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Oakhill Gathering reunion reflections

Posted on 4 April 2018

During 17-18 March, over 50 De La Salle Brothers and former Brothers gathered for a reunion at Oakhill College, Castle Hill. 

The following are personal reflections and presentations from former Brothers of De La Salle. 

Reflection by Laurie Woods

The reunion of Brothers and former Brothers that took place on the weekend of March 17-18 turned out to be a unique occasion and opportunity. It was a celebration of association and connection which began with a Eucharistic gathering on the Saturday evening, followed by a buffet dinner. The assembly in the Oakhill chapel brought to mind some of the many tales this sacred place could tell of past inductions, celebrations and farewells. Above all, it spoke of a union of shared vision and a rich spiritual culture.

The informal meal, with excellent food and fine libations, provided the opportunity to renew friendships, give voice to old memories, fill in the gaps of time and give thanks. I personally felt a lift in the spirit, as I am sure everyone else did, so glad to be there to catch up with men who had shared periods of past lives.

The Sunday began with a more focused and reflective session when invited guests spoke of their experience. John Liston and Chris Welch reflected on their journey of leaving the Institute, seeking employment and embarking on a life of marriage and raising a family. These were narratives of meeting challenges, soul-searching, facing choices, decisions, heartache and commitment. Both men displayed grateful witness to the integral part played by the process and ethos of their Lasallian Formation. Their words reminded us that we are the product of our Heritage, Formation, experiences, priorities and choices.

Margaret Liston addressed the gathering after John, and Thea Welch followed Chris. Both wives spoke from the heart of their experience of being married to and sharing life with a former Brother. Theirs were illuminating accounts of the joys of close companionship, the challenges of overcoming times of adversity, the fragility of life in the face of illness and misfortune and of the personal growth that emerges from the ups and downs of bringing up children with a cherished partner.

A period of discussion in small groups followed these impressive personal statements, which allowed for conversation and the sharing of a broad range of reactions and personal reflections. This part of the afternoon concluded with an address from Gerard Rummery that painted an informative picture of the expanding international outlook of the Lasallian family, united with a keen sense of shared mission and inspired by the enduring spirituality of St de La Salle.

A barbecue lunch concluded these proceedings and offered a further chance to rekindle and extend old and current relationships. The yarns kept coming and the laughter rang through.

Those who attended, relished meeting again and filling in the gaps of time, and went away buoyed by the common spirit and the simple human connection that the gathering provided. Everyone expressed gratitude for the opportunity and the organisation that made this a memorable reunion. Appreciation also goes to those who travelled interstate and long distances to be part of this event.

Special thanks to everyone at the Oakhill community for their vision and organisation of such a rich occasion. A final note of appreciation to Chris Welch for a first-class job in arranging and presenting the liturgical music.

Reflection by Chris Welch

It is daunting to speak these following words this morning. Br Pat McCarthy, with great kindness, joined us at home for a meal in 2013 to visit, but also to support us after my recovery from serious illness. It is quite a jump from our conversation on the deck at home, to sharing those thoughts at Oakhill right now. Please bear with me.

As we become older, it seems less appealing to speak about one's self. However, today in this community of friends, where we are reflecting on the differences and commonalities of our lives, speaking of self is with the sole purpose of promoting understanding: a gift of the Spirit. May that gift be given to us this morning. In addition, may our time together today build on yesterday's moments of connection acceptance and joy, and encourage us in our trust in each other and in the providence of God.

So to begin I want to say to the Brothers of May 1975, it broke my heart to leave you; it absolutely broke my heart. After leaving you, I used to have a recurring dream, which began with wearing the robe in great happiness but realising that I could no longer wear it, always concluded with a deep sense of loss. Another memory: as the Brothers processed from their seats in St Mary's Cathedral after a Mass to celebrate a milestone event I can't quite recall now, I think in the winter of 1975, I felt such a sense of loss that I was not walking out with you.

