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Let Us Remember


Dear Parents and Guardians:

A decade to the day before the date on which La Salle College High School students last sat together in class with their teachers, Brother Christian Jones, a redoubtable math teacher from our New York Province, died at the Brothers’ nursing home in Lincroft, New Jersey. A few days later, his funeral Mass was celebrated at Christian Brothers Academy by an elderly Redemptorist priest whose services were secured for this specific occasion. Doubtless a veteran of many such obsequies, the venerable clergyman trusted his instincts. At one point he picked up the memorial card which had Brother Christian’s picture on the front and his tour of duty on the back and proclaimed, “He looks like the kind of guy you could sit down and have a beer with.”

No, he wasn’t, Father. Throughout his life, Brother Christian could be found in either a math classroom, extracurricular math competition, or the rostering office. I wouldn’t assert he ever set foot in a pub. Unless the topic of conversation turned to integrals resulting in inverse trigonometric functions, Chris would have had added precious little to the happy hour repartee. It is customary to offer this platitude about many teachers at their passing: “The subject was life.” Not with Chris. The subject was Math. Despite the vast experience this liturgical celebrant had in valorizing the dead, in this case, a little research and planning would have served him well.

An old adage attributed to various religious icons – Saint Augustine, Ignatius of Loyola, (I’m sure at Notre Dame they think Father Hesburgh said it) – advises people to “work as if everything depends on you, then pray as if everything depends on God.” Increase specificity by substituting plan for work, and I think you’d have an accurate description of this summer’s administrative regimen at La Salle. Countless hours have been spent in meetings looking at the many dimensions of school life affected by this crisis, planning our best response, brainstorming alternatives that may be necessary, and effecting change. While some decisions still may be removed from our control and others are best taken “just in time” rather than made and remade prematurely to the confusion of all, I think all levels of the institution have achieved a planning ethos that is thorough, nimble, and responsive. While others will continue to explain such plans to you, I would like to express La Salle’s gratitude to Chuck Cirelli, pandemic response coordinator, and our organizing committee of Mike O’Toole, Dan McGowan, Ana Smith, Mark Gibbons, Kevin Dougherty, Kevin Whitney, Joe Parisi, Chris Carabello, and Braden Bonner for working with such dedication on these plans, presented in various town halls and other communications, and now appearing on our website. I am also grateful to our facilities department members, who executed the requirements of these plans with efficiency and dedication.

Despite such efforts, I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that I still fear ending up as wide of the mark as that eulogist who just winged it. I remain self-reflective enough to know that only the extremely kind and those with macular degeneration could look at me and come up with descriptive adjectives other than “seasoned” or “experienced.” Still, when faced with the potential impacts of this coronavirus and its concomitant public health concerns on teaching, learning, extracurriculars, athletics and social life at La Salle, I can feel as much a rookie as I was back in 1982. At times, I resort to consoling myself with this thought: in a situation where “nobody knows,” the experienced probably guess better. Especially when we surround ourselves with bright, dedicated, well-educated, and well-informed colleagues.

No doubt any number of you have struggled with a similar sense of inadequacy regarding the relevant dilemmas you face at this time: “Is it really safe for my daughter to go on Senior Week?” “Should we risk going to the shore or just spend the vacation money on refinishing and refurnishing the deck?” “Will private school really be any different than public schools under these circumstances?” “What happens if my company, so dependent on retail sales, ‘reorganizes,’ and I’m not part of what’s left on the other side?” “Should we try to keep Mom-Mom completely isolated, or will that fierce independent streak, those trips to lunch, church, the Hallmark store, the beauty and nail salons, be what really keeps her alive?” “Is moving to a college dorm and doing online classes for 15 hours a week really worth $75,000? If he just lives at home, works, and goes to Montco for a year, will Deloitte really think any less of him when the time comes?” “Does asthma really count as an underlying medical condition, or am I just being alarmist?” “How do three schools within a five-mile radius come up with three totally different plans for opening?” “If we actually practice social distancing in soccer, won’t that result in some really high scoring games?”

Despite the planning work undertaken, whether at La Salle or within your own family, I know this remains a time of unique and unparalleled anxiety and uncertainty. While I’d like to allay every fear community members might hold, I can’t. I only have the vaguest idea what November’s fears will even look like. Will we be on another total lockdown, wondering if the holiday season will be ruined? Or will we be standing in a socially distanced line at the CVS, rolling up our sleeves for a vaccine proven 99.95% effective in clinical trials?

What I can do, though, is share with you a piece of writing commonly known as “The Merton Prayer,” really an excerpt from Thomas Merton’s book, Thoughts in Solitude. Perhaps you know the basics of that author’s story. After tragically losing his mother at six years old, Merton shuttled between his father and a new companion, grandparents, and boarding schools throughout his youth. Orphaned at sixteen, Merton became what the British indulgently call “a bit of a lad” at Cambridge before finding a more mature footing at Columbia, where he began to engage the Catholic intellectual tradition seriously. Shortly thereafter, Merton became a Trappist monk and priest, using the solitude to compose the autobiographical Seven Story Mountain and several other spiritual classics before an electrical accident while attending a conference in Thailand caused his death at age 53. Reflective of his own broad and complex human spiritual experience, often conflicted, this prayer stands the test of time, the test of these times. For our purposes, the speaker might be a parent worrying about how freshman year will unfold, a fledgling undergraduate doubting the quality of the university experience that is about to begin, a college graduate entering this volatile and uncertain job market, a professional wondering if her particular field will emerge from the COVID era unscathed, a teacher working out priorities between his vocation and familial health concerns, a senior wondering how a college can be selected virtually, or a different kind of senior experiencing little difference between her “community” and a prison. It might even express the concerns of a seasoned school administrator pondering dilemmas for which prior experience suggests nary a clue:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Whatever perils this year may hold, let us pause and thank God that we face them not alone but together, united in and as La Salle. May God bless you and all you love as this school year begins.


Signature of Brother James L. Butler

Brother James L. Butler, FSC

President La Salle College High School