About De La Salle
SAINT JOHN BAPTIST DE LA SALLE: THE PATRON SAINT OF TEACHERS
By John Gray and Br. George Van Grieken, FSC
"Do you have such faith that it is able to touch the hearts of your students and to inspire them with the Christian spirit? This is the greatest miracle you could perform, and the one that God asks of you, since this is the purpose of your work."
GUIDED BY GODImagine a scene in the city of Reims, France, in April of 1679. A young priest waits on the doorstep of a convent as 17th century town life bustles around him. He has come to call on the Sisters of the Child Jesus, a new order whose work is the care and education of poor girls. The young priest serves as their chaplain and confessor. His name is John Baptist de La Salle. He is the eldest son of a wealthy professional family in the city of Reims. Not quite 28 years old, he has been ordained for two years and is about to receive his doctorate in theology. He is a canon of the prestigious Cathedral Chapter at Reims, which is a traditional breeding ground of bishops, cardinals, and saints. A man so gifted and so positioned would almost certainly become an important member of the Church hierarchy or a distinguished professor. This young canon, thoughtful, cultivated, and kind-hearted, will likely become notable in Church circles and a pious influence among his peers.
Then he meets someone at that convent door, a layman who requests his help in starting a school for poor boys. He could choose to ignore the man or pass him off with some appropriate words of advice and a kind smile. But he doesn't. Instead, he pays attention to how God might be working through this stranger—really pays attention—and he responds as generously as his breeding, his disposition, and his faith allow him to do, little knowing what it would all lead to.
Now fast forward forty years to April of 1719. That young priest, now old, racked by asthma and chronic rheumatism, is at the end of his earthly journey. In the early morning hours of Good Friday, he lies in his bed, attended by the men whom he calls "Brothers." His wealth was long ago given away, and the privileges that were his by birth have long since been surrendered and cast aside. His church connections are mixed at best; some church leaders admire him, but many powerful pastors and bishops have treated him and his work with little disguised contempt or hostility.
His journey has been down paths he could not have imagined forty years earlier. And what are the final results of his life's work? A small community of some hundred men that calls itself the Brothers of the Christian Schools, but a group that is not yet even recognized officially by either the church or the state, and a set of mostly parish-based schools for poor boys, schools that are really only fully appreciated by those who attend them.
De La Salle must have really wondered what was going to happen to this relatively small group of followers, especially when compared to other Founders such as Saint Francis who had gathered 10,000 disciples in just twelve years. But as De La Salle begins to breathe his last in this 68th year of his life, the power of his faith and spirit is yet evident and strong. Brother Barthélemy, his successor as Superior of the Brothers, quietly asks him if he accepts his sufferings, and De La Salle responds with the last words that he will ever say: "Oui, j'adore en toutes choses la conduite de Dieu à mon égard." ("Yes, I adore God guiding me in all the events of my life.")
That perspective of reading the events of his life as calls from God is one that has made all the difference. Because of such faith-filled attention paid to the real circumstances of his daily life, he did not become a distinguished professor or an important churchman. Instead he became the person God led him to become, the person whom he could be in the eyes of God. The life he lived was the life that God led him to live.
Certainly, he had a privileged upbringing, growing up in a wealthy, distinguished family. He was the oldest of eleven children of whom seven survived to adulthood. His devout parents named him after John the Baptist, the herald of Jesus, a name that providentially gave a fitting indication of the role that he would play in bringing the Gospel to so many who had little opportunity of hearing or appreciating its power and appeal.
Early on, while it might have been expected that he would follow in his father's footsteps as a magistrate of the presidial court, he chose to pursue the priesthood and underwent an official ceremony at the age of ten to confirm that intention. When he was sixteen, his uncle resigned the distinguished position of Canon of the Cathedral Chapter of Reims in his favor, a title that brought with it both church responsibilities and church benefits. Every day he would now process into the grand cathedral of Reims in his ermine cope and chant the Divine Offices with his fellow canons, joining the group in advising the archbishop and undoubtedly happy at his future prospects.
