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18 June

St. Elizabeth of Schoenau
1900: the first Brothers leave for Bom Principio, Brazil

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Marist Bulletin - Number 91


Brother André Lanfrey, a Marist and an historian,speaks about the events of 1903

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Br. Lluís Serra

Brother André Lanfrey, 60 years of age, was born at Chambéry, Savoie, France. He entered the Marist Brothers at the age of 17. He has a doctorate in History from the University of Lyons where he defended his thesis: Secularisation, Separation and the School War. The French Catholics and the School (1901 – 1914). This thesis has just been published by the well known publishing company Cerf (Paris 2003). A teacher and a researcher, he has studied, in particular, the history of the Institute. He was a delegate to the 20th General Chapter. At the present time he is a professor of History in two teacher education universities at Lyons and at Grenoble.

Your doctoral thesis is the only French research on the area of Catholics and the school at the beginning of the 20th Century. What are your conclusions?
I have noticed that before the period of 1901 – 1914, French Catholics had been very divided on the question of the catholic school: some found it too traditional while others felt that the Brothers and the Sisters emphasised other school subjects at the expense of giving enough time to the teaching of the Catechism. Even some bishops and some priests did not perceive the importance of the Catholic school. It was the separation of the Church and State that changed things as after this the Bishops realised that France was no longer a Christian country but rather a mission country. As in the missions, it was necessary therefore to establish the school as the place for evangelisation, even in place of the Church. As well, Pius X pushed the bishops to condemn the secular school and from then on, France has known a long war between the school systems, a war that is not yet totally over. In order to replace the religious that had been forbidden to teach or had gone abroad, the Bishops turned to lay teachers to follow diocesan directions: Catholic education took over from Congregational education.

The Centenary of the events of 1903 is being celebrated this year. What exactly happened during that year?
In fact, 1903 was the end of a long process of the dismissal of religious congregations that started in 1880. In that year, the government issued decrees aimed at unauthorised congregations: it succeeded in dispersing the Jesuits and numerous other congregations of priests that were thought dangerous for the Republic. The Brothers and the Sisters were not affected directly but the laws of 1881 – 1882 established the secular school system, one that was free and obligatory. From that time, the Catechism, prayers and crucifixes were forbidden in schools. As well, the brevet became obligatory for all teachers. Before this, only the Director of the school had this diploma and the Sisters made do with the letter of obedience to their Superior. Finally, in 1886 a law laicised the personnel of public education and the Brothers and Sisters had to leave the public schools that had allowed them to keep an official position and salary until this time.
From then on, the Brothers, having moved solely into private schools, were under the thumb of the founders of the school, the parish priests and school committees. Such authority was often difficult to work with, demanding the maximum of work for a minimum of pay. The competition with the secular school was often tough. As well, from the end of 1889 onwards, the Brothers were obliged to do three years of military service.
Up until July 1901, this persecution had largely remained below the surface but from this time it became quite open: the law regarding organisations gave the right to all the French to form an association, except for congregations who had to ask for such permission. The majority of congregations obeyed this demand but a small number, including the Jesuits, either left the country or secularised their members from October 1901.
In June – July 1902, the government closed 2500 schools, mainly those of the Sisters, that had not been protected by a decree of authorisation. In March and in June 1903, the parliament refused outright all authorisations of congregations – both male and female. This was the time when the largest number of religious either left the country or were secularised. In July 1904, religious congregations were forbidden from education. Thus all congregations were affected by this, including those that up till now had been authorised to teach. Due to this law, the Brothers of the Christian Schools (De La Salle Brothers) saw the rapid closure of the majority of their schools. So you can see that 1903 was not an isolated date but rather the summit of some more or less brutal anti-congregational measures.

