Saint John Baptist de la Salle, Priest
A cowboy mounts a horse and lassos a calf to show the next cowboy how to wrangle. A fisherman tosses a net into the ocean so that his son learns to put fish on the table for dinner. And a good teacher teaches an apprentice how to teach. The passing on of professional knowledge doesn’t happen by accident. Those who are skilled teach those who are less so. Today’s saint, John Baptiste de la Salle, was a lifelong educator, an excellent teacher who had innovative and effective ideas on how to educate youth. Most importantly, he also had faith, perseverance, and the administrative skills to bring his educational vision to fulfillment in the face of stiff resistance.
A good teacher must do much more than master the content of what he teaches. He must do more than manage his classroom. A good teacher is an artist who combines mastery of content with psychological insights, discipline, charm, preparedness, and love, all in careful equilibrium. At the time St. Jean Baptiste began to teach teachers, the custom in France was to teach children Latin. And once they had learned Latin sufficiently, the custom was to teach the students every other subject in Latin. Lower class, poorer children, were often not taught at all or only for a few brief years. Jean Baptiste wanted all children to have access to a good education, for their schooling to be free of charge, and for classes to be in French. These ideals, combined with his own charm, holiness, and upper class savoir faire, drew many idealistic young men to his side. They wanted to be teachers. They wanted to dedicate themselves to the Lord. And their high ideals were satisfied in the person and vision of Jean Baptiste de La Salle.
So many gathered around him that Jean Baptiste founded an Order which was, after his death, officially recognized by the Church – the Christian Brothers. The members of his Order were specifically not to be ordained to the Priesthood so that sacramental responsibilities would not distract them from teaching. His Christian Brothers also had no obligation to pray the Divine Office (the Breviary). The Office was the standard cycle of psalms prayed by every single religious in every convent or monastery every single day. Not praying the Office alleviated the Christian Brothers of an immense responsibility and further underlined their vocation to serve their students and no one and nothing else.
For all his successes in opening new schools, however, Jean Baptiste had setbacks. He was verbally attacked, sued in court, and vilified by some religious Orders and clerics. They saw his free schools and universal educational goals as a threat to their own local monopolies on education. Jean Baptiste dealt with all of this with admirable courage, humility, and magnanimity. It’ not easy times that make one great. It’s hardship, adversity, and persecution. Jean Baptiste’s trials made a good man into a great man, and a great man into a saint. He was one of many saints born in 17th century France. The Counter Reformation impetus behind so many great saints of 16th century Italy and Spain arrived later to France. But it arrived no less fervent.
When his teaching apostolate needed funds to expand, Jean Baptiste inherited a fortune from his parents. He was tempted to use it to open new schools to implement his educational vision. Instead, he donated his inheritance to the poor and decided to rely only upon providence for the support of his schools. God richly rewarded his deep trust. The Christians Brothers are active in numerous countries, operating over a thousand educational institutions. The legacy of their dynamic founder continues today.
St. John Baptiste de la Salle, through your intercession, give all teachers of the Faith the perseverance, grace, and love they need to teach the uneducated, especially the poor and those who struggle to learn. Your determination and example inspires. Your heavenly assistance guarantees fruitfulness.