‘Just a Brother’

It is often the case that when one of the brothers meets someone new, a variety of questions arise concerning exactly what we are. “What’s a brother?” “Are you a priest?” “What do brothers do?” “Why be a brother?” I cultivated the habit of telling people who asked if I was a priest, “No, I’m just a brother,” which was half an effort at humility and half out of humor.

That one ought to have a sense of humor in such situations is well illustrated by Brother Franciscus Willett, C.S.C., in his 1952 essay of two pages, “So You’re a Brother, Father.” While I am never one to shun good humor, my goal in these lines is to answer some of the above questions quite seriously.

Theologically considered, the priesthood and the religious life are two distinct realities. The former is an office in the Church, in which one is constituted by the Sacrament of Holy Orders, for the purpose of teaching, governing, and sanctifying others. This he carries out primarily by offering the Sacrifice of the Mass, confecting the sacraments, and preaching. The religious life is the radical living of one’s Baptismal grace by voluntarily adding to the commandments the vowed observance of the evangelical counsels according to a rule and under the authority of a superior. The evangelical counsels are commonly listed as poverty, chastity, and obedience, but are enumerated differently in the more ancient forms of religious profession. All Christians are called upon to live lives of holiness in the Church militant and glory in the Church triumphant. Over and above, but at the service of, this common or “universal vocation” of all the faithful to sanctity are the priestly vocation and the state in life of the religious. Considered in this light, the priesthood is an office primarily for the sanctification of others, while the religious life is a state in life primarily for the sanctification of the individual religious. Saint Thomas calls the religious life a “state of perfection,” by which he means that the religious is one who tends to the perfection of Christian charity “through binding himself in perpetuity and with a certain solemnity to those things that pertain to perfection.”

Of course, a priest can be a religious as well. In this case, he has both the state of perfection of religious life and the priestly office of sanctifying others.

Historically considered, we might take two different approaches to the religious brother. One is to do what the Catholic Encyclopedia and its Wikipedia spinoff do in their respective entries under “Lay Brother,” namely, to begin at a fairly arbitrary date in Medieval times when French Benedictine monastic communities began to bring the non-ordained into the monastery to perform tasks deemed not fit for the ordained monks, who spent many long hours in choir every day chanting the Divine Office. From this skewed perspective, the non-ordained male religious appears to be a later development crafted for the purely ancillary purpose of helping the priest-monks. It then makes sense that he is viewed as a sort of “priest helper” wherever he appears on the stage in later religious life. But that is not what he is essentially, even if, at times, that is what he does.

The second historical approach is to go back to the dawn of religious life, which I shall briefly do.

In its earliest manifestations, the religious life was only rarely united to the priesthood. Saint Pachomius (ca. 292-348; Butler, Wikipedia), widely recognized as the founder of cenobitic 1 monasticism, was not a priest. Neither did he admit his monks to Holy Orders, though he would accept an ordained man into the monastery as a monk, in which case he was employed in priestly ministrations, but remained under the obedience of his abbot, just as all the other monks did. Also non-ordained was the “Father of All Monks” himself, Saint Anthony the Abbot (EWTN, Wikipedia) — who is also called “Anthony the Great,” and whose temptations are so grotesquely celebrated in art.

In the West, monasticism can trace itself back to Saint Martin, Bishop of Tours in Gaul (316-397). A bishop, and therefore a priest, Saint Martin was clearly ordained. But the man considered the “Father of all Western Monks” is Saint Benedict of Nursia (480-543), who, like most Eastern monastic patriarchs, was not a priest, yet he was an abbot, i.e., the “father” of his monks. In his Rule, Saint Benedict makes it clear that the honor of the priesthood makes no difference to the monk’s seniority in the monastery, which is determined rather by his date of profession. The great Patriarch also admonishes priests not to exalt themselves above their fellow monks on account of their priestly order.

One can see by the use of the word “abbot” (meaning “father”) with the non-ordained, as well as the title “Father of … Monks” to describe Saints Anthony and Benedict, that there is a certain spiritual patriarchy within the religious life that is independent of Holy Orders. Traditionally, not all “spiritual fathers” were priests. This is true in Eastern as well as Western Christendom, as will be further shown below.