What was the loss? Well, such significant friendships, a sense of shared purpose, standing shoulder to shoulder with (the vow that meant most was the vow of living in solidarity with) my identity, the opportunity, prestige, regard of others. I was not who I was. It was a death of ego.

So why did I leave? I could not live a celibate life, and that was indispensable. Whatever the mystery of the person made it so - my psyche or body chemistry, it became increasingly clear, it was not possible. In saying that though, I certainly don't wish to minimise the challenges or the selflessness in living a celibate life. The reason it took so long to come to the realisation that I could not continue at the age of 27, was about honouring the vow of living in solidarity with. The prayers for perseverance were heartfelt. Life advances though, and there came a point where there was a colliding between that commitment and the reality of one's self and finally, and with great sadness, there was a parting.

However, while you can take a man out of the De La Salle Brothers, I don't believe you can take the De La Salle Brother out of the man!

It's hard to convey how significant this has been for me, but my time with the Brothers offered me new ways to be a parent and a husband. Was it that I benefitted from all the wonderful parenting of the outstanding men I had lived with and was mentored by?

We were given so much by so many others. The promotional short film 'Go Teach' starring Dave Zande, though I'm sure many us were eligible for the award for supporting actor, exemplified that. What was given by so many, has also led to a service to Catholic education and the teaching of Religious Education in the schools of Western Sydney for 46 years, and being a presence in those schools that reflected upon the men of De La Salle, who shaped and formed me. One can only hope and pray that I managed somehow to fulfill and reward their skill, dedication and generosity.

At the end of 2012, somehow word got around among the Brothers and some former Brothers that I was seriously ill. So many wrote to me in support and prayer. I can't tell you how much that meant. After Lukey Coyle's funeral, a Brother wrote back a most beautiful letter to say: 'The fact that you were there to see Lukey off, the fact that you had the photos only goes to show that you've kept that vow, (of association) at the core of your being while still being asked by God to go other ways.'  I also feel sure, that we former Brothers and aspirants to religious life, are held just as closely in the hearts of the Brothers.

At night before sleeping, at the end of our brief prayer to the Holy Spirit, one of us says 'Live Jesus in Our Hearts', and the other, 'Forever'. The foundations of my life were set by my parents and especially by the DLS Brothers.

For Thea and myself in our life together, along with many joys, there has been no shortage of challenges, and of course, we all know that as children of our parents. But for me, the selflessness required to raise a first child, I was not prepared for. The constant pressure to have enough dollars to provide for Thea, for a family of five children was constant and wearing. The creativity and belief needed to keep communication between ourselves, during times of misunderstanding and conflict, stretched my reserves of goodwill, patience and my sense of self on many occasions. To find agreement for shared moments of intimacy has been a lifelong task, as has to find a balance between the demands of teaching and parenthood. Thomas Merton speaks of finding his salvation or wholeness, in solitude. If so, then for members of a religious community, that 'finding' must surely be through the community; and for a life-long couple, wholeness must be found with and through the other. There are no shortcuts, no easy way through. None of us are perfect.

As I look at the Brothers now through Phil Sheridan's emails, I'm so heartened by the international quality of Districts such as Pakistan now added to Australia, New Zealand and PNG. The Brothers have combined for the education of the poor and the support of each other. In addition, the work of the Lasallian Foundation in South East Asia andyourtown is so gospel. Then there's the Brothers' work in the Bethlehem University. I am also very encouraged to see the Brothers involved with so many lay people in the work and leadership of the order. And the networking of Lasallian schools in the District is surely a great endeavour, linking students from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds. It has been so valuable also, to see the flowering of knowledge and resources about De La Salle's life, for example in "The Footsteps" series and in Gerard's videos: De La Salle's acceptance of God's will in the trials of life is nothing short of remarkable such an inspiration to us in our own trials! What an extraordinary man of the gospel.

Our life stories are so different but there will be, for sure, commonalities. I sincerely hope that what has been shared here, contributes to further understanding and affirmation.

