Monday, August 7, 2006

Who Are These Christian Brothers?

I was a fourteen years old graduate of the Paulist Gammar School where I was protected and taught by the loving and maternal Holy Cross Sisters. Soon, I was to be thrown into the care of some mysterious, tall, black robed men known as the Irish Christian Brothers.[1] It was rumored that each one of them had a brown strap hidden in his Robes which he would whip out at the slightest provocation. Teen aged boys allegedly trembled in fear at the very sight of this tool of control! Horror stories of beatings and strange goings on swept our neighborhood. . I was in a near panic.

My good Jewish father had wanted me to go to nearby Commerce High school where I would learn business basics for “making it” in this tough world. Besides, it was free. No tuition. No fees. All the freebies one would need. And, on the other hand, the Brothers at this fancy sounding school, Power Memorial Academy, would charge ten dollars a month! And they taught “useless” stuff like English Literature, French, Latin and Religion!

However, my simple Irish Catholic mother, though usually acquiescing to my father’s wishes, stamped and stomped her way to my enrolling at a Catholic High school. With marvelous trust in the Almighty, she knew that although we had no money, somehow the Lord would figure out a way of digging up that enormous sum each month! And, of course, the Lord came through in the person of a gentle Paulist Father, Fr. Paul Ward, who paid my tuition for the four years, enabling me to have one of the most satisfying, productive educational experiences of my life.

The school was located in Harlem, on 124th street right off Lenox Avenue. Power Memorial Academy was actually three or four crummy looking, old brownstone houses. And into them were crammed several hundred boys, a cramped “lunchroom” in the basement, a tiny chapel on the second floor, “classrooms” where walls had been broken down to accommodate the young scholars, a back yard passing as recreation space adorned with primitive basketball hoops and, of course, quarters for the Brothers.[2] It was not Phillips Exeter or Fordham Prep but we all loved it.

These men had unbelievable dedication to the kids. They were superb educators. They were strong masculine role models and exemplars of Faith. They did demand excellence in scholarship which resulted in an impressive record of college scholarships and generally a sense of “how to study” for the students. The stories of beatings were largely mythical, the kind of exaggeration one might hear sitting before the fireplace on a winter’s night. If the strap was used at all, it was largely symbolic, amounting to no more than a slight sting on the hand. It never destroyed the psyche as is claimed by the contemporary bleeding hearts of Public schools. On the contrary, most of the boys who got so disciplined knew they deserved it and understood its meaning. It was not only justice but love. It helped us mature and become truly masculine. One need only check the reactions of Power alumni over the years to realize how strong was the bond between the Brothers and students.

I needed 10 cents each day for the subway in addition to my homemade sandwich which I always found in my satchel through the “courtesy” of my mother (or grandmother when Mom was away on a job). Here I learned the practical meaning of “God will provide” or, as the Brothers taught me, Deus Providebit. I never worried about the daily dime or the sandwich. I knew they would be there. It left me free to enjoy the thrill of learning about Caesar and Vercingetorix, the dynamics of the quadratic equation, the fluid sound of “Bon jour, mes enfants”[3], the fun of Shakespeare and the endless excitement of the opened mind. It also pervasively taught me, almost like an osmosis, what it means to be a Catholic.

Where in God’s Providence did these guys come from? How did they wind up in the Inner City teaching dirty necks like me the basics of reading, writing and computing? What made them tick?

It started in Co. Waterford, Ireland with a layman named Edmund Rice (1762-1844), a prosperous businessman whose wife had died leaving him with a seriously ill daughter. It was a time when his land had been oppressed by foreign powers leaving the Irish impoverished and generally uneducated. This man who had a lively devotion to the Mother of God, the Blessed Mother, decided to spend some time teaching the many urchins floundering aimlessly around Waterford, giving them some skills in making a living. He did teach them basic computation and reading but it was always against the background of the Catholic Faith. Edmund who has been declared Blessed by the Catholic Church believed in the eternal destiny of all while at the same time being apparently a hard headed Merchant who knew how to turn pig’s ear into a silk purse. He was a Believer who like all saints will have empty pockets and “impossible” dreams but will dare to challenge the “Common Sense” of the world.

