by J. Anthony Gaughan
Sometimes, especially at this time of the year, it is good to look back over the recent past, and perhaps to add a corrective note to what had been written and perhaps widely accepted.
I have been reading lately a book that was given to me as present, but which was published way back in 2004. This is by Donal S. Blake cfc, and is entitled ‘Sharper Than a Two-Edged Sword’: Jerome Colm Keating (1928 – 1999), Christian Brother Extraordinary, privately published by the Christian Brothers themselves in 2004. (Though now out of print, copies may be available on the internet second hand from time to time.)
Donal Blake, who is the author of a biography of Mother Mary Aikenhead, is the Postulator of the cause of Edmund Ignatius Rice, that patriotic man of God.
So what follows here is not so much a review of a book, as an appreciation of both a gallant man, and of the author who wrote about him. It takes courage to go against the sweep of the tide that is public opinion in Ireland, but both of them did.
This book tells a tale of altruism and idealism symbolised in the life of Brother Jerome Colm Keating, and it also provides the inside story of the Christian Brothers during the last two generations, here in Ireland and abroad.
Jerome Keating was born on a small holding near Cahirsiveen in Co Kerry on October 18, 1928.
He and his brother Michael (who also joined the Brothers) were says the author “typical of a number of local boys who joined the Christian Brothers in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The Keatings came from a small farm of some 30/40 acres at Knockeens just outside Cahersiveen. Like most families in the area fishing supplemented the family income. He joined the Christian Brothers aged fourteen.”
After graduating as a teacher, he was a member of the staff in a number of the Congregation’s primary and secondary schools specifically established to make education available to the sons of poor and working-class families.
But Jerome Keating was recognised as a man of substance. Following attendance at UCD and the Lateran University in Rome, he lectured at third level Institutions.
Brother Keating was a strong supporter of the Second Vatican Council and enthused about its deliberations and the reforms it proposed. Commanding respect among his peers, he was elected to a number of positions of responsibility before becoming the 13th superior general in 1990.
Leadership in time of rapid change is often difficult. For him and other superiors the period following the Second Vatican Council was particularly challenging as they implemented the reforms of the Council and sought to update the Congregation.
As the author indicates the last decades in the 20th Century were even more challenging for Brother Keating and his colleagues.
There was a catastrophic decline in vocations and many departures. Worst of all, there were the clerical sex abuse scandals and a vindictive campaign by some media outlets whereby, by implication, the whole Congregation of the Christian Brothers and not just a few individuals were involved in abuse or its cover-up.
But the author is also able to describe how the Congregation continues to flourish in Africa and India. Its members remain committed to its missionary purpose and charism. Thus Brother Keating, despite his fragile health, typically spent his final years as a missionary in the harsh conditions of the South Sudan before he died on October 4, 1999.
The author records that “at Br. Jerome Colm Keating’s funeral mass on the October 8, 1999 Brother Edmund Garvey said ‘As Superior General, he was honoured many times and in many places throughout the world. He was not always at home in these situations, but when such honours and hospitality came from poor people of this world, he truly enjoyed himself.’”
He was a good man, well worth recalling. But sad to say there is today no Christian Brothers present in his native Cahirsciveen, beyond the ashes of their dead in the graveyard near the old entrance to the primary school off the church .