After 45 years in Catholic education, Brother John Ahern will return to the classroom as a student this year to further his deep interest in spiritual direction.
Br John says he hopes the decision to undertake a Master’s degree in spiritual direction through the Jesuit College of Spirituality in Melbourne will equip him to offer this “powerful experience” to others.
This decision marks the end of a long association with Rostrevor College, where he attended school and where he spent five years as deputy principal and more than 20 years as director of spirituality, RE teacher and sports coach.
The eldest of six children and the son of the State Coroner Barry Ahern, Br John joined the Christian Brothers straight from school in 1968.
“I came from a committed Catholic family,” he recalls.
“My father, Barry, was a lawyer who became the first State wide coroner in South Australia in 1973 and my mother, Margaret, had been a nurse at Calvary Hospital but became a full time mother.”
Following in his father’s footsteps at Rostrevor, he was impressed by many of the Brothers who taught him.
“I felt a call to follow God and thought about being a priest but I was attracted to education,” he says of his decision to become a Brother.
After training for four years at the Brothers’ houses in Melbourne, he was posted as a grade six teacher to Christian Brothers College in Kalgoorlie where some classes had as many as 47 boys.
This didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for teaching and after completing his Bachelor of Arts degree in Melbourne and Adelaide, he spent the next eight years at Christian Brothers College, Adelaide. As well as teaching secondary students, he coached football, cricket and athletics.
“I have fond memories of this time and was disappointed to leave when at the end of 1980, I was asked to go to Western Australia as principal of St Mark’s – a Year 5 to 9 school in Perth’s northern suburbs,” he says.
“After two happy years there I was appointed principal of CBC Kalgoorlie where I had started my career. I was to lead the two small Catholic high Schools into a new entity, so a lot of hard work saw the birth of John Paul College in that town.”
In 1988 he returned to Adelaide to take up the position of deputy principal at Rostrevor, responsible for pastoral care and student behaviour.
He was then given the “great gift” of full time study which took him to Boston, USA, where he completed a Master of Arts in pastoral ministry focusing on spirituality.
In 1995 he was invited to return to Rostrevor as director of spiritualty and eventually as assistant principal Religious Identity and Mission.
“This role was a wonderful opportunity to work at the key mission of what a Catholic school should be about,” he says. “School retreats became a key factor in school life as did service learning.”
More recently, he was an RE teacher and part-time football and athletics coach which he says he “thoroughly enjoyed”.
During a sabbatical in 2014 Br John completed a 30-day retreat in the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius which he found to be “the most meaningful spiritual experience in my life to date”.
With his golden jubilee on the horizon, he decided to end his time in education at the end of last year and study again.
“I look back on the past with gratitude and look to the future with hope,” he says.
Brother Tony Shanahan is less sure about what the future holds, although for the next two years at least he will continue to work in leadership and the formation of young brothers in Africa.
“After that, who knows? You probably know the joke about how to make God laugh? Tell him your plans!”
Br Tony says he was never been a great one for long-term plans and just kept on saying “yes” to what was asked of him.
Growing up in Adelaide, faith was a “natural and integral part of our life”. The first-born of three, he took on added responsibility after his mother died just before he turned 13. This influenced his journey, as did his education by three religious congregations, including the Christian Brothers at CBC.
“I was interested in teaching as a career, and the possibility of being a Brother was with me from about 15 years of age…after a while the special ‘character’ of the Brother’s vocation became more important to me than just teaching,” he says.
“Being a Brother means having a particular way of being with and accompanying people, as a ‘brother’, and it means having a close relationship with Jesus Christ that will sustain that way of life.”
He joined the Brothers in 1968 and after three years of formation and teacher training in Melbourne, he returned to Adelaide and taught at St Paul’s and Rostrevor College. He made his final vows in 1975 and moved to Fremantle as a secondary teacher in English and Religious Education.
As it turned out, Br Tony only spent 12 years as a teacher before studies in psychology turned his life in other directions.
After four years in Rome studying psychology in the 1980s, he returned to Australia and worked in formation, as a counsellor, and in leadership roles in the Christian Brothers.
After finishing a term as province leader of the Brothers in SA and WA in 2002, he was invited to Africa to assist in the formation of young men joining the Brothers in east Africa.
Prior to taking up this role, he undertook a sabbatical at the Jesuit centre of St Beuno’s in north Wales where he made the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius.
“That was one of the most important times of my life. I felt a wonderful inner freedom, and the retreat itself was an unforgettable experience of being held in God’s love.”
Reflecting on his decision 50 years ago to join the Christian Brothers, he says it has enabled him to become “someone who I otherwise could not have been”.
“It has enabled me to come to know the God of Jesus Christ and to see the following of Jesus as my foundation, and this has freed me to walk as a brother with an amazing variety of people in all sorts of situations.
“Living in Africa for 14 years has been extremely ‘stretching’ but also enormously enriching: how different we all are because of our different cultures, yet how, at the same time, underneath it all, we are the same human beings, on the same journey to know our Maker and to find our way back to the love that gave us birth.”
He says the two biggest challenges of his vocation have been coming to terms with being celibate and what it means for friendship and intimacy, and the crisis around child abuse.
“The latter emerged a bit earlier for us Christian Brothers than it did for some other parts of the Church, and from the late 1980s until today, the subject of child abuse, our part in it as a Congregation, and what responses we had to make, have been central,” he says.
“That means that almost 30 of my 50 years as a Brother have, in one way or another, involved coming to terms with the historical realities of our failures in this area, and with what was demanded of us in reparation of the past, and in safeguarding children in the present and future.
“All that has given even more importance – a healthy emotional and spiritual life as a celibate; and being true to my vocation to be truly a ‘brother’.”Jump to next article