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Religious Life

Hope remains for the unheralded brothers of God


Years ago, a literature anthology popular in Catholic high schools contained an essay that gently defined the religious brother and his role within the church. It first attempted to define “brother” and then went on to delineate the myriad accomplishments of these unheralded men of God. It pleaded for a mature understanding of this separate vocation as well as for recognition of the immense contribution these men have made over the past 15 centuries.

The article was titled: “So, you’re a brother, Father.”

Not much has changed before or since. A weighty Catholic encyclopedia devoted less than two inches to its entry on “religious brothers” and over 15 inches to its definition of “miter.”

Christian Br. Kenneth Pfister is a member of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, the largest group of exclusively religious brothers in the world, with 6,600 members. He is the administrative assistant at the nearly 800-member Religious Brothers Conference.

“We’re no longer seen at that previous low level, but some still feel that way,” he said. “Brothers are now viewed as more professional than in the past.”

Religious brothers have been given the short end of the stick almost since the first monks (a term derived from Syriac-speaking monks and, loosely translated, meaning “the single ones”) began to separate themselves from society, either singly (the eremitic form) or in community (the cenobitic form). They lived a life of prayer and work for the glory of God, for personal sanctification and for the good of the church.

It is difficult to pinpoint the precise origins of this unique vocation, but it could be said to date to St. Anthony of Egypt, who died around 356. Anthony retired to the desert around 285 and soon attracted disciples. He returned from the desert in the year 305 in order to establish a rule that would give a regular pattern to the life he and his followers led. However, when he again went back to the desert, he left behind only monastic models that were later developed by Basil the Great (circa 379), Gregory of Naziansus (circa 390) and Martin of Tours, who established his first monastery around 362 and died in 397.

It was St. Benedict of Nursia, who died around 550, who gave monasticism its distinctive shape. He established a monastery at Monte Cassino where monks lived under the “Rule of the Master.” His vision was of men praying and working -- the Latin dictum ora et labora -- in a self-sustaining community of brothers with only enough priests to meet sacramental needs.

It was that way for centuries. Some monasteries grew to over 1,000 monks. The brothers built the feudal churches, schools and orphanages -- whole towns. They planted the fields and vineyards and developed new methods of farming and cultivating grapes for wine. Later, the cuttings from these vines would be introduced to America, even as the monks helped to build missions and schools in the New World.

For centuries they labored in the scriptoriums, copying and illustrating the scriptures. They taught in the feudal schools, decorated the churches and monasteries, begged for food, fed the poor, established infirmaries for the indigent sick.

Brothers fashioned some of the best art in medieval Christendom. Fra Angelico (1387-1455) remains the most famous brother-artist. Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469) was almost as famous, but he ran off and married a former nun and lost some status.

Indeed, until the demographics changed, the brother may have been closer to the people than the ordained choir monk or parish priest.

Not what Francis had in mind

Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), who was designated the most famous person of the second millennium, was never ordained. He treasured the name “friar” or “little brother.” Though he lived only 45 years and had started his religious vocation building small chapels and working with lepers, his “Lesser Brothers” (Friars Minor) numbered over 3,000 before he resigned as leader of his congregation. Francis resigned because of poor health and a desire to pursue a life of prayer but also because of tensions with the hierarchy. Yet, he was canonized only two years after his death.

By the 13th century, brothers from the older orders (Benedictines and Trappists) were gradually replaced by more active clerical orders such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, Passionists, Redemptorists -- congregations that evolved outside monastic walls and were involved with reclaiming the church following the Reformation.

From the start, membership was composed primarily of priests. The brother became known as a lay brother and was generally consigned to be a hewer of wood and drawer of water. They were menials -- uneducated, pious men. A caste system developed, one that saw worse aspects years later when brothers prayed and ate apart from clerics and, in some cases, were required to kneel when a cleric of their congregation entered the room.

It wasn’t what Benedict or Francis had in mind.

According to Xavierian Br. Bonaventure Scully, writing in Richard McBrien’s Encyclopedia of Catholicism, “As religious orders developed, emphasis on ordination precluded equal membership for the brothers, who then became auxiliary, adjunct or coadjutor members of the community.” The caste classifications eventually made their way into canon law and, in Scully’s words, “This discrimination of community membership of clerics and lay brothers often created a caste system comparable to that of the feudal nobles and peasants.”

Presently, according to the Annuario Pontificio, the statistical yearbook published by the Vatican, there are 107 religious congregations of men at work in the United States. 102 are “mixed” congregations, that is, priests and brothers. However, on average, brothers account for only 33 percent of the membership. Further, only in recent years have brothers in such congregations been permitted to be elected to the role of major superiors. Somehow, the dreams of Benedict and Francis became reversed.

It took until 1680, when Jean Baptiste de La Salle founded the Brothers of the Christian Schools, often called “DeLaSalles,” as a congregation of vowed laymen who would teach. By 1690, ordination was forbidden. The congregation flourished, opened schools in Europe, missions in other countries, and followed the immigrants to America. This is the largest congregation of teaching brothers. Another order of brothers, the Congregation of Christian Brothers (C.F.C.) used to be called “The Irish Christian Brothers (F.S.C.H.). They changed their name about 10 years ago in an effort at inclusivity.

