Christian brother reflects on life, future of Lasallian tradition

| Susan Klemond | January 6, 2016 | 0 Comments
Brother Paul Grass, 81, a Lasallian Christian Brother, has researched his order’s history and looks to its members, along with lay teachers and administrators worldwide, to carry on the Lasallian tradition. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Brother Paul Grass, 81, a Lasallian Christian Brother, has researched his order’s history and looks to its members, along with lay teachers and administrators worldwide, to carry on the Lasallian tradition. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Once every century during its 300-year history, the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools has faced a crisis, and the post-Vatican II period has been one of those centennial marks, according to Brother Paul Grass, a Lasallian Christian Brother who has studied and helped compile the Institute’s history.

But even as the number of brothers has declined dramatically over the past 50 years, Brother Paul said that now, through the non-consecrated lay educators who run the Institute’s flourishing schools in its pedagogic tradition, he is witnessing a revival of the lay character founder St. John Baptist de La Salle originally envisioned.

“The Institute may die, but the Lasallian charism lives on in the laity,” said Brother Paul, 81, who during his 63 years as a Christian Brother has served in roles as teacher, administrator, editor and translator in the U.S. and Europe. His work on the writings of St. John Baptist de La Salle and other prominent Institute members is helping the Institute’s 4,100 brothers, as well as lay teachers and administrators worldwide in its 1,000 high schools and universities, carry on the Lasallian tradition.

The number of brothers has declined 75 percent since 1965 in part because many are reaching retirement age, and the Institute is not attracting many vocations. Many brothers have moved from teaching into administrative work, he said, a contrast to the brother-run schools of the 1950s. At the same time, the number of students in Lasallian schools has risen from about 700,000 in 1965 to more than 1 million in 2014, he said.

“The 1950s system is over because the historic conditions, the Church membership — and the way society and the government supports or don’t support education — all of those systems have changed,” he said.

After attending Sacred Heart parish and school on St. Paul’s east side, the St. Paul native thought about becoming a Christian Brother as a Cretin High School junior because he admired the brothers’ teaching and respect they had for each other.

When he entered the Institute in 1952, 10 percent of his high school class of 185 also pursued religious life or priesthood, he said.

Brother Paul wanted to teach and saw that becoming a religious brother rather than a priest would allow him to dedicate his vocation to education rather than priestly duties.

The vocation of a religious brother “is in itself an exercise in the fullness of the priesthood of all the baptized,” according to a document released in December by the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

Beginning in high school, Brother Paul said he recognized the importance of the laity. Although he is a consecrated religious, his life has a lay character to it, he said. Consecration in the Institute is one of three elements integrated into the Christian Brother vocation, along with community and ministry, he said.

“You’re not called to holiness in the sense of some mystic, special state in life that somehow gives you some honor or respect,” he said. “Your ministry is to serve these students. You are in a particular time and place in a community dedicated to schools and to give students access.”

From 1957 to 1967, Brother Paul served as a high school teacher and assistant principal in Amarillo, Texas, and Chicago. For the next 20 years he held administrative positions, mostly at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona and within the Institute. Brother Paul also spent semesters at the International Lasallian Center in Rome where he rediscovered St. John Baptist de La Salle 20 years after his formation.

In 1988 he first served regionally and then internationally as the Institute’s secretary general. Ten years later he wrote, edited and translated editions of St. John Baptist de La Salle’s work for St. Mary’s Press in Winona. Later he helped translate a book by the late French Brother Michel Sauvage that chronicles the Institute in the 20th century.

In the nearly 50 years they’ve known each other, fellow Lasallian Brother Bill Clarey hasn’t served in ministry with Brother Paul, but he recognizes his contributions, including the work on Brother Michel’s writings.

“That’s one of Paul’s talents,” Brother Bill said. “He’s an excellent writer. . . . He’s a super scholar, and it would be wonderful if he were 35 instead of in his senior years.”

Brother Paul learned from Brother Michel’s work that maintaining the traditional brother-run school structure is no longer possible in the U.S., Canada and Europe, but said a new structure may be emerging.

As the brothers continue to figure out their new role, Brother Paul said, they continue to pass on the 300-year-old Lasallian spiritual and educational tradition to a new generation of brothers and lay educators.

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Category: Vocations