December 22-28, 2005
: Michael T. Regan
As the local Catholics battle controversy at Christmas, Christian Brothers aim to save the church.
Twenty years ago, Brian Henderson wore his full habit more, well, habitually as a clear sign he was a cleric. Now, the Southwest Philly native, who last spring celebrated his 25th year as a member of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, says the crisis in the Catholic Church has left many priests and Brothers embarrassed to wear their collars.
While Henderson usually wears a collared shirt, sweater and khakis, his preference for casual clothing isn't a betrayal of his religious life. The Brothers' unique habita judgelike black robe with a wide, white collarjust isn't part of the persona he wants to portray. Instead, Henderson, 46, wants to play the simple servant. What he definitely doesn't want for himself, or any member of his 325-year-old religious order, is to be lumped in with the priests.
"Like that Billy Joel song goes, 'We didn't start the fire,' but if the church is a hay barn, the barn's fully engulfed," says Henderson, a West Catholic product who entered the fold during his third year at La Salle University. "I can't fix the controversy, and I can't say [the Brothers] are all clean of heart and hand but part of being a Brother is helping everyone be a better brother and sister to everyone else."
Brothers represent the world's largest all-male Roman Catholic teaching congregation. A priest's world, they say, is more singular, detached and political. A priest is ordained to confer the sacraments; Brothers, who serve the church as a collective community of laypersons, aren't. Still, Henderson says he's not anointed, nor is he a savior. He was, however, one of just 39 chosen worldwide to attend the Central Lasallian Institute's "Formators for the Lasallian Mission" conference this fall at its Generalate, or mother-house, in Rome.
Much of what he returned with is philosophical, spiritual and intellectual. It's not in any textbook, but the teaching order is rededicating itself to a more inclusive and blended apostolic leadership between Brothers and laity to rebuild the sense of community that the scandal snatched away. This runs counter to the Catholic Church's trademarked exclusivity.
The composition of the delegation, which included 17 Brothers and 22 lay associates, was itself indicative of this experiment in empowerment. In the spirit of their founder, Frenchman John Baptist de La Salle, the patron saint of teachers, the Brothers are purposely relinquishing control and calling for laymen to take the lead.
Because of it, Henderson promises a "revitalized age of religious faith" ahead. The upbeat vision arrives in time for Christmas. Right now, however, Henderson, the director at St. Gabriel's Hall in Montgomery County, where he oversees 200 court-adjudicated boys (more than 90 percent of whom are from Philadelphia), says the once-faithful Philadelphia flock wants the body of former Archbishop John Cardinal Kroll "dug up, tortured and thrown in the Schuylkill River." Forgiveness, it seems, is a slow process.
"It should be Christmas all the time," he says. "Gift giving. Gift receiving."
The Brothers' year-round present, what they call their charism, holds redemptive potential, Henderson says. If the priests' touch has been flatly rejected, far fewer are recoiling at Henderson's order's outreacheven if its membership has dwindled to an all-time low.
Nevertheless, the Brothers' influence spreads to about 70,000 committed lay partners who serve more than 800,000 students worldwide. There are also 40 Lasallian Volunteers (young college graduates equally divided by gender who live and work in Brothers' communities for one to three years) in 18 U.S. cities. Volunteer Paul Sevcik can be found at the Christian Brothers Spiritual Center (CBSC), which opened last year in Manayunk to minister to young adults.
In 1966, the order peaked at 18,000; today, about 6,000 Brothers are scattered across 84 countries. There are 605 working in North America in 94 Lasallian institutions. In Philadelphia, there are just 56 active Brothers left. They can be found in the St. Gabriel's system, La Salle University, La Salle College High School, West Catholic High and the CBSC.
The Brothers point to their communal life as reason they've avoided a similar abuse crisiseven though they typically have more daily access to children than priests do.
"We've had our abusers, although not in the same proportion as priests," says Edward Hofmann, a 40-year Brother and district director of the Office of Vocation Ministry. "In a community there are X number of eyes watching. There's a schedule of prayer and meals and chores, and when we are not present, questions arise."
The order's Aspirancy program is how new Brothers find their way into the fold. Totalling 100 in the 1980s, there are currently just two Aspirants in the city: Mayfair native J.P. Schultz, 21, a senior at La Salle; and Roxborough's Greg Fala, 22, a 2004 La Salle grad by way of Overbrook and West Catholic. Hofmann, 58, says he's in contact with a dozen others considering the first step. But in the last two years, he says he's assisted 200 others who've come to understand that "we're not meant for each other."
Fala, La Salle's Web master, says the scandal has made choosing religious life difficult.
"Thirty years ago, it was an honor, but now it's not a decision that's as readily accepted by everyone," he says. That includes his own parish pastor, who he says isn't in favor of the Brothers. "I haven't been able to tell him I'm an Aspirant yet. He wants me to be a priest, and keeps telling me it's the priests who are the most respected, that people think of the priest with the collar, not the Brother with the collar, but I say it's the Christian Brothers who are the ideal teachers and counselors. They're the ones who can restore the faith in the Church."