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Religious Life

Religious brothers stress service, change


The chapel of St. Laurence High School in Burbank, Ill., was filled with members of the Congregation of Christian Brothers -- once called the Christian Brothers of Ireland -- together with an equal number of former brothers who had served for varying periods and who still regard the experience as an enriching one. (One older man had left more than 50 years ago, just before final profession. He was now a widower. He often returns to another brothers' community chapel for morning Mass; the ties are never really severed.)

The carefully prepared liturgy paid tribute to Edmund Ignatius Rice, a native of Ireland and founder of two congregations of brothers. John Paul II beatified Rice in October 1996, 152 years after his death. One brother delivered a moving homily about the man now called Blessed Edmund.

Later, brothers who had attended the beatification ceremony in Rome recalled the 10,000 people gathered at St. Peter's, most of them former students from Australia, Africa, Canada, England, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the United States.

"The associates from South Africa and India were as filled with enthusiasm as we were," one brother said. (Many congregations are now enrolling associates or volunteers who participate in the work and carry on the spirit of the congregations.)

For a short time at least, this congregation of brothers enjoyed recognition seldom accorded to the least known of the church's official work force. The colorful scarves worn by their alumni and friends brightened the gray Piazza di San Pietro.

At St. Laurence, it was a quiet but wonderful Mass. The sound of men singing in choir seems to have the ability to energize the most sluggish soul. The 1,000-year-old "Salve Regina" at the close of the liturgy could have raised Lazarus.

Brothers are found in 116 institutes of religious men in the United States. At least 17 others are composed exclusively of brothers. Presently there are 6,297 brothers in the United States, compared with 48,200 priests and 87,833 sisters. Just over 1,300 brothers are involved in teaching.

Never numerous

Worldwide, there are 59,872 religious brothers, compared with 404,461 priests and 848,455 sisters. In just a few decades, the number of permanent deacons in the United States has grown to nearly twice the number of brothers. Never numerous, brothers are still often omitted from vocation prayers and young men who express an interest in brotherhood are urged to "go the whole way" and be priests.

About half of the 13 brothers at St. Laurence High School are still involved in the school. The remainder are retired or in other apostolates. It would seem that the founding and development of large high schools is now a thing of the past.

Marist Br. Richard Sharp, president of Marist High School in Chicago, pointed out that his congregation has some schools from which all brothers have withdrawn. "Some of our schools are board-run," he said. "And they are staffed by lay volunteers who are trained in Marist spirituality. We are putting our manpower into places other than traditional schools and into rural populations."

The Congregation of Christian Brothers, in common with other congregations, is no longer tied to a single charism. Their motto "facere et docere" (to do and to teach) now embraces a wider variety of apostolates. Even within their traditional schools such as St. Laurence, lay principals are common. Some brothers teach in schools that are not considered connected with their congregations. While the emphasis remains on community, many brothers are involved in individual apostolates that range from becoming physicians or acting as chaplains in hospitals, from homeless shelter and soup kitchen workers to administrative assistants to bishops. "We continue to fill a significant niche," Sharp concluded. "If brothers didn't do it, nobody else would."

Brothers could be said to date to the second century, the early Age of the Desert (200-500 CE), when hermits and cenobites dotted the desert in a world that had only about 20,000 Christians. St. Benedict (c. 480-547), founder of Western monasticism, intended that his monasteries be filled with brothers, with only enough priests to meet sacramental needs. St. Columba (521-597), one of Ireland's three patrons and the founder of monasticism in Scotland, was abbot of Iona, an island monastery that housed some 1,000 monks, the vast majority of them brothers.

The brothers passed on learning, teaching in the feudal classrooms and laboriously copying the scriptures, prayers and other wisdom in the scriptoriums. They planted the vineyards of Europe and brought the cuttings to the United States. They experimented with new agricultural methods that literally saved the growing populations of Europe. They built -- and filled with precious mosaic art -- many of the great monasteries that exist today.

The Knights Templars

Monasticism flourished until the 12th century when "brother knights" evolved out of the monasteries, largely to serve as spear fodder and guardians of the pilgrims who went on endless crusades to recapture the Holy Land. These Knights Templars not only protected the pilgrims from theft, but also acted as bag holders for their moneys, charging modest interest rates. Although the Templars eventually provided Europe with its basic financial system, the once vowed brothers lost sight of their goals. They became rich and, by the end of the 13th century, were suppressed by Rome.

When Francis (1181-1226) and Dominic (1170-1221) launched their communities, they took brotherhood outside monastic walls, reintroducing evangelical poverty, which now contrasted vividly with the communal landed wealth of the established monastic orders and the Templars. By now, the monasteries had become vast feudal estates.

The new mendicant orders became mobile. Gradually the need for priests outside the monasteries caused more friars to be ordained.

Some of the once-poor monks fell prey to the same temptations as the earlier brother-knights. Meat, for example, was banned from the monastic dining room, but not the monastic cells. Some lax monks enlarged their cells, including a separate door through which forbidden meats could be delivered. Monks began to invite seamstresses through the same doors to line their habits with silk and, occasionally, to linger for amorous interludes. The internal laxities grew. Monks were found in choir chanting psalms with dogs draped across their laps.

