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?" It is often an insensitive question. You might as well ask a married man why he didn’t join a religious order. Or you might as well 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 incredible gift from God, I was also losing something: being seen publicly as a brother.
Today (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, 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.
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.