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Catholic Heroes . . . St. John Baptist De La Salle

April 5, 2016 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

When some men hear the call of God, it is sudden with great changes made in their lives, as with St. Paul and the children of Fatima. However, for most people, it takes years to see where God is leading them. One man even admitted that if he had known when he began where God was leading him, he never would have begun the work to which he had been called. That man was St. John Baptist de La Salle from Reims, France.
Louis de La Salle and Nicole de Moet de Brouillet were the parents of seven children, the oldest one being John Baptist de La Salle born on April 30, 1651. Nicole came from a wealthy and noble family who ran an excellent winery. She was a relative of Claude Moet — one of the founders of Moet & Clandon in 1743 — a company which produces over 28,000,000 bottles of champagne every year.
Louis and Moet faithfully followed the teachings of the Church, treating all persons with respect and dignity no matter what part of society they came from.
John received a privileged education as well as a devout one, becoming known not only for his brilliance but also for his piety. When he was 11 years old he received the tonsure and at the age of 16 he was selected to be a canon at the Reims Cathedral.
When Canon Pierre Dozet, his older cousin, recognized the potential in John Baptist, he steadfastly monitored the young man’s education. As chancellor of the University of Reims, he guided John Baptist’s development when he left to attend the College des Bons Enfants on July 10, 1669.
John Baptist began his coursework in literature and philosophy, receiving high marks in the master of arts program. Then Canon Pierre insisted that John follow the family tradition and study law; however, John Baptist insisted even more strongly that he was called to serve the Church.
A little more than two years later, John Baptist went to Paris where he enrolled in the Saint-Sulpice Seminary on October 18, 1670. He also attended theology lectures at the Sorbonne. Here he also advanced quickly under the guidance of Louis Transon who pointed out John’s progress to M. Lechassier, the superior general of the Congregation of St. Sulpice.
However, when his mother died on July 19, 1671 and then his father died on April 9, 1672, John Baptist had to return home. He dropped out of Saint-Sulpice at the age of 21 and took over the running of the family estate and the education of his four brothers and two sisters.
He continued to study philosophy and theology, seeking the advice of several advisers, one of whom was Nicolas Roland, a man well known for his wisdom. Archbishop Ladislas Jonnart ordained John Baptist a subdeacon at Cambrai on June 2, 1672. On March 21, 1676, Bishop Francois Batailler ordained him a deacon and John continued to assist in helping the poor, especially in finding them educational opportunities.
John Baptist was finally ordained a priest on April 9, 1678 and then earned his doctorate in theology two years later. His regal bearing and penetrating blue eyes, together with his refined upbringing won him great respect. More important, his humility and zeal to help the poor get an education to improve their lives also endeared him to many. Add all this to his keen business acumen and his many organizational skills and you have a great servant of God.
As a newly ordained priest, John Baptist worked with the Sisters of the Child Jesus, a new religious congregation dedicated to care for the sick and promote the education of young girls. He served as their chaplain and confessor.
During this time, he also worked closely with Nicolas Roland who made a dying request of John Baptist to carry on what Nicolas had begun: “Your zeal will bring it to prosperity. You will complete the work which I have begun. In all this Fr. Barre will be your model and guide.” Although John Baptist agreed to this, had he foreseen what he would do, he never would have given his consent to that request.
Through our charitable works, the Lord brings others into our lives who assist us in our pilgrimage of faith. So it was with John Baptist, who, by his work with the Sisters of the Child Jesus, met Adrian Nyel.
Adrian wanted to start a school for the poor families in Reims. Nyel’s dream became reality with John Baptist at his side. With de La Salle’s help, the school was soon opened. This success resulted in a wealthy woman approaching Nyel and offering to endow another such school in Reims — but only if Fr. de La Salle was involved in the project.
Appreciating the extensive education he had received, John Baptist understood how it could help those who did not come from a privileged class as he did. Together with Nyel, such work grew quickly.
Hope, a sense of dignity, skills, and means to support themselves — all of these he wanted to provide the poor young people of Champagne. He witnessed the children who appeared to be “so far from salvation . . . often left to themselves and badly brought up.”
John Baptist wanted to help them both in this world and the next. His organizational skills and zeal to save souls motivated him to take action. He gathered a group of teachers in Reims; these teachers had good intentions but lacked direction.
At first he invited them to his home for their meals in 1680. This provided the opportunity to instill in them good manners and give direction for their work. However, some of his proud relatives took offense that he shared his meals with the lower classes.
They were even more upset when a year later John Baptiste invited the teachers to live with him. The upper social class was also deeply disturbed by this. Even more hardship came when the de La Salle home was lost in a lawsuit and John Baptist was forced to rent a home for himself and for the teachers.
Then John resigned his position as canon at the cathedral on July 1683 so that he could devote all of his time and talents to education. He soon had few treasures left, since he sold his inherited estate in 1684 and sent the proceeds to the poor in Champagne who were suffering from famine.
Free of earthly possessions and with fewer responsibilities, he dedicated his efforts to beginning a new religious institute. The first part of the institute had no priests — the first of its kind, and became known as the Institute of the Brothers of Christian Schools or as the De La Salle Brothers.
He suffered many persecutions in his last years and finally died from overwork on April 7, 1719 in Rouen. His feast is celebrated on April 7.
Dear St. John Baptist de La Salle, how desperately our youth need champions to encourage holy living. Beg for us those men and women who will unhesitatingly serve God by sanctifying our youth. Amen.

+ + +

(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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