These problems led to the Marist expansion through the rest of the world. How many Brothers left France and to which countries did they go?
There again, you have to see the emigration of the Brothers as a long movement. In 1902, the congregation had about 1600 Brothers outside of France – 600 of these Brothers were French. In France there were a little more than 4000 Brothers. During the previous 20 years the congregation had founded more schools out of France (180) than in France (66). So in other words, 1903 only accelerated a movement that had already begun.
That year more than 500 Brothers left Europe, at least as many left France for other European countries, notably to the Houses of Formation in Italy, (Grugliasco…), Spain and Belgium. In the following years the movement continued but more modestly.

What did the ones do who stayed in France?
The State did not expel anyone from the country but demanded that all members of congregations cut all links with their congregations in return for the permission to conduct their affairs as they wanted to, but as ordinary citizens.
Also, in the Church in France two doctrines were in direct opposition: the bishops and all those who wanted to save the schools asked the Brothers and the Sisters to break all ties with their congregations. But Rome and the Superiors of orders would not hear of this as under those conditions such a secularisation would mean the death of the congregation in France. Cardinal Ferrata, in December 1902, recommended a secularisation pro forma: meaning that the religious would dress in ordinary clothing, would receive a letter of secularisation from their Superior and from the Bishop but would still be obliged to live their lives according to their vows and to the Rule as far as possible. The Superiors thus encouraged the Brothers to follow this recommendation.
It was difficult, however, due to the fact that the Bishops, priests and private school committees put so much pressure on the Brothers to be secularised. Besides a lot of the Brothers could not hold with the idea of leaving France: they wanted to defend their schools; they were too old to get used to a new country; they had a mother who was very old… Also the Superiors who only wanted to secularise a small number of Brothers found themselves forced to concede the secularisation of a large number of Brothers (around 1500), without counting about 400 old Brothers that had been moved to the Provincial Houses so that the State would not sell these properties.
This secularisation rapidly turned into a disaster because the police started to carry out searches and in May 1903, at the school in Torteron, they found documents that proved that the Marist Brothers congregation was supporting a clandestine network of secularised Brothers. The government attempted to break the resistance of those who had been secularised by promoting a law in June 1903 that made it illegal for secularised religious to teach in the same commune or bordering communes for three years. This attempt failed but the searches that continued caused panic: a lot of Brothers saw their school closed; the committees and owners of schools who had been risking condemnation as accomplices to the reconstitution of congregations replaced the secularised religious by lay teachers. This was indeed the time when many secularised religious quit teaching and took up whatever job they could: insurance agents, salespeople, office workers… Those who stayed in teaching did things like going to a café, or the theatre, taking holidays, opening a bank account, in order to prove that their secularisation had been sincere and true. Marriage was the one means of proving that the secularisation had been valid and many priests and authorities encouraged this. So the number of secularised religious pro forma who stayed faithful to the congregation dropped dramatically.
From the start of 1904, the administrative and judiciary persecution experienced previously eased as judicial precedents favourable to secularised religious came into effect. This was mainly due to the fact that accusations of false secularisation had proven difficult to verify. Many secularised religious who had left teaching returned and secularisation became a long-term possibility: you could continue to remain a religious clandestinely as long as you were discreet about it.
Due to the continual harassment of the secularised religious pro forma by the bishops, priests and authorities of the schools, the Brothers of the Christian Schools (De La Salle Brothers) obtained a letter from the Pope in May 1905 that the living faithfully of religious life surpassed any work and so those who had continued to push for total secularisation of religious were silenced. But the Superiors interpreted this doctrine in the strictest way possible – as a condemnation of any form of secularisation and from this point those Brothers who had been secularised were seen as a second class of Brothers: their individual strengths and merits were appreciated but the state of being secularised was deplored. They were also given little support due to the fear that young Brothers would be lost from the order if they saw this as an option for them. Thus the secularised Brothers often became bitter men, feeling that they had, more or less, been abandoned by their superiors and no longer trusted by those Brothers who had opted to move to a different country. During the First World War, a lot of the Brothers who had moved to other countries were forced to return to France and so the contact between these Brothers and those who had been secularised was renewed. And besides, wasn’t the war a new form of secularisation?

