By Br. Paul Bednarcyzk, C.S.C.
Why be a brother? Better yet, what is a brother? People often ask me these questions and in attempting to answer them I have discovered that misconceptions about religious brotherhood still abound: “A brother is halfway to being a priest…brotherhood is an alternative for those unable to handle the studies for priesthood…brothers are male nuns…” And the list goes on.
Others find it easier to define a brother by what we’re not, as opposed to what we are. No wonder some say the brothers vocation is one of the most misunderstood in the church.
Traditionally, most people have associated religious brothers with education, as either teachers or administrators of Catholic schools. Although many brothers’ communities still maintain their commitment to Catholic education, we’re not just in the classroom anymore. You can find brothers on city streets ministering to the homeless as social workers, in hospitals as health care professionals, in parishes as pastoral associates, and in foreign lands as missionaries, (etc.).
Since the same good works, however, are also carried out by dedicated laypersons, it is not possible to define ourselves solely by our ministries. I prefer to look to the uniqueness of the brother’s vocation and its gift to the people of God.
Simply put, what gives our vocation both meaning and identity is our life as vowed religious. We are laymen who publicly consecrate ourselves to God and ministry with in the church through our vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. We live in community for mutual support and companionship, and to live out our shared Catholic faith and the shared heritage of our religious congregations. Our vocation is neither superior nor inferior to marriage, priesthood, or the single sate-it’s just different.
Although the face of our brotherhood, like that of the world and the church has changed over the past 30 years, the heart of our vocation remains the same. We yearn to deepen our relationship with God, to serve those in need, and to share our lives with each other in community. To better understand the brother’s vocation, look at the word itself “Brother”, by virtue of its definition, connotes relationship. With in the family unit, one cannot be an only child and be a biological brother to someone. Likewise in religious life, we brothers do not stand alone. We stand with others who share equally in our membership by virtue of our vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience.
As with brothers with in a family, our relationship with one another is fraternal, rather than paternal. This fraternal model of living and relating to others, however, is not limited tour life in community. It is how we fundamentally relate to our friends outside the community, to our friends outside the community, to our lay colleagues and to those to whom we minister. In my experience, even when other brothers hold positions of authority, they lead with a sense of fraternity, equality and mutuality, not a sense of superiority.
The fraternal nature of brotherhood makes religious community integral to our vocation. By publicly professing our vows in community, we recognize our sinful nature and admit our dependence upon one another to live our vows faithfully. Since we forgo marriage and a family, we look to one another for support, challenge and encouragement. Taking our example from the early apostles, we pool our resources for the common good of the community and for [free] service to others.
We are individuals in character, in opinions and in personality, yet we also accept that we are not independent agents working for the church. Through our public profession of vows with in a religious community we become public representatives of our community and our church.
Likewise, we commit ourselves to the common mission of our community. Whether one works as the head of an agency, a cook in a soup kitchen…the prestige of one’s individual ministry does not matter. We all share an equal responsibility for carrying out the common mission of our religious congregation. The values we esteem are far from those promoted by our secular culture. Whereas individualism, personal advancement and privilege are virtues in the corporate world, we choose a life that encourages interdependence and shows indifference to status. Whereas American culture glorifies sex, money, and power, we choose to live together celibately, poorly, and obediently.
Our high ideals, however, do not shield us from struggle and pain. We need only to look at the life of Jesus: before his glorious resurrection, Christ suffered through his passion and death on Calvary. Given the nature of human imperfection, no matter what life choice or commitment Christians make -religious brothers included- they will never be free from struggle.
As sustaining as community life can be, living with men of various ages…and personalities can be a lesson in patient endurance. Brothers have to be willing to work hard, be adaptable and be able to cope with frustration.
We try to admit our weaknesses and embrace or trials, believing in Christ’s redemptive powers. Thankfully, we do this not alone, but with others in community.
Others before us have tackled the challenge of living as brothers. Religious brotherhood has long had a special place in the history of the church. From the disciples of St Francis of Assisi to those of John Baptist de la Salle, Basil Moreau, Edmund Rice and Charles de Foucauld, our early predecessors went forth in groups of two or three. They boldly respond to the unmet needs of our world through evangelization, education and health care. Most often, these early brothers were unassuming men in both their ministries and their lives-sometimes so unassuming that people failed to understand exactly who they were. Many similar hero’s who call themselves “brother” exist today, trying to meet those same needs but in a different way.
Who knows? Maybe the brother’s vocation is not so much a misunderstood church vocation; maybe it’s simply one of the church’s best kept secrets.