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That Strange Friar

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Whom have I in the heavens but You
And earth has nothing I desire besides You
(Psalm 73:25, NIV)

So how come he is not ordained?” asked one parishioner pointing to a friar whom I introduced as a class mate. “Why did he enter the religious life if he wouldn’t want to be ordained a priest?”

That in essence is the difficulty of lay people in understanding that strange friar called the “religious brother”; they think that anyone who gets consecrated as a friar should also be ordained a priest. If that were the case, then even religious nuns should be ordained. But in fact, the male counterpart of the religious nun is not the ordained priest — as some would think — but the “religious brother.”

The religious brother is a male religious who, consecrated with the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, live his life in accordance with the Rules and Constitutions of the congregation to which he belongs. This is what I and my classmate became when we took our religious vows after a year in the novitiate. Some religious brothers, however, receive an additional consecration to the ministry and become priests. This is what happened to me, but not to my classmate. So what is the difference: why me and not him? The answer is because the vocation to the priesthood is something different from the religious life. As not all priests are religious (like the diocesan priest), so too, not all religious are priests. I was deemed to have the vocation to the priesthood and so I was entrusted with the ministry after I have been living the religious life for some time. My classmate didn’t get ordained because he was convinced he was not for the priesthood.

Mistaken Conceptions

The current difficulty in understanding the identity of the religious brother (sometimes also known as “religious lay brother” as distinct from the brother who is categorized under the hierarchical priesthood) is linked to the crisis of religious life itself. Religious life is an extension of the baptismal consecration. As such it is the life of the Christian but regulated by vows according to a Rule that is approved by the Church. It is not primarily an apostolate or a visible ministry but a mode of living the Christian life. One does not become a religious so as to do something; one is consecrated to the religious life to fully live one’s Christian vocation like the poor, chaste and obedient Christ in a community of like-minded persons. In other words, the consecration of the religious builds on that of baptism. Whether male or female, the religious lives that consecration with special bonds of religion — poverty, chastity and obedience — in a regime that is recognized and approved by the Church as her own life lived through a particular charism. Anyone who wishes to enter the religious life for example, does not do so primarily to become a priest (because this involves a different vocation) but because one sees that one’s baptismal consecration can best be lived out within a particular spirituality that will allow one to be poor, chaste and obedient.

What “Dignity”?

One of the problems that a religious congregation with both ordained and lay brothers can have is the crisis in the identity of this latter. Right now, for example, one obvious defect in our vocation promotions program is the place given to religious brothers. Emphasis is placed more on the “need” for priests, as if the congregation lives for service outside itself only. Even our formation program has been set up so as to produce more priests with the result that the number of our lay brothers are steadily on the decrease. Perhaps, one of the reasons for this is that the traditional duties of religious brothers in a convent have been given to lay employees. Another reason, more grievous, is the conception of “dignity” that has been developing in the minds even of religious themselves — an understanding of “dignity” tied up with an office held, titles and accomplishments. Because of this idea of dignity, the traditional lay brother is made into a second class citizen within the congregation and therefore attempts are made to “rehabilitate” him and bring up his status to a level that is equivalent to the ordained brother (who can gain certain offices, titles and achieve some accomplishments). But does the lay brother need rehabilitation? Is his consecration not enough? Isn’t it rather a mistake to measure the “dignity” of the lay brother against a standard that is rather worldly and — even among religious — temporary and perishable?

The Religious Brother

The religious lay brother is greatly misunderstood. The laity see him as an underdeveloped priest. But the religious brother — compared to the priest — is the one who enters the life of religion without expecting any other fringe benefit apart from the Lord. He is the one who can truly say: “You are the God of my heart, the God who is my portion forever” (Ps. 73:26). The religious priest has the privilege of celebrating the Mass, and that makes up for whatever “sacrifice” he may have made when he entered the life of religion. The religious brother does not have that perk; all they have is the knowledge that the life they have embraced is a life that allows them to follow the Lord more closely to the Cross with an intensity that only love can limit. And because they are freed even from the possibility of expecting something in return in this life for what they have left behind, they exemplify those referred to as “the pure of heart” — undivided in affections, integral in oblation. And you know what the Lord says about those who are “pure of heart.” He says: “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.”(Matthew 5:8)

Originally posted 2009-10-12 00:18:24. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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