St. John Baptist de La Salle – The Jordan of Grace

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John…” These words, divinely inspired, seem to be renewed in every historical period. And so it was in the era that received the founder of the Lasallians.

Man’s life is like the field grasses that fourish in the morning but wither away in the evening; its memory passes like a garment that is changed (cf. Ps 90:6; 102:26). But there are those who leave an indelible wake behind them, marking the centuries: the Saints. And among this glorious train of souls we find the founders, who perpetuate their memory in the spiritual sons and daughters who uphold fidelity to the original charism.

St. John Baptist de La Salle, founder of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, shines in history’s firmament with this crown. His work, aimed at the education of the underprivileged social classes, evokes the outstanding degree of charity and humility that characterized him. By a tree’s fruit, we can deduce the quality of the seed from which it sprang.

St. John Baptist de La Salle – St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican

But the conditions under which a seed germinates is often marked with perils and untold sufferings. The parable of the sower, viewed from a different perspective, can serve to illustrate this aspect of the life of founders: they are all the word of God for their time, sown among men by the divine farmer; but growth entails struggles, renunciations and sacrifices. Often the seed does not fall directly on good soil, but has to face all the topographies destined for it by the Divine Master.

This was the case with St. John Baptist de La Salle and the work he founded.

France’s Baptismal font, John Baptist’s cradle

Among the many glories that the French city of Reims can claim is the fact that it witnessed the birth of a new John the Baptist on April 30, 1651.

This place, which had become the baptismal font of France when Clovis received his first of the Sacraments there around 498, and the mainstay of French faith when St. Joan of Arc saw Charles VII crowned there in 1429, also served as cradle to the man who would baptize countless French children “with the Holy Spirit” (Mk 1:8) in the troubled times that lay ahead.

John Baptist, the firstborn of Louis de La Salle and Nicolasa Moët, enjoyed a childhood that unfolded in the midst of an affectionate family, piety and study. A favourite pastime of this child was to build oratories and imitate the sacred rites, in a domestic atmosphere enveloped in the tenderness of his parents and the vivacity of siblings. As a student, he displayed brilliant capacity.

Canon of Rheims and theology student

The boy’s prominence in the academic world opened to him the office of canon of Reims at an early age. On Easter Sunday, 1666, he had performed masterfully at a literature competition and awards ceremony held at his school. His eloquence had drawn the attention of the elderly Peter Dozet, secretary and canon of Reims, prompting him cede his canonry to the Saint when he was only fifteen years of age, and had just received the tonsure.

It was a prestigious post, but a burdensome one. As a member of the Chapter, he was obliged to participate in choir prayer: three long periods of official prayer in the name of the Church. His condition as a student exempted him from this duty on most days, but not from attending the various administrative meetings, participating in processions and filling several other duties.

Cathedral of Rheims in 1722, by Pierre-Denis Martin – National Museum of the Castle of Versailles (France)

In 1670, three years into his canonicate, he entered the Parisian seminary of St. Sulpice and went on to study at Sorbonne University. John Baptist was following a steady course toward the priesthood for which he had longed since childhood, and a bright future. However, Divine Providence had other plans for him.

In the year following his move to the French capital, upsetting news arrived: in July 1671, his mother died, followed by her husband nine months later. John Baptist had to leave the seminary and take his studies back to Reims, where his status as firstborn obliged him care for his orphaned siblings.

There, besides the administration of the patrimony entrusted to him, he continued his studies and received priestly ordination in 1678, in his home town.

A clearly discerned call

In that historical context, much of the clergy was contaminated by a certain tepidity and laxity in their apostolic motivation. They sought favour with the nobles and well-to-do, to the neglect of the humbler classes. As a result, entire multitudes of children were lacking any religious formation whatsoever.

On the other hand, a movement was now afoot in some French towns to found charity schools dedicated to these little ones, especially the poor and orphaned. The man behind this initiative, Mr. Adrian Nyel, was headed for Reims, intent on organizing a similar establishment there. Hearing rumour of the young canon’s virtue, he decided to seek his help.

Fr. de La Salle allied himself to this labour, but was not long in noticing his companion’s superficial character. Nyel insisted on crisscrossing France in pursuit of new foundations without adequately securing those already begun.

That nascent work resembled a seed that fell by the wayside. Nyel was the bird who took it up and brought it to the ground chosen by God but then continued in free flight across the skies…

In the meantime, the Saint’s profound spirit saw the need to provide the teachers with solid religious formation before launching into ventures that could not sustain themselves. From this motion of grace, and after much prayer, Fr. de La Salle began to draw up the first outlines of the daring enterprise that he perceived to be his vocation: the founding a Religious Order.

Nevertheless, Providence did not yet wish to plant the seed in fertile soil. It would first have to begin its growth in stony ground…

The religious congregation is established

After a short period of community life with an emerging group of disciples, the first disagreements and dissatisfactions arose. It fell to the founder to sift through that group, realizing that many who had joined his project only sought to belong to a teaching body and had never so much as considered embracing a religious vocation.

St. John Baptist de La Salle distributes his goods among the poor, by G. Gagliardi

But even after this purification, his followers still harboured a point of reticence regarding him: the Saint had invited them to live entirely in the hands of Providence, dependent on alms or the meagre profits the schools yielded, while he himself kept a prestigious social standing and received income pertaining to his canonicate.

