On Thursday, September 13, 1917, a Sydney newspaper, the Catholic Press, reported on one of the “most notable and impressive ceremonies and gatherings that have ever been held within the walls” of St Mary’s Cathedral. The great and the good of the city had assembled to mark the centenary of the founding of the Marist Brothers in France. The Archbishop of Sydney had conducted a Solemn High Mass at 10am and “as far as the eye could search in that vast interior not a single unoccupied space was discernible”. This, the report concluded, was a suitable tribute to the “famed teaching order … the fruits of whose noble and self-sacrificing work are to be found in every corner of the civilised world, and even elsewhere”.

Many former students of the Marist Brothers had attended the service and, if they perused the newspaper the following morning, their eyes may have been drawn to another announcement: “The old boys … have arranged for an enjoyable afternoon in connection with the centenary celebrations. The excursion boat will leave Fort Macquarie at 2pm, and during the afternoon refreshments will be provided.”

These days, as the Marist Brothers mark their bicentennial year, Australian newspapers are focused on less pleasant matters. In recent years, the lamentable history of child abuse within the ranks of the Australian Church has, as in many other parts of the world, been searchingly and properly examined. The Marist Brothers have come under damaging scrutiny. Allegations, stretching back decades, have been made; culprits have been exposed and punished.

This all casts a shadow over the bicentennial, as well it should, and it reaches far beyond Australia. The response thus far has been promising. Unequivocal apologies have been issued and, while one still finds some Marists falling back on a “bad apple” logic, there has been wide acceptance of structural shortcomings.

At the outset of this anniversary year, the order’s superior general, Brother Emili Turú, stressed the need to seek forgiveness, because “in some of our institutions, which should have been havens of safety for all children and young people, there have been situations of abuse which have left deep wounds, frequently for life” and because “as an institution we have not always acted with care, or as quickly and decisively as such situations demand. Or perhaps we have simply not made enough effort to prevent them.”

Turú also talked of a need to express gratitude for the better parts of Marist history and a commitment to sustaining the order’s heritage. The task of renewal, of what Turú called “a new beginning”, relies both upon frank encounter with recent problems and positive reflection on the past. Here, the Marist Brothers have rich reserves of memory and achievement. When Marcellin Champagnat founded the Little Brothers of Mary in 1817, his immediate goal was to reach out to the young and disadvantaged, especially through a ministry of education. By the time of his death in 1840 some 280 Brothers were pursuing their work in almost 50 institutions.

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