James Martin, S.J.October 28, 2010

Earlier in the week I posted a link to a story about a wonderful Christian Brother who began a school in New York for the poor. Just a few days ago, another Catholic brother, André Bessette, became the first member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross to be canonized.  Catholic brothers, like Catholic sisters, are the unsung heroes of the church, laboring in schools, hospitals, parishes and other ministries with somewhat less public acclaim than their priestly counterparts.

The vocation of the Catholic brother is often misunderstood. Frequently they are asked, even by members of their own religious order, "Why don't you get ordained?" Is is often an insensitive question. You might as well ask a married man why he didn’t join a religious order.  Or you might ask a young married woman: “Why aren't you in a convent?” It is simply a different vocation.  Early on in my Jesuit life, a Jesuit brother memorably explained his vocation to me this way: "I just don't relate to people as a father. I relate to them as a brother.”

In the 1990s, when I worked in Kenya with the Jesuit Refugee Service, the refugees took to calling me Brother Jim. I was not ordained yet, so “Father Jim” was out, and they felt uncomfortable calling me simply “Jim,” so therefore: Brother Jim.  It was an honorific that I treasured. And my friend's words about relating to people as a brother helped me to accompany the refugees more easily. And, truth to tell, on the day I was ordained a priest several years later, on perhaps the happiest day of my life, I felt nonetheless that while I was receiving an incredibe gift from God, I was also losing something: being seen publicly as a brother.

Sunday (Oct. 31) is the feast of another remarkable Catholic brother, St. Alphonsus Rodríguez, the humble Jesuit porter of Majorca.  Here is a brief excerpt from my book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, which I offer as a tribute to this remarkable man, and to all the Catholic brothers. 

Alphonsus had come to the Society of Jesus by a circuitous route. Born in 1533, he was the second son of a prosperous cloth merchant in Segovia. When Peter Favre, one of the original Jesuits, visited the city to preach, the Rodríguez family provided hospitality to the Jesuit. Favre, in fact, prepared the young Alphonsus for his First Communion, an important rite of passage in the church.

At 12, Alphonsus was sent to the Jesuit college at Alcalá, but his father's death put an end to his studies: he was forced to return home to take over the family business. At 27, Alphonsus married. He and his wife Maria had three children, but, tragically, his wife and children all died, one after the other. Heavy taxes and expenses led Alphonsus to the brink of financial ruin; many biographers depict him as feeling like a failure in life. In desperation he called on the Jesuits for guidance. The lonely widower prayed for many years to understand God's desires for him.

Gradually Alphonsus found within himself the desire to become a Jesuit. At 35, he was deemed too old to begin the long training required for the priesthood and he was rejected for entrance. But his holiness was evident to the local provincial, who accepted Alphonsus into the novitiate as a brother two years later. The provincial is supposed to have said that if Alphonsus wasn’t qualified to become a brother or a priest, he could enter to become a saint. He stayed for only six months before being sent to the Jesuit school in Majorca, Spain in 1571, where he assumed the job of porter, or doorkeeper.

Each time he opened the door, as I had mentioned, Brother Alphonsus said to himself, "I'm coming, Lord!"  The practice reminded him to treat each person with as much respect as if it were Jesus himself.

In 1605 Peter Claver, a 25-year-old Jesuit seminarian, met the humble, 72-year-old Alphonsus at the college. The two met almost daily for spiritual conversations, and in time Alphonsus would encouraged Peter to think about working overseas in "the missions.” The prospect thrilled Peter, who wrote to his provincial for permission, and was sent to Cartagena, in what is now Colombia, to work with the West African slaves who had been captured by traders and shipped to South America. For his tireless efforts to feed, counsel and comfort the slaves, who had endured horrifying conditions, Peter would earn the sobriquet el esclavo de los esclavos, the slave of the slaves.

 Peter Claver, the great missionary, would be canonized for his heroic efforts. Alphonsus Rodríguez would be canonized for his own brand of heroism: a lifelong humility.

And now that you know a little about Alphonsus, this poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., called simply "St. Alphonsus Rodriguez," will make sense.

Honour is flashed off exploit, so we say; 
And those strokes once that gashed flesh or galled shield
Should tongue that time now, trumpet now that field, 
And, on the fighter, forge his glorious day. 
On Christ they do and on the martyr may;
But be the war within, the brand we wield 
Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled, 
Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray. 

Yet God (that hews mountain and continent, 
Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment,
Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more) 
Could crowd career with conquest while there went 
Those years and years by of world without event 
That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door. 

