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I have always been fascinated and intrigued by the vocation of Edmund Rice. How did his vocation arise? At what moment did he make the courageous decision to dedicate himself to the education of the poor children of Waterford?
I have always been fascinated and intrigued by the vocation of Edmund Rice. How did his vocation arise? At what moment did he make the courageous decision to dedicate himself to the education of the poor children of Waterford? How did he arrive at such a degree of generosity and audacity in his life? After all, he was forty years old when he dared to pull out into the deep and give a Copernican shift to his entire existence. How can a man, almost overnight, leave behind all he has attained over many years and take a leap into the void? Was he crazy? It´s amazing the spectacular success he had carved out for himself as a businessman, his prestige, (even a certain celebrity status), his level of prosperity and wealth, ever since he began as a young apprentice at the age of 17 in the stores of his uncle Michael in the port city of Waterford in 1779. What inspired and moved him to take such a definitive step in his life and offer himself in joyful charity to educate the poorest of the poor at the beginning of the 19th century?
Many historians and writers have wrestled with this question, trying to identify the catalyst and trigger of his vocation. But there is no overall consensus. In any case, it seems clear that there was no “burning bush” or “road to Damascus”, in anticipation of his vocation call. Neither do we find in Edmund an Augustine or a Charles de Foucauld, for example. In Edmund´s case, it was not a matter of “conversion” from a disordered and aimless life to one more directed and upright. From the beginning, he was steadfast, composed, resolute and disciplined. He was good-living, with a strong and vibrant faith, and a spirituality that was at once simple and profound. From his youth he had maintained a conscientious and compassionate stance. His life and activities were always spiced with the love of God and neighbour. It was evident that Edmund Rice had a notable grasp of the social dimension of the Christian life. He was not one to ignore the Lazaruses who begged at his door. Moreover, the man from Callan exhibited that rare quality of being able to fully enjoy life and, at the same time, renounce it and live it for others. Many considered Edmund to be a model of predictability and a pillar of stability, eminently capable and sure of himself.
Given the lack of agreement around the precise motivations or experiences that influenced the genesis of his vocation and the foundation of the Christian Brothers, it is common to talk about traditional motivations and possible motivations. The traditional motives are numerous: the sudden death of his wife, the monastic vocation of his youngest brother John, his daily reading of the Bible, the Pastoral Letter of Bishop Hussey, the education of poor girls by the Presentation Sisters, the impact of the devout friar at an inn, the advice of a pious Waterford woman, the practice of proselytism at the time, the letter to Pope Pius VI in 1796, the proximity of the Foy Blue Coat School in the street where Edmund lived, and others. Without doubt, all these factors were of importance in reaching a final decision, but perhaps there are a few other elements neglected by authors and biographers.
From the time of the tragic death of his young wife, Edmund seemed to be moved to serve the “street children” and not just by financial contribution or occasional donation -- something that satisfied many of his colleagues -- but not Edmund. When others accepted unquestioningly the status quo, Edmund challenged it and, for example, felt impelled to help the African Negro slaves he came across on the docks in Waterford. The moving case of Black Johnny shows how far Edmund had gone in drawing close to the poorest and most despised. His sense of justice was exceptionally sharp. The following testimony confirms a growing tendency: “I remember the image of Edmund Rice the businessman. He was generally occupied with is thoughts, perhaps a little serious, who walked the streets of the city, usually alone. It was common in those days that poor and ragged urchins, playing in the street, on seeing him, would run and touch him, and his heart would go out to them”.
I firmly believe that Edmund Rice´s experience of fatherhood with his cherished daughter Mary constitutes one of the most significant factors that led the man from Callan to a radical and definitive change in the orientation of his life. As a direct consequence, he became more sensitive to the painful plight of the poor, cornered in squalid peripheries, miserable reservoirs of humanity, in deplorable living conditions. It was in 1793 that Mr. Rice, along with Dean Hearn, founded the Trinitarian Orphan Society. It was there that Edmund, for the first time, was engaged directly in the care and education of a considerable number of poor children. Nevertheless, it is interesting to notice that, despite explicitly expressing his desire to educate poor children in the early years after his wife´s death, he would wait many more years before making it a reality. In that way, he could accompany his daughter and see her grow up, in an atmosphere of love and tenderness, until she embarked on adolescence. As I see it, the fundamental aspirations of his vocation were developed embryonically during these years of loving paternity. In the warm, homely atmosphere of Arundel Lane, a wave of tenderness swept over and possessed the young father. When he looked at his daughter, filled with admiration and joy, and saw how she enjoyed a dignified and stable life, well-dressed, well-fed, educated, loved by all and lacking nothing… he could not avoid the nagging question “and what about the children of the poor?” So many lives truncated for lack of opportunities. A new social order was called for.
It is clear also that from the death of his wife in 1789 until 1802 Edmund Rice embarked upon a spiritual journey of enormous proportions, interior and exterior, as complex as they were diverse. From the time he bought a copy of the Douai Bible in 1791, considered by O´Toole to be the most important event in his spiritual life, Sacred Scripture would occupy a privileged place in his formation, as also a well-used copy of the Imitation of Christ. In addition, in 1793 he acquired a new edition of The Spiritual Combat, a classic guide to the interior life, highly thought of by St. Francis de Sales, since “it reduces maxims to practice”. The author of the book was Laurence Scupoli, an Italian who, like Edmund, embraced religious life at the age of 40. The organized structure of the book afforded a methodical focus that gelled with the ordered and disciplined commercial mind of Mr. Rice.
