Homily given in the Generalate of the Brothers of the Christian Schools (Rome May
Mgr. Jean-Louis Bruguès, o.p.
Secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education
The Young are our Teachers
Where should we look for Christ? Where can we find him, and how can we follow him? As people would say nowadays, these are the “fundamental” questions of Christian life. In fact, they are questions of life and death, that is, of grace, salvation and love. And, as it happens, the gospel we have just read provides us with an answer: “Anyone who welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me”. We have no problem imagining the scene. The disciples are having a heated discussion about the same old questions: Who is the greatest? Who is more important than the others? Who can be in charge? We would be wrong to think these questions were futile or out of place. If we plumb the depths of our own heart, we find them there, formulated in the same or in a similar way; because, if the truth be told, when we encounter other people, there is present initially an element of confrontation and rivalry. The initial impression is threatening, we see a grimacing mask. So, yes, these are questions of life and death.
As usual, Jesus does not give a theoretical answer; he gives a practical illustration. He takes a child and places him in the middle - an important detail - of the group of disciples. “Unless you become as this child you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven”, he said to them. Let us make no mistake about this: Jesus does not give us this child as an example. He had no need to wait for the arrival of Freud who described the child as a “polymorphous pervert”, and in any case, the purity attributed to the child is largely the product of a romantic view of things. The gospel does not recommend any kind of infantile regression; it does not seek to make us stupid or naive. No, the child presented by Jesus is a fragile and dependent creature, who needs others to support him in order to become himself. We are invited, therefore, to recognize ourselves also as children, sons of the same Father, whose providential teaching supports us so that we can become ourselves, fulfilling the dream that God has planned for each one of us.
Jesus ends with a warning: “Anyone who welcomes in my name a child like this welcomes me”. To be faithful to the text, we need to say “to me in person”. Few recommendations have been followed as literally as this one. For a very long time, perhaps from the very beginning, the Church has taken particular care of the education of children. It is, in a way, the same maternal instinct that led it very early on to confer baptism on little children, and to ensure their human nature was baptized also by an education in which the power of the gospel acts and is made visible. The Church has dedicated to this task the best of her faithful; and she has raised an impressive number of them to the altars. Suffice it to mention here a few of the best known ones : John Eudes and John Bosco, Angela Merici, Peter Canisius and, of course, Saint John Baptist de La Salle who, on May 15th 1950, that is, exactly 60 years ago, was proclaimed by Pope Pius XII Patron of all Teachers, and to whose disciples I personally owe so much.
By coming to you, Dear Brothers, I wish to pay a debt of gratitude. For 10 years, from 1948 to 1958, I was a pupil of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in a small town in the south of France. As I was preparing this homily, I wanted to reread some of the works of your Founder. I chanced upon the following passage which you must know by heart, and which I think summarizes the creative spirit of Monsieur De La Salle : “The end of this Institute is to give a Christian education to children; it is for this purpose the Brothers keep schools, that, having the children under their care from morning until evening, they may teach them to lead good lives, by instructing them in the mysteries of our holy religion and by inspiring them with Christian maxims, and thus give them a suitable education” (Common Rules, ch. 1). From morning until evening, in a spirit of community, so characteristic of your houses, we, teachers and pupils, had to build a kind of town of which the prince was a child. By that I mean, that the pupil was, as Jesus recommended, the focus of the concerns of his disciples. It was a town where one learned the art of living, that is, “the art of living good lives”, as we have just heard. There was here, in this group of boys living together “from morning until evening”, to use the words of your Founder, as it were, a novitiate of life, in which, at the same time as passions were discovered and gave a foretaste of their power, we were taught the art of mastering them so as not to be overwhelmed by them.
In this same passage, John Baptist de La Salle recommended that children be taught the “mysteries of our holy religion”. The spirit of faith is still a characteristic of your spirituality. Let me share a secret with you: when I joined the Dominicans, I underwent like everybody else the long apprenticeship of theology, but I did not learn anything really new. Of course, advanced studies enabled us to develop our knowledge and opened new horizons for us, but the essence of theology had been given to me by the Brothers of the Christian Schools. Naturally, initiation into the Christian mystery had been given to us according to our ability, but it was given in its totality. Since then, I have simply dug deeper. Equipped with this coherent luggage, this viaticum, each one found himself launched into life, like a small boat on the sea. Each one used it as he thought fit, drawing from it the resources of his faith or simply the formula for an upright life. Others preferred to forget everything: Christian education is also an education in freedom.
At a time when we are being subjected to a campaign without precedent, one which seeks to discredit Catholicism and, in particular, its mission to young people, it is good to ask ourselves the following question: Why is the Church so passionate about education? Why is education, why is this zeal, as John Baptist de La Salle would have said, so highly prized? By acting in this way, the Church is not simply satisfying its own need for survival; it is not concerned first of all about its own future or that of humanity, even if at a time when we have begun a new millennium it has made insistent appeals to the young. No, it is proclaiming a basic but ignored truth: young people are our teachers.
Young people are our teachers because they dislodge us from ourselves; they drag us out of the private spaces where we have piled up our certainties, convictions and even our tiredness of life. To our eyes, often clouded by the evils of our age, they stress the positive things about our society and its culture. The exploits of technology and the promises of science enthrall them. It was several months before I was able to use a computer more or less properly, while my godchildren became conversant with the complicated language of information technology, treating it all as if it were a game. Younger generations love nature, care for birds covered in oil, defend the environment, and remind us of our duties to this good old earth, which they are already preparing to take over as their heritage. They seek peace and protest against unjust discrimination. They travel much more than anyone did in the past and, at massive gatherings, as at Rome, Taizé, St James of Compostella, or during the World Youth Days, they discover that what unites them is stronger than what separates them. They remind our often tired minds of reasons for hope.
Young people have introduced even into our venerable Church a new breath of air which resembles greatly that of the Holy Spirit. The Charismatic movement is young people. The renewal of religious life with its daring, original and new forms is young people. The rediscovery of prayer as a fundamental dimension of Christian life is also young people. How many discouraged faithful, how many disillusioned priests have rediscovered through contact with them the meaning of praise, of intercession and of interior life? They assure us that our culture, that some have called post-Christian perhaps too hastily, is still waiting for the salvation brought by Christ. They prepare for new missions, and volunteer to promote this “second evangelization” which the Church is calling for.I should like to end with a beautiful little story which itself would have been quite enough to meditate on. The story comes from one of the early Christian legends. Seven young aristocrats from Ephesus were going to be put to death because they were suspected of being followers of Christ. The Emperor Diocletian called them into his presence, but, moved by their “blossoming youth”, as the text puts it, he gave them their freedom. A deep sleep enabled them to survive the persecutions and, once the danger had passed, the breath of God awoke them with their youth intact. Youth makes death ineffective. Youth is the epiphany of a transcendence which will never occur again. It is the first sign; for Christians, the first sacrament; for philosophers, the first “analogue”, of divine eternity. And so we understand now what Christ was saying when he said: “Unless you become as this child you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven”.