Taranaki-raised Br Peter Bray FSC EdD – Vice Chancellor of Bethlehem University in the Holy Land since 2009 – has been awarded a high Papal honour as he prepares to leave his “amazing” and “challenging” role at the end of the year.
Br Peter was presented with the Papal Cross of Honor – officially the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (“For the Church and the Pope”) – during a recent visit to Rome. It is one of the highest honours that the Pope can bestow upon the laity and religious.
Br Peter, from Waitara, a Brother of the Catholic De La Salle teaching congregation, describes his 15 years at Bethlehem University as an amazing blessing and by far the most difficult job of his career.
“I count myself so blessed to have had the opportunity to be here and experience the wonder of God’s spirit at work among the young people here.”
Bethlehem University was established under Israeli occupation in 1973. It was the first registered university in the Occupied West Bank territory of Palestine and is the only Catholic university in the Holy Land. It is a Catholic co-educational institution in the De La Salle tradition, its mission being to provide quality higher education to the people of Palestine.
Br Peter undertook a speaking tour of Aotearoa New Zealand in January and February this year, invited by the Catholic bishops to talk about the lives and conditions of his students and ordinary Palestinians.
Before his appointment in Bethlehem, Br Peter was the Director and CEO of the Wellington Catholic Education Centre. His work as a teacher and education consultant has taken him around the world.
“I was originally appointed as Vice Chancellor for five years,” says Br Peter. “That extended to ten years, and then our Superior General in 2017 asked me to extend it to 15 years. However, people here have been listening to me for 15 years now and they need someone else to work with them! I am pleased, however, to be here for the 50th Jubilee celebrations on 1 October 2023, and be able to celebrate with the Palestinians the wonderful achievements of Bethlehem University.”
Given that Bethlehem University is a joint venture with the Vatican, the Superior General of the De La Salle Brothers proposed to the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches that Br Hector Hernán Santos González, FSC, EdD, be the new Vice Chancellor. Br Hernán is from Paraguay and has taught in De La Salle and diocesan educational institutions in Paraguay and Argentina. The Dicastery did its required investigations and then nominated Br Hernán to the Bethlehem University International Board of Regents, which in turn elected him as the ninth vice chancellor. He will be the Vice Chancellor Designate from his arrival in Bethlehem until he assumes full responsibility on 1 January 2024. Until then, Br Peter will work closely with Br Hernán to ensure a timely and smooth transition.
Br Peter says the complexity of the university, the context in which it exists, and the unpredictability of so much that happens, makes it a very challenging and difficult job.
“However, I have never been in a place where it is so obvious that what we are doing is worthwhile. To see secondary school students come onto campus and then watch them over four years grow into extraordinary young people who are confident, articulate, engaging, committed and resourceful is so inspiring for me. When I experience that with these young people, I can put up with all the other things that are part of being here!”
Br Peter has not yet considered what he will do next. He will be too busy preparing for the transition to Br Hernán to think about the future until he leaves Bethlehem.
“There is a poster at a retreat center I have been to many times that has inspired me each time I have been there and I find it very appropriate now. It says: ‘Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God!’ This is what I am doing at present as I move towards the end of my time here.”
Br Peter receiving the Papal Cross of Honour from Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, prefect of the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, at the Vatican.