Never satisfied with even a plethora of personal gestures towards needy individuals – no matter how authentic they were -- Edmund wished to go further in his response to the strident cries of the poor. He visualized his vocation, not as an isolated, spontaneous response, but as a long-term contribution to the Catholic Church. That´s how it is registered, under oath, in a letter he wrote to Pope Pius VI in 1796, seeking assurance and support in his proposal to establish, in Waterford, a community of lay brothers, dedicated to the instruction of poor boys. The response was clearly positive. The petition to Rome is further evidence that Edmund Rice was not interested in simply sponsoring a school –something the rich often did at that time – but rather in setting up a community of consecrated laymen committed to the education of the suppressed and downtrodden classes. His intense life of prayer, the Eucharist, the Rosary and lectio divina are instrumental in leading him to discern his way into the future. His faith grows in intensity and authenticity, it is never confortable or individualistic, but instead alive and active, committed to change, opening up social and cultural gaps in a generally closed and conformist society. His was always “a faith that acts through love” (Gal 5,6).
Through prayer, all of Edmund´s life is ploughed up, harrowed and sown anew. He commits his whole life, his own heart taking its beat from the compassionate heart of God. He enters into the truth and heart of history, into situations of brokenness and fragility. He is capable of allowing all the consequences of his encounter with Jesus Christ to surface in relation to the world around him. Gifted with true prophetic insight, Edmund could feel and be in tune with a crushed and downcast people, long imprisoned in pain and misery. By his attitude, gestures and actions, he responds to the signs of the times and of places. In this way, he stirs up and rekindles the ashes of the Gospel, the embers of tenderness, mercy and solidarity. He seems to say, catching a glimpse of his mission: “I will change their mourning into gladness, comfort them, give them joy after their troubles (Jer 31,13). His heart becomes as deep as the Grand Canyon of Arizona and as broad as the vast Patagonian plains of Argentina! The man from Callan opens his whole heart to Christ present and appealing to him in the poor. From his earliest years compassion, like an underground stream, coursed through Edmund; in later years it rises to the surface and floods his whole being. Compassion and mercy, in Edmund, become a powerful, deep-flowing river.
Another key factor to consider in Mr. Rice´s vocation decision was his inner freedom. Edmund was an eminently free man. To be free is to put justice, truth and the service of others above our own personal gain or the need for recognition, power and success. It is worth recalling that in 1795, on the death of his uncle Michael, Edmund inherited his entire business, which at that time was flourishing, due mainly to his own acumen, skill and wise management. Nevertheless, seven years later, he changes diametrically his career path and gives himself over to the education of poor children. In this, Edmund joins an illustrious cast of free men and women who preferred to live in a spirit of truth and justice, guided by noble and ethical principles and with hearts full of compassion. His spirit of abnegation and detachment is noteworthy. He truly empties himself. He is never blinded by riches and comfort. In Edmund money does not hold sway, but rather his heart. He did not succumb to the indifference that kills, or to custom that anaesthetizes the soul and obscures reality, or to the cynicism that destroys and hinders human advancement. Attentive to the Spirit, ever hovering over chaos and disorder, Edmund detects new possibilities from behind the certitudes and prejudices of yesterday and offers himself, with passion and enthusiasm, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and transform the world, creating a future more promising that the awful misery of the past.
All these motivations and factors in the genesis of Edmund´s vocation seem to me like so many strands that are woven together over the course of the years following the death of Mary Rice, to form eventually the clear and vibrant tapestry of his commitment to brotherhood and the service of the poorest. Or again, as happens in the unfolding of a musical, opera or classical work, with its varied notes and fragments of melody, each one necessary, with its own moment and duration, and which, well-orchestrated, in a gradual movement towards a climax, finally becomes a full-blown, majestic symphony, ringing out with uninhibited expression the theme toward which it has been moving. Something analogous occurs in the evolution of Edmund´s surprising vocation discernment.
It is said that a good diagnosis is a prerequisite to a good medical prescription. If Edmund “delayed” in reaching a definite decision in his life, we can say that during all those years he was engaged in deep reflection and deliberation, as well as honing his talents and perfecting his capacity, waiting for God´s moment. According to the happy expression of W. H. Auden “When grace enters, there is no option: humans have to dance”. In 1802, that moment had arrived. I wonder if in that instant Edmund felt the same irresistible urgency as Jesus when he declared: “I have come to come to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already!” (Lk 12, 49). Edmund´s resounding “yes” to the persuasive prompting of the Spirit was a decisive moment in the history of the oppressed catholic population of Ireland and beyond. Thanks to the new sap instilled by Edmund, upon the discarded trunk of catholic Irish society, a fresh shoot sprouts and prospers. It is born anew.
The Irish Nobel for Literature, Séamus Heaney (1939-2013), with a certain prophetic tone, declared:
“History says don´t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime,
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme”.
Blessed Edmund Rice took upon his shoulders the hope and history of his people, believing that for God nothing is impossible. He became the celebrated defender of the poor. He gave wings to youth and instilled life into downcast spirits. He made it possible that, after a Good Friday, an Easter Sunday would follow. Edmund Rice was a towering figure, strong, unwavering, yet always, natural, modest and unaffected. We will never sufficiently grasp his greatness, the magnitude of his commitment and contribution to education and social reform in Ireland and beyond. Through Edmund, hope and history embraced, rhymed and danced!
(Br. Patrick Payne, Buenos Aires, on the occasion of his Golden Jubilee as a Christian Brother, and in the context of the Jubilee Year of Mercy).