A Message from Brother James

Brother James L. Butler. FSC has been in his current ministry as President of La Salle College High School since June 2012. he is well known for his ability to connect with students, faculty, alumni and friends through his many vehicles of communication.

15 August 2022

Assumption of the Blessed Mother

Dear La Salle Family,

            As I sit down to write this opening of school letter to you, it is shortly after last Friday’s morning Mass, that of the 19th Week of Ordinary Time.  Friday was one of those days (many days) where I am really happy I didn’t choose to become a priest. I’d never want to preach on those readings.  The first from Ezekiel is just a PG-13 mess, and the Gospel is the thorny teaching on the permanence of marriage, Jesus’ atypical tightening up of the Mosaic law, the discourse ending in a cringy enumeration of some good reasons for celibacy.

            Except it doesn’t really end there.  The passage selected in fact concludes with Jesus’ summarizing, “Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.” Catholic interpretations generally say this verse commends celibacy as the superior option (because it’s obviously harder to live in detached serenity, your material comfort attended to by others, than it is to juggle two in diapers, a preschooler coloring on the walls, and a pile of laundry that will soon require its own zip code!). The thought occurred to me, though, that if this sentence were taken as the summary of Jesus’ entire teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, how much less hurt there would be in the world, less alienation from the Church and its sacramental life.  Yes, this is the ideal, unambiguously set out.  But people will fall short of it.  We both anticipate and understand this dynamic.

            Here’s the ideal. We understand you may not be entirely able to live up to it, but we expect you to try. How much less hurt might there be in the world of the young men entrusted to our care as parents and teachers if this were the consistent message we communicate to our sons and students at this critical stage of their lives. There’s wisdom here to tame the boundary-tester and the button-pusher alike.  A good spiritual guardrail is also provided for dealing with that dreamy loner of a third son, lost in the shadows of his AP Scholar, team captain older brothers.  Anxiety, the true pandemic among contemporary teenagers, is surely fueled by some existential dread of falling short, whether the standards being held to are externally imposed or purely internalized.  When that fledgling member of the Class of 2026 comes to you—and some will—saying, “I can’t…I want to go someplace smaller, easier, slower-paced,” the Christ-like answer might just be leaving the panic button in the drawer and replying, “We didn’t send you to La Salle to be valedictorian or scholar-athlete of the year.  We want you to be a part of a community that will help you understand your talents, build on them, and know how to play to your strengths—because you do have them. Let’s talk about them.”

            Almost three decades ago, a thoughtful Australian member of the “other” Christian Brothers (Edmund Rice/Iona College/Bergen Catholic guys) explained to me what he thought the difference in method was among that country’s three principal teaching orders.  He said, “We were taught to be men of mystery, to inspire awe in our students.  The Marist Brothers wanted to build respect through competition on the football oval.  The de La Salles try to motivate each kid from the inside out, to build a relationship and discover what makes him tick.”  Yes, exactly.  That is precisely what this Lasallian school experience will be about—if you’re new to it or need a refresher.  It’s not about forcing him to fit the mold, painfully sanding off rough edges till he’s snugly in standard position. It’s about winding him up, not so tightly that he snaps, but so that he runs optimally and reliably for a good long time.

            Perhaps St. La Salle said it better, certainly first and with a more edifying metaphor, in one of his most famous reflections for his first Brothers, the Good Shepherd Meditation:

In today’s Gospel Jesus Christ compares those who have charge of souls to a good shepherd who has great care for the sheep. One quality he must possess, according to our Savior, is to know each one of them individually. This ought also to be one of the main concerns of those who instruct others: to be able to understand their students and to discern the right way to guide them.

They must show more mildness toward some, more firmness toward others. There are those who call for much patience, those who need to be stimulated and spurred on, some who need to be reproved and punished to correct them of their faults, others who must be constantly watched over to prevent them from being lost or going astray.

“Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”

            What Jesus and de La Salle are really talking about, if I haven’t muddied the waters too much, are compassion and reasonableness, reasonableness in the zone of judgment and compassion in the spiritual realm.  Whatever climate change may or may not have done environmentally, it is the abandonment of those touchstones in public life and discourse that has turned our civic society into the moral desert it is today.

