing the religious dimension too strongly; and sees indifference in Germany and Holland, where 20 years ago there was youthful hostility to religious teaching.

In the United States, however, students now have religion classes four or five days a week, a marked change from two decades ago and an interest level unheard of in Europe.

The order has a LaSallian Volunteer Program, where volunteers live in community with the brothers - a variation on most religious-order programs. …

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