A few years later, at the age of 19, De La Salle moved to Paris so that he could study at the Sorbonne while residing at the prestigious Seminary of Saint Sulpice. This seminary had been founded only twenty-five years earlier in a spirit of clerical renewal mandated by the Council of Trent a century earlier. Saint Sulpice was notable for a rigorous life style and was intended to produce priests capable of self-sacrifice and self-discipline. Its graduates were slated to hold lofty positions in the Church of France. Among the regular tasks of the seminarians was to teach catechism to the poor, which De La Salle certainly did do, although there is no indication that he found it anything other than one of the apostolic duties that was part of being a seminarian.
Within eighteen months, however, this privileged world of his changed dramatically. In the short span of a year, his mother and then his father passed away. Named as executor of the estate and guardian of the younger children, John Baptist dutifully left Paris and returned to Reims to assume the role of head of the household. This 21-year-old seminarian—still technically a minor, since the age of majority was 25—had four brothers and two sisters to take care of. Surviving documents show that his duties as guardian of his siblings and administrator of his family estate and properties were handled with meticulous care and administrative acumen. After things were relatively settled, he was advised to pursue his studies and resume his path to the priesthood. It might not have been at St. Sulpice, but the vocation was not to be denied. He was ordained a subdeacon in 1672, a deacon in 1676, and he became a priest on April 9, 1678. As for his studies, he received a licentiate in theology in 1676 and a doctorate in 1680.
Things appeared to be back on track by the time he was ordained, and De La Salle no doubt expected that he would resume his career in the Church and in sacramental ministry. Yet again, however, providence stepped in the way. Within three weeks of his ordination, his close friend and spiritual advisor, Nicholas Roland, died. In his will, Roland bade De La Salle to oversee a group of nuns that Roland had formed and established in Reims, and to obtain official recognition for them from the city authorities. This was not a mild request, since it would take at least a year to fulfill all the necessary requirements. But De La Salle took on the task and in the process learned much about the educational situation in Reims, along with the political realities involved in establishing a new charitable group in town. Hence, by the time he had finished his task and had become a good friend of the sisters, he was also well-poised to be a good advisor for any new ventures of a similar kind.
And so it was providentially that, just after having finished his work for the Sisters, the beginning of his own direct involvement in the world of education came about at that convent door of these same Sisters of the Child Jesus in March of 1679, when he happened to encounter another man coming to call on the Sisters. Adrian Nyel was a layman who had worked in Rouen for many years, providing schooling for the poor. A wealthy widow and relative of De La Salle had asked Nyel to see about founding a charity school for boys in Reims. Nyel's first call in Reims was at the convent of the teaching Sisters. Upon hearing Nyel's intentions and observing his lack of familiarity with the situation in Reims, De La Salle invited Nyel to stay at his home so that they could consult with others in the town on how to start the proposed school for poor boys.
De La Salle's help was effective, and a school was soon opened. Shortly thereafter, another wealthy woman in Reims told Nyel that she also would endow a school but only if De La Salle would ensure that her money would not be squandered or wasted. De La Salle agreed somewhat reluctantly, since he was quite busy with other affairs, but out of charity and necessity he began to become more involved with the teachers. Gradually, and without really being aware of it, he found himself becoming drawn into a very different world, the world of the poor—a world of disadvantaged students, uncultured teachers, and parents chronically oppressed by poverty.
Within a short time, Nyel was off to start yet more schools and De La Salle was left holding the bag, as it were. De La Salle knew that the teachers in Reims were struggling, lacking leadership, purpose, and training, and he found himself taking increasingly deliberate steps to help this small group of men with their work. First, in 1680, he invited them to take their meals in his home, as much to teach them table manners as to inspire and instruct them in their work. This particular crossing of social boundaries was one that his relatives found difficult to bear. Even De La Salle himself must have appreciated the contrast: a Canon of the Cathedral of Reims who was just now acquiring his doctorate mixing on a daily basis with barely literate, uncultured men that Nyel had picked up here and there, and for whom teaching was often at best a temporary vocation.
Yet De La Salle was not one to do things by halves. In 1681, De La Salle realized that he would have to take a further step—he brought the teachers into his own home to live with him. Of course now De La Salle's relatives were deeply disturbed, his social class was scandalized, and it was thought that he was carrying the Gospel a bit too far. But De La Salle could not shake the conviction that this was something that God wanted him to do, something confirmed for him in deep prayer and long reflection. A year later, De La Salle had to move to the poor part of the city, renting a house into which he and his handful of teachers moved, a house that would come to be called "the cradle of the Institute." One biographer has called the walk across town to this undistinguished home in the poorer part of town De La Salle's "personal Exodus." It was here that those who had joined this new enterprise with De La Salle first began to call themselves "Brothers."