His charisma, wonderful to most, insane to others, drew scores of good hearted men who eventually developed into that Congregation then called Irish Christian Brothers and now the Congregation of Christian Brothers. No longer just Irish[4] but Indian, African, Australian, American, Hispanic and even English names dot the International Roster of the Congregation.

But it is always the spirit and vision of Rice which dominates the Monks. Although they number noted scholars in their ranks, they all commit to caring for the young. Recently, I had dinner with an old friend who, as a teenager, was totally disoriented relative to his future. By some strange twist of God’s plan, “Ray” entered Power Memorial and indeed was truly saved. A young Br. “Boney” Power took him over, directed him personally and educationally, to a career in the Board of Education of New York City where he became an able and successful leader. Now in retirement he openly (and often) states that his life was saved by Br. Power. Once a confused agnostic, he is today a practicing and proud Catholic. This is the plan of Edmund Rice and one which has been realized thousands of times around the world since those difficult early days in Waterford.

In my years in South Africa, my initial impression of these Monks was re-enforced and highlighted endless times. They ran the prototypic high level Secondary school in Kimberly, the number one school in the country. The Headmaster, Br. McManus was called “Mr. Education” nationwide. He was consulted by Government Ministers as the ultimate source of “What to do” in this field. I gave an annual retreat to them at Kimberly, went on vacation with them, played tennis with them and shared their lives as much as a non-Monk could. But it was always the same. Dedication. Faith. Commitment to the young. Continual Study. True fraternity. Edmund Rice was written all over them.

I met them in Fiji where they ran a top level school in the Inner city for the indigenous children. They greeted me with warmth and hospitality, even introducing me to the bitter local brew as the natives clapped their hands in delight. I met them in Hawaii where they run a top school for American kids of that area. I was welcomed as their “Brother” and shared their food and shelter. Edmund Rice, who probably never left Ireland physically, was spiritually right there smiling and encouraging them. I met them in Sydney, Australia, where they invited me to share my thoughts at their National Education Convention. Edmund. Edmund. Edmund. He was always there also—urging, challenging, even demanding his spiritual sons to carry on the Message of Jesus.

In my own years at the “Academy” I was obviously drawn myself to become “Brother” Lloyd so attractive and symbiotic to me was their life It was all I ever yearned for—with one monumental exception! I had a huge and undeniable need to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Why couldn’t I be a Brother and priest at the same time?[5] I understand very well that the Vocation to be a Brother is a special and separate call. When Br. John Mark Egan, the superb Christian psychologist was asked why he didn’t become a priest and go “all the way”, he correctly and profoundly replied: “Then I couldn’t be a Brother…” In the mysterious and beautiful makeup of the Mystical Body of Jesus, there are different and equal “calls” as the Blessed Apostle Paul tells us.

Perhaps, one of the three greatest human beings of my life was Br. A.A. Loftus (called “Austie” by the insiders). No one so deeply influenced me on multiple levels. He is the one who invited me to “come along with us” i.e. join the Monks. Like so many others, I wanted to be like him. He was an incredible scholar who taught me Virgil’s Aeneas, Solid Geometry[6], Trig, American History, Catholic theology, Cicero’s orations on Cataline, the Odes and Epodes of Horace.. All on superior levels of teaching. He was a top flight athletic coach winning in successive years the City championships in both basketball and baseball. He was extremely devout in his Faith, deeply Catholic, loyal to the Magisterium. Yet, as with many intellectuals, he relaxed with detective stories and Yankee ball games in the stadium.

