On my eighth year of teaching at De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde (CSB) I got an e-mail saying that I have qualified for a pilgrimage tour of Europe.
The 20-day trip includes such destinations as France, Belgium and Italy.
A sense of uncertainty crept in as I thought about my financial status. But the travel package loan is payable in two years without interest; it’s an opportunity I should grab, a rare chance to retrace the footsteps of the school’s patron and founder, St. Jean Baptiste De La Salle.
I have known St. La Salle after having attended the various formation and retreat sessions in CSB. His life and works have been documented in many books and videos shown to us during those gatherings.
But whatever knowledge I had gained seemed deficient.
My teaching experience in a Lasallian institution goes way back at the University of Saint La Salle (USLS) in Bacolod. After 12 years, I decided to resettle in Manila in 2006 and applied in CSB.
To me, Pierre Romancon, also known as St. Benilde, was not that familiar, except that he was a La Salle Brother who became a saint much later than St. La Salle himself.
The Lasallian pilgrimage, dubbed “Sojourn,” was organized some years ago by administrators and faculty members from La Salle schools. This year, select administrators, faculty members and non-teaching personnel from De La Salle University (DLSU), CSB, USLS and La Salle Lipa were invited to join the trip.
While the Sojourn had diverse participants in terms of positions and departments, they shared one motivation: to retrace St. La Salle’s sacred journey.
The 17-hour flight to Paris was smooth and comfortable. After quick stops at famous landmarks Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, Eiffel Tower and the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre Museum, our tour group immediately proceeded to Reims, birthplace of Jean Baptiste De La Salle.
Reims is an ancient, historical town where, for several centuries, French royalty were crowned.
De La Salle’s family lived here, where he also spent most of his juvenile years and found his calling and vocation.
Reims is also known for its magnificent churches which explained its wealth and significant role during the Middle Ages.
We stayed at Maison St. Sixte, a century-old monastery converted into a hotel. It has maintained its Old World charm and serenity. There is a garden blooming with oversized roses and plants. The tranquil atmosphere is conducive to prayer and meditation.
After a restful evening, we proceeded to Notre Dame de Liesse (Our Lady of Joy) where we heard Mass. After which we renewed our vows as Lasallians together with the La Salle Brothers.
In 1686, a day after Trinity Sunday, it was in Notre Dame de Liesse where De La Salle and the early Brothers took their first vows and made a pilgrimage. They walked all through the night, and again pronounced their vows at the foot of of Our Lady of Joy (a small black statue above the main altar).
We proceeded to Laon for lunch, then to Brouillet. The city of Laon is on a hilltop where De La Salle also spent most of his youth.
In Brouillet we visited the vineyard previously owned by De La Salle’s family. The vineyard produced the world famous Moet champagne. De La Salle’s maternal grandfather, Jean Moet, belong to a noble class.
Moet taught him how to recite the liturgical prayers.
From Brouillet we went back to Reims slightly inebriated from Moet champagne.
St. Remi cathedral, the oldest church in Reims, is where De La Salle spent most of his time praying and meditating. We were told that he would start praying at night until the cathedral’s caretaker would lock the doors and find him the next day, still praying.
Dedication to teaching
On the fifth day of the Sojourn, our group went to Malone, Belgium. On our way to Malone, we passed by the Reims cemetery to visit the tomb of St. Br. Arnold Reche, De La Salle’s spiritual adviser.
In Malone, we went to the tomb of St. Mutien Marie Wiaux. This Belgian La Salle Brother was revered for his dedication to teaching and living a saintly life.
On the day of Mutien Marie’s death, some people professed having received miracles through his intercession.
From Malone, Belgium, we went back to Reims and continued our pilgrimage to the different churches in Amiens and Rouen.
Rouen is where De La Salle died and St. Joan of Arc was burned.
From Rouen, the group went to Versailles where the iconic landmark chateau is found, reflective of the extravagant and luxurious lifestyle of the French monarchy.
On the seventh day we proceeded to Lourdes. This was where I found spiritual clarity.
Seeing hundreds of sick people on wheelchairs and stretchers made me realize that life, indeed, is beautiful. I was moved by the sight of throngs of people chanting “Ave Maria.”
There was an inexplicable feeling of joy; tears rolled down my face as we passed through the grotto of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.
I am not quite religious, but I knew that deep inside, a spiritual awakening has transpired as I drank water from the grotto. The influx of pilgrims and devotees was endless.
Saugues is a medieval town in Via Podiensis, an alternative route to the Way of St. James pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. This is where Benilde Romancon worked as a Christian educator in the last 20 years of his life.
Grenoble is a city in the south of France which De La Salle visited on two occasions: to oversee the Brothers that he assigned to open new schools; and to detach himself from the crisis that beleaguered him as Superior of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. He stayed in seclusion in Grenoble for almost a year.
He found solace in a retreat house at Parmenie, a mountainous place in the outskirts of Grenoble. The historical and spiritual background of Parmenie provided De La Salle an opportunity to pray and reflect on the challenges that faced him.
His struggle to comprehend God’s inscrutable ways led him to surrender and leave everything to His will.
We also visited Musee de Grande Chartreuse, the monastery founded by St. Bruno and which De La Salle also visited on foot. He thought of becoming a Carthusian monk, but St. Bruno advised him to instead pursue his mission as a teacher. De La Salle went on to teach poor children in France—in the process becoming the patron saint of teachers.
Traveling is one of the best ways to learn and widen one’s perspective of the world. It deepens our understanding of different cultures.
This pilgrimage allowed me not only to see the world, but also to have a spiritual understanding of St. La Salle—his motivation for overcoming the odds in putting up schools; his faith and zeal in serving God unconditionally.
The physical demand of walking long distances was nothing compared to the hundreds of miles that St. La Salle and the Brothers covered to pursue the task of educating the least, the lost and the last—the underprivileged and the marginalized children in France.
In a nutshell, if one believes that life’s higher purpose is to be happy in serving others, I wish to share this quote from the Bible: “True service has nothing to do with advantage or benefits, for it is based on the higher principles of fearing God, Christian charity, righteous character, and personal integrity. True service is not moved by adversity or poverty; they will lose all in order to help.”