A 2015 Vatican document along with the words of Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti point to the need to take a fresh look at the relevance of brotherhood (and sisterhood) for humanity. Against the backdrop of our emerging post-Covid world, we face the challenges of climate change, war and an energy crisis.
Providentially, the Church is embracing the synodal path. In this context, it is perhaps timely to look afresh at the relevance of the vocation of the religious brother in the Church and world today. One of the highlights of Pope Francis’ visit to Ireland in August 2018 was his visit to the Capuchin Day Centre in Dublin’s inner city.
There, on a daily basis, Brother Kevin Crowley, a freeman of the city, and his team of helpers provide parcels of food, cooked meals, a space to dine and chat for hundreds of people in need of a helping hand or social companionship.
Br Kevin has now returned to his native Cork. However, the work continues. The centre offers the, ‘All are welcome. No questions asked’ kind of-hospitality. Pope Francis seemed very at home among a team of sisters and brothers in solidarity with those most in need.
In his encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis draws on the inspiration of his namesake, St Francis of Assisi to inspire the world at this time of crisis. The document, along with the fraternal witness of Francis himself, points to an opportunity for the whole Church to take a fresh look at the need for all to live as ‘brothers’ (and ‘sisters’) in order for humanity to flourish in our post-Covid and divided world.
For religious brothers, Francis’ vision brings into relief the gift that their vocation of brotherhood has to offer the world at a time of unprecedented crisis and at a time when the future of our common home (planet Earth) is under threat. Vocation, prayer, community and service We, religious brothers, live in community, pray together daily, and exercise a ministry of service in line with the charism of the founder.
Some of us choose to join communities wholly made up of brothers. Others choose to join communities whose members include both brothers and brother priests living and working together for the mission of the Church. Religious brotherhood, lived authentically, continues to impact so many lives for the better. And it does not go unnoticed.
A fitting tribute to one such brother can be found in the pages of The Tablet two years ago (17 October 2020). BBC foreign correspondent and award-winning journalist, Fergal Keane, writes movingly of the inspiration and mentoring that his teacher, Presentation Brother Jerome Kelly provided in his life from his teenage years to adulthood, in his native Cork.
Identity and Mission
A wonderful affirmation of the brother’s vocation can be found in a document entitled Identity and Mission of the Religious Brother in the Church published by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL, Feast of St Francis, October 4th, 2015).
This document will reward any reader, but especially those who are committed to brotherhood in spirit and/or in practice as a vocational pathway. It reminds us that from the early centuries of Christianity, the consecrated life has been composed predominantly of lay members – women and men who yearned to live the Gospel in a radical way.
It celebrates the way in which “the title of brother/sister underlies the common dignity and fundamental equality of all believers”. It affirms the vocation of the religious brother as one who “represents a significant way of being in the ecclesial community, in which he is the prophetic memory of Jesus-Brother ….” Moreover, the document sees the presence of the vocation of the religious brother in the Church as calling the whole Church community to a greater sense of brotherhood and sisterhood.
“The vocation of the brother is part of the answer that God gives to the absence of brotherhood which is wounding the world today”
Pope Francis has spoken of the need for the Church not to be self-referential but to be present among people, especially the wounded and suffering people as one would be present in a field hospital.
In this regard, the vocation of the brother can be seen to extend beyond the boundaries of the Church. In fact, in the view of the CICLSAL document, “the vocation of the brother is part of the answer that God gives to the absence of brotherhood which is wounding the world today”.
Drawing on the words of Pope Francis, the document from CICLSAL continues: “Brotherhood … is the pearl that religious brothers cultivate with special care. In this way they are for the Church community, a prophetic memory of its origin and an encouragement to return to it”.
Pope Francis’ high regard for brothers
The CICLSAL document also appeals to bishops and priests to encourage and promote knowledge and appreciation of the vocation of the religious brother in the local Churches. It asks that they promote this vocation especially in youth ministry.
This might be one further concrete step in advancing Pope Francis’ dream for a more fraternal Church. From what we know Francis has a high regard for religious brothers. In an interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro SJ, the Pope was asked of his experience of brothers in the Society of Jesus and of how those with the vocation to be brother could be attracted to the society.
His reply is enlightening: “My experience with the brothers has always been very positive. The brothers I lived with during my time as a student were wise men, very wise […] And I think this has to be preserved – the wisdom, that special quality of wisdom that comes from being a brother”.
At the conclusion of Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis cites the example of Blessed Charles de Foucauld who “made a journey of transformation towards feeling a brother to all”. The Pope recalls how, “Blessed Charles … expressed his desire to feel himself a brother to every human being and asked a friend to ‘pray to God that I truly be the brother of all’.
Yet only by identifying with the least did he come at last to be the brother of all. May God inspire that dream in each one of us”.
A special witness in a Church embracing the synodal path
It has been said that if the message of Laudato Si is that “Everything is connected”, the message of Fratelli Tutti is that “Everyone is connected”.The vocation of the religious brother has a particular witness and contribution to offer in this regard, as the Church now embraces synodality. Now is the time for a fresh assessment of the gift and witness of authentic religious brotherhood in a co-responsible Church of sisters and brothers.
To be truly a Church of missionary disciples, we need constantly to refocus on Jesus, our brother and friend, and on the core gospel values of sisterhood, brotherhood, service, closeness to those made poor and care of the earth.
I invited young men who are seeking a deeper spiritual meaning and challenge in life to consider the vocation of the religious brother. I invite all in the Church to look at this vocation again. It has something important to offer in building a renewed synodal Church of sisters and brothers, the ‘field hospital’ Church so needed in our suffering world today.
Dr Martin Kenneally is a Presentation Brother and is Director of the LEAF (Leadership Education and Formation) Project in Cork. He accompanies young adults on their faith, vocation and discernment journeys.