How did the start of the 20th Century affect the French catholic school?
The French catholic school was established from 1886 onwards as the Sisters and the Brothers no longer had the right to teach in public schools. The last Brothers left the public schools in 1892. It took longer to replace the Sisters in the public schools as the State lacked women lay teachers. And besides, during this time the congregations started to use the services of lay teachers whose numbers had increased dramatically through the secularisation of many religious. The catholic schools also hired those teachers who, up to now, had been teaching privately or in non-denominational schools. Secularised religious would train the future lay teachers, both male and female, in the normal schools and normal courses were quickly developed to be able to supply enough lay teachers for future positions. Today, the majority of teachers in French catholic schools are lay teachers with Sisters, Brothers and priests forming only a small percentage of the catholic teaching population, and not necessarily in positions of authority.

And what effect did the start of the 20th Century have on the Marist Brothers as an order?
The political climate from 1880 onwards forced the congregation to raise the intellectual level of the Brothers. The training of the Brothers increased in time through the advent of Juniorates and Scholasticates. In the larger boarding schools the teachers reached a higher standard of education, often on their own merits through their own personal study. Religious formation also improved. The exercises of Saint Ignatius were introduced, as was the second noviciate. The Brothers were better trained and often more motivated in their work and so the Institute was able then to establish solid foundations in many places in the world and to remain firmly founded in France.
The real failure of the Congregation was its inability to face the challenge presented by secularisation. Since 1880, teaching no longer only involved the study of the Catechism; it now covered all subject areas. A lay teacher could often do this job just as well as, if not better than, a religious. Those who had been secularised could live out successfully this difference between the professional and religious aspects of teaching. They were no longer teachers because they were religious but were teachers and religious, faithful to their own individual consciences rather than to the body of the congregation. Thus they invented a new form of religious life founded on individual freedom rather than on obedience and community. But the Institute would not integrate the richness of their experience.
Those Brothers who had left France continued to live their religious life modelled on a form of monastic life characterised by the wearing of the habit, the rule and by living in community. This model of religious life continued until the Second Vatican Council but its collapse at this point showed that it had long since lost its relevance and that it could only continue to succeed through an openness and willingness to change. That’s why we saw so many religious leave their congregations after 1965 – because the congregations had never taken notice of 1903 as a sign of the times but rather saw it only as a simple setback to an immutable tradition. Now they had to rethink things.
That’s why 1903 cannot be seen as a providential exile that allowed the Institute to expand throughout the world. Firstly, this expansion had already started before this. Secondly, the large number of departures in a brief number of years destabilised the Institute rather than helped it. And the dramatic circumstances of this time prevented the Institute from looking to a new interpretation and evolution of religious life. We had to wait until the last decades of the 20th Century for the Institute to undertake a serious look at its relationship with the world and its traditions. But it is true that it could hardly anticipate the general attitude of the Church.

What judgement do you make on the public school system in France - Secularity or Secularism?
The French concept of Secularism is hardly understood elsewhere. Even in France the word covers two distinct realities: Secularism properly defined is the claiming of the autonomy of temporal power as opposed to the spiritual; Secularity is an antireligious doctrine that considers all transcendence as an attack on human liberty. The lay person has played with this ambiguity in meaning since the Enlightenment and the French Revolution: he claims to accept all religions but he also ensures that they are subject to him. He is not looking to the autonomy of the profane and of the religious but he is seeking out the submission of the religious to the profane. Proof: Secularism is noted in the singular while religions are noted in the plural (the Churches). Isn’t this the declaration of the ideology of the State, the substitution of religion by the State. This Secularism-Secularity allowed the Jacobin Republic to impose its power on all of France. But today, decentralisation and Europe are the order of the day and this weakens the older States and, by the same fact, their centralist ideology. On the other hand, Secularity rested on the positivist dogma of the irreversible deterioration of the religious faced with the rise of science. We know what became of this myth all the more so because the religious, far from disappearing, changed. Islam poses new problems and the religious ignorance of French youth has become such that the state has established in the public schools a new obligatory subject that studies religions. The increase in violence in both the schools and the suburbs poses the problem of re-establishing public morality. This has been attempted by teaching more about civic responsibility. But the problem of a meaningful ethos remains intact as public opinion no longer supports the idea that the public school holds a positive position on Good and Evil. Whilst the public school of 1880 wanted to be religiously neutral but morally committed, the public school of 2003 is totally neutral. Vague values, such as tolerance and liberty, are promoted but anybody can put their own interpretation on the meaning of these values.
There is therefore today a crisis in the Secularity that is changing from the purest form of antireligious fundamentalism to a willingness to be open to religious matters, and that is without taking into account the protection of the privileges of the members of the National Education Body.

