Why a Lay Brother?

 By Fr Glenn Sudano, C.F.R.

The official title given to the Franciscan Order is “The Order of Friars Minor,” or the Order of Lesser Brothers. Although this well-renowned religious community has given to the Church many holy, learned, and saintly priests, it is not an order of priests. From the Franciscan Order’s inception, Saint Francis desired that his community see itself and show itself to the world as a brotherhood. The specific word that better reveals the Order’s roots is “fraternity,” a word derived from the Latin word frater, meaning “brother.” Simply put, a Franciscan friar, whether he is ordained or not, is in essence a brother. Saint Francis wanted the friars to be brothers both to one another and to the world. Yet these brothers would be also humble, poor, and powerless; therefore, “friars minor.”

The role and identity of the Franciscan brother, also known as a lay brother, is either unknown or misunderstood. Few people realize that Saint Francis was never ordained to the holy priesthood. Saint Francis never celebrated one Mass at an altar, heard a sacramental confession, or held the Sacred Host in his hands. Some historical references indicate that Saint Francis may have been ordained to the deaconate. If this be true, it was, as some scholars say, so that the saint could preach at Mass. Saint Francis did not deem himself worthy to be a priest, yet he was for many a spiritual father. While it be true the friars referred to him as “Holy Father” Francis, he himself would identify himself as “Brother Francis.”

Many people, even those outside the Church, are well familiar with the identity and role of a religious sister, oftentimes called a “nun.” Yet when it comes to their male counterparts; namely, religious brothers, many are somewhat confused. Some might wonder: If a man is going to serve God and the Church in a celibate state, why not “go all the way” and become a priest? Some imagine the brother’s vocation as “half a priest”!

A man or a woman who professes religious vows; that is, poverty, chastity, and obedience, does not become a member of the clergy. The term “clergy” specifically refers to men who are ordained; namely, bishops, priests, and deacons. The deacon, it should be noted, although he may be married, is considered a member of the clergy. The role of the clergy in the Church is primarily to preach and administer the sacred mysteries, commonly known as the sacraments. Yet there are many ways in which other members of the Church, be they consecrated religious or lay faithful, continue the saving work of Christ. Saint Francis served the lepers, prayed, and called the Church to conversion not because he was fulfilling a priestly ministry, but because he saw himself as a brother to all.

It might be helpful to think about many holy people from the Bible who were not members of a distinct group we might call “the clergy.” We can think of John the Baptist, Mary, and Saint Joseph–Our Savior Himself was not from a priestly class! Unlike any Levite, Zechariah, or indeed any high priest, HE would never set foot in the Temple’s sanctuary to offer incense or a sacrificial offering! Yes, our Savior would speak of His Father, yet see Himself as our Brother, the “firstborn of many brothers,” as Saint Paul would write to the Ephesians.

It is in the spirit of Christ’s brotherhood, His unity and solidarity with every person, that the religious man gives himself to God and publicly professes vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In effect, it is by virtue of these vows that he most closely resembles Christ’s personhood, His identity. By praying, serving, assisting, supporting, instructing, caring, working, the brother most closely resembles Christ’s activity. Special works of Christ; namely, blessing, preaching, and administering the sacred mysteries, are reserved for those who are ordained.

Through holy baptism, every Christian becomes a child of God and enters into a special relationship with God as Father. It is here that the religious brother finds his identity. By publicly professing his vows and serving the material and spiritual needs of the entire Church, the religious brother becomes a brother to all. Therefore, everything he does in the name of Christ; that is, his activity, flows from his identity. Thus, the core of the consecration rests not in what he does, but why!

The male branch of the Franciscan family, a community of Lesser Brothers, is made up of men who are either clergy or consecrated laity (traditionally called “lay brothers”). In its early years, the Franciscan family was made up of a majority of lay brothers with fewer priests. Yet in time the Order would undergo what some describe as a process of “clericalization” with ordained members becoming dominant in number, authority, and influence.

History shows, however, that despite the increase of clerical members in the Franciscan family, the notion of the Order’s members being “gospel brothers” had never been extinguished, and in some times and places regained new vigor. The Capuchin reform in the early 16th century brought a fresh vitality to the identity and role of the non-ordained friar. The list of Capuchin lay brothers known for their sanctity and influence in the Church is formidable. The ranks of the early Capuchin reformers were composed mostly of lay members who acted as guardians (superiors) of friaries, and in some instances, preachers.

The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal embrace the Capuchin heritage as their own, and, therefore, see themselves as a gospel brotherhood where all the members, clerical or lay, are equal members although performing different functions in the Body of Christ. It may be said that as the identity of the lay brother flows from Christ as “brother,” then a word like “solidarity” will take on great meaning and depth. It is interesting to note that the word “brother” is used by many diverse nationalities, groups, and fraternal organizations. Among members, “brother” conveys unity, equality, communion, fidelity, and personal affection even apart from a religious context. Another word which must be highlighted is “service,” an activity directed toward the good of another. Jesus came to us as a brother; we know from His own words that He came “to serve.”

When Saint Francis began to serve God, he began to serve the needs of others, most especially the lepers. To serve the material, spiritual, and emotional needs of others, no matter how small or great, is the task of every Christian; but to do so “in persona Christi,” in the person of Christ, is the role of the consecrated religious and Franciscan lay brother. As a modern-day Saint Francis would say, “To do small things with great love.” This is the why of whatever the brother does!

In this context, one might recognize that even the simplest deeds done through Him, with Him, and in Him possess great power and meaning. Thus, the sweeping of a floor, the answering of a phone, the cooking of a meal, the mending of a wound–all these are sanctifying not only for the person or people being served, but also for the person who is serving. With this understanding, every action of the lay brother, be it hidden or seen, commonplace or dramatic, becomes part of God’s plan of salvation.

We might suppose that such a refined spirituality directly based on the words and example of Christ Himself is misunderstood in today’s “surface skating” society. Here in the “First World,” service is something we demand from others rather than offer to others: “Let them do it.” “They have the time or need the money.”

Yes, many see “work,” whether laborious or humdrum, as an evil to be avoided. Yet for Saint Francis and the numberless lay brothers who have enriched the Order, society, and the Church, serving the needs of others and being a brother with and for others rests at the heart of the lay brother’s vocation.

These considerations help to clarify the common question of why a man would give himself to the lay brotherhood and not to the sacred priesthood. Yet perhaps the best way of seeing the picture with greater clarity is to allow the brothers to explain in their own words the who, what, and why of their special call.