When he perceived the problem, the Saint did not hesitate: he decided to renounce his position and patrimony, and to give all he had to the poor. Some advised him against it on the grounds that his income was one of the community’s means of subsistence, but Fr. de La Salle placed his entire trust in God.

The internal cleansing and the founder’s resignation marked a new phase for the establishment of a true religious congregation. That stony terrain had become fertile soil for the seed to begin germinating.

Expansion and persecutions

Once their characteristic habit had been instituted, the name Brothers of the Christian Schools had been defined, and the first rules had been established, the work began to expand rapidly, but at the price of great suffering. In fact, on emerging from the soil, the sprout would only see the light through thorns. It would have to overcome them if the sap was to acquire vigour and stability.

As word spread about the existence of free schooling, lay teachers began to feel threatened. Some families who could barely afford to keep their children in the conventional learning establishments preferred to transfer them to the charity institutions, which meant an increasing loss to mainstream teachers. The problem generated several lawsuits against the Brothers of the Christian Schools, to which the founder had to patiently respond.

Meanwhile, the work advanced and developed: in 1691, two large-scale retreats were held; in 1692, the novitiate was founded; in 1694, the first profession of perpetual vows took place, and the rule was set and defined. The institution had taken the stature of an imposing religious congregation, but not everyone was pleased about it…

In 1702, there were a few cases of brothers applying over overly severe punishments to transgressing novices. Some members of the clergy who harboured hostility towards St. John Baptist de La Salle pounced on this, alleging the Saint to be the one responsible for ordering such penalties to be imposed.

Incited by these detractors, Cardinal Louis Antoine de Noailles made the decision to remove him from the office of superior and replace him with a priest unfamiliar with the foundational charism. The founder was informed that he was deposed, with the order to summon all the brothers of Paris to an assembly at which they would learn of the new measures.

Professes the vows together with the first brothers, by G. Gagliardi

On December 3, the spiritual sons of St. John Baptist de La Salle gathered, unaware of the terrible news they had been convoked to hear from the lips of the Cardinal’s envoy. When the draconian decision was pronounced, they immediately raised a unanimous cry of indignation: “We have a superior freely chosen by us; we can accept none else […]. If you wish to establish a superior, bring the subordinates as well; we withdraw.”1

The brothers’ intransigence won the victory. The new superior was limited to an “external” capacity, similar to the role of a chaplain, and rendered powerless to alter the charism. The founder carried on as the effective superior.

However, in 1709 another ordeal began. The harsh winter had turned France’s humbler classes of into a mob of beggars, and the brothers were also affected: hunger gripped most of their communities and several brothers fell seriously ill. The grand novitiate, founded four years earlier in Saint-Yon, was unable to muster dignified living conditions and had to be transferred to Paris.

Final battles

In 1717, the second General Chapter was convened, in which the first Superior General – Br. Bartholomew – was officially nominated at the founder’s request, and the initial rule was revised. At that time, the community was reaching its maturity: “it had its own habit; it affirmed its lay state; the members professed three perpetual vows and there were suitable rules; the declared field of ecclesial apostolate was providing comprehensive education in the Christian schools; free education was considered indispensable; the community had an established hierarchy.”2

The founder would remain in recollection in Saint-Yon from then on, acting as confessor to the community and entirely obedient to the established superior. While his bodily health waned with each passing day, his soul likened him more and more to the Angels.

The seed was now well set in fertile ground, the stones had crumbled and the thorns had been overcome; but for the fruit to reach full size, the seed had to die…

En route to the summit of his calvary, in his debilitated physical state a few days before death, the Saint received an envoy from the local Archbishop informing him that he had been suspended from the use of holy orders and was thereby even forbidden to hear the brothers’ Confessions. It does not seem unlikely that the measure was due to old or new calumnies… St. John Baptist de La Salle drank this bitter chalice without complaint.

Receiving the visit of the Archbishop of Rouen, byr G. Gagliardi

On April 7, 1719, having received the Sacraments, he surrendered his soul to God only a few days short of his sixty-eighth birthday. The seed had utterly perished and from it would spring up a lush tree in the sacred garden of the Church.

The work “post mortem”

The saint’s glorification followed shortly upon his death: in 1724 the Brothers of the Christian Schools received civil sanction and, the following year, the pontifical approval so long desired by the founder during his lifetime, from the hands of Pope Benedict XIII. In 1888, Leo XIII beatified him, canonizing him in 1900. And, in 1950, Pius XII proclaimed him Patron of Educators.

Founded on firm rock and watered with the blood of its founder, the institute has produced much more than a hundredfold. After treading the most arduous paths – it was suppressed during the French Revolution, practically expelled from French territory in 1904, and lost the lives of 165 brothers to religious persecution in Spain – its members now number in the thousands, spread over five continents.

But countless are the souls who have found their way to Heaven through the work of the Lasallians – a true Jordan of Grace, in whose waters a new John the Baptist glorified Christ. 

 

Notes


1 GALLEGO, Saturnino. Vida y pensamiento de San Juan Bautista de La Salle. Madrid: BAC, 1986, v.I, p.362.

2 Idem, p.552.

 

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