            But let your son’s personal La Salle experience be an oasis in that desert. Let the standards that fuel his journey not be those that provoke feelings of inadequacy or hopelessness. Rather, let them inspire enthusiasm for the challenge the trek will bring.  When he falls, avoid both rushing in to pick him up or distancing yourself in savage disappointment. Rather, let our approach, whether as parents or educators, be something along the lines of, “Well, maybe you haven’t hit bottom, but you’ve had a good look at it now.  Take a moment, catch your breath, dust yourself off, get up, and let’s see how you might go about repairing any damage you might have caused.” As an educator, I am often relieved when a student’s transgression involves social media…if for no other reason than such an offense ensures I won’t be found shaking my head and saying to myself, “I did that, but I was just a bit slicker.  I didn’t get caught.”

            Compassion for the young is easy to inspire, but it can also be contagious.  Perhaps that teacher who is taking more than three hours to respond to my post-test email isn’t unprofessional or indifferent.  She may be tending to a sick child, straightening out the finances of a parent who’s slipping intellectually, even at chemotherapy herself.  You never know. Maybe that parent at the team meeting who won’t engage and seems preoccupied isn’t really aloof and snooty.  He might be trying to figure out how he’s going to pay for all this gear with the cost of food and gas today, given the future of corporate real estate in Philadelphia isn’t looking so rosy in the Zoom era.

            As we begin the new school year, let us remember.  Let us remember the 17-year-old juggling the common app, college-specific essays to compose, AP Calculus, a job, a state playoff run, and a girlfriend.  Let us remember the 14-year-old trying to figure out what goes in his bookbag (everything) and what goes in his locker (nothing), determining where’s a comfortable perch in the Glaser Center, sneaking his phone out in Biology class to see if the girl he met at the football game answered his DM.  Let us remember the teacher managing a class coming from 15 different schools, each teaching a different way of solving for X, none of which seemed to put particular stress on saving the apostrophe from the endangered species list for punctuation marks.  Let us be mindful that it is only when we view these people and our interactions with them with reasonableness and compassion that we see with the eyes of faith.  It is only then that we understand what we mean when we begin this school year by pausing to say, “Let us remember we are in the Holy Presence of God.”

Fraternally,

Brother James L. Butler, FSC

President

La Salle College High School

Brother James' Remarks To Class of 2022

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Dear Parents, Students, Guardians, Alumni, and Friends of La Salle College High School,


Quomodo sedet sola civitas. These words popped into my head late Monday afternoon as I flicked on the news prior to leaving for an evening engagement. I confess I first encountered them nearly forty years ago in a secular context: a Modern British Literature course where we were studying Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited prior to the release of the television miniseries of the same name, the one which introduced Jeremy Irons to the world. Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo. The words themselves are an allusion to scripture, to the first verses of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. This Latin translation is sung in the Holy Week liturgy of Tenebrae, the "service of shadows." Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo! Facta est quasi vidua domina gentium. "How does the city sit so lonely that was filled with people! How she has become a widow, she that was great among nations."


I have visited seven world cities repeatedly over my adult life. Two don't really hold a special place in my heart, though I am not blind to their allure (London and Rome). I am more susceptible to the magic of Hong Kong, Venice, and Prague, though I just haven't been to those cities as often as I have Sydney and Paris, the two where I feel an instant connection once the plane lands at Kingsford Smith or Charles de Gaulle Airport. Both cities provoke the same predictable behavior on arrival. Once I drop off my bags wherever I am staying, the first stop is always the same. In Sydney it's Circular Quay, the area nestled between the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. In Paris, of course, the first destination was always Charlemagne Square and the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.


The first sight of Notre Dame in flames on 15 April was surreal. At first it seemed like watching a clip from a film contending for a computer-generated special effects Oscar. This couldn't be happening, not to the place where human aspirations and divine transcendence intersect more perfectly than any other structure on earth. The images were shattering: the roof and scaffolding ablaze; the elegant, delicate spire collapsing inwards, the fire threatening the towers and façade, but held back, the inferno contained at a critical juncture. Devout Parisians and those of no faith alike looked on, generally silent and bereft, their "New Jerusalem" fulfilling Jeremiah's vision, not Revelation's.


