Vocation, contributions of religious brothers called 'vital to church'
By Beth Griffin
Catholic News Service
(CNS photos/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review)
RYE, N.Y. (CNS) -- Religious brothers say they are an invisible group in the church, but that it's not such a bad thing because it allows them the freedom to be ordinary men performing an extraordinary ministry.
That's the view of brothers and other participants at a think tank convened last fall to examine their vocation.
"Our vocation is one of the church's best-kept secrets," Holy Cross Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director the National Religious Vocation Conference, told Catholic News Service. "We are vowed religious who commit ourselves to a particular ministry, live in community and share prayers.
"We are not part of the hierarchy of the church, which gives us more freedom in ministry to respond to those most in need. Our vocation complements the religious priesthood," he said.
The number of religious brothers in the United States fell from 12,271 in 1965 to 4,477 in 2012, according to statistics compiled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. More than half are at, or close to, retirement age.
A steady decline in the number of brothers and a persistent need for the witness to dedicated discipleship they provide inspired four groups to discuss the future of the vocation. Seventeen representatives from the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the Religious Brothers Conference, the National Religious Vocation Conference and the Religious Formation Conference convened Nov. 29 and 30 at the Ossining headquarters of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers.
Brothers are laymen who take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They belong to communities comprised of brothers only or of both brothers and priests. Religious brothers are dedicated to the particular charism of their community, expressed in service and prayer.
By tradition, some work in schools, hospitals and parishes. Others are monastics. The brotherhood is a distinct vocation, not a step on the route to priesthood.
The think tank affirmed the brotherhood as the heart of male religious life and examined ways to promote it as a serious vocational option for young men. The group will meet again May 14 and 15.
Brother Bednarczyk said the brothers in his community, Congregation of Holy Cross, "share a communion of vocation with the priests and each is more complete because of the presence of both within the religious institute."
"This vocation is vital to the church. Brothers have contributed significantly to the development of the church in the United States, in ministry and as consecrated men, by giving of ourselves to humanity and to God," Brother Bednarczyk said.
Think tank participants acknowledged many Catholics are unfamiliar with the role of brothers in the church and are unclear about the value of religious communities.
"The religious work with others to give common witness to Christian values," said Capuchin Father John Pavlik, executive director of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. The diminished opportunities for community religious life underscore the sense that "we are all working as independent operators" and lessen the impact of collective witness, he said.
"Every religious community says something appropriate for the times," said Christian Brother Robert Berger, associate professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in Riverdale. Brother Berger, who did not participate in the think tank, said the charism of some religious communities can be distilled to an individual word.
"For the Benedictines, it's stability; the Franciscans, poverty; Christian Brothers, education; Trappists, silence; Dominicans, preaching. Since the Second Vatican Council, the gift has taken a new form, but is still vital to the church," he said.
Manhattan College was founded by the De La Salle Christian Brothers. Brother Berger said although there are more Lasallian schools, with more students now than there were at the opening of Vatican II, the focus is now on the teaching charism, not on the brothers who live it.
"At educational institutions themselves, there is a responsibility on the laypeople's part to struggle to understand what the identity of the Catholic school means," Brother Berger said. "They may look to the religious order for guidance, but it's up to them" to promote and sustain it.
Brother Berger said men considering a religious vocation today "are joining a seed, rather than a large plant," but are attracted to the communal life and worship and the timeless values they promote. "The technology and speed of the way things are done in the 21st century are countercultural to a group of men who pray over psalms that are 3,000 years old," he said.
Brother Berger said parents who once encouraged their sons to become Christian Brothers considered them extraordinary men doing an ordinary ministry. "Now we'll be seen as ordinary men who do an extraordinary ministry," he said.
The brotherhood offers an opportunity to be present to young people in a way married men and priests cannot, Brother Berger said. "I teach at Manhattan, but am also in charge of a residence hall. How many 61-year-old men are living with 263 undergraduates? It's a gift of brotherhood that we're with young people and not with the trappings of a parish structure."
"The sense of freedom has been phenomenal," Brother Berger said. "To be working with young people who will be the church of the 21st century is exciting. I get glimpses, but I have no idea how the spirit will work."
Think tank participants said to promote interest in the brotherhood, religious communities should honor the distinct vocation, enhance its visibility in the church, reinforce the identity of brothers and make them more accessible to young people.
"There is nothing so unique that brothers do in the church that others cannot do," Brother Bednarczyk said. "But the heart of our life is our communal life and prayer life, which is not always visible to people. It's a challenge to make that hidden part visible to a world that craves community."
He said people drawn to religious life are "seeking a balance of prayer, community and ministry."
Marianist Brother Steve Glodek, director of the office of formation for mission for the U.S. province of the Society of Mary, said brothers are somewhat invisible in church circles and "not generally under the same ecclesiastical microscope" as priests. While this does not allow them to "do more or less" than others, Brother Glodek said the lessened scrutiny allows brothers to focus "our vocation in this community we love."
"We're not a threat to anything unless we get into the issue of jurisdiction," he said. With few exceptions, canon law prevents laypeople from being major superiors of religious orders. Because brothers are considered laymen, "the governance issue raises hackles," Brother Glodek said.
He said the downside to invisibility is "as our institutional presence diminishes a bit, so does people's familiarity with what we do and why. Even people going through a university that oozes our spirituality and charism don't have the interaction with brothers they would have in the past."
(Editor's note: Among the most prominent ministries of religious brothers in the Springfield Diocese is that of Passionist Brother Terrence Scanlon, the longtime host of "Chalice of Salvation," the weekly television Mass that airs Sunday mornings at 10 on WWLP-22NEWS.)