June 26, 2011
Celebrating Chaminade Year: A Case for Schools
Many people’s first memory of the Society of Mary can be traced to one unforgettable day: that awkward, yet hopeful, moment when they first set foot on the campus of a Marianist middle school, high school or university. Blessed William Joseph Chaminade, founder of the Marianists, and his early followers believed that if they could be at the threshold of this experience, offering a quality education, opportunities for spiritual formation and the kindness of a loving community, that young lives would be uplifted and transformed.
This commitment to young people has had a ripple effect – one that even Chaminade could not have anticipated. Today, a dynamic network of Marianist schools and universities across the globe are among his most enduring legacies. The Marianist Province of the United States operates or sponsors three universities and 18 high schools in the U.S., Ireland and Puerto Rico, plus a myriad of schools and training programs in developing regions of the world.
This year, while Marianists celebrate “Chaminade Year” – a time to reflect on the life and impact of this religious visionary – Chaminade’s commitment to education deserves closer attention. ALIVE magazine spoke with three Marianist educators for their thoughts on this subject: Brother Ed Brink, assistant for education of the Province, Brother Bernie Ploeger, president, Chaminade University of Honolulu, and Father Oscar Vasquez, teacher and campus minister at Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis. What follows are excerpts from their conversations.
A vehicle to spread the Good News
Chaminade did not focus exclusively on education as his mission. His inspiration came from his apostolic commitment to reestablish faith in France following the French Revolution. Those who were drawn to Chaminade in the early days of his ministry “made a convincing argument that if they were going to change France,” says Brother Ed Brink, “they needed to start at the ground level by educating the young. Chaminade also saw this as a way to reach out to parents.”
Father Oscar Vasquez elaborates. During the French Revolution, people lost their faith and the Church was in disarray. “Chaminade used education as a means to connect with the young and their families in two ways: by providing education in the formal sense and also through Christian small faith groups,” he says.
“We continue that tradition today, says Father Oscar. “We also are educating the future leaders of the Church.”
Both Brother Ed and Father Oscar see similarities in late 18th century France and the secular world of the 21st century. “If he were alive today, I think he would say ‘the times have changed, but many of the problems are similar,’” says Father Oscar.
Bro. Ed Brink, director of Marianist Education, explains why formation is so important at Marianist Schools.
Inspired and challenged
If Father Chaminade were to drop in at any Marianist school today, all three Marianist educators believe he would be pleased by the “family spirit” of the school – a welcoming atmosphere that reflects Chaminade’s values. “Everyone should feel at home in our schools, whether you are a student, a parent or a faculty member,” says Brother Ed. “We want people to know this is more than a school, but a community. We want them to feel this is a place where they can be themselves, make a contribution and be challenged and supported.”
While family spirit is important, Brother Ed cautions that schools need to be realistic about what that means. “If we are saying that family spirit means being happy all of the time, that’s not reality. Families struggle, yet they rely on each other to get through those struggles.”
While Chaminade may find the culture of Marianist schools inspiring, he also would be challenged by many things – especially by “our secularized society where it’s hard to get young people to take religion seriously,” says Brother Bernie, whose role as president of Chaminade University provides firsthand experience with young adults. “College students are interested in spirituality, but when it comes to the Church, they find the actual religious expressions of it unappealing. So there’s a disconnect,” says Brother Bernie. “I think Father Chaminade would have found this an interesting problem to tackle.”
Keeping the mission alive
As vowed religious are growing older and fewer are involved in the day-to-day operations of the schools, many wonder how to keep Chaminade’s mission and vision alive. The most important thing we can do, says Brother Ed, can be summed up in one word: formation. “We must continue providing an ongoing process of faith formation for everyone – our faculty, staff, administration, school boards and students,” he says.
Brother Bernie agrees. “We need to create a community of shared purpose. This means formation of our faculty, staff and students. We also must be attractive to others. But besides attractiveness and cohesion, we must provide a quality academic education.”
Father Oscar puts forth another condition: The tuition must be affordable. “No matter what the cost, it’s still a sacrifice for many parents. We must find ways to keep a Marianist Catholic education affordable.”
The ultimate goal is to have a positive influence on the world, says Father Oscar. “We need to develop students who take the best of what they have learned, the best of our Church and bring it back into the world.
“I see the importance of Catholic education and grooming leaders in the Marianist tradition, leaders who know how to work together to solve problems. We need them to bring these experiences to their parishes, communities and the world. That’s how we have an impact on a world that desperately needs God’s grace and love.”