If he was displeased with us, we were exceedingly uncomfortable. His approval was essential. When as an insufferable Big Shot senior of 17, I was “goofing off” (slacking in my studies) he ordered me to school on a Saturday intending to whack me over the bottom. As I bent over the desk, with my knees quivering, his basic sensitivity took over and he relented with a verbal reprimand. I had been on the verge of leaving school in mid-year, possibly for a dead-end and mediocre life. Austie set me straight for what I consider my own “great ride”.

Austie, the Ph.D. par excellence, became the Professor of philosophy at Iona College, later President of the College, later Provincial of the Brothers of North America and finally, the top dog, the Superior General of the world wide Congregation. After his retirement, I met him at Power; in fact in the Brothers chapel where he sat mystically gazing at his Eucharistic Lord in the Tabernacle. I had been deeply impressed, as a teenager, at his bouncing into the little Chapel at Power before class, oodles of books under his arm, with a quick genuflection asking the Master’s guidance on his day. I asked him if he was planning to return to Iona to teach philosophy. He laughingly replied that he was going to a high school because “that is where all the fun is.” It was in a high school chapel that he was stricken and quickly was taken to his Lord and Master.

I have been invited several times to preach the Annual Retreat to the Monks at Power, Iona and elsewhere, It has been a strange feeling for me to see the wise, holy, wonderful Monks sitting before me listening with incredible humility to my words on the Spiritual Life. There was Br. Tom Perry at ninety with his hand cupped to his ear least he miss any of my spiritual gems (?). It was he who taught me French, English composition and basic theology! There was the genial, scholarly Br. Blondie Vaughan who taught me about the angles and triangles of Plane Geometry. There were Provincials and scholars and skilled professors listening with some pride to one of “their boys.”

For ten years in my own retirement, I was privileged to say Mass for these Brothers as they became old and infirm. In a beautiful facility run by the Brothers themselves, the grand old men who gave so much of their love, talent and Faith for others wait patiently for their call to the Lord. Even with age and illness burdening them, they almost automatically radiate Edmund’s spirit. They are for others. They always welcomed me, their brother who was a priest as one of their own, making me feel at home with them. Sometimes, they made me laugh as did the Alzheimeric Brother who ran up to me one morning to announce that he was getting married the next day. I kiddingly asked if his bride was good looking and he replied with a satisfied and beaming “absolutely.” Others I comforted and encouraged as they worried about their very few inadequacies prior to meeting God. I was so grateful to minister to my dear friend, Br. Alexander Thomas as he lay dying in the Hawthorne hospice. He with whom I had so much fun competing in Bridge games and who in his own way taught me so many of the delights that God provides--- the cigar, the goblet with Grand Marnier, the French jokes------

So many wonderful memories I have of these good men, these sons of Edmund, these champions of and believers in young people. Who are these Christian Brothers? How much time does one have to listen…. “Arma virumque cano…..”I sing of religious men and their battle against ignorance, bigotry, coldness and that which is not of God.
It has been my pleasure and privilege along with literally thousands of others to say:
“I know them and they know me.” May God be praised.

[1] The title IRISH Christian Brothers was subsequently changed to Congregation of Christian Brothers as a more accurate reflection of the ethnic makeup of the more recent vocations to the Community. CFC is the present official “sign” after each Brother’s name.
[2] When one got on the “inside” one learned that they were called “Monks”
[3] Br. Tom Perry entered the classroom each morning thusly greeting us in French. with a pronounced Irish accent
[4] Indeed Ireland no longer supplies recruits as of the old days. Irish Vocations are almost non existent. It is India, New Guinea, Africa and what was known as the Mission area which keeps the Congregation alive. The present Brother “General” or Leader is from India.
[5] In fact, years later, as the Director of Pastoral Counseling at Iona College, I became the first priest to become an associate Brother, entitling me to add CFC to my name.
[6] He demanded in his scholarship class that everyone who took the Regents exam in Solid Geom., get 100% on the exam. This was “passing” to him. I who could hardly add, under his leadership, aced the exam with 100%. His secret was check and check and check your work. Repetition was his answer.

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