Community life became more formalized, teaching and procedures at the three schools in Reims gradually became more regular under De La Salle's guidance, and although most of the original men left, new candidates also appeared, inspired by De La Salle's example and leadership. Within a year however, in 1683, the Brothers became concerned about their stability and their security as part of this untested enterprise. De La Salle replied to their concerns with an inspiring talk about trusting in God's Providence, like the lilies in the field. Their rather rough response was that it was easy for him to talk, being a wealthy man by birth and a canon with a large annual income, whereas they were poor, with no skills and no prospects. If the schools should fail, he would be no worse off, whereas they would be back on the streets. Instead of being upset at their impolite outburst, De La Salle took their words to heart. He did what he usually did in situations like this: reflect seriously, pray deeply, and consult widely with people of piety and wisdom.
He considered donating his personal wealth to endow the community, as other Founders had done before him and as some of the Brothers had hoped. After reflecting, praying and consulting, however, with determined conviction and a calm disposition, he resigned his position of canon at the cathedral, after serving there for some fifteen years, and in the winter of 1683-1684 he used the bulk of his family inheritance to feed the poor during a particularly severe famine. He gave away his entire fortune and kept just enough not to become a burden on the Brothers when it came to his priestly responsibilities. Thus he quickly and irrevocably joined his Brothers in real poverty. Now, they would all be fully dependent on God alone.
For a person of De La Salle's background and position as a priest to accept these laymen as his equals and colleagues, as his brothers, was beyond belief for the society of the time. Many in his family thought him to be imprudent, if not crazy, although others admired his strong faith and evident integrity. He was certainly no wall flower. In De La Salle's eyes, he could not and would not compromise when it came to the discerned will of God.
The small community was by now operating a good number of successful parish-based schools for the poor in and around Reims. De La Salle realized that in order to survive, the community had to govern itself from within, rather than from the outside, whether such outside influence came from a bishop, a parish priest, or even himself.
At the Brothers' General Assembly in 1686, a distinctive habit was approved, a vow of obedience was taken, and the name "Brothers of the Christian Schools" was officially adopted. A year later, De La Salle insisted that the Brothers elect one of their own as Superior. The Brothers reluctantly agreed, electing 24-year-old Brother Henri L'Heureux. De La Salle was the first to show strict obedience to him. Once it became known outside of the house that a priest had become subject to a layman, however, there was considerable upset in church circles. The idea of a cleric obeying a layman as his superior was scandalous, and the archbishop quickly ordered De La Salle to resume the headship of the group. He did so. But he also subsequently had the same Brother Henri begin his training for ordination, thinking that this would overcome the archbishop's objections and allow him to be Superior. However, within a short time, and much to the surprise and sadness of all, Brother Henri became ill and died. De La Salle was quite shaken by the event. But he looked for God's voice in it all and decided that from now on the Brothers would be fully devoted to education as their ministry and there would be no sacramental ministry, no priests. This would be a non-clerical religious group of men, dedicated entirely and wholly to education and the schools.
In 1688, he and two Brothers traveled to Paris, where in short order they revitalized a school for the poor in the parish of Saint Sulpice. This move was important because it established the group's autonomy and freedom from the direct diocesan control of Reims, and it allowed the Brothers in Reims to begin to develop without leaning on De La Salle's constant presence.
As the work in Paris proceeded, first at one school and then at several more, a new challenge appeared. Schools for the poor such as the Brothers ran were meant to be restricted to the certified poor. Anyone who could pay a fee for education was supposed to go to the Little Schools or to the Writing Masters and their for-profit establishments. However, the Brothers did not distinguish in their admissions between poor and non-poor. All were welcome to their free schools, and many wanted to come, including those whose families were not on the parish's Poor Register. The fee-taking teachers, through their guilds ("unions"), filed suits for infringement on their business and violation of the established regulations. This hostility, in suits, harassment, and even violence, would continue in Paris for at least the next fifteen years.
Back in Reims, meanwhile, other difficulties appeared. The sixteen Brothers there were cut in half because of defections. Others continued to oppose the work or tried to control it according to their own vision. Some devoted Brothers fell ill and died through overwork, and De La Salle himself underwent a long sickness that brought him near death. The prognosis for the new community and its work seemed suddenly bleak.