The new Americans crowded into Catholic schools in what is now called the “inner” city. Gradually, new sprawling schools were built at the city’s edges and in the suburbs. The boys who attended both inner and outer city schools were custom-made as vocation prospects and the numbers increased almost exponentially.

Br. Stephen Glodek, recently elected Provincial of the Society of Mary (called Marianists), has been a brother for 34 years. He views the large vocation “bubble” of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s something of an anomaly. “We were founded to teach the fringe,” he said. “We were supposed to be involved primarily in alternative education, in schools on the borders of Mexico, for example.

“That’s what we’re doing now,” he continued. “Our younger members want radical choices. We’re moving toward the new immigrants, Latinos, Asians and the like. We are becoming more who we were meant to be.”

Needing new wineskins

Glodek’s observations found a home in virtually every congregation interviewed. They are respectful and proud of the immense accomplishments of earlier waves of brothers, but they are excited, almost impatient, to work among “the new people.”

Most congregations bring a rich history that may carry a burden of a 150-year tradition. But gradually their inner-city schools are moving toward special education, high school equivalency degree preparation, work-study programs and so on. Their schools are going co-ed or co-institutional.

Brother candidates now seek small community monasteries with a greater variety of apostolates. One may work as a probation officer, another may administer the parish catechumenate program; another will run the neighborhood shelter.

“It’s a struggle,” one brother who preferred to remain anonymous said. “Maybe the vocation as we knew it has run its course. Maybe it has served its purpose. But I still sense optimism. Maybe it’s new wine in old wineskins. Maybe we need new wineskins, too.”

Br. James R. Keane, a member of the Congregation of Christian Brothers, once called the Irish Christian Brothers, and deputy province leader of their Western American province, reports that there is a climate of optimism in the 88-member province. “There’s a definite viability,” he said, “but we are in the midst of change, change for a long, long term. Things are coming to a head.”

Keane reported that the congregation has just completed an 18-month discernment process and that changes are already occurring. “We are looking at how we can be brothers to one another,” he said. “And we are experiencing how we can become a different kind of presence in the schools. We are also now involved in administering parishes. We are opening a retreat house. We’re watching what is already happening in other provinces. This First World apostolate has grown older and grayer but there is substantial growth in India and Africa.”

Like other congregations, the numbers appear dangerously low. Major schools that once saw some 40 brothers teaching alongside of an equal number of laity now must adjust to as few as three brothers in a large school, working with a lay principal.

It has been decades since a brothers’ institution has been limited solely to brothers. St. Patrick’s High School in Chicago dates back to 1861. Their present school, completed in 1953, once held 1,800 students. It was liberally sprinkled with robed brothers, who often outnumbered the lay teachers. Today, the enrollment is just under 1,000 boys. Only three brothers are active in the school, but there is a substantial lay faculty, many of whom have been there for decades. They share the LaSallian spirit.

Christian Br. Konrad Diebold is the president of St. Patrick’s. He lives just off campus in a small house with just one other brother. “We’re not getting new members,” he said. “I don’t know if we will. But our lay teachers carry on the spirit. It’s still there.”

Diebold also prefers the smaller community. “My prayer life is better than it has ever been,” he said. “It’s more intimate.”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” he said. “We’ll likely become a group of small communities in a variety of apostolates. I’m staying in education.”

Religious congregations are carrying on the spirit through affiliate groups. Some are composed of former brothers; others are made up of laity -- both men and women -- who follow a prayer life and often an apostolate that is fueled by the theology and traditions of the parent congregation.

Homes, apartments going fast

Just how this structure will evolve remains to be seen. The Holy Cross Brothers at the University of Notre Dame have established Holy Cross Village in South Bend, Ind., where religious and laity live together in an informal community. The homes and apartments at the village are selling as fast as they are completed.

Christian Br. James Zullo has been a Christian Brother for 43 years. He is a member of the faculty of the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Chicago’s Loyola University and chaplain at the university’s law school. He lives with another brother in the Logan Square community.

“The pool of kids we once taught is down,” he said. “We need more candidates [for the brotherhood]. Or else, we need more volunteers.”

Zullo touched on many needs. He saw smaller religious communities, supplemented by older candidates and lay volunteers who will carry on the tradition. Specifically, he cited the LaSallian volunteers, a co-ed group who work with brothers who have returned to the congregation’s roots. They teach junior high school level in the inner city, providing tutorials to poor largely Latino and African-American kids, some of whom go to school at night. The San Miguel schools, as they are called, occupy largely abandoned parish schools in poor neighborhoods. They are cropping up all around the country -- co-ed schools, filled with hope and promise.

“We may be merging congregations,” Zullo said. “After all, we’re very much alike.”

“We will be smaller,” Keane said. “But we have to learn how we can be brothers to one another and how we can be a different kind of presence.”

There are 5,565 religious brothers in the United States today, down 16 percent from a decade ago. Their novitiates often now stand nearly empty.

Yet, somehow, after 1,500 years of quiet and often unrecognized work, there remains hope.

Tim Unsworth, an NCR regular correspondent, writes from Chicago.

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2002