First of all I should like to express my heartfelt thanks and the gratitude of all the recipients, to Manhattan College for the honorary degrees and the medals we are to be granted, and to His Eminence Cardinal Spellman for his presence at this ceremony and the precious encouragement of his inspiring words. We thank him respectfully for the privilege of his gracious attendance; we thank Manhattan College for the academic honors it is bestowing upon us, and for its willingness to receive us in its spiritual family on the day when the third centenary of the birth of St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle is commemorated. This commemoration brings a particular significance to the present celebration, which is a testimony, among many others, of the great work achieved by the Christian Brothers, and the extraordinary manner in which the mission of their saintly founder has succeeded in the course of two centuries and a half.
In an epoch when, according to a pamphlet of the time, the primary schools for the children of the working classes in Paris employed as teachers a motley collection of "low pot-house keepers, second-hand shop proprietors, silk weavers, flunkeys, wig-makers, and marionette-string-pullers", this priest of heroic self-devotion and profound spirituality had the deep insight that the poor have a right to education, which was synonymous for him - and remains synonymous for his sons - with Christian education. He embraced for this purpose voluntary poverty. He realized that for his momentous aim the necessary means were on the one hand the training of perfectly competent teachers, and on the other hand the joyful dedication of these teachers to a life of self-sacrifice, to the point of serving the Lord in His dearest members as lay-religious persons, and giving up any desire for priesthood. Thus it is that his disciples, whose number was to increase in an amazing fashion, constitute a body of teachers un-equalled for the seriousness, humility, devotion and competence with which they accomplish their task. Thus it is that his spirit is always alive in them and that they have remained so firmly attached to the rules and traditions which originate in the extraordinary clear conciousness he had of his and their vocation.
During all his life, and even up to his last day, on his deathbed, St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle was attacked and persecuted by narrow-minded and prejudiced opponents - not to speak of that Curé of St. Sulpice, in Paris, whom the Duc de Saint-Simon, who was not obliged to observe the same self-restraint and charity an the Saint, describes as "un fort saint prêtre, mais d'une extrême imbécillité; la plus imbécile et le plus ignorant des hommes."
But Jean-Baptiste de la Salle never protested or accused; he knew that his sufferings and his patience were his most powerful weapons. He had the patience, and the stubbornness of those who are led by the Spirit of God.
In one of the writings left by him, he stated: "If God, in showing me the good that would be done, had also discovered to me the pains and crosses which were to accompany it, I would have lacked courage, and far from assuming charge of it, I would not have dared to touch it with the tip of my fingers. Exposed to contradiction I have been persecuted by several prelates, even by those from whom I expected help. The magistrates have joined our enemies, and by their authority they have supported the efforts of these to overthrow us. As our functions are displeasing to the schoolmasteres we find in every one of then an open and irreconcilable enemy, and by their united efforts they have armed the secular power to destroy us. However, in spite of their efforts, the edifice stands, though often on the brink of ruin; hence, I hope it will continue to subsist, and finally triumphing over persecution it will render to the Church the services she has a right to expect."
Yes, the edifice has continued to subsist, and has triumphed over persecution and has rendered and is rendering invaluable services to the Church as well as to the earthly community. And as to its architect opposed and slandered as he was during his life, as soon as he was dead people venerated him as a saint. He was canonized in 1900. And today there are all over the world eighteen thousand schools of his society. And he is recognized as one of the great promoters and initiators in modern education.
But when a Frenchman arrives in this country, he sees the Christian Brothers especially busy with founding and directing high schools, he sees then engaged in college education and institutions of higher learning, he seen them teaching Latin and fostering classical studies. Well, we are today the guests of Manhattan College, and we are receiving from it - with particular appreciation and gratitude - honorary doctorates, academic degree, and academic medals.
Historians tell us that this new development is specifically American and was originally due to the demands of the American bishops. When the first schools of Christian Brothers were founded in this country, the most urgent need was the need for priests. Those laymen - the Christain Brothers - became by necessity educators of seminarians. So the way was open to the new tasks which they are today performing in this country.
At first Rome turned a deaf ear, and then required a return to the strict observance of the century-old rules as practised in Europe. But finally came the decision of Pope Pius IXth, expressed in the recommendation made on April 17th, 1923, by Cardinal Gasparri, Secretary of State. "In the presence of an ever-growing and urgent want felt in different countries", Cardinal Gasparri said, "and in consideration of the far-reaching changes which modern times have made in educational programs and statutes, and also in view of the larger participation of all classes of society in all kinds of Studies, His Holiness judges that the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools ought, henceforth, to extend its teaching to classical studies, as it has already done with success to the higher educational sciences, even in behalf of the well-to-do classes."
In the memorial which had been-priviounly presented by the Most Reverend Patrick William Riordan, Archbishop of San Francisco, in the name of the American Bishops, a statement seems to me particularly significant. "It is impossible for any single mortal", we read in this memorial, "to clearly foresee all future contingencies and to provide for the same perfectly by one rule. This appertains to one divine law." Here is a teaching of very great import. Here we see that genuine spiritual faithfulness is free from merely material attachment to custom, even venerable, and that in circumstances basically different the same spirit and the same aims must be served by different methods of application. Do we think that St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle would have been astonished at the unforeseen developments taken by his Schools in America? The statement I just quoted suggests to us that from the beatific vision, in which he contemplates the divine law itself, far from being astonished he rejoices in this change and approves of its, for he sees that by such new means his essential and immutable God-given purpose continues to be fulfilled.
May I say that in requesting the Christian Brothers to fulfill the permanent purpose of their Institute by teaching the classics and by embarking on a new additional task, unforeseen by their founder, the American bishops have given us an indication valuable both as concerns the spirit of their country and the true nature of education?
I observe that in the recommendation made by Cardinal Gasparri in 1923, it is stated that this extension of the Christian Brothers' teaching to the classics "should change nothing whatever" in the nature of their Institute, whose principal end "must be in the future, as in the past, the school for the poor." Thus we have the "school for the poor" and the "teaching of the classics" brought together. If, from the point of view of the philosophy of culture, we try to bring out the significance of this fact, we might, it seems to me, suggest, first, that with respect to the "teaching of the classics", that is, in the last analysis with respect to the aims of classical or liberal education which have to do with the liberation of the mind - truth will set you free, - all the children of man are naturally poor, in whatever social class they may belong, and have to be taught liberal arts in the "school for the poor", I mean as having nothing by themselves and hungrily striving toward spiritual richness with which nobody is endowed by birth. For we are poor rational animals, and, as Aristotle put it, the highest achievements of knowledge are but precarious possessions for us.
We might also submit that, if the "teaching of the classics" and the "school for the poor" are to be brought together, this means finally that the cultural and intellectual heritage of mankind has to be made available, as American education seeks to do, to young people from all walks of life. In this perspective the particular occurrence I am now discussing, the task assumed by the Christian Brothers in liberal education under the incentive of the American bishops, appears as a token of that liberal education for all which is to be expected, I believe, from the future of our civilization. I take pleasure in thinking that in this connection the ago-old experience of the Christian Brothers will prove particularly helpful, and that they will play now, as their founder in the XVIIth century, the part of precursors.
You will excuse a philosopher for these too long reflections. I was prompted to them by the feeling I have of the particular mission of this country for the future of culture, and of the historical importance of its initiatives in the field of education.
Above all, my aim has been to pay my homage to the Christian Brothers, and especially to Manhattan College, whose achievements and success in liberal education offer to us so inspiring an example.