The Five A's of Service Learning at Marymount Paris
by Robert Kelly, Campus Minister, Marymount International School, Paris
This article is based on a session with student delegates from the four European Marymount Schools, who met in Rome at the beginning of October 2015 for the RSHM Student Leadership Conference. This is summarised in a chart of five "A"s, which sets out progressively how to fulfil service in the spirit of the RSHM.
There is very often a warm spontaneity among students for getting involved in what might be called "causes". However, often that very spontaneity leads them to jump immediately to the question "what can I do?" (and in some cases it is more about "this is what I would like to do"). Some do apply a measure of strategic thinking and tangle with the question of "How?" However, in my experience in several schools, little or no attention is paid to what I believe is the far more fundamental question: "Why?"
Left to ourselves, it might take many years for us to work out a personal vision that becomes the motivating drive for how we live our lives. But, of course, we are never left to ourselves. We are influenced by our culture, by our families, by advertising, all with competing suggestions and proposals.
Fortunately, part of our culture is to belong to the RSHM network, which provides us with a motivating vision, thanks in the first place to Père Gailhac, and then thanks to the chain of Sisters who kept that founding dream alive and made it real in practice.
Our great secret, then, is to have the motto "that all have life, and have it in abundance" or "... "to have it in full" (depending on which translation you take). I think it helps to give added appreciation of this phrase if we remember that it is in found in chapter 10 of the Gospel according to John, where this comes from the lips of Jesus presenting himself as the Good Shepherd. Combining the image and the words adds power to the message for to me.
The other part of our RSHM secret is the way that Père Gailhac modelled using this as the motivation for everything he did. He observed, and discerned where there were real needs. He continuously and consistently asked: "where is life missing, or less than full and abundant?" — and he knew that was where he should direct his efforts.
For example, as a newly ordained priest he asked his bishop to send him to be a hospital chaplain, and in a hospital which had both civilian and military patients. Not, we can easily imagine, the easiest of pastoral task for a young, newly-ordained priest. But that was where he discerned there was need.
Later he became aware that the sudden boom in the wine industry in Béziers was leading to a radical change in life in the town. A downside of the increase in prosperity was an influx of people from the countryside, hoping to profit from it. Girls and young women were among those new arrivals, some of whom had no skills at all with which to earn a living, and ended up in prostitution. Père Gailhac perceived this lack of decent life and began in a very small way to try and remedy it. At first, this was by using money from his own limited allowanceto enable them to stay in a hostel in Montpellier. But he soon realised this was a stop-gap, and not really a remedy, which led him to set up the Good Shepherd Refuge.
Then one day, he was presented with a baby, and was asked to look after it. So began the Good Shepherd Orphanage.
All of these show, I believe, that the RSHM spirit of service begins with being AWARE of the situation, observing and discerning where the real needs are, in the sense of seeing where life is less than full.
In the examples mentioned above, each time that assessment prompted him into ACTION. He did whatever he could to improve the situation, to make life better.
However, if we pursue the example of the Good Shepherd Hospice and Orphanage, this went beyond what he himself could do. They depended on others joining him, to help him in the work, and to do parts of the work that he himself was not able to do. In others words, when he saw that he alone could not answer a need, he did not turn his back on it but rather ADVOCATED, that is, he worked to persuade others of the importance of this service.
One of the intelligent features of his work with the former prostitutes was to have them taught skills, so that they would be able to earn an honest living. This was how the RSHM stumbled into teaching. It was not for teaching as an aim or principle in itself, but rather as a means to ensuring a fuller better life for these young women.
The fact that this teaching was happening led to requests from rich families: could the Sisters not open a school for their daughters? Père Gailhac resisted: driven by the Good Shepherd model, the RSHM should be working for those whose lives were impoverished: as always "so that they may have life".
But the requests kept coming. Within the RSHM, a new discernment took shape. Running the Hostel and Orphanage was expensive. At first, this was financed by the money that Mère Saint-Jean had inherited on the death of her husband. But she pointed out that this was finite, one day it would run out. Opening a paying school would guarantee there would be funds for the RSHM to be able to continue its mission of service.
Here we see a crucially important element in a healthy service strategy. Once the service activity is in motion, to take time to assess it. Was it achieving the essential goal? What might need to be done differently so as to continue answering the perceived need?
We can see lots examples of this strategy in the history of Marymount Paris. We need to remember that Mother Butler had established what was the first ever university level for Catholic women in the United States. She had just lived through WWI, and seen the disaster caused by exaggerated nationalisms. She saw how the War had meant women being invited to take up work that previously would have been left to men, in both factories and farms. She perceived both the threat to life of war, and how women had so much that they could contribute to make life better, not just for themselves, but for society. For her, it was a natural part of this vision to travel to Paris and find a place where young American Catholic women could spend a year studying at the Sorbonne. That was why in 1923, 72 boulevard de la Saussaye was purchased.
Spin forward some years. The financial crash meant that American families could no longer afford to send their daughters to France. At that point, the RSHM could have decided to close the school. Rather, they assessed the situation and measured the current need, and adopted an adapted response: the school was reborn as a French school.
More years passed. Governmental regulations in France changed, and it was no longer possible for a French school to be owned by non-French nationals. Again, the RSHM could have decided to close the school and focus their attention elsewhere. Instead they re-assessed the situation, remembered Mother Butler's original vision, and adapted: the school became an international school (in fact, the first international school in Paris).
I think we can detect a simple underlying plan throughout all of this, which is summarised by the poster.
Everything is driven by a motivating vision, which means that the answer to not just the "what should we do?" but also "why should we do it?" is: so that there may be life where there is none; so that wherever life is less than full and rich, we make it better.
The five "A"s summarise the strategy that will keep what we do and how we do it firmly aligned with the why:
- –it depends on a genuine AWARENESS of what the situation is, where there is a need
- –if there is something I can do to answer that need, then I get on and do it. I move into ACTION
- –if it is something I cannot do myself, then I persuade others who are more able to do it. This is ADVOCACY.
- –We need to constantly review and ASSESS what we have done (or persuaded others to do). Did it achieve what was intended? Have circumstances changed, which now demand a new response?
- –In the light of the assessment we ask, what can I do that would get better results? How do I need to adjust my ACTION or my ADVOCACY so that it is more effective
This is not a linear process, but a dynamic spiral. The fourth step of assessing is about staying aware, taking account of the situation now (so intentionally revisiting Step 1). This in turn leads to Step 5 of adapting, which is a renewal of Step 3 (Action) or Step 4 (Advocacy).
In the process there is a perpetual openness to verify the relevance and effectiveness of our service, but always done "... that all may have life ...".