Dear Brothers, Associates, and friends,
Recently the President of Our Lady of Good Counsel High School called me to convey a request from members of the Student Leadership Council. They said students had been studying the values and charism of Theodore James Ryken and the Xaverian Brothers and they would like to have a Brother speak to their whole school Founders Week Assembly about how a Brother lived out the Xaverian values and charism during his lifetime and any advice he could give the school. Below is the talk I gave there on Dec. 7.
Bro. Jerry O’Leary
I was very pleasantly surprised last week when your President Dr. Barker contacted me and said that your student leaders had asked him to invite a Xaverian Brother to attend this morning’s Founders Week Assembly. …so that to make up for the fact that you haven’t had a Xaverian Brother at OLGC for several years, you all could hear from somebody who actually lives the life of a Xaverian Brother….So, here I am, a real Xaverian Brother.
My name is Bro. Jerry O’Leary and I live in Baltimore.
My life as a Xaverian Brother began for me not long after I graduated from a Xaverian School – Malden Catholic H.S., up in Massachusetts. In my first contact with the Xaverian Brothers I was struck by how human the Brothers were, their devotion to their students, how much they enjoyed interacting with the students, and how though they could sometimes get upset just like you and me, they could also laugh just like us and over-all were a joyful group.
This idea of how human the Brothers are and how I would like to be as fully human as my fellow Brothers were, was , in my mind, somehow connected with God. But only when I was at a retreat for Brothers, some time in the 80’s, at a talk by a Boston College theology professor, a diocesan priest, named Fr. Michael Himes, did I get the words to say how God was involved. His words were: “In the creation story in the Bible, we read that God created almost everything with no effort at all. God was able to knock off the heavens and separate the lands from the seas, and bring to life all manner of living things without even breaking into a sweat. But what happened when God created humans? God sat down and drew up a blueprint, saying ‘Let us make the human being in our own image and likeness’. So we are all modeled on God – and God is love, someone whose whole reason for existence is to give self away for others. And though Jesus knew that Peter and the rest of the Apostles, and all of us human beings were creatures who would at times act selfishly, he knew that he could keep asking his disciples and you and me to give ourselves away, to use our talents for the good of others, and become the people God created us to be.”
In my beginning years as a Brother, Pope John XXIII came on the scene and convoked Vatican II, and this had a great effect on how all baptized people, including we Xaverian Brothers, lived our lives. At the urging of the Council, we started to look more deeply at how our founder Theodore James Ryken, in all he wrote and did, was getting in touch with how God was calling him and all of us Brothers to become the fully human people God created us to be, to give ourselves away to others, including those who were on the margins of society, and to use whatever gifts and talents we had, to do the things we loved to do and were good at, to spread God’s love. We know that the reason he chose St. Francis Xavier as the patron saint of the order he would found was that Francis was completely caught up in using whatever gifts and talents he had in spreading the message of God’s love as far as he could, over the whole world.
As an aside here, I must mention one story about Pope John XXIII, which a bunch of us enjoyed hearing. A famous reporter came to interview him one day and just to break the ice,he asked a few simple questions, the first of which was, “How many people work here at the Vatican? “ Pope John thought for a moment, raised his eyebrows and then answered, “About half.”
Getting ready for this talk gave me the opportunity to reflect on how I was able to use my gifts and talents , in a way I enjoyed, in the service of others. I first thought about what I did in Xaverian schools for about a quarter century where I taught French and Spanish, coached track and cross country, was an administrator, and ran a campus ministry program. I didn’t enjoy correcting all those papers, dealing with conflicts when my scheduling didn’t please everybody, being up so late at all those student retreats. But I loved speaking French and Spanish and getting my students to speak those languages, getting my runners to develop to their full potential no matter what their ability, and witnessing how young people showed their thoughtfulness and concern for others on our student retreats….and over-all I enjoyed my teaching career. As I thought about those days, a bunch of very pleasant thoughts popped into my mind that made me smile, and I’ll mention just a couple of them.
Steve was a student who frequently dropped into the Campus Ministry Dept at Malden Catholic. All of us campus ministers liked him, but he never seemed to get serious about anything and was frequently causing a bit of a ruckus, and at times could be a real PINTA – a pain in the (and you can guess the last word). But one night on a junior retreat I quoted a remark by Socrates “The unexamined life is not worth living” and he spoke with me for quite a while later that night about what that might mean. There was more to Steve than we had seen.
I remembered Tom, the number one cross country runner in upstate New York. He was always a great motivator for our best runners, but I think he took to heart the attention I gave to all our runners, no matter what their level of ability. He was always encouraging those who hadn’t scored any points to keep on working at it, and he helped make them feel they were part of the team.