Reflection by Thea Welch 

It is a privilege to be given an opportunity to speak today. It is done in the hope of providing a window into what it is like being married to a former Brother, and the impact it has had on myself and our family and of being in close relationship with Chris for over 42 years. It is with deep respect to all De Salle Brothers that I welcome this opportunity.

Last year in the home of Nick and Heather Williams, John and Margaret Day, Chris and myself viewed a vocational video made for young men considering life as a De La Salle Brother. I was struck by the breadth of opportunities given to these young men, boys in their mid-adolescence who, in a most significant time of their development are given experiences and opportunities for faith, spirituality, and education. They were challenged and stretched as people, were cared for and nurtured, all the while spending their everyday learning to be in relationship and community with others. These young men were given a most amazing platform from which to a live life that focused on the Christian education and wellbeing of others. An experience, which could only have been given to them, through the sharing of fruits and labours of the lives of other brothers before them.

This 'mutual experience' seems to have united these men in a unique way. No matter where they journey in life, their lives seem to be lived in the service of others: as examples of the living Christ.

What has this to do with being the wife of a former De La Salle Brother? I believe that this very platform of Formation is alive and well in Chris and my relationship. This has greatly contributed to our spiritual growth, to the values and standards between us and within our family of five children, their partners and three grandchildren.

Yes, we both bring our own foundational experiences into the relationship. Our differences and similarities are the very basis of the journey of the relationship. We have learned that to remain respectful and have courage to become vulnerable in working through difference, feels like suffering. That to stay in the pain of difference is not easy. That to understand difference through repeatedly being present for each other, through increasing communication skills and through finding compassion for each other, is the way to come out of the pain into deeper and richer love, to become more fully human, to live the gospels.

I have come to realise that there are different types of intimacy and clearly from what has been said so far, we both share spiritual, emotional and intellectual intimacies. We share creative intimacy in playing music together. Yesterday, I became aware that Chris's music skills have nurtured and encouraged my own ability to play and sing. It is a direct result of his Formation in the Brothers that I have been given this gift, which we both share with others.

Sexual intimacy is but one intimacy. A primal intimacy that, given each of our foundational experiences, Chris and I have been called to be deeply honest and open with each other about difference. Again, by staying in the pain, we have been blessed with a great deepening of this intimacy over the years. It is a journey.

Chris's health threw us into crisis intimacy, one that is often a day by day challenge of awareness around vulnerability, fragility, strength and taking life for granted. I believe that much of the value and strength gained by Chris in his foundational training as a Brother has supported us to stay in these challenges of difference and deepen our relationship in our marriage.

As a former De La Salle Brother, the following are some thoughts from our children, reflecting on the influence their father has had on the family from Chris's time in the Brothers. They are shared, I'm sure, by the children of so many of the former Brothers:

  • It seemed to shape dad considerably
  • Above all...a sense of morals. Equality. Respect. The opposite of 'The Wolf of Wall Street.' Thoughtfulness. Respect for the downtrodden and for those in desperation.
  • A sense of community and how to contribute to it in a way with meaning and substance. A great sense of social justice and consideration for those less fortunate, belonging to a wider group of people as a child, considering others before one's self.
  • I think of dad as spending lots of time listening, reflecting before speaking, talking with respect, contemplating, building relationship, building connection to self.
  • A strong foundation, his values were fostered.
  • Religious life embedded in our day to day life - saying grace, going to mass, celebrating rites and rituals of the Catholic Church, living values from the gospel.
  • Dedication to a practice - learning an instrument, mastering a job and skills - the joy of music.
  • A quest for knowledge and theology. Seeking understanding about spirituality, communication, and language.
  • A love of the environment, bushwalking, camping, connecting with nature.

Impact on the family in addition to above:

  • Making time for each other
  • Coming together for meals
  • Talking things through
  • Treating each other equally"

I offer deep gratitude to the De La Salle brothers for the gifts you have given to our family as a result of the time spent Chris spent with the Brothers.

Read article:Gathering of Brothers and former Brothers

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