In response to this crisis, De La Salle purchased property outside of Paris, at a place called Vaugirard, and brought all the Brothers there for an extended retreat wherein he rekindled their fervor. In 1691, he also made a radical commitment to the work; he and two of his most trusted Brothers made a secret "heroic vow," committing themselves to the establishment of this enterprise "…even should we remain the only three members of the said Society, and should be obliged to beg for alms and live on bread only." This vow they took fifty years to the day after three of the founders of Saint Sulpice Seminary had taken a similar vow for the establishment of that worthy institution.
In 1694, the first assembly to be known as a General Chapter was held. At the end of the assembly, for the first time ever, perpetual vows of obedience , stability, and association for the educational service of the poor were taken by De La Salle and twelve chosen Brothers. Again De La Salle, despite his wish for a Brother to have the office, was elected Superior, twice, as he made them vote again. He finally accepted this as God's will, but insisted that the Brothers declare, in writing, that their choice of their priest-founder as Superior was not to be a precedent for the future and that "henceforth and for all time no priest or person in sacred orders is to be accepted into our Society or elected as Superior, and that we shall never admit as Superior anyone who has not associated himself with us by the same vow as we have pronounced."
Now De La Salle and the Brothers began to fortify their Society, strengthening and expanding the already flourishing schools and communities, and providing for the young candidates asking to join. De La Salle spent time writing a variety of texts, both for use in the schools and for the Brothers and their life in community, which included everything from a student reading text on politeness and decorum to a detailed method for the Brothers' interior prayer.
Between 1694 and 1709, many new schools opened, others closed, and different legal battles with opponents to this new means of providing education for the poor raged on. As lawsuits were decided against him—many of them having to do with the right to teach all who came to his doors, regardless of means or ability—he began to wonder if the welfare of the community and the prosperity of the work would benefit from his personal withdrawal from the scene. A new series of setbacks, culminating in a costly and embarrassing legal judgment—the Clément affair—convinced him that this was indeed the case.
In 1709 a wealthy young man named Clément, expressing eagerness to help the educational mission, wanted to establish a teacher training school near Paris that the Brothers would help to run. The young man (not yet legally an adult, below the age of 25) could not do so without financial help, and De La Salle fronted the money to open the establishment, in expectation of repayment from Clément. The young man, however, reneged on the deal, and his influential father, a well-known doctor in the King's court, sued to invalidate the arrangement. When the case was decided in 1712, the decision went against De La Salle, who was left without the training school or the property, was ordered to reimburse any funds received, and had his honor impugned by a judicial condemnation on the very shameful charge of suborning a minor to extort money from him. De La Salle, habitually cautious and prudent, had paid a high price for his zeal. When he foresaw that the judgment would go against him, he wisely handed all documents over to his lawyer and left Paris for an extended visit to the Brothers' establishments in the south of France—outside the Paris jurisdiction. There was really nothing left for him now in that part of France.
On this journey, which lasted more than two years, he grappled with the dispiriting evidence that his presence and activities in Paris had seemed to harm the Brothers' mission. Not all of the Brothers' communities he visited in the south of France welcomed him, as he patiently tried to repair communities that were weak or in disarray. In Marseilles, he started a novitiate to form Brothers for the schools of that area—only to see it close when the local views regarding where these new Brothers should be sent and how the Church should deal with the "Jansenism" issue came into conflict with his own. And so that enterprise came to an end and he ended up with the Brothers' community in Grenoble.
In addition to helping the Brothers where he could, even doing classroom teaching at the school in Grenoble, he spent a good deal of personal time in retreat at monasteries. His physical health was poor (his rheumatism was chronic), his long labors had worn him out, the difficulties in Paris continued to be a personal challenge, and the future was not clear. He pondered the continued usefulness of his presence within the Institute that he had worked so hard to establish. If it was now God's will to take him along a new route, he would follow. But where was God's will? Through the suggestion of a priest-friend in the area, he spent several weeks at a hermitage near Grenoble, called Parménie, conversing with a devout and pious but illiterate visionary, Sister Louise, who lived there and welcomed all who came on pilgrimage.
