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THE GREATEST

Memorial of St. John Baptiste de La Salle, 15 May 2024 (Sirach 39:6-10, Romans10:10-18, & Matthew 18:1-5)

Our special Gospel reading for this memorial from Mt 18, 1-5, must have been one of the biblical texts that inspired St. Jean-Baptiste De la Salle to carry out a very specific kind of ministry in late 17th-early 18th century France, that would change the lives of millions of people all over the world—the ministry of educating children.

Let us first take a look at the Gospel. Matthew tells us one day the disciples approached Jesus and asked him this question: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus did not immediately answer with words but rather with an action; he called a child over, and placed it in their midst. That symbolic action was his answer.

To treat children as the greatest, to emphasize their importance, to prioritize the need to raise them well, to care for them, to educate them well is the key to building a humane society that comes close to the kingdom of God. This is what Jesus is saying in the Gospel; and I think St JB De la Salle took this Gospel message very seriously.

There was a time when our previous government embarked on solving the problem of criminality by getting rid of alleged criminals. Did they succeed? No. It was not the first time in history that we heard of such a naive populist solution to the problem of criminality that even enjoyed mass support. Instead of getting rid of criminals they only succeeded in encouraging our police officers to behave with impunity and address criminality in a criminal way. (Now the present government is desperate in trying to rebuild the reputation of our police institution.)
The moral is clear: you try to get rid of criminals without even bothering to figure out the root causes of criminality, you only end up creating a criminal government instead. Look at the children who roam our streets, children who are neglected, children who are homeless, children who have to beg from motorists, who sniff solvent or rugby to forget their hunger, children who are physically or sexually abused, children who receive no education, children who are in conflict with the law at such a young age. Don’t they make it obvious to us why criminality would become so prevalent in our society? Look, why do we even need to build houses surrounded by high walls and install CCTV cams everywhere? A society that neglects children is a society that breeds criminality. It also becomes an insecure, conflict-ridden and a very unstable society. Why do we even feel the need to hire security guards for such puny establishments as convenience stores and grease joints, and even for private homes? Because we are aware that allowing our children to suffer from want, neglect, and abuse in a very inequitable society is the surest way of breeding them into criminals.

Not only did Jesus point at children as the greatest in God’s kingdom; he also said, “…unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said the highest level of metamorphosis that the human soul achieves is the stage of becoming a child. First, we are raised like camels, he said; then we turn into angry lions. Soon, we mature and we become like children. It is in societies where people have remained either as camels or as lions that children are bound to be abused and neglected so that they turn into abused camels and angry and abusive lions instead of fellow children.

Jesus also said, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” This saying must have guided De la Salle in his approach to education. How can teachers form children if they’ve lost the child in them? You can’t have good teachers in people who have turned into authoritarians, in people who cannot empathize with children, in people who have lost the child in them. No wonder the greatest people in this world are usually very humble people, people who have retained their childlike sense of wonder and imagination, people who have not lost their sense of playfulness and gentleness, people who do not think too highly of themselves. No wonder Jesus also said in Matthew 11:25, “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.” It is what Jesus expects of us his disciples.
I think this is the kind of wisdom that our first reading from the book of Sirach is talking about. Sirach says, those whom the Spirit endows with wisdom “will be filled with the spirit of understanding…” Many people seemed to have seen this sort of wisdom in the life and mission of St JB De la Salle, this priest who founded not an Institute for Clerics but of consecrated brothers he called “Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools”, a lay institute of pontifical right. (You know of course that in Latin they are called Fratres Scholarum Christianarum, hence the FSC after the name of these religious brothers. For the first time in history their present superior general is now our fellow Filipino, the great educator, Bro. Armin A. Luistro, FSC.)

It was on this day of the 15th of May in 1950 when Pius XII declared this priest from an obscure village in France who dared to put up a school for children neglected by his society, to be the “Special Patron of All Teachers of Youth in the Catholic Church.” During those times, education was exclusively for the nobility and the upper classes in French society. In his great regard for St JB De la Salle, Pope Pius XII seems to be echoing the words of our first reading from Sirach 39, in vv.9-10 “Many will praise his understanding; his name can never be blotted out; unfading will be his memory, through all generations his name will live; Peoples will speak of his wisdom, and the assembly will declare his praise.”
Look, this institute is now running over “1,100 education centers in 80 countries with more than a million students, together with 100,000 teachers and lay associates. It has also produced seven saints and seven blesseds in the Catholic Church, including De la Salle himself.”

Let me end with the challenge posed by Paul in our second reading. St Paul is in many ways is affirming what De la Salle believed and turned into a motto for his approach to education: SIGNUM FIDEI (sign of faith). For DLS, an educator must begin by nurturing in children, even just the slightest sign of faith—that basic human response of love to the God who loved us first. Our capacity to love God and neighbor—is just a sign of faith, a response to the one who loved us first. How can we love God at all if we have never been awakened first of all to God’s love for us, the love that was revealed to us through Jesus Christ?

When DLS insisted that it was not just the children of the nobility that needed education, when he dared to extend education also to poor and destitute children, he was merely acting out his belief in the principle laid out by St Paul in our second reading from Romans 10 that there was “no distinction between Jew and Greek (elsewhere he added slave or free, male or female ), that “same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him.”

I think DLS took the words of Paul in vv.14-15 of Romans 10 as a challenge “…how can people call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach (teach)? And how can people preach (teach) unless they are sent?“

This institute had peaked around the 1900s with 14,000 consecrated brothers sent throughout the world. Aside from Europe and North America, they brought education to the farthest corners of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. St Paul’s words therefore applies well to them: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring [the] good news!”
DLS believed with St Paul that “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.”

And through the quiet labors of these brothers, the Gospel has certainly reached children from all over the world. Paul’s concluding words describe the DLS brothers accurately:
“Their voice has gone forth to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.” They’ve done this through their schools and we have reason to celebrate God’s success in their quiet contribution to human civilization.

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Rev. Fr. Anton CT Pascual

Rev. Fr. Anton CT Pascual

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