Very often I’m asked, “What is a brother?” Most Catholics don’t have a clue, because most Catholics have not been well educated on the religious life. Most of our parishes and schools are staffed by diocesan priests (secular priests) and religious sisters. Neither received a good formation on the religious life. Both were trained to think in a rather narrow paradigm. Men become priests and women become nuns, who are not really nuns, but sisters. A nun is a cloistered woman religious. Even there, most priests and sisters were not well formed on the different vocations. How could they pass this knowledge on to the lay faithful?
I have a several good friends who are diocesan priests. I cringe when they try to explain what a brother is. They often explain us in terms of what we’re not. They’ll say something like, “Brothers don’t say mass or hear confessions.” Imagine a creature from another planet that does not speak our language and asks, “What’s a father?” You answer, “Fathers don’t bear young?” That bit of information was as useful as a GPA that doesn’t speak your language.
Then there are those who try to explain what a brother is by describing what brothers do. That’s not quite helpful either. You’ll often hear people say, “Brothers teach, nurse, do social work, cook, and open doors, run schools, serve priests, are monks, are friars, run soup kitchens, and so forth.” All of those enterprises can be done by anyone. One need not be a consecrated religious to do these good works. The difference is how the brother does these things, not that he does them. A brother comes to every task with the same worldview as Christ and the Church. His vision and mission are defined by the charism of his religious community. A Franciscan brother and a De La Salle brother can both teach and do so very differently. While they see their students as Christ sees them, there ends the similarity. The Franciscan brother approaches his students guided by the vision of St. Francis and the De La Salle brother is guided by the vision of St. John Baptist de La Salle. The same applies to every ministry. A lay secretary and a brother secretary do the same work, but bring very different approaches to the task and do the same task for different reasons.
Vatican II and Canon Law define brothers in a decisive way. A brother is one called to the state of religious life . . . a state for the profession and perfection of the evangelical counsels (obedience, poverty and chastity), which is complete in itself (Decree Perfectae Caritatis, n. 10). Commitment to the priestly ministry is not required by the consecration which is proper to the religious state, and therefore even without priestly ordination a religious may live his consecration to the FULL.
In other words, it is a different call that Christ’s makes to a man to live only for him by consecrating his life to him through the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. He lives out this consecration through a life of prayer, penance, fraternity, work, silence, solitude, in imitation of Our Lady who always pointed all men to Jesus. Everything he does points to Christ who is the firstborn among many brothers. A brother is like John the Baptist who proclaims, “Behold him . . .
In looking at the historical development of consecrated life in the Church, a significant fact is clear: the members of the first religious communities were called “brothers” without distinction. The most famous of them is St. Benedict. The great majority of them did not receive priestly ordination. A priest could join these communities but could not claim privileges because of Holy Orders. When priests were needed, one of the “brothers” was ordained in order to meet the community’s sacramental needs.
The ideal of a consecrated life without the priesthood lives on in St. Francis of Assisi, who did not feel personally called to the priestly ministry. Francis can be considered an example of the holiness of religious life. His witness demonstrates the perfection that can be reached by this way of life.
This fall the Church will begin the Year of Consecrated Life. She has asked that religious, bishops and the different dicastries in the Vatican put together information on the consecrated life, especially on brothers. The Church acknowledges the decreased number of vocations to the brotherhood. St. John Paul II said “a new effort must be made to foster these important and noble vocations so they may thrive anew: a fresh effort to promote vocations, with a new commitment to prayer. The possibility of a consecrated life (without ordination) must also be presented as a way of true religious perfection in both the old and new male institutes.”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan once said, “The brotherhood is the forgotten vocation. Brothers are those men whom most of us have disregarded as unimportant, because we do not understand that the consecrated life is essential to the Church’s Catholic identity.”