In the era of the Crusades, a phenomenon developed that strikes the modern man as curious. I refer to the military orders. Their origin lies in the certainly non-military beginnings of the Order of Hospitallers, whose function was ministering to the corporal needs of pilgrims to the Holy Land. While one would not be wrong to associate their name with our modern English notion of “Hospital,” it would be better to broaden the concept to include the related words “hospitality” and “hostel” if one wants a better picture of what a Hospitaller did. The Order, recognized by Pope Paschal II in 1113, was founded by Blessed Gerard Thom, a religious who was not a cleric. When, later, the Order (already made up mostly of knights) began to engage in armed combat in the Crusades, it still retained its Hospitaller charism. Because of this additional duty and the various headquarters the Order has had over the years, it is now known as the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. Its current Grand Master, the Englishman, Fra’ Matthew Festing, is a Knight, a Prince, and a solemnly professed religious Brother. (His various titles are explained here.) The priest chaplains of the Order did not take governing positions within it. They offered Mass and assisted the knight-brothers with their sacramental ministrations.

The Knights of Malta give us the canonized Brother, Saint Hugh of Genoa, as well as several beatified brothers and even some female saints (the Order also had nuns; and no, they did not take up arms!).

The mendicant movement that flourished in the thirteenth century gave us the five “great” Orders of friars (along with various lesser ones): the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites,2 Servites, and Augustinians. All five have religious brothers in addition to priests. Of the two largest, the Franciscans were mobile, begging monks, while the Dominicans, also highly mobile, were a mendicant version of the canons regular — a form of religious life that was by nature clerical.3 (They were, early on, known as the “Preaching Canons.”) For all that, one of the Dominicans’ most popular saints is the lay brother, Saint Martin de Porres, whose friend and brother Dominican, Saint John Massias (or Macías), shared that status. While Saint Dominic and his Order of Preachers were primarily clerical, Saint Francis’ Order was not. Only at the will of Pope Innocent III did the Poverello himself accept diaconal ordination, and, like Saint Ephrem, the Doctor of the Church, the great Founder did not go beyond that order. Most of Saint Francis’ brethren were not ordained, although the Order of Friars Minor did admit Priests in his lifetime. Saints Pascal Baylon, Benedict the Moor, and Felix of Cantalice are among the numerous Franciscan brothers who have been canonized. Another Franciscan lay brother, Saint Didacus of Alcalá (Spanish: San Diego), has a city named after him somewhere.

Yet another notable mendicant lay brother is the Portuguese general-turned-Carmelite, Saint Nuno de Santa Maria Álvares Pereira.

Saint Francis of Paola (1416-1507) founder of the Minims, was also a religious brother, never having received Holy Orders. His Order, inspired by the Franciscans, was also mendicant, though founded considerably after the era of the founding of the great mendicant orders.

In later forms of religious life, accommodation is made for non-ordained members of institutes that are primarily clerical in character. So, in the era of the Catholic Reformation, we have numerous congregations of clerics regular, like the Jesuits, Theatines, Piarists, etc., who admitted (and still admit) non-clerical religious brothers to work in the congregation’s apostolate. Numerous Jesuit lay brothers have been canonized. Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez was the brother porter who put the idea into his fellow Jesuit, the priest, Saint Peter Claver, to minister to the spiritual needs of the negro slaves in Colombia. Saint James Kisai, one of the martyrs of Nagasaki, was a Japanese Jesuit lay brother. Another Japanese martyr, from a later era of persecution, was the Jesuit lay brother, Blessed Leonard Kimura.

Later religious congregations of all sorts, based upon whatever earlier model of religious life (or sui generis), generally make provision for the non-clerical brother to live and work in community alongside the priests. The Passionists and Redemptorists come to mind. Blessed Isidore of Saint Joseph and four of the Martyrs of Daimiel, Spain, were Passionist lay brothers. The Founder of the Redemptorists, Saint Alphonsus Maria de’ Liguori, saw one of his own spiritual sons, the lay brother, Saint Gerard Majella, predecease him.