For a long time Secularism has forbidden any Christian symbols in a public school. What is its attitude to any symbols that indicate belonging to the Islamic religion?
As I said before, the Islamic religion poses new problems to Secularism because in the tension between the State and the Catholic Church, the two parties were in agreement on one fundamental point: the distinction between the temporal and the spiritual. Their disagreement concerned which place to give to these two areas with Secularism considering that the spiritual dimension was limited to the individual and to cults and the Church considering that religion had the right to be a significant part of society (notably in the school) and even in politics in a certain sense. After a century of disagreement, the Church and the State have reached a somewhat balanced position in their relationship. The arrival of Islam, but also of sects and other exotic religions (Buddhism, Scientology, New Age…) has rekindled the tension and Secularism finds itself caught in a trap. Islam poses a particular problem as it does not make a clear distinction between culture and religion, nor between the temporal and the spiritual. The whole question is about whether Islam can reach a point of agreement with Secularism or whether there is no hope at all of any agreement. The emergence of Islamic fundamentalism and even of Islamic terrorism makes this problem a more delicate one.
The State is attempting to make a distinction between Islam and Islamism. On one hand, it has granted official status to Islam by authorising the construction of a number of mosques… but it has tried to prevent the outward signs of Islam in schools by forbidding the wearing of the Islamic shawl. In fact, it does not know where to draw the line between the normal expression of religion and proselytising that is contrary to Secularism.
Thus Secularism is debating the subject of Islam and Islam is debating whether it is necessary to accept the rules of Secularism. For me, the confrontation is unavoidable: it is only left to be seen if this confrontation remains peaceful or aggressive. Secularism could be tempted, for example, to repress all outward religious expression whether this be Christian, Jewish, Moslem or any other religion.

This form of “school war” is present in a number of countries. What suggestions do you have from studying the past regarding coping in this problematic situation?
I believe that the Catholic school, as we see it to be, was born in the 16th Century from the concerns of Church reformers who wanted to renew a Christian way of life in which the faithful would be more conscious of the faith and concerned to live this faith practically in their lives. This was first seen in the cities with Jesuit colleges and the schools of the Brothers and the Sisters and then in the countryside through the teaching congregations of the 19th Century. The Marist Brothers Congregation was one of these significant teaching congregations.

What is the specific contribution of the Catholic school in the field of education?
Today the Catholic school remains pertinent on condition that it sees the secular world and the religious world in balance. Thus the educational disciplines are not seen as props for the faith: mathematics, physics, literature have their own place in searching for truth. But for all that, secular knowledge is not the only aim: the school must promote an ethos that allows its students to see themselves in relationship with God, their origins and other people. At other times, the Catholic school has inculcated this sense of belonging in an authoritative manner, which had the benefit of giving support to the students but also the disadvantage of developing an attitude of either submission or revolt.
It seems to me then that the Catholic school can only be relevant if it promotes human development through the search for truth, whether this be immanent or transcendent. Thus, knowledge and faith are seen for what they are, not subject to authorities but inscribed in a tradition of discovery and as an invitation to pursue the task of confronting the mysteries of nature and of beings in order to bring about the fulfilment of the earthly city and the city of God. In fact, the most pertinent image of the learner and of the saint, but also of the educator, is Jacob’s nightly battle with the angel, which led to the new day and to the blessing.

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