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Christian Brothers search for authenticity.

ROME - In 1990 in Geneva, on a platform alongside United Nations dignitaries, Christian Brother John Calvin Johnston accepted the UNESCO Noma Award for the Christian Brothers schools' work in combating illiteracy (see accompanying story).

It was an extremely bright moment in a somewhat mixed picture for "the brothers," the 7,800 remaining spiritual descendants of their French founder, John Baptist de La Salle, who work with 50,000 teachers and 858,000 students in 80 countries.

"All religious orders have suffered losses," said Johnston, the Christian Brothers' Rome-based superior general, "but brothers have suffered more. We're the largest order of brothers, and we have suffered most. We are down 50 percent through numerous departures, deaths and the lack of vocations."

Johnston quotes the Jesuit Father General, Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach: "The same crisis is present in the clerical orders, but many religious are hiding behind their priesthood - living like diocesan priests."

Said Johnston, who spends half his year traveling the globe visiting the largely decentralized Christian Brothers provinces and LaSallian schools, "I am convinced there are vocations, but only if we're authentic."

That authenticity has much to do with looking at what specifically a brother's vocation is: "who we're supposed to be, what we're supposed to do, and how we're supposed to do it," he said. "We were terribly dependent, all religious orders shared that dependency. Then we went through a period of excessive independence and individualism - at which point it was necessary to remind ourselves that the individual is there to serve the order, not the order to serve the individual."

Johnston, 59, said that brothers are "realizing now what they always knew: You don't have to be a brother to teach, or to catechize, or to be a youth minister or headmaster. So the question arises, |Why am I here?' and that's a healthy question, but a painful one and many decided to take another path."

The Christian Brothers vision of mission is one of collaboration with the laity. Their schools - even when there were a majority of lay teachers - were still always the "brothers' schools." That concept has changed. "That model just collapsed," said Johnston, "it made no sense." So dramatic is the lay involvement now in Christian Brothers establishments that when the order gathers in Rome in April, 17 of the delegates will be laypeople.

A former teacher, Johnston keeps an eye on today's youth. He speaks highly of young Catholics in Spain, where he recently spent two months; laments the "pretty profound" de-Christianization of France, where even Catholic schools aren't pushing the religious dimension too strongly; and sees indifference in Germany and Holland, where 20 years ago there was youthful hostility to religious teaching.

In the United States, however, students now have religion classes four or five days a week, a marked change from two decades ago and an interest level unheard of in Europe.

The order has a LaSallian Volunteer Program, where volunteers live in community with the brothers - a variation on most religious-order programs. One location for U.S. students has been in Greensboro, Miss. In France, students are able to serve in the volunteer program as an alternative to compulsory military service.

The future? There are 184 vocations worldwide, 54 of them in Africa, quite insufficient to the needs. Many U.S. brothers in the past decade have gone, even at an advanced age, to help the Africans build strong Christian Brothers' schools and brothers' communities. "There is a forward progress," said Johnston, up for re-election in April, "I see that."

And if he's not re-elected, he said, he would like to continue to use his international experience, but he possibly sees Africa in his future, too.

Brothers teach all sorts and all nations every which way

ROME - In France, the Christian Brothers take the school to the children. They use buses as mobile classrooms, which they drive to gypsy encampments. Getting the children into the class is a separate problem.

In Zipaquira, Colombia, 17-year-old students teach reading and writing to youngsters in a poor quarter of the city. Through Radio San Gabriel in La Paz, Bolivia, the Christian Brothers offer literacy programs over the airwaves to more than 1.5 million Aymara people in Bolivia, Peru and Chile.

The brothers provide books and texts for the course, and each year about 45,000 Aymara visit the radio station.

In Toronto and Quebec in Canada, brothers and students work with new refugees; in New York City, the 15-year-old St. Martin de Porres School in Springfield Gardens has been a school for those thrown out of school. In the Bronx, Highbridge Community Life Center (originally founded by two Dominican Sisters) offers literacy and cultural programs for adults, plus care for people with AIDS and counseling for families and young adults.

Los Angeles' Instituto Miguel Hidalgo is an adult school for Latin Americans; New Orleans Christian Brothers' School runs the Hope House Adult Learning Center. Young Rhode Islanders in trouble with the law can work with brothers at Narrangasetts' Ocean Tides House. Nearby, West Warwick has the Tides Family Services, an outreach that tries to help young people stay out of Ocean Tides. In Philadelphia, Saint Gabriel's Hall provides therapy, counseling, education and a sense of discipline to 200 boys, ages 12 to 18, in difficulty, youngsters usually sent by the court system.

Around the country and around the world, "we look on the schools now as |impact centers,'" said Christian Brothers superior general Brother John Johnston. "One building in Mexico serves as three different schools at different times of day: It is our regular school in the morning, and the fees paid there support a free school in the afternoon. In the evening it is a school for adults. Educational services for the whole community."

The cumulative effect is notable and noticeable. And when it came to UNESCO's attention during Literacy Year, the figures added up to 70,000 young people annually - outside the regular LaSallian enrollment - learning to read and write in LaSallian schools. And add to that tens of thousands of adults.
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Title Annotation:Religious Orders
Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 19, 1993
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