Today is the feast day of Saint John Baptist de Salle. Ora pro nobis.
Saint John Baptist was born of the nobility of Rheims in 1651. While still a boy, he felt a profound nausea at a social gathering regarding everything that surrounded him. He spoke to a cousin, who recognized something special in the boy and began to read the lives of the saints to him. (6)
At age eleven he received the tonsure, and in 1667 he was solemnly installed as a canon of the See of Rheims. In 1670 he was sent to Paris to study theology at the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice. While residing there he attended lectures in theology at the Sorbonne. There, he came under the spiritual direction of the well-known Msgr. Louis Tronson and made rapid progress in virtue. (6)
In July 1671 his mother died. A year later, his father also died. This obliged him to leave Paris and return home. At age 21 and as head of the family, he had the responsibility of educating his brothers and sisters. (6)
At that time, a wealthy lady in Rouen had founded a free school for orphan boys. The model was brought to Rheims by a lay teacher, Arien Niguel, who was hosted by John Baptist de la Salle in his house. This contact opened his eyes to the need for the Catholic education of poor boys, and he undertook the task of preparing teachers for these schools. Later, St. John de la Salle wrote in a memoir:
“If I had ever thought that what I did out of pure charity for the poor school teachers would make it incumbent upon me to live with them, I would have given it up at once. I used to consider their condition lower than that of the servants, which would have made the idea of living with them something insupportable.” (6)
He was ordained priest by the Archbishop of Reims, on Holy Saturday, 9 April, 1678, at the age of 27. It was said that to see him at the altar was sufficient to give an unbeliever faith in the Real Presence of Our Lord. The people would wait for him to come from the church to consult him. His life was marked by a rule he set for himself, to maintain perfect regularity in all his duties. (1)
The young priest was a model of piety, and his biographers say that persons went to assist at his Mass to be edified, and to share his piety. After Mass there were many who sought his counsel and put themselves under his spiritual guidance. De la Salle never omitted Holy Mass, save when prevented by sickness. In June, 1680, he submitted to his final examination and took his doctorate in theology. At this period of his life de la Salle evinced a docility of spirit, a self-diffidence, that bespoke the character of the man and saint. In physical appearance he was of commanding presence, somewhat above the medium height, and well-proportioned. He had large, penetrating blue eyes and a broad forehead. His portraits present a picture of sweetness and dignity, beaming with intelligence and breathing an air of modesty and refined grace. A smile plays about the finely chiseled lips and illumines a countenance to which the large lustrous eyes give an air of commanding intelligence. (1)
He began the mission of St. John Baptist: the organization of free primary Catholic schools for poor boys, and the foundation of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, commonly called the Christian Brothers. By assuming this initiative, he indirectly put not only his relatives but almost all his city against him, since at the time the notion of providing education for the lower classes was novel and not accepted.
When he wrote the rules for this Institute, he wanted its members to live without money, confiding in Divine Providence. His companions murmured, saying that this was very easy for him, a canon with a good income, but not for the others. He left his position and distributed his goods to the poor. Then his disciples complained that it was a crime to not distribute the goods among them instead of the poor.
Soon after the institute and the schools were organized, persecutions started against the lay teachers. Just seeing them in their habit was motive for their opponents to boo them in the streets and throw mud in their faces.
He defended frequent Communion for the lay teachers and boys, which raised the ire of the Jansenists and caused him to be abandoned by many of his disciples. (6)
Fr. John Baptist’s later years were spent at the College of Saint Yon in Rouen, where the novitiate functioned. In 1716 he resigned from the active direction and government of the Institute. The priest in charge of the noviate took advantage of the situation to mistreat him.
Two days before he died, the Archbishop of Rouen, due to the frequent polemics St. John Baptist raised, deprived him of his priestly powers, as if he were an unworthy priest. The Saint smiled and said: “I hope to be liberated shortly from Egypt, and enter into the Promised Land of the elect.” (6)
He achieved his aim on April 7, 1719, a Good Friday, at the age of 67. He was canonized by Leo XIII on 24 May 1900.
De la Salle is entitled to be ranked among the advanced educators of the eighteenth century and among the greatest thinkers and educational reformers of all time. His system embraces the best in the modern educational methods. He gave an impetus to the higher educational progress which is the distinctive mark of modern times, and bequeathed to is own disciples, and to educators in general, a system of teaching which is adaptable to the wants of school-going youth in every country. But it was especially as a priest that John Baptist de la Salle loved his vocation as an educator. Like St. Ignatius Loyola, he taught letters that he might have the right to teach Christian doctrine. In claiming this privilege de la Salle was actuated by the highest and purest motives. There was nothing narrow in his educational plans. He was too wise not to realize the necessity that the truest and best children of the Church should be among the most skilled in human affairs. His view was from the summit, therefore, broad and comprehensive. Intellectual training was supplemented by a complete course of Christian morals. Man had a destiny, and the teacher was to inculcate this truth by cultivating and developing the theological virtues in the souls of the children. (3)
Image: Crop of Jean-Baptiste de La Salle gravé par L. Chapon, d’après Charles Müller, 1887. (7)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff
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