Evangelization was the focus of the cohort IV March 2023 sessions of the Brother John Johnston Institute of Contemporary Lasallian Practice. The sessions, themed “Evangelization and the Spiritual Needs of Young People,” spoke to increasing needs within the Church, as well as in Lasallian ministries. Evangelization has become more of a focus in recent Johnston cohorts as a meaningful and necessary way to meet the signs of the times. Guided by the Lasallian mission and learned experiences of each gathering’s District presenter – Charlie Legendre, AFSC, District of San Francisco New Orleans (SFNO); Donna Moga and Tom Sipowicz, District of Eastern North America (DENA); and Venus Wozniak, Midwest District – participants defined and contextualized the topic of evangelization within a ministry, Lasallian family and the greater Church.
“From the founding of the Christian Schools, De La Salle and the early Brothers saw education as a means of salvation,” shared Legendre, director of SFNO Office of Evangelization and Catechesis. “The type of education they offered unlocked doors, which would lead young people to lives of dignity and ground them in the knowledge and practice of their Christian faith. Evangelization and catechesis are at the heart of the Lasallian mission.”
Sipowicz, director of mission integration at St. John’s College High School in Chevy Chase, D.C., explained, “The needs of our students [have] become more pronounced, particularly in their desire for a source and structure of hope. Having a foundation of faith is no longer a given. Addressing this has required the creativity and commitment of Lasallians to bridge the growing gap and invite them to what God has in store for them.”
“It is important for us to stop and emulate what De La Salle did in examining the signs of the times, because if we don’t stop, see what’s around us and look to the future, we become reactive rather than proactive,” noted Sarah Laitinen, director of education and formation at Christian Brothers Conference.
Legendre articulated just how Lasallians have creatively met and tended to these needs over the years in reflecting on his time as a Johnston presenter since 2015. His sessions in the early years drew mainly upon Church teaching and Institute documents rather than experiences. Legendre was later inspired by the 2016 SFNO Mission Assembly’s commitment to evangelization and catechesis and Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, a 2018 Saint Mary’s Press publication that led to the creation of the Springtide Research Institute to study how young people, ages 13-25, are expressing religious identity, making meaning and forming communities of belonging. These new insights changed his approach toward evangelization to focus more on listening deeply to life experiences. “Where I would consider my sessions in 2015 more theoretical, the 2023 version provided a more grounded, real-life, real-time view,” said Legendre.
Wozniak, associate director for mission and ministry at Lewis University, reflected, “We are called to walk with our students, co-workers and community members, to accompany them through life as mentors and friends. When we stop to think about all of the attributes that shine through in accompaniment – acceptance, being known, being seen, all of your goodness elevated – it is then that we realize we are sharing the Good News of Jesus.”
Upon reflecting on her experience after Johnston, Moga, religion teacher and department chair at St. John’s College High School and graduate of the second Johnston cohort, shared, “I [was] much more comfortable recognizing the responsibility to take up the weight of the work of De La Salle and help others see their place in this mission too.” She continued, pointing to the power of interiority in evangelizing, “Evangelization in its best form is authentic, so we can only invite others into this work once we identify where it is most genuine for us. Whatever that point of entry is, that’s where we’ll do our best work as Lasallians. We just start from where we are.”
Johnston has continued to cultivate a communal spirit of intentionality and creativity around its approaches to the curriculum, often evolving and adapting to the growing needs and contexts presented at the time.
“Evangelization doesn’t just live in the religion department or campus ministry,” explained Laitinen. “It is something that can be truly shared throughout the entirety of a community.”
“[Participants] were open to having their understandings of and roles in evangelization challenged,” shared Sipowicz in reflecting on this fourth cohort gathering. “They thoughtfully identified the needs and potential practical applications of evangelization at their own ministry sites.”
In looking to the future, Moga noted, “I’m very hopeful that this [experience] will foster new life and growth in all of our ministries and spur the next generation of associates in the Lasallian calling.”
Cohort IV will gather in July as a Regional group to explore Lasallian vocation, spirituality and association. Registration for cohort V will open in February 2024.
The Brother John Johnston Institute of Contemporary Lasallian Practice is a two-year Regional formation program focused on deepening participants’ understanding of Saint John Baptist de La Salle’s story and vision, Lasallian pedagogy, the Lasallian promotion of justice and Lasallian spirituality while utilizing contemporary texts to inform and influence current and future Lasallian practice.
Photos provided by Phil De Rita, Brother Chuck Gregor, FSC, Andy Kuffner, Sarah Laitinen and Alan Weyland