Brotherhood of Hope: What's a Brother?

What is a brother? Why become a brother? What is the difference between a brother and a priest? Why aren't all brothers priests? These are some of the questions that the Brotherhood of Hope has encountered over the years. They often emerge because people are unaware of the Church's history and teaching concerning consecrated and religious life. Although relevant Church documents discuss various forms of consecrated life, when cited here they will apply specifically to religious brotherhood. The elements discussed here are from the experience of our own religious family, the Brotherhood of Hope.

A religious brother shares with all Christians the common dignity of baptism whereby one is joined to Christ and summoned to holiness and the Church's mission. However, a brother's consecration is a fuller manifestation of baptismal consecration (Perfectae Caritatis 5). Through it he is joined in a special and spousal manner to Jesus (Redemptionis Donum 4, 7; Vita Consecrata 93). In pursuing "more abundant fruit from this baptismal grace, he intends ... to free himself from those obstacles which might draw him away from the fervor of charity and the perfection of divine worship" (Lumen Gentium 44).

Why would God want certain men to be brothers? The answer is because he wants a vibrant ecclesial witness of deeper consecration, radical self-gift, fraternal life and mission in common, separation from the world, prophetic witness to the kingdom, a life of service, and an identity and spirituality as brothers. All of this comprises a complete vocation encouraged by the Church, which reflects the mind of Christ. Religious life undeniably belongs to the Church's life and holiness (LG 44), and it is at the very heart of the Church (VC 3). Since its inception in the third century God has raised up new congregations of ones who "chose Christ by radically following the Gospel" (ibid). The backbone of many such groups has been brothers (e.g. the desert hermits and monks, the Benedictines, the first Franciscans). They embraced God's call to radical consecration apart from ordination, thereby reflecting religious consecration in its utter simplicity. With differing charisms and missions, these new communities have responded to the Spirit's work of renewal in the Church and in the world. Without brothers "the vitality of the local Churches would lack something" (John Paul II, 1/24/86 to Congregation for Religious). Without brothers the People of God are deprived of a traditional and crucial expression of the chaste, poor, and obedient Christ.

The very term "brother" suggests a rich identity and spirituality (VC 60). Brothers "are called to be brothers of Christ, deeply united with him, 'the firstborn among many brothers' (Rom 8:29), brothers to one another, in mutual love and working together in the Church in the same service of what is good; brothers to everyone, in their witness to Christ's love for all, especially the lowliest, the neediest; brothers for a greater brotherhood in the Church" (John Paul II, General Audience 2/22/95). Brothers are an effective reminder to religious priests of "the fundamental dimension of brotherhood in Christ, to be lived among themselves and with every man and woman, and they proclaim to all the Lord's words: 'And you are all brothers' (Mt 23:8)" (VC 60). Brothers strive to advance the gospel not only in their apostolates and in non-Church arenas, but also in their ordinary encounters with others in daily life.

A complete vocation encouraged by the Church, Brothers manifest the Church's teaching that the profession of the evangelical counsels is complete in itself (PC 10). "Consequently, both for the individual and for the Church, it is a value in itself, apart from the sacred ministry" (VC 60). Religious brotherhood is in itself a total self-gift to God through the evangelical counsels. A brother's consecration primarily manifests God's mysterious, gratuitous, and privileged summons. The resulting relationship is pure gift. The evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience are the means of this self-donation, and they foster the perfection of the love of God and neighbor in an outstanding manner (LG 45). They are "a triple expression of a single 'yes' to the one relationship of total consecration."

A fraternal life in common as a sign of the Trinity's unity, brothers share a communal life in charity. This fraternity, a visible manifestation of the Church's communion, "has always appeared as a radical expression" of Christian unity, and is a prophecy of heaven's unity (Congregavit Nos 10). Brothers are to be "experts in communion" for the Church and the world (ibid, VC 46). The unifying Holy Spirit seeks to progressively deepen their communion and have it foster unity elsewhere. A brother's first service to the Church is "a fraternal common life and witness to the All-Sufficiency of Jesus Christ" (Statutes of the Brotherhood of Hope 3).

A life of service to the Church

Through evangelical consecration a brother devotes himself "wholly to mission" (VC 72). He is "more intimately consecrated to divine service" (LG 44), and he serves in the Church's name (CIC 313). His life itself is a mission, following the example of his Lord (VC 72). By his life-mission, all the baptized are inspired to fulfill their own vocation and the Church's mission (LG 44). A brother's service is sacrificial, for it is "a life of self-giving love, of practical and generous service," imitating the Son who came to serve others (VC 75).