Veteran European correspondents appeared ashen and tremulous while transmitting developments to anchors at homes. A surprising number among both groups framed the loss in terms of their own personal Catholicism, speculating with varying degrees of articulacy about the significance of the disaster in terms of the Holy Week mysteries. Laïcité, the enshrined French principle regarding the thoroughly secular nature of public life, was put to one side for a moment as groups prayed in the street; the video of those young people kneeling and singing a haunting French version of the Hail Mary went viral on cable news and in social media.


Then there were the pictures. I'm not referring to the videos of the conflagration in progress, which are simply disturbing, but to a couple of the aftermath. The ones accompanying this letter, they show the gold cross on the high altar strikingly visible amidst the haze and that same altar, wondrously intact when Tuesday dawned, surrounded by rubble from the roof, fallen 100 feet to the ground.


As any of your sons or peers who paid attention in AP European History can tell you, a Gothic cathedral is "a sermon in stone"; the stained glass and carvings provided an illiterate populace with access to the stories of the bible and the mysteries of salvation. And what a homily the edifice accounted most eloquent of all preaches this Holy Week, 2019:

  • It teaches us the value of community, both that formed by strangers in the anonymous city as they stated speechless at the devastation and that we make in our own parishes and congregations, teams and clubs, parents' organizations, and alumni classes in mid-life meeting for beers after work, a ritual that becomes lunch in our senior years;
  • It shows us how important it is to accept our limitations, but never to translate those limitations into inaction. Les Pompiers de Paris couldn't prevent all damage from the fire. The combination of 800-year-old timber, the scaffolding, incendiary chemicals and BoushXButton urban firefighting conditions proved overwhelming. But they did stop the fire from claiming the bell towers. Therefore, the cathedral's external structure remained intact, the three rose windows preserved. When we gather as family this Easter, we may be painfully conscious of the things we could not save: a child's marriage (or that of one's parents'); the addict who can never make it in recovery long enough to grab a six-months' coin; the kid we could never motivate to finish college; the recent widow or widower who finds in a holiday only the invitation to blacker, more wordless depression. These problems may be beyond our ability to solve, but that doesn't imply there isn't something we can do, someone affected to whom we can offer a healing love, a love that inspires hope.
  • It suggests the value of an incremental approach. The task of rebuilding seems so overwhelming right now. It may not end for years, but it will begin when the first wheelbarrow of blackened timber is carted away from the sanctuary floor. Most of us are self-reflective enough to know our faults and to experience frustration at their durability. But all God asks of us is to make those first small steps towards improvement, to "live Jesus" a little better each day, to find God's Presence in one more difficult person.
  • It trains us in the virtues of resignation and gratitude. How long will it take to restore Notre Dame, to replicate, however imperfectly, the glories of its past? You'll hear different numbers, but I'm guessing 30 years. By then, I'll be too old to undertake another trip to Paris (if I haven't made a shorter but more definitive one-way trip east on Cheltenham Avenue already!). But I got there six times over the last three decades, and I'm so grateful for that and for the opportunity to experience this epitome of western civilization across several seasons of the year and of my life. As we take stock of our lives and relationships over the Easter Triduum, may we all find that elusive "serenity to accept what I cannot change, courage to change what I can, and wisdom to know the difference."
  • It speaks emphatically to what endures: the saving power and mystery of the Cross, especially when we can barely glimpse it through the haze of confusion, even when it seems to preside only over the rubble of our lives. Sociologists tell us that only five percent of the French attend Church on a regular basis. It seems a much higher number were praying this past Monday. The lesson is the same as the theme Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited to illustrate. You may forget to call to mind the Holy Presence of God, lose sight of the Cross, even turn your back on it. But that doesn't mean that its saving power will become one bit less efficacious for us and all those we love.

As we enter these holiest days of the Church year, please include in your prayers all of us at La Salle, that we may be blessed to succeed in the most important aspect of our Mission: instilling in our students, your sons and grandsons, a faith that fulfills the aspiration expressed by the city of Paris' ancient Latin motto, a retort to the quotation with which this letter began: Fluctuat nec mergitur. "It is rocked by the waves, but it does not sink."

Fraternally,

Brother James Butler, FSC
President

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