“Therefore every scribe instructed in the Kingdom of Heaven, is like to a man that is a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure new things and old” (Matt. 13:52). The most notable examples of such “scribes” in Church history are our great religious founders. They take out of the treasure of the Church the “old things” of the consecrated life, with “new things” superadded to meet the needs of the times. Some of these founders were “re-founders,” like Saint Bernard of Clairveaux, Armand-Jean de Rancé, and Dom Prosper Guéranger, who recovered ancient traditions and revivified them. The most ancient forms of religious life have not left us, as the Trappists, Carthusians, and many monks of the East show us.

In virtually all these foundations and revivals the brother has had his place. In some institutes, his is the only place. Take, for instance, the Christian Brothers. They were the vanguard of a new type of religious institute: the French Teaching Brother. Though founded by a priest, Saint Jean-Baptiste de la Salle, the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools (to use the proper name), admits no priests among its members. (Yes, they are “just brothers” in more than one sense!) Responding to the social needs of the day in France, Saint John founded a congregation of men specifically for the task of teaching. They have an impressive list of canonized and beatified brethren, eight of whom, the Saintly Martyrs of Turon, shed their blood for Our Lord during the Spanish Civil War. (Their ninth companion was a Passionist priest.)

The French Christian Brothers, just mentioned, are not to be confused with the Irish Christian Brothers, founded by the Irish businessman-turned-brother, Blessed Edmund Ignatius Rice. The Unites States have many schools run by both congregations.

Many different congregations followed the trail blazed by the Christian Brothers. The Holy Cross Brothers, another group of teaching brothers, are a distinct society within the Holy Cross Congregation, which also includes priests. The founder was Blessed Basil Moreau (a priest), and one of its most famous members was Father Patrick Peyton, the famous “Rosary Priest.” To date, their only canonized saint is “just a brother” — Saint André Bessette, the patron saint of your humble servant.

A similar society of teaching brothers within a larger congregation that also includes priests would be the Marists, who are, like the above, of French origin. These are not to be confused with the Marianists, also French, founded by Blessed William Joseph Chaminade. The Marianists are a single society of both priests and brothers.

In Eastern Christian monasticism — both Catholic and Orthodox — the “monk” is generally a non-ordained man. If an Eastern monastic is ordained to the priesthood, he is generally called a hieromonk. Within the Russian tradition of spirituality, the starets (literally, “elder,” or spiritual father) need not be a priest. (Dostoevsky fans will recognize “Father Zosima” from The Brothers Karamazov as a starets.)

Wikipedia provides a partial list of Religious Brothers who have been proclaimed saints to whom we might add Saint Rafael Arnáiz Barón, a little-known Spanish Trappist who died at age 27 in April, 1938

He has never been even declared venerable, but probably canonizable is an American Trappist from Gethsemane Abbey, Kentucky, Brother Mary Joachim (John Green Hanning, 1849-1908). Brother Joachim was immortalized in the delightful book by Father Raymond, O.S.C.O., The Man Who Got Even With God. There is something online about Brother Joachim here. Would that he were better remembered than that other monk of Gethsemane Abbey!

Of all the questions I raised at the beginning of this piece, the one I have not specifically addressed is “Why be a brother?” The real answer might come to us from choirs of haloed brethren, including those canonized and beatified brothers mentioned in this article:

“Why indeed be ‘just a brother’? Because it works!

  1. Cenobitic refers to those monks who live in common as distinguished from anchorites or hermits, whose corresponding adjective is “eremitic” or “hermitic(al).” The word “monk” means “alone,” “one,” or “solitary,” but came fairly early on to include those living the common life, so Saint Augustine said that the oneness of the monk is that he is one with his brethren in the monastery.
  2. The Carmelites do trace their origins to the Old-Testament solitaries on Mount Carmel, but after they came to the West during the Crusades, they were organized as mendicant friars.
  3. It has been argued, and I think with some merit, that the “canonical” form of religious life, as it is known, has inserted itself into Western monasticism so much so that the “lay brother” became the exception rather than the norm in Benedictine monasteries.