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Tuesday, 18 September 2012 13:10

Sowing the seeds of religious life

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De La Salle Brother Mark McKeon sits on a bench facing the jetty, taking in the endless view of the sea in Glenelg, South Australia, thoughtfully unpacking a picnic lunch. We are on a break from the CRA National Assembly and he had been introduced to me as the next congregational leader (Visitor) of the Dela Salle Brothers. He will take over the reins from Br Ambrose Payne on January 2013, and oversee the Australia New Zealand Pakistan and Papua New Guinea (ANZPPNG) District.

For the past nine years, he has served as Director of Vocations, involved in state meetings for Catholic Vocations Ministry Australia (CVMA) and sits in its national executive council. He celebrates his 30th year as a De La Salle Brother, having worked in schools in New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, with three of those years spent in  Boystown, a welfare residential care facility for juveniles.

He is also a blogger, in the community’s vocation website, with a column “Ask Br Mark” and responds to questions from young people. His role and experience have enabled him to understand what works with young people and in getting them to think about a religious vocation.

“The challenge is a mixture of the fact that there’s a lot more lifestyle options these days for young people, and their struggle with the notion of long-term commitment,” he said.

“Another factor is living in a situation where you’re actually accountable to the people you live with. And I think a lot of young people want to have a degree of freedom.”

 “For the last 9 yrs I’ve been to all our schools. I’m in a different school every other week, talking about my life as a brother, and more about helping young people work out their vocation,” he said. “I do that by telling them my story and giving them some simple steps on how they might work it out.”

 “What we do find successful is getting young people involved in short term volunteer programs – anything from 2 weeks to a month to a year,” he said. “What attracts a lot of people is seeing the work we do and then actually getting involved in that and wanting to do more. Service is the “hook” that gets them reflecting more on what they want to do with their lives”

“For a lot of young people sometimes prayer and reflection comes second. It’s actually doing the work, reflecting on what you’re doing and then saying ‘What is this saying to me?’”

When a young man expresses an interest in religious life, the next stage involves letting him experience community life with the De la Salle Brothers, starting with a stay of one week at a time. In this period, the support and welcome from the community play a crucial role. 

“Hopefully the community aspect is strong and they feel supported in what they’re trying to do. Otherwise they’ll leave, if they don’t feel they can connect with others in community, The witness of the prayer life of the community also has a significant impact on young people.” he explained.

Br Mark certainly understands the role that community affirmation plays in one’s vocation or particular call to mission. In the past months, he has felt overwhelming support from the De la Salle community, having been appointed as its next district leader through nomination ballots where a list of 120 names of potential leaders was whittled down to ten, then six, then finally to three.

“Eventually I got a phone call from the superior general in Rome that I was going to be appointed,” he said. “There’s a sense of affirmation from the general council in Rome and from the brothers in the district, and that gives me confidence.”

“I think I’ve also got confidence in my ability, not only in the past nine years but also in the last three years where I served as Auxiliary Visitor (second-in-charge).”

On the cusp of new joys and challenges, his upcoming role is to steer the community through much needed changes in the light of an ageing district, and to keep an ageing membership engaged in mission.

“I’ve gained the confidence to speak words that may challenge and confront, in a way that shows respect but not be afraid to speak them. This is the challenge I want to take up in the next four years in my role.”

 “One of the big issues we’re facing is how to ensure the sustainability of our educational mission in this part of the world,” said Br Mark. “The reality is to be in association with La Sallian partners, because the brothers make up only three per cent of the people engaged in the mission worldwide,” he said. 

“It’s getting the brothers to look at reality honestly and look at it through God’s eyes.”

 “Brothers and those associated with us in our educational mission entrusted to us by the Church need to regularly ask ourselves the question: What does God say to us in this situation now and how are we going to respond to it?”

We finish our lunch and he points out to me the location of a nearby Lasallian school in the distance where he needs to go. He gets up and goes off once again, doing what he has been doing for almost a decade, being a friend to young people and telling them his story: 

“My own vocation came from my own experience of relating to students as a teacher after university and the influence of my grandmother who had sown the seeds about religious life, telling me that it’s alright to think about it.”

 “I was first taught by the De La Salle brothers when I was nine years old but it was in high school that it sunk in that these guys are interested in us, and want to help us as best they can.”

“In the end, people remember how other people treat them. It’s all about relationships.”

Read Br Mark McKeon’s blog at the De La Salle Vocations Page.

 

By Giselle Lapitan