While in Parménie in 1714, he received a letter from the assembled Brothers of the Paris area, where external authorities were again trying to tamper with the Brothers' self-governance and rewrite their Rule. The Brothers wrote to De La Salle: "We, the principal Brothers of the Christian Schools…command you in the name of the body of this Society to which you have vowed obedience …to resume forthwith the general conduct of affairs." It seems that the independence of the Brothers that he had hoped for had different results than he had expected. The society was now capable of taking its destiny into its own hands, but the Brothers would do so by commanding him to return. After consulting with Sister Louise, who helped him to see that God's will for him still lay with his Brothers, he returned to Paris. As the Brothers in Paris opened the door to him, he said, "Here I am. What do you want me to do?"
Understanding better than his Brothers that although he might be needed, he was not essential to the success of the work, he did not quite do everything that they wished, for he allowed Brother Barthélemy, the novice master who had filled the void as nominal Superior after De La Salle had left, to remain in charge. De La Salle's presence and insights, however, did help eventually to resolve most of the difficulties that had been besetting them.
After a year in Paris, De La Salle moved to the city of Rouen with Brother Barthélemy and the novices. There, at a complex of buildings called Saint Yon—which now housed the novitiate, a boarding school, and a juvenile center—he began to make arrangements for another General Chapter. The Brothers at this time constituted 23 houses and 34 educational establishments throughout France, with 100 Brothers and some 18 novices (and one stalwart Brother, Gabriel Drolin, on solitary assignment in Rome). After Brother Barthélemy had visited all the communities to gain their agreement to the assembly, the "principal Brothers" assembled in May of 1717. At the request of the assembly, the Founder subsequently drew up a definitive revision of the Rule, based on their discussions and input. The assembly formally elected Brother Barthélemy as the new Superior, and De La Salle was assiduous in obeying the authority of the new Superior. To one correspondent who could not break the habit of consulting him, he wrote, "I beg you for the love of God, my dear Brother, that for the future you think no more about consulting me on anything. You have your superiors whom you must consult on matters spiritual and temporal. For myself there is nothing now but to prepare myself for death which must soon make my final separation from all creatures."
De La Salle did venture forth a few more times, staying at a seminary in Paris for several months on retreat, and traveling in order to accept back the money lent during the Clément affair, which the lawyer involved returned to the Brothers at his death, thus confirming the truth of De La Salle's original legal position. Providentially, this money provided the exact amount of funds needed to purchase the property that the Brothers had been renting at Saint Yon and fervently wished to buy so that their work there could be secured. De La Salle was renowned in the area, and at Saint Yon, as a confessor. He especially sought out the hardened cases among those brought in for help, and was inevitably successful in changing their ways. At the same time, he was eager in sharing with the novices his wisdom about interior prayer and cultivating the presence of God.
But his age and tireless labors were catching up to him. De La Salle became ill for many months, rallying occasionally to take up his work but finally sinking into terminal decline. Even on his deathbed his troubles did not cease. He learned that the Archbishop of Rouen had withdrawn his authorization to celebrate the sacraments for the community because of a dispute with the local pastor, who wanted him to bring the entire population of Saint Yon, including those in confinement, to his parish church for Mass. Yet his long practice of self-effacement and submission to God's will had made him tranquil in all situations. His Gospel journey had taken him long past the point at which any personal injustice could wound him. "Oui, j'adore en toutes choses la conduite de Dieu à mon égard." Translated to English: “Yes, I adore God guiding me in all the events of my life.”
At four o'clock in the morning on Good Friday, De La Salle made an effort to rise from his bed as if to greet someone, then joined his hands, raised his eyes to heaven, and died. He was buried on Holy Saturday in a side chapel of the local parish church, Saint Sever. Since it was Holy Week, the more solemn funeral rituals were delayed until the following week. Throughout Rouen, and soon throughout the Society, word spread that "the Saint is dead." But the providential extension of his life, work, and influence was just beginning.
A thorough but accessible biography of De La Salle is "The Work Is Yours" by Luke Salm, FSC; a more exhaustive one is "De La Salle: A City Saint and the Liberation of the Poor Through Education" by Alfred Calcutt, FSC. For a compact introduction to De La Salle's life and times and achievement, and an analysis of the meaning of Lasallian education today, see "Touching the Hearts of Students: Characteristics of Lasallian Schools" by George Van Grieken, FSC.