St Jean Baptiste de La Salle - a great witness to Catholic Education
16th May 2017
Edmund Adamus - Professional Adviser to the Episcopal Vicar for Education and Schools Commissioner reflects on a great witness to the values of Catholic education.
"Since you are ambassadors and ministers of Jesus Christ in the work that you do, you must act as representing Jesus Christ."
These profound but simple words come from the pen of Jean Baptiste de La Salle who was born in Rheims, France in 1651. As he was declared Patron of Christian teachers on 15 May 1950, it’s an appropriate moment with all of the contemporary challenges facing Catholic education today to remind ourselves of how he so richly personified the vision he wrote.
In these times of considerable upheaval and challenge for education in general and the reorganisation of our maintained schools in to academy trusts; it’s good to be reminded of what can be achieved by God’s grace and faith by looking to a much loved, revered and respected model for serving Christ in education. During his lifetime, St. Jean Baptiste de La Salle founded a religious order of men, the Brothers of Christian Schools. They devoted themselves to teaching boys and young men. To assist the Brothers in this ministry, he developed the first real strategy for teaching, created a teacher’s manual, wrote student textbooks, and opened a school to train teachers. He challenged the Brothers of his community to look upon everything with the eyes of faith, to see the person of Christ in their students, and to approach their ministry with great zeal for the evangelization of youth. Here in our own diocese many generations of children past and present have been blessed with the charisms of the De La Salle educational experience. We give thanks to God for the many brothers who gave such generous service to Catholic education in the diocese.
John Baptist de La Salle was an educational innovator. He looked at the world and saw a need to educate all children, regardless of whether or not they could afford it and responded to that calling. He demonstrated this devotion by taking the poor teachers into his home to feed them, by giving away his patrimony, and by requiring the brothers to teach the poor and working class. He held school on Sundays for those working-class youth who had to labour during the week.
As we look at the life of St. John Baptist de La Salle, a man who lived hundreds of years ago and in a very different world, we see that the principles that guided his life are still those that guide us today. These same principles can be the driving force for all of us involved in the glorious ministry of Catholic education.
David Todd the headteacher of St. Peter's school, Bournemouth was educated in the De La Salle tradition, including his teacher training. I asked him what key insights from the Saint's vision really inspire him and endure still. For David, it's about fidelity to the three "Ps".
First, Prayer. "De La Salle recognised that in the busy world of schools we should regularly remember that we live and work in the presence of God," says David; "His recommended technique was to call God’s presence to mind every time we go through a doorway."
"The second P is People," he continues, "De La Salle exhorted his ‘brothers’ and ‘associates’ to recognise Christ beneath the rags of the children they taught. Whilst young people may not attend in rags as such, they can arrive at school every morning with the effects of the challenges they face in their lives." I agree, for this vision helps us to remember the spiritual poverty [what Pope Francis calls 'the existential peripheries'] with which so many young people are suffering.
"The third is Pedagogy" says David. "this means learning. How do we get students excited about this so that learning is done by them not to them." David explains that John Baptiste was a man way ahead of his time (as saintly people often are) because he says, "he was innovative in his day using many ‘new’ techniques such as teaching groups of 30 – 50 students in a room at the same time." This might not sound revolutionary in our day but it was for 17th c France and free education for the poor because it "popularised the classroom" says David.
Let us pray St. John Baptiste De La Salle,whose followers have contributed so much to education in the diocese continue to intercede for all our schools and academies now and in the future, to be utterly faithful like him to the Teacher, Christ Jesus Himself.
St. John Baptist de La Salle, Patron of Teachers, pray for us.