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Opinion: Living the Gospel as religious brothers

Brian Poulin, FMS, offers a reflection on life as a religious brother—explaining how it differs from lay as well as priestly life, and how its call remains poignant today.

Above all else, Jesus calls his followers to love without exception.

This requires us to pay special attention to those in greatest need. No matter how well a Christian family may work together to help the poor and vulnerable though, a husband and father has a particular obligation to his spouse and children who need him in a most unique way.

Similarly, a zealous priest who engages his congregation in charitable works and service programs has an ultimate pastoral responsibility to the members of the parish entrusted to him.

In both cases, certain relationships make legitimate prior demands on one’s love and attention. What, then, do you call a person who, together with a community of like-minded individuals, seeks to follow Christ by truly loving all without preference, each according to their needs?

If she is a woman, you call such a disciple a “sister”. If he is a man, you call him a “brother”.

We religious brothers are men striving together to follow Christ as we serve the human needs of those around us. Whether enjoying our communal life or working in our apostolates, we pray together and laugh together. We share our resources and share our lives.

In saying yes to God’s will, we seek to move beyond our individual preferences and aim to integrate the Gospel into the whole of our lives with the help of our particular spiritual traditions: Josephite, Verbite, Edmundite, Marist, Franciscan, LaSallian, Marianist, etc.

For centuries, we have served the poor and abandoned in schools, hospitals, and numerous other settings—yet many Catholics don’t even know we exist.

“Brother” is not primarily a title for us, but rather the way in which we intuitively relate to others with simple openness. If you already know and love any religious brother, it is likely because you have experienced him neither as superior nor inferior, but truly as a brother to yourself and to others.

Being a brother isn’t about prestige, privileges, or power. The only special vestment that Jesus ever wore during his earthly ministry was the apron he put on to wash the feet of his companions, when he instructed us to “go and do likewise”. Just so, we brothers either wear simple religious habits or professional dress suitable to our work. Nothing in our appearance connotes rank or precedence because we are all on the same level: Even positions of leadership are only of temporary duration.

At Mass, we rightfully take our place in the pews among the faithful rather than in the sanctuary. Our lifestyle is an essentially non-hierarchical one, in which no individual is to lord it over another. We seek truly to be brothers to all, to build communion within the Church and in the world through our shared life of prayer, service, and fraternity. That means that we not only pray together and eat together, but also do the dishes together.

Because we are not ordained, our apostolates are not based on sacramental ministry: Anything we do could also be done by any faithful Catholic. Whether we engage in specifically religious ministry such as catechism or spiritual direction, or in more socially oriented ministry such as healthcare or education, we welcome God’s grace into every aspect of our lives and seek to share that grace with those of any faith and of no faith whatsoever.

Like Jesus who invited everybody to his table, we exclude nobody from our loving care. By opening both our homes and our apostolic works, we evangelize through the witness of our compassionate presence and passionate commitment. We recognize hospitality as a Gospel value.

In binding ourselves to Christ through the three vows of celibate chastity, poverty, and obedience, we are liberated from many of the concerns that weigh down most people, allowing us to be uniquely available to emergent needs near and far. As these evangelical counsels shape us over the course of our religious life, we come to rely ever more exclusively on the love of Jesus. It would be impossible to authentically live this life by human effort alone.

Thus, with the help of our God and the earthly companions provided for us, we can indeed live it with joyful Christian integrity. That is not to say that we will achieve the appearance of perfection, but rather that we will take advantage of our many opportunities to both seek and offer forgiveness.

Some men are drawn to our lifestyle because they see the strength of our care for each other and our simple, unpretentious ways of relating with those both inside and outside of our communities. Some are drawn to the particular work performed by a certain congregation in service to God’s people. Others are drawn to our prayer-centered life. God’s voice sings differently to each human heart.

Each group of brothers has its own particular culture, ministry, and way of praying. Although our Church indeed needs priests to administer the sacraments, remember that there are many ways of serving God’s people and building up the Kingdom.

If you seek to devote your life to Jesus Christ among like-minded companions and have skills and interests with which you want to serve others, consider getting to know some groups of religious brothers. You might find a group that brings your best self to life!

As Psalm 133 proclaims, “How good and how pleasant it is, when brothers live together as one!”

Brian Poulin, FMS is the vocation director for the USA province of the Marist Brothers.

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