Dan Krolczyk loves his summer job. He spends his days outdoors, taking troubled teenage boys from LaSalle School in Albany camping, rock-climbing and caving.
Since they're "city kids," he laughed, "you talk about bears in the woods, and they're right next to you. They're like little kids again!"
But the 21-year-old Michigan native isn't just basking in the sun this summer. Dan is using his time in the Albany Diocese to explore a vocation: becoming a religious brother.
The Brothers of the Christian Schools run LaSalle School, which serves boys, 11 to 18, referred by the Family Court system, their school districts or the Department of Social Services. (The order also runs Christian Brothers Academy in Albany and LaSalle Institute in Troy.)
The "Brothers Vocation program" for the order's New York District allows high school and college students to learn about the life of a Christian Brother. Dan is an "aspirant," meaning he's at the program's third level: He has been living with the brothers since January while he works in LaSalle's recreation program and will head back to college in August.
A lanky, easy-going young adult with a ready grin, Dan is one of more than a dozen aspirants currently in the Brothers Vocations program. His next step is deciding whether to become a "postulant" -- to begin formation as a Christian Brother.
"I went to a terrible high school my freshman year," Dan told The Evangelist. As a sophomore, he transferred to De La Salle Collegiate, a Michigan high school run by the Christian Brothers.
From then on, he said, the brothers "were always in my life." He considered entering the priesthood but thought living alone in a parish rectory wasn't for him because "I've always liked having other people around."
In addition, Dan said, the Christian Brothers' lifestyle of poverty and teaching appealed to him. Brother Ulysses de Armas, FSC, who directs the Brothers Vocation program, said most men who join the Christian Brothers enter "because of the mission: We want to help kids. But we stay with the brothers because of the community."
Dan entered the vocation program in 1997, initially just going on retreats and meeting other young men like himself.
"It's good to see people discerning the same thing you are," he remarked.
The brothers kept in contact with him, inviting him to dinner every few months and encouraging him to keep in touch with brothers he knew in high school. In 1998, Dan worked with the order in a summer program for children in the Bronx, then took a break to pursue another avenue: a relationship.
"We were always told to have girlfriends," he explained. "The question of celibacy always comes up. I had a girlfriend, and that pulled me away from the brothers. But it felt like something was missing. We broke up, and I went right back into [the vocation program]. It felt like it was second nature."
That feeling made him realize he might indeed be called to religious life. He decided to take a semester off from college, where he's working toward becoming a physical education teacher, and accepted Brother Ulysses' offer to live and work for a few months in the Albany Diocese.
Since many schools run by the Christian Brothers are for middle-class youth, Brother Ulysses said, the brothers invite young men to work at LaSalle School to experience a different environment.
"They need to see there are kids outside that middle-class environment," he explained. "This is who we're called to serve. They don't come much poorer than the kids at LaSalle, economically or emotionally."
Dan, who came from a middle-class background, admitted he was struck by some of the students he met.
"We get to read the intake reviews of the kids," he said. "You're very sympathetic, because you wouldn't imagine people growing up in that situation: Their father was a gang member, so they become gang members; they're doing heroin and other drugs. Some of the kids are great; you can't imagine them doing these things."
Seeing some youth blossom cheered Dan, particularly when they came to enjoy the sports he taught them. He recalled taking a group of boys caving and hearing the guide tell them, "I went to the same school you do."
"Then you've got the kids you know the system's not going to help, but you've got to try," Dan added, shaking his head. "It inspires me to try my hardest. I love my job! I'm going to miss this so much when I leave."
Learning the life
In fact, he said, he's learned that being single is helpful for religious working at schools like LaSalle.
"If I had a family, I'd be taking my kids to soccer practice," he noted. But "on Easter Sunday, I came here -- and I had a great day."
One thing living with the Christian Brothers has taught Dan is that "they're just guys." He laughed about his habit of staying up late at night talking with a young brother, and then struggling to get up for prayer the next morning.
Society, he said, doesn't promote religious life as a positive option, but Dan does. "I see some guys who are aspirants and say, `You've got to try community life!'" he declared.
Making a choice
Dan said that some of his family members and friends have teased him about his vocation, saying he'll never go through with it. But he's determined to prove them wrong.
"My dad is a little leery about it," he noted, "but he's happy for me. He says to the guys at work, `I can do whatever I want now, because my son's going to be a brother, and I'm going straight to heaven!'"
Living the Christian Brothers' lifestyle has also helped Dan to embrace simplicity. "I lived by myself before I came out here, and I had a big-screen TV and all these nice things," he said. "I totally broke out of that here. I have stuff in my room I don't even use any more."
As his time at LaSalle wound down, Dan was planning to finish college and then become a postulant. Vocations to religious life may be dwindling, but he said he couldn't see himself as a layperson doing the work he feels called to do.
He recalled a brother at a retreat saying of religious life, "Maybe it's time for people to jump on a sinking ship."
"I would love to jump on that ship, to keep it afloat," Dan declared. "It's time to have some young people with new ideas."
Besides, Brother Ulysses added, if young people want to be counter-cultural, religious life is the way to go: "You can't get much more counter-cultural than religious life! It goes against everything our culture is teaching us today. Don't be afraid to take the chance. Life is a risk. If you've ever thought about religious life, pursue it."
(Contact Brother Ulysses at 438-7664.)