Today, Catholic Christians celebrate the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
One of the major themes of the Scriptures for today is that of humility, especially for those who God calls to be leaders.
In St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, for example, we read,
“Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God” (1 Corinthians 1: 26-29).
This message should come as no surprise, for Jesus was always lifting up the underdogs of society – those who were poor, marginalized, sick, or elderly. This emphasis on the lowly of society forms the basis of Catholic social teaching.
But although St. Paul notes how most of the Christians, including their leaders, were simple people, we should not jump to the conclusion that one has to be poor or of a lower social class to be a good leader. On the contrary, there have been many great leaders in our Church who were born in comfortable circumstances and carried the message of Jesus with great ability.
Today, we look at the life of one such person. Though he came from the wealthy class, he never forgot Jesus’ command to give preferential option to the poor. His name was John Baptist de la Salle.
John was born to a wealthy family in Rheims, France on April 29, 1651. He was the first of seven children. While studying to become a priest, John’s parents died, and he was left to care for his four brothers and two sisters. This he did.
When his siblings were cared for adequately, John continued his studies to become a priest and was ordained in 1678. Two years later, he earned a Doctorate in Theology.
As a new priest, John helped a new congregation of religious women – The Sisters of the Child Jesus – who cared for the sick and taught poor girls.
Perhaps because of the Sisters’ work with educating poor girls, Fr. John decided to help educate poor boys. At that time, poor boys had little hope for the future, and the teachers in Rheims lacked leadership, training, and purpose.
Soon, Fr. John began inviting teachers in his home to inspire them. Members of Fr. John’s social class were very angry with him for crossing social barriers, for teachers were considered to be in a much lower social class than them. Instead of stopping John, their haughty criticism only emboldened him. Therefore, he began not only inviting teachers to dinner, he began inviting them to live in his rectory.
Soon, Fr. John began establishing schools, and soon he founded a new religious community called the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools – more commonly known as the Christian Brothers. This was the first Catholic religious community of men that did not have priests as members – except for Fr. John.
Church leaders resisted this new order of laymen, and the education establishment criticized Fr. John’s schools because they used modern methods of education. Not only did they teach regular subjects, they also taught the Catholic faith. Thus, Fr. John has the honor of being called the “Founder of Catholic Schools.” He even instituted the first school to educate teachers. Fr. John died on April 7, 1719, and Pope Leo XIII canonized him in 1900. St. John Baptist de la Salle is a patron saint of Catholic schools, principals, and teachers.
The work of St. John Baptist de la Salle has continued and expanded throughout the world. Today, Catholic schools thrive in many countries including our own. Consistently, students educated in Catholic students seek higher education at a much greater rate than students from public schools, and Catholic Christians hold a disproportionate number of doctoral degrees in the United States compared to the percentage of Catholics in the country.
In our own parish, St. John Baptist de la Salle’s heritage is seen continuing in St. Mary Catholic School, the oldest and finest Catholic school in the State of North Carolina. It is my hope, and that of the faculty and staff of the school, that any student who wants to enter the school should have that opportunity. We are trying very hard to ensure that every student who qualifies for admission gets admitted. Please see me if you are interested, and I will steer you to the correct people to make your dreams come true.
Finally, just as Fr. John Baptist de la Salle’s social class criticized him for giving preferential option to the poor, parish leaders are criticized today for the same thing. This, however, is Catholic teaching. Further, we should not fear, for that is what Jesus talked about in today’s Gospel when he said, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5: 10).
And that is the good news I have for you on the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2017.
Story source: Anonymous, “St. John Baptist de la Salle,” in Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
New Full Edition: April, Revised by Peter Doyle. Collegeville, MN: Burns & Oates/The Liturgical Press, 1999, pp. 44-51.