Becoming a decent human being is part heritage and environment, with good luck thrown in the mix. We can’t pick our relatives, but nurturing surroundings and good fortune takes the stuff of our lives and twists and turns it in ways we could hardly predict.
I spent my adolescent years under the guidance and tutelage of a group of celibate men in Winona, Minnesota. The Christian Brothers of St. John Baptist DeLaSalle were founded in 17th Century France to teach poor children. There are many groups in the Catholic Church who call themselves “Christian Brothers”, but this group had its origins in Rheims, France.
Brothers are not Priests. They are celibate, choosing not to get married, live in community where things are held in common, live under a rule and in the case of the Christian Brothers, take a vow of stability which ensures those who join don’t jump ship and go to another like-minded group. They do not administer the sacraments like priests do. They are kind of like male nuns.
I lived in a house with seventy young men ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-one in the late 1960s. I was a “Monk” as we called ourselves for four and a half years. The first year was an extended retreat. I was quiet, prayed a lot (honest to god had calluses on my knees), and developed a spiritual life. The last four years I was a college student with my confreres in a building on campus, pursuing a degree.
The Catholic Church has undergone and will continue to undergo a lot of self-examination as a result of the sexual abuse of kids. This cauterizing process will give it a chance to get back to the original mission of the gospel if it chooses to listen to the pain of the victims. While many suffered from these crimes, my experience living with seventy young idealistic men with dedicated adult mentors was nutritive and growth producing.
The men who lived in our house were role models of compassion, teaching the ability to listen and empathize, instilling spiritually humane values and engendering a sense of emotional and intellectual honesty I have rarely found in other places where men gather. Above all else, these men liked kids and wanted to see them thrive. And that above all was why they did what they did.