Catching up with the Christian Brothers: Inspiring Vocations

Lewis University President, Br. James Gaffney, shares his journey of service with the De Lasalle Christian Brothers over the last 50 years.

Theresa Marten, Religion Editor

After more than 50 years of being a Brother, what or who first inspired you?

It began when I went to a Christian brother high school. I was really impressed with how unified, friendly and approachable the brothers were. It was a very good school, but you could tell they really cared about all the students, especially those struggling or having difficulties. You knew that they were like older brothers watching out for you. People who had a deep spirituality, clearly close to Jesus, but also lived out the vision of De La Salle inspired me. All that was very interesting and appealing because we were all beneficiaries. Through them and the invitation, I heard the call of the Holy Spirit. I made the decision with family guidance and support and actually never looked back.

In addition to the high school brothers, who else has inspired you to continue your work?

Along the way there were about four or five brothers in leadership that influenced me. Thereafter, it was more colleagues working together closely. They are inspirational, caring, dedicated brothers that are also very competent. Clearly as I came to know De La Salle, he was marvelously inspirational. His own life story, journey, struggles and contributions to the Church and society inspired me. I was able to get to know and work closely with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin when I was in leadership. He was quite like Pope Francis, a source of inspiration for a lot of us.

What are some of your favorite moments being a brother?

I did not become a Christian brother to administer a school or a college; I became a Christian brother to engage in ministry with men and women for the sake of students. Therefore, what I have relished above all is teaching, campus ministry and direct engagement with students especially those struggling, disadvantaged or poor. Even as president, I taught theology and ICE classes for the first 20 years. I have loved whenever I worked with the brothers and lay faculty to advance the mission and really make a difference in the lives of our students. Providing quality education that is affordable and accessible has been very satisfying. I like focusing on social justice, outreach to the poor, diversity, reconciliation, transformation of society and addressing the most crucial needs people have; in other words I like everything and anything that is mission centered. Those moments have been what I relished most.

How has being president enabled you to continue the La Salle mission?

Being a Christian brother is a marvelous vocation. As president, it is much more than budgeting, putting up buildings, fundraising, being a part of leadership nationally or chairing external boards. As president, I have really been able to promote so many good things that really make a difference for our students and their success. You can remove barriers, direct resources and offer encouragement. Where the president is says what he or she thinks as important. I try to be present at as many events and activities as I can. Would I love to be doing nothing but University ministry, teaching and residential life? Yes, absolutely. However, being the president provides a fine opportunity to advance the basic purposes, well-being reputation and vitality of the university for the students. It is a tremendous privilege and very satisfying in that and many other ways.

What exciting post-retirement plans do you have?

I will probably get away for a couple months, maybe travel and visit friends and family around the country. I would like to go on a long retreat to renew myself. I will not take on too much more right away. Currently, I work about 80 hours a week, so I would like to get it down to about 40 hours. Then I want to be more present with my family in the Chicago area. I would also like to go with the students and staff to Feed My Starving Children and other volunteer services, and to retreats such as Catalyst. I would like to have time to be in more direct service if possible. In addition, I love cultural activities such as operas, symphonies and plays in Chicago, so I would like to have more opportunities to attend. I also would appreciate having additional time for personal and spiritual reading. Regarding external services, I am still a member (and in some instances chair) of various external councils and boards. For example, there is a Justice Advocacy Commission that has been newly created in the Chicago region that I have been asked to chair. Since this aligns well with the mission of St. De La Salle and the university, I will make time for that. In addition, I would happily keep in contact with alumni and major donors if asked to do so by the university. Meanwhile, in the next 18 months, we have five buildings needing major renovations or expansion, new academic programs to advance, various mission related initiatives and many other good things that will help students, faculty and staff. For instance, we will complete work on Saint Charles Borromeo Center, achieve the final phase of the transformation of the former science building, modernize our aviation facility and continue planning for a renovated new chapel and new student center.

Do you have any advice for students as they discern their vocations?

Do not be overwhelmed by what society says counts in life such as accumulating lots of money, prestigious jobs, expensive homes and vacations. Of course, you need enough to provide for a good home, financial support for your family and sufficient savings realized through work that is also satisfying. Do not be overwhelmed with the message that college is only about getting a job. That is important, but when it is blended with liberal arts, one becomes more enriched. Reflect, talk to wise people and explore what is your calling and what is most important to you and for which you have a real passion. Take time for self, family, service, God and relationships. Regular giving of yourself helps you to become a richer and fuller person. Trust that you are never abandoned by your loving God, and that a step-by-step direction for your life will become clear to you.

Theresa Marten

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