The Black Death (bubonic plague) killed many of the faithful monks who were still laboring among the poor while the less faithful were protected behind monastic walls.

The years 1500-1800 saw revitalization and reform of religious life. But, while congregations of sisters flourished, the need for priests to overcome the setbacks of the Reformation saw brothers being urged toward ordination and their roles reduced to being hewers of wood and drawers of water. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) founded the Jesuits outside the monastery. Missionary life flourished, but it was led by priests and the role of brothers was relegated to a position from which they have never fully recovered.

To this day, for example, in congregations of priests and brothers, the brother is denied higher office without special permission from the Vatican. Only one brother was invited to Vatican II, strictly in the role of observer.

The teaching orders

By the eve of the Enlightenment, which undermined the rationale for religious life, there were still some 300,000 male religious. By the end of the French Revolution, however, only 70,000 remained and most of them were aged or shell-shocked.

The years since 1800 have witnessed the rise of teaching congregations. In the 19th century alone, 600 religious orders were founded, many of them brothers. Their activities spilled over into other apostolates and, until the close of the Second Vatican Council, congregations of brothers flourished. The Brothers of the Christian Schools -- generally called De La Salle Brothers -- once numbered over 20,000.

A changing theology following Vatican II, however, told brothers that giving could be preferred to abstaining. The brother now frequently shared a classroom with a lay teacher who taught by example that life could include married sex, which was both sacred and exalting. Abstinence lost its appeal.

The losses of priests, brothers and sisters were greater than those that accompanied the Age of Enlightenment. Membership in the brothers, which peaked in 1967, had dropped 33 percent by 1978. It has still not recovered. Some congregations have no candidates in formation, while others have fewer than five.

"We will be fine if we're willing to change," said Br. J.A. Houlihan, a former major superior of the Congregation of Christian Brothers. "If we don't, we simply won't survive."

"I couldn't have put it any more succinctly," agreed School Sister of Notre Dame Emily Wollschlager, executive secretary of the National Assembly of Brothers. She cited Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, an NCR columnist and author of The Fire in These Ashes (Sheed & Ward), a book about religious life. "Do we have any fire left?" Chittister asks. "If not, let it go."

There appears to be adequate fire -- or at least a glow among the ashes. Brothers interviewed were determined to undertake the toilsome innovation. Citing an old Chinese curse, "May you live in a time of transition," they laugh easily at their predicament: "Last guy out, turn out the lights." But much of the marrow remains.

"We've got to experience newness, discovery and rebirth," one brother said. "That could mean that associates to our congregation could be our best growth area."

Passing the tradition

"Some of us will be around to pass on the tradition," he continued, "but those associates -- or volunteers -- will carry on the work. We might pass the tradition on to lay collaborators."

It would appear that the vow structure will remain in place for now. But it could gradually evolve into a vow of service for a given period of time rather than perpetual vows, which may not fit a world in which career change is becoming the norm. The brothers, it seems, will strive to preserve community within diverse apostolates.

Br. Thomas Sullivan is president of the National Association of Religious Brothers and director of vocation recruitment and formation for the Midwest Province of the De La Salle Christian Brothers. He recently returned from Skaneateles, N.Y., where he was part of a workshop that attracted 60 men who had expressed interest in religious life.

"These were men, some in their 30s, who appreciate what the brothers have done for them," he said. "They were a very diverse group, including African-Americans and Latinos. Really good people. Real quality there, but, like most young people today, they have trouble with commitment."

The De La Salles now have an international novitiate in New York. Presently, there are six De La Salles and one Christian Brother in formation, a far cry from the two dozen or more that was typical in the past. "We won't see those days again," Sullivan said. "But by working with our associates, some of whom are already serving on our district councils, we can still bring God into people's lives. We may not be as present in the schools, but we can preserve our influence through retreats and workshops."

Assisting poor people

The emphasis among the brothers will be on serving poor and marginalized people. Congregation growth will come from Africa, Asia and Latin America. According to Br. James Zullo, a clinical psychologist who organized and administered a successful counseling center before becoming chaplain at the Loyola University of Chicago Law School, "The brothers will become multicultural and transcultural. We'll be in ministries in which we are doing something of value."

Zullo made "marginalized" more than simply a vague word. His De La Salle Christian Brothers continue to administer a traditional high school on Chicago's South Side but they also administer a GED program for African-American men and women. Not far away, they have a center for Hispanic elementary school children who are having problems in school. Elsewhere other brothers are now working in literacy teaching at inner-city storefront schools and Native American missions.

Zullo began his teaching career in 1962 at a suburban school staffed by 30 brothers. "Within seven years, we were down to six," he said.

"We can't judge by numbers any more," he added. "In the future, we will be leaving our spirit instead of our bodies. We will keep a hand in the formation of faculty. We will share a vision."

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago. His most recent book, I Am Your Brother Joseph: Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago (Crossroad, $9.95) was released in January.

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 1997