I recently had the chance to celebrate the April 7 “Founders Day Mass” at Cathedral High School near downtown LA marking the feast day of the founder of the Christian Brothers, St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle. I was joined by the school’s seven Christian Brothers, faculty, students, and other invited guests.
Truth be told, I didn’t know much about St. de La Salle before the Mass other than the basics: He was a French priest, educator, and founder of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools (known as the Christian Brothers in the U.S.).
Thanks to online resources, I learned much more about this holy man’s remarkable life, which I think contains some valuable life lessons for all of us, no matter our vocation.
His path to the priesthood began from an early age. Coming from a wealthy family in Rheims, de La Salle received tonsure at age 11 and at 16 was named a canon of the cathedral. By age 18, he had received his Master of Arts degree. A year later, he entered the seminary.
His mother died less than a year into his studies, and his father died just nine months later. Days after his father’s death, he left the seminary to care for his six younger siblings. He was 21 years old. It would be five years until de La Salle would be ordained to the priesthood; two years later he earned his doctorate in theology.
That is where I see the first lesson from his life that speaks to many of us: The circumstances of life outside of our control often interrupt our best laid plans. The young de La Salle stepped up to the plate to care for his grieving and needy younger siblings. His vocation was not thwarted, just delayed for a time.
In his first year as a priest, Father de La Salle served as the chaplain and confessor for a newly formed order of religious sisters. They cared for the sick and provided for the education of poor girls. This contact with the sisters would prove providential.
The sisters were able to open a school with the generous support of a wealthy woman in town. There was one condition to her financial gift, and it was contingent on de La Salle’s continued association with the sisters and the school. It’s almost certain that during his seminary studies, de La Salle would have never imagined that education would become his life’s work.
Lesson number two: God has plans for us that take us to places beyond what we think is possible.
As St. John Bosco would realize two centuries later in Turin, de La Salle came to see that education was the surest path to give hope and the promise of a brighter future for children and youth. He would literally spend himself for the rest of his life, including giving his family inheritance to further the work of the Gospel in unforeseen ways.
Lesson three: God uses our natural talents and inspired vision to do amazing things.
Religious orders of men and women had been educating youth for centuries. But de La Salle was a true educational innovator. It wasn’t only the kids who needed education. He provided training and support for teachers so they could be the best qualified educators as possible — even founding a school dedicated to training them (no wonder he is the patron saint of teachers)
Beyond training and support, de La Salle believed in instilling a spirit of Christian fellowship in teachers. He invited the teachers to eat in his home and taught them proper etiquette and table manners. His wealthy family was not happy that he, even as a priest, would deign to have these “lower class” men dine in his home. Pretty soon, some of them ended up living in his home.
Lesson number four: Do not be single-minded or single-hearted.
After the deaths of his parents, de La Salle acquired a substantial inheritance that could have provided for the rapid expansion of and financial support for his schools and fledgling new order.
Thanks to advice from a wise priest from Paris, he divested himself of his fortune and gave the money to the poor in a French province devastated by famine. Holy charity and works of mercy are not meant for the exclusive benefits of one’s even noble and important apostolic works.
Rather, the mission of Christ and his Church must reach beyond our own worthy personal realm. We are called to support the Universal Church while still being faithful to the work on the local level entrusted to us by our blessed Lord.
And one more bold innovation: Eventually, these men, who he had invited to live in his home, and was forming in the Gospel and as first-rate educators, became a new religious order, the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. Although he himself was a priest, this new order was to consist exclusively of teaching brothers and still does not include priests.
None of this is what he had planned or imagined for his life. De La Salle looked back at his life not as a series of decisions or coincidences, but as a path in which God constantly guided him without revealing the next step.
“If I had ever thought that the care I was taking of the schoolmasters out of pure charity would ever have made it my duty to live with them,” the priest wrote, “I would have dropped the whole project.”
“God, who guides all things with wisdom and serenity, whose way it is not to force the inclinations of persons, willed to commit me entirely to the development of the schools,” he wrote in the same letter. “He did this in an imperceptible way and over a long period of time so that one commitment led to another in a way that I did not foresee in the beginning.”
And that, perhaps, sums up de La Salle’s wisdom best. If we are faithful, day by day, to the small and seemingly insignificant tasks that God gives us to do, we will find meaning and fulfillment.
I can attest from my own experience that this is true: It wasn’t until my last years in college that I began to feel the call from God to be a priest. My road to the priesthood began later than de La Salle’s, but it similarly took twists and turns that I could never have predicted or planned for. Even today, the fact that I am now a vocations director kind of blows my mind.
Thanks to the generous invitation from Cathedral High School, I now have a greater admiration for this one-of-a-kind saint.
St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, pray for us. Help us to be faithful as you were.
Father Samuel Ward is the director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
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