And how could I forget Chris, a student I had in Utica, NY. In his class we were studying colloquial French expressions and I was telling them of an expression that people would use to indicate that somebody did not speak French well….Vous parlez francais comme une vache espagnole – You speak French like a Spanish cow…..Well, two weeks later Chris, who was not one of my best students, but very much an extrovert, was among a group of students I was with on a trip to France and he had taken to heart my recommendation that the students should look for times when they could speak French with Parisians whenever possible. Well, he was sitting across from me in the Paris metro and he was talking French very animatedly with a matronly woman. She was laughing as she helped him with his French but she roared with laughter when he mixed up his pronouns and, instead of using that French expression to tell her that he didn’t speak French very well, he was telling her in French that she spoke French like a Spanish cow. They kept talking French until she had to get off and for the rest of our stay in Paris, I noticed that most of the kids weren’t afraid to use French when they were in the shops, etc.
In the 80’s when I was running a campus ministry program, in my prayer life I began to get more in touch with Jesus’ call to work with the poor and I was able to set up a number of service programs for the students at Malden Catholic so that they could have contact with people who were poor, and learn from them as they sought to be of service to them.
After I had spent 8 years at Malden Catholic, I was asked to join our community in Orangeburg, SC, where a group of us Brothers worked among the poor in whatever way our gifts and talents allowed us to…. I was there for 16 years and loved it…..I loved the way South Carolinians spoke the English language, and I know I always said “hey” to greet somebody and always referred to myself as bro Jere-mi ah (spreading out the syllables in a Southern drawl). I was able to work with a Methodist minister to set up the Cooperative Church Ministries of Orangeburg , known as the CCMO, which had each year, and still has today, about 50 volunteers from 25 Churches of all denominations (including our one Catholic church, about half predominantly Black, and about half predominantly white, except for the Catholic Church which includes people of all races).
While helping people at the CCMO with food, clothing, and other emergency help – shelter, light bills, rent, etc. – I found that some of the problems they were having were their own fault, but also saw that a great deal of difficulty was caused by the circumstances in which they found themselves. A number were disabled veterans or individuals who had gotten disabled because of a work injury and their monthly veteran’s checks or their SSI checks were always around $450 a month. Others were working at Walmart and needed food quite often or help with their medicine. A forklift operator might come in with his medical report showing the money he needed to relieve the pain caused by a serious injury he had suffered on the job (he had no insurance). Sure, they might be people who didn’t budget what money they had , etc….. but a lot of times they were in survival mode where their wages were too low and they couldn’t afford their rents or mortgages; the job training classes available had long waiting lists and they couldn’t get in; they didn’t know of any places where they could get basic education classes or learn to read.
During this time in Orangeburg, I came to realize that things were in place in our cities, states, and country that made it more difficult for people on the lower end of the income scale to live a dignified, human life and that we Christians were called to change these things. I knew that throughout the Gospels, Jesus called us to work with and be with the poor and that in Matthew 25, the only thing people are being judged on is whether they fed the hungry, visited prisoners, worked for peace, etc. And I started to look more closely at the fact that Jesus was speaking to us today through the Social Justice encyclicals of people like Pope Leo XIII, John XXIII, and Benedict XVI to call us today to work to change those conditions which helped make poverty so widespread.
These days I’m living in Baltimore with three other Brothers. We’re all retired, but we’re still living full time lives as Xaverian Brothers , and though our schedules are more flexible, many days we’re busier than when we had full time jobs– each of us spending time each day in private prayer and community prayer, volunteering at soup kitchens and community learning centers, and helping out with our Associate program for those who wish to join with the Brothers as non-vowed members of the Xaverian family. Two things I enjoy doing every week are going to St. Peter’s Adult Learning Center for mentally challenged adults and leading them in song with my accordion, and going to the Soup Kitchen at Viva House – a Catholic Worker House modeled on the Catholic Worker houses set up by Dorothy Day throughout the country and the world.
For the past six years I’ve also been the Coordinator for Justice and Peace for the Xaverian Brothers and I spend time checking the internet on social justice items and sending articles and action alerts about social justice issues to the Brothers, Associates, and friends of the Brothers. As I do this work I am buoyed up by a very hopeful feeling when I see that there are people all over the world who are working together to help create a society where it’s easier to be the fully human people God intended, to be good, to do the right thing ,,,,where businesses are able to pay their workers a living wage without fear of losing out to a low wage competitor, where people can get drinkable water and the health care they need, and where the government spends less on the military and more on programs of social uplift like job training and education, where the excess of human made CO2 isn’t ruining the earth, and where support systems are in place which make it unthinkable for people to get an abortion or engage in euthanasia.
I’ll conclude by saying that from my conversations with some of your teachers whom I have gotten to know over the last couple of years, I’d have to say that if our founder TJR were walking through OLGC today, he would find it awesome that you young women and men are being exposed to the Christian values he so cherished and that, by and large you’re learning to answer God’s call to use your talents and gifts to be people for others – whether it be here at the school, in the community, or in places like a Habitat site in Charlottesville, VA, or on service trips abroad where you live and work with people in El Salvador and Haiti. TJR would be proud of the good work the administration, faculty, and staff are doing here at OLGC and I urge all you students to keep on doing the things that make OLGC a really great school in the Xaverian tradition.