Two monsignors and one local newsman join band of brothers |
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I hobbled down the main aisle of a deeply spiritual religious service on Wednesday, October 30 flanked by two holy men. The Christian Brothers High School Band, the oldest continuously operating high school orchestra in America, played beautifully. The CBHS Brothers of the Faith Chorus sang one magnificent hymn after another. The prayers were rich and meaningful. It was in a word, spectacular.
Life can throw you some astonishing curve balls. One came my way this week. It is unquestionably the greatest honor of my life.
First, here's the back story.
In September 2013, a voice mail came on my phone and reported, "Joe, we need to meet with you."
It was the voice of Bro. Dominic Ehrmantraut, Special Assistant to the President of Christian Brothers University and Director of the Brothers Community at CBU. The message did not reveal the reason for the proposed meeting. I assumed that Bro. Dominic would invite this alumnus of both a Christian Brothers High School and CBU in Memphis to become part of one campaign or another for my Alma Mater. I was 100% incorrect.
Between the time of Bro. Dominic's call and the face to face session we finally had, I managed to break my right leg and ankle in a freak birthday bicycle accident. Being unable to drive, I had to invite Bro. Dominic— who's celebrating his 50th year as a Christian Brother in 2013— and Bro. Terence McLaughlin— a spry former CBU President now in his 90s— to my home. They came dressed in the formal attire of a member of the Institute of the Brothers to the Christian Schools The Brothers' "habit," a black suit with a white clerical collar, denotes someone who has dedicated his entire life to service for others. I had a gigantic cast from foot to thigh on my right leg and had to apologize for my t-shirt and shorts. After a brief bit of small talk, the Brothers' revealed the reason for their house visit. "We'd like you to become an Affiliated Brother," they announced.
I was floored.
"Have you done a background check?," I queried.
There was a pregnant pause. It appeared for a moment that the Brothers' wished they had done a little more homework on my history. They laughed off my question.
While I am a very active member of my faith tradition now, I did have a period of darkness in the 1980s where my church attendance and service to others were spotty to say the least. I led a life then that was far from what you'd call "holy, " I can assure you.
I did not reveal to my Brother-visitors the one time I had been called "Brother Birch."
I probably shouldn't tell this.
But here goes.
It was a Saturday afternoon in Autumn 1976. I just celebrated my 21st birthday. College football was about to come on the black and white TV that my classmate and friend Terry had.
I was a flat broke sophomore at the school then known as Christian Brothers College.
My pal Terry didn't have a dime either. But Terry had a checking account. We hatched a devious plot.
Terry took one of his personal checks to the old Super D Drug Store on Union Ave. near Rembert. This was in the era before debit cards and all the digital technology that reveals your bank account balance to the penny. Terry attempted to write a check for a case of beer.
Just as my partner in crime and I had surmised, the store manager wanted some assurance Terry's checking account could cover the $10 purchase price. Terry announced to the Super D man, "you can call Brother Birch at CBU right now and he'll vouch for me." Terry proceeded to dial his own number. "Brother Birch" answered. "CBU, Brother Birch speaking, may I help you?" The manager said, "yes Brother, I have a CBC student of yours here, a Terry Byrnes. He's writing a check for a case of beer." The impostor-Brother acted like he was surprised to be getting a call from a drug store but rummaged his memory and then blurted out, "Oh yes Byrnes, he's one of our finest students. I'm confident he has sufficient funds in his account."
That sealed the deal. We got the beer. This story remained in the dust bin of history until I began reflecting about the Brothers' incredible offer in September.
In the 35 years since graduating from the institution now known as Christian Brothers University, I have served on the Board of Trustees from 2002 to present and have been blessed to serve the University in a variety of ways. I met my wife at the college in the 1970s. Both of our sons have attended CBU. The school means a great deal to our family.
Never in my wildest imagination would I ever dream of being invited into a closer association with the holy men who consecrate their lives to educating young minds and the Christian life. It made perfect sense for the Brothers to welcome two noted Memphis priests to their fold. Monsignors John B. McArthur and Valentine N. Handwerker, both native Memphians and graduates of Christian Brothers High School became Affiliated Brothers at the October 30th ceremony. Msgr. McArthur now serves as Pastor of St. Louis Church on White Station Road, one of the most generous and vibrant parishes in the Catholic Diocese of Memphis. Msgr. Handwerker serves as Rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Mother Church for the Diocese. Bishop J. Terry Steib counts on Msgr. Val to run the Cathedral parish and its many spirited ministries to Midtown Memphis and beyond. These selfless men have served in many parishes across the 21 counties of West Tennessee in their splendid careers and both received the honorary title of "Monsignor" for their legacies of service.
So it remains a holy mystery why the Christian Brothers invited the local news anchor from the Memphis NBC affiliate into Affiliation. Bro. Larry Schatz, the CEO of the Brothers' Midwestern U.S. Province, welcomed a large crowd to the CBHS gymnasium for the Affiliation ceremony, including the entire CBHS student body, faculty, staff as well as relatives and friends of the new Affiliates. Bro. Larry explained that the trio of nominees for Affiliation were becoming "adopted sons" of St. John Baptist de La Salle (1651-1719), Founder of The Institute of Brothers of the Christian Schools. De la Salle came from a wealthy family and was on the fast track of upward mobility in the church hierarchy when he noticed that poor children around his home in Reims, France had little chance for a better life. De la Salle began supporting a small band of teachers who were attempting to educate the children of artisans, peasants and others who fell in the lower ranks of the economic spectrum. Before long, the priest who would become a saint gathered more and more men devoted to schooling the less fortunate to his side. The Founder deliberately decided that his followers would not become priests but instead devote themselves entirely to educating people, especially the poor. The community of Christian Brothers grew and more than 5,000 Christian Brothers carry forward the Institutes mission to this day in 80 countries around the world. In 1871, they arrived in Memphis. They started a school Downtown on Adams Ave. and eventually moved to 650 E. Parkway where CBC was both a high school and a college. In the 1960s, CBHS moved to 5900 Walnut Grove and the classmates who would become Monsignors, McArthur and Handwerker, were among the first graduates from the new CBHS campus. More recently, the Brothers opened an elementary school named De la Salle at Blessed Sacrament parish in Memphis' impoverished Binghamton neighborhood. Thousands of men and women have been blessed with great educations in the Memphis area thanks to the service of the Brothers over the past 142 years.
Bro. Larry said that from time to time, the Brothers decide to invite both women and men into a closer relationship with their community. In fact, my beloved French professor at CBU, the late Dr. Rose Deal, was an "Affiliated Brother." The Brothers started offering Affiliation in Memphis in 1928 and three women were among the very first to receive the honor. The Brother explained the community welcomes women and men who they discern as people of faith and zeal who are "in sync" with the Brothers mission of serving God in the ministry of education. The grand total of the Affiliated here in Memphis now stands at 41, so the honor is extremely rare, indeed.
The Monsignors and I were welcomed in style. After introducing each of us, we each received a new Bible, a Rosary featuring an image of De la Salle, a Cross with our names engraved in the back and a candle featuring a quote from the Founder, "Remember we are in the Holy Presence of God."
As the Gospel says, "with God nothing is impossible." After my affiliation was made official, lightening didn't strike! But now I have a major challenge: living up to the standard of loving service so splendidly modeled by the Brothers of the Christian Schools,