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What is a brother?

English Spanish

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, so we have been trained to think in a rather narrow paradigm. Men become priests and women become nuns — who are not really nuns, by the way, but sisters: A nun is a cloistered woman religious.  

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 are 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 is not very useful. 

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, 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 of the evangelical counsels (obedience, poverty and chastity) which is complete in itself” (Perfectae Caritatis, no. 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 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 and 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. 

In November, the Church began the Year of Consecrated Life. She has asked that religious, bishops and the different dicasteries (offices) 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.” 

Comments from readers

Bro. Edward luisi, FSD - 01/16/2015 09:08 AM
I agree with Brother Our vocation is not understood by most Catholics I am always explaining the Brother hood to people. Peace and all Good (PAX et BONUM)
Mauricio Palacios - 01/15/2015 12:35 PM
Paz y bien Brother Jay, Dios te bendiga y gracias por este artículo muy bien explicado.
Ed Infante - 01/12/2015 10:21 PM
WOW! I'm a former De La Salle brother and I'm so surprised that the beloved Congregation to which I was a member is mentioned, probably for the first time since I came to the States 48 years ago. Cardinal Dolan, who I admire for his spiritual ideas that I have heard him saying to his fellow bishops, is completely right. Even though now I'm married with a family (With an empty nest), I continue trying to live the spiritual part of the religious life, that is still helping me everyday staying in touch with the Lord. I'm sorry for the diocesan priests, who perhaps without any fault of theirs haven't had the opportunity of a REAL spiritual formation. I pray for them very often. Unfortunately in this part of South Florida (I think in the whole state?), brother religious and also women religious are practically non-existent and hence there are no vocations because there are no models to follow . Brother, thanks for bringing this subject to the public. Enjoy the "State of perfection", that many clerics have no idea and don't know what they are missing. In Jesus, Mary and Monsieur De la Salle, Ed Infante (Former fsc)
Mark - 01/12/2015 03:55 PM
Who are my Brothers and Sisters, those that hear the word of God and believe it!
Jose A. Chaviano - 01/12/2015 03:01 PM
Excellent and very necessary explanation about te real nature of a Brother in our catholic faith. I am very proud of being a Franciscan , st Saint Joseph Chapter and to have Brother Jay as our BROTHER. God bless you all!
Deacon Tom Hanlon - 01/12/2015 02:24 PM
Thank you for your insight into what a Brother is and not by what he does. It sounds similar to the explanation of a Permanent Deacon. The Deaconate is usually described by what we cannot do not what we are to do and that is serve the community beyond our parish. It my 77 years of life I also was taught by Sisters, Priests and Brothers. When I learned was that all of them were committed to the lives they chose and that was to help us sinners get to heaven. Thank you for who your are!

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