For the Catholic order, retirements and the sexual abuse scandals have created problems
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 14, 2010
Getting a teenager to commit to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience is a tall order, and most boys aren't jumping at the chance to join the Catholic brotherhood, the church has found.
The number of brothers and nuns has been in decline for the past 30 years nationwide due to retirement and negative publicity, but Brother Peter Zawot, new principal of Damien Memorial School, wants to buck the trend.
"We (the brotherhood) have always been known as good teachers. Now the focus is on being brothers," Zawot said. He plans to begin every school day greeting the kids and the parents at the drop-off curb and taking part in student activities. "I just want them to see this is a human being," he said.
He replaced two lay principals of the middle and high schools, comprised of 400-plus students.
Zawot, 53, who Rollerblades for exercise, acknowledged that his relatively young age is unusual at a time when the average age of brothers and sisters on Oahu and the nation are is between 70 and 80.
Damien students were also surprised to see another brother of the same age -- math teacher Bernard Samp -- when they first walked in to class Thursday, Samp said. He plans to run with the cross-country team during practice, bringing up the rear to "lead the way in case anyone gets lost, to make sure everybody is going the right way," he said. Two brothers who were also his track coaches inspired him as he was growing up.
Zawot said the brotherhood is challenged with coming up with ways to recruit for vocations, but making their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience sound appealing to kids is a hard sell, until their actual meanings are explained. For instance, the vow of poverty is "trying not to let your possessions possess you," he added.
"My main message is to tell my story, what's wonderful about being a part of something that you're a member of. There is a built-in family and support system, a common mission and a sense of purpose," Zawot said. "The reward is to see kids grow from being seventh-graders to graduating; they've become something, and they go on to lead lives with families.
"One of the things that inspired me to join was the brothers hung out with us after school, and always asked us, 'How was your day?'"
When Zawot helped out as a crossing guard, he found many opportunities to relate to kids.
"I call it the 'traffic light ministry.' In those few minutes waiting for the light to change, you can ask, 'Why do you look so sad?' One kid said his dog died, so the next day I handed him a little story to read. ... Little things like that, people remember.
"When I couldn't be there occasionally, the next day the kids would ask, 'Brother, where were you yesterday?' They looked forward to seeing me as much as I did seeing them," he said.
"The religious life has lost its attractiveness. There's not as much family support or encouragement -- many families don't go to church together. The negative sex scandals of the last 10 years has put a blemish on it. And in general, there is a lost sense of commitment to long-term (goals). I mean, how many marriages last?" Another reason is "a lot of things done by the sisters and brothers in the past are now open to lay people," he added.
Founded 48 years ago by the Edmund Rich Christian Brothers, Damien was down to only one brother last year, Liam Nolan, 71, who has returned to teaching.
"This vocation is the fountain of youth," Zawot said. "I'm always called the 'young brother.' Brother Nolan always greets me with, 'How you doing, young brother?' It makes you feel good."