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Last of the Brothers?

Added to on October 2, 2006

Irish Independent, October 2nd 2006

Edmund Garvey was just 14 when he joined the Christian Brothers. Then there were 1,265 Irish brothers, but he may yet be the final one. He talks to JOHN COONEY

'I could be the last Irish Christian Brother if I live another 10 or 20 years," Brother Edmund Garvey, a fresh-faced and intellectually sharp 60-year-old, frankly admits. "But it is a prospect that I particularly do not want to think about or face."

I met the director of communications for the Christian Brothers at the Congregation's provincial house of St Mary's on Dublin's North Circular Road. This doomsday scenario had arisen towards the end of a two-hour conversation, during which Br Garvey had recalled the glory days of the late 1950s when he joined Ireland's largest religious teaching order as one of 1,265 fully-professed brothers, novices and juniors.

"The mid sixties were the absolute high point," he explains. "From there on vocations declined."

In contrast to those heady days, the manpower reality today is that the Christian Brothers in Ireland only number some 350. Like other religious orders, the age profile of the Christian Brothers is elderly, the average age about 70. This year, as in other recent years, there are no 'postulants' - trainees - taking their solemn, permanent vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience as newly professed members of the Christian Brothers.

The drastic fall in vocations has resulted in the setting up of a trusteeship for lay-control of the Christian Brothers schools, while retaining their traditional religious ethos. While Br Garvey may not relish the prospect of becoming the last Brother in Ireland, he has thought long and hard about how social and cultural changes have brought his order to its present condition. In his own lifetime, he has experienced the high point, and has grappled with new strategies since the 1970s to adapt the order to the fast-changing circumstances which have challenged its relevancy and survival.

"We are living in a fascinating time," he says. "There has been a huge institutional shift in the Church and we are only now beginning to see what will happen.

"Traditionally, the religious orders played a massive role in the critical delivery to the people of education, the social services, medicine and in voluntary work. They also had a massive outreach to the developing world."

Born in Drogheda in 1945, Edmund was educated by the Christian Brothers, and admired their teaching skills and commitment to a disciplined way of life in a religious community that he wanted to join. At 14, he joined the juniorate, then known by its Latin name as the 'juvenate', in Baldoyle.

Today, he has no regrets at his choice. "People kept saying to me that I was very young. I heard them, but I was not listening. I was willing and eager to embrace this life." But he shed no tears when the juniorate system - the admission of boys - was closed down in 1973.

When he was just over 16, Edmund entered the novitiate in Marino. "Marino at that time was full of students- some 80 to 100 of us. Life was structured for us. There were rules to live life by, which we sometimes broke but did not question." The young Garvey went on to spend three years studying Latin and English at UCD.

There he was marked out from the fun-loving secular students because he belonged to the phalanx of seminarians from Clonliffe, the Dublin diocesan college, who also wore clerical dress and black hats. They were visibly identifiable as 'men set apart', destined for the religious state.

By now, it was the era of the Beatles, the arrival of television and the mini-skirt. Earmarked by his superiors as an intellectual high-flyer, Edmund was sent to Queen's University, Belfast, where he spent two years doing education studies. The intellectual excitement made him feel he was "in paradise".

But his Belfast days also saw the beginnings of the violence in the North. This sharpened his sense of Catholic identity. "I was clearly identifiable on the streets as a clergyman of some kind."

In 1969, as he prepared to take his final vows, Edmund discovered the new horizons that were opening up for religious life as a result of the new thinking which had been generated by the Second Vatican Council which had met in Rome from 1962-'65.

As he read 'the new theology', he was thrilled by "the new vision of the future of the Church". No longer was the Church seen as an unchanging monolith. It was "the pilgrim Church" engaging with a changing world.

"Fundamental to this change was the Council's universal call to all Catholics to holiness," he says. "We were no longer an exclusive club specialising in holiness for the laity. Everyone in the Church, not least the laity, were called to holiness."

During his years as a teacher in Newry, Edmund was involved with others in redefining the role of a Christian Brother.

"The continuing reimagining of the challenges confronting religious in Europe is the biggest challenge facing us today. Europe is the old world that is dying. But I still see a place for a newly imagined religious style of living in the European world and the Church of today. I remain optimistic about that."

Two long spells at the Christian Brothers' headquarters in Rome, especially from 1996 - the year of the beatification of the founder of the Christian Brothers, Blessed Edmund Rice - to 2002 when he was world Superior General, brought Brother Garvey into direct contact with growth areas in Africa, Latin America and India.

Paraphrasing TS Eliot's The Journal of the Magi, he wonders, "When we look at the current realities of what is taking shape, is it a birth or is it a death that we are looking at?"

Asked what kind of will he would draw up in regard to the Congregation's property and financial assets if he found himself the last Christian Brother alive in Ireland, he replies: "I would instruct that these be used to support the poor and marginalised in the Third World. Our death in Europe would be the rebirth in the Third World."

The way it was 40 years ago

"The main object of the Brothers, after their own sanctification, is the Christian education of youth, to which, after due preparation, they entirely and irrevocably devote themselves.

"The most suitable age for postulants to enter the Novitiate is between 15 and 25; those seeking admission must possess the talents necessary to follow the course of studies prescribed by the Congregation for its members.

"Young men who have no aptitude for teaching may be admitted to the Congregation, and will be employed in the domestic and temporary duties of the Society.

"All candidates should present letters of recommendation from the parish priest, or other of the clergy, together with their baptismal and confirmation certificates."

(Source - The Irish Catholic Directory, 1964)