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Craig McKee
10 years 4 months ago
Gerard Manley, you've done it again:

The God who ''with trickling increment VEINS VIOLETS''

what a wonderful metaphor for the ''shrinking'' ministry of a brother.
10 years 4 months ago
Dear Tim: Ostensibly, this is the argument. I think if reconsideration is given to the argument against long posts, you will find that the real argument is not against long posts but rather against orthodoxy. I have submitted abbreviated commentary of Hardon SJ and the Catechism and these have also been deleted. Hence, this argment falls falls apart.
10 years 4 months ago
All right, then, Padre. 

"To see God in every event in our lives, that is authentic and profound humility. I'm afraid and I include myself, that as much as we either read or hear about humility or even ask for it, we think of it mainly as the virtue in our relationship with others, that I don't go around with raised eyebrows, looking down on those lesser mortals. All right, all right, not to be supercilious-you know what supercilious means?-it's an adjective, it comes, pardon me, I didn't have this in my notes-it comes from the Latin, super which means, raised; cilium, eyebrow-perfect description, the sin of raised eyebrows, form of vanity and pride. Our humility, in essence, is indeed to show itself in our, let's call it humble relationship with others, but the essence of humility in Alphonsus is the paragon of the practice of this virtue. The essence of our humility is not in our dealing with others but in our dealing with the other who is God. And this is mainly shown in our seeing His will in everything that enters our lives. The cold or the heat, the smile or the frown, the good meal and the bad meal, the sound sleep and the sleepness night, the health and the sickness, that's Alphonsus".

Guess who?
10 years 4 months ago

"Those years and years by of world without event 
That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door". 

"Unlike the North American Martyrs, his life was very uneventful, no Indians, no wigwams, no tomahawks, just a porter for a college of boys and if you know boys, in every age in every country, he might just as well have been among the Iroquois in New France"-Ditto re the scribe.
10 years 4 months ago
Thank you for the very nice write-up about Brother St. Alphonsus Rodriquez and also more on St. Peter Claver. I've never thought of Catholic Sisters as being unsung heroes of the Church although the Catholic Brothers, keeping a, "low profile", certainly are. How many people know the history of the Camillians, for instance. By the way, what is the status of Catholic Brothers in the Jesuit Order. I've met some old ones in the past, but never have seen anything about any celebration of young ones joining in the last 3o years or so; seems like they are no more. Maybe time to reconsider reinstituting this charism?
And, by the way, I can't count the number of times I have been asked, "Why don't you become a priest if you want to work for the Church". This was during the 50 or so years I was single. Let's not forget the poor laymen who get it too.
Okay, Maria, I give. Who said it?
10 years 4 months ago
LOL. John Hardon SJ, Servant of God. He is banned at "In All Things". So, I have to sneak him in the back door. Rich irony, right? Jesuit on his way to the Communion of Saints. At home in heaven, just not welcome in these parts...
10 years 4 months ago
Hmm, didn't take much research to answer my own question. Lots of stuff on Jesuit Brothers on the web. Like, http://www.njbc.com/ - guess I have been sort of, "out of it", or otherwise occupied, but I swear, haven't heard or seen anything about Jesuit Brothers for 30 years. And, back when, back at Jesuit Universities, never heard a thing then either. However, had classmates that became Jesuit Priests, so what gives? Talk about a secret! Sort of like the secret of Hermits in the Church. There are some, you know. Maybe in your diocese! Ask your bishop.
isabelle andrews
10 years 4 months ago
If you have never thought of Sisters as unsung heroes,  visit the exhibit "Women & Spirit, The American Catholic Sisters", now at Ellis Island. My group of well-schooled (Sister-schooled, that is.) Catholics were astonished at the brave deeds
of these thousands of women. This exhibit finally sings of their valor. It will be there until January and moves on to D.C.
10 years 4 months ago
I've never thought of Catholic Sisters as unsung heroes maybe because when I was little my grandmother brought me to Sr. Cabrini's grotto above Denver and showed me the ground she struck that made water appear (like Moses) and, the room full of crutches and discarded canes and medical appliances by those cured after drinking the water. (last I know (from maybe 15yrs ago) the water is still there but in the name of modernization and cleansing from tall tales the room of material witness of miracles is gone). So, I grew up knowing they are heroes from personal witness and stories.
Plus, I like to visit cemeteries on occasion. A good one is behind St. Mary's at South Bend, Indiana. There you will see the graves of many sisters who were Civil War nurses. Interesting to note is that many lived to quite old age, despite having been exposed to all the dire medical problems wars always cause.
isabelle andrews
10 years 4 months ago
Oops! I misread the schedule! Next stop is Dubuque, Iowa. The exhibit website is

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