Religious brothers often overlooked in church life

Marianist Brother Stephen Balletta, left, prays during a Mass marking World Day for Consecrated Life Feb. 5 at St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic) 

PHOENIX (CNS) -- The church needs to look beyond ordained clergy for leadership, said Marianist Father James Heft during an address at the annual meeting of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men in Phoenix in early August.

"Early on in the life of the church, religious life was a lay movement. Beginning in the third century, the desert fathers were typically not ordained, and a century later when monastic communities began to form, they remained a largely lay movement," Father Heft said.


"By the time active religious orders arrived on the scene in the 12th and 13th centuries, the vast majority of their members were ordained. If there were any brothers, they were to serve the priests," he said Aug. 3.

Father Heft is the Alton Brooks professor of religion and president of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California. He founded the institute in 2006. Before that, he was at the Marianist-run University of Dayton in Ohio, first as chair of the theology department, then senior vice president and university provost and finally chancellor.

Author or editor of 11 books and numerous articles, he is now working on a book on the mission of Catholic colleges and universities. 

"In our order the priests are ordained to serve first the brothers with whom they live, and then with them others through various ministries," he said in opening his address. "As one of our priests often remarked, 'I am a brother who happens to be ordained.' Brothers are not there to serve the priests, except through the mutual responsibilities that characterize any group that aspires to be a real community."

"Our common life and the three vows, plus a special vow that dedicates us to Mary, constitute our identity," Father Heft noted.

"At the time of the Reformation, what Protestants opposed, Catholics emphasized -- some might say exaggerated. The Protestants emphasized the priesthood of all the faithful and the Catholics, in response, the ordained priesthood," he explained in the main part of his address. "The Protestants put great emphasis on the study of the word of God and preaching while the Catholics emphasized the sacraments, most of which are celebrated only by priests. Most Protestant churches abolished religious life; the Catholics made it a higher calling than marriage.

Protestants emphasized the priesthood of all the faithful and the Catholics, in response, the ordained priesthood.

"The cumulative effect of these historical changes for the Catholic Church increased the authority of the hierarchy, put priests and religious above laypeople, and led bishops to value priests more than lay religious."

Father Heft said, "Orders that have both male and female branches -- as the Marianists do -- benefit from the interactions that take place in shared ministries and between men and women of the same spiritual family, especially in recent years. If brothers tend to be allergic to clericalism, most women religious are especially allergic to it, having experienced it so frequently."

He asked aloud, "What then is the distinctive call of the lay male religious, who at receptions and cocktail parties are often asked why they didn't go 'all the way' and become priests? If it ever becomes possible for women to be ordained, then sisters who choose not to be ordained will be asked the same question. To put it bluntly, the non-ordained brother is still without a place."

Father Heft said, "I know of few bishops who promote religious life with the same energy that they promote the ordained priesthood."

I know of few bishops who promote religious life with the same energy that they promote the ordained priesthood.

In Africa and India, of late a fertile field for vocations, "nearly all our young Marianist brothers want to be priests. For us Marianists, this situation constitutes a big threat," he added. "When priests outnumber the brothers, when being 'just a brother' has little appeal, we Marianists have lost, I fear, one of the most important elements of our charism."

Father Heft acknowledged efforts to right the situation, even when they are lacking.

"Vatican II tried to correct this by emphasizing the collegiality of bishops -- decentralize episcopal authority -- and placing the call to holiness not first with religious vows or the priesthood, but with baptism," he explained. "They drew attention to the 'sensus fidelium,' which in essence says that the hierarchy needs to pay attention to all the faithful when they discern the faith and formulate doctrine," he said.

Of a 2015 document from the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life called "Identity and Mission of the Religious Brother," Father Heft said, "Much of what it says about religious brothers could also be said about religious priests, even diocesan priests. Hence, there is not enough in it that is distinctively applicable only to the religious brother."

"Mary praised God for 'bringing down the mighty from their thrones' -- perhaps this Mary too would oppose clericalism."

A second document, issued last year by Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, called "Iuvenescit Ecclesia" ("A Rejuvenated Church"), on the relationship between the hierarchy and lay-led movements in the church, spoke of the role of Mary as a model for religious men and women.

"She is described as a model of 'complete docility,' 'fully obedient,' (but) there are other qualities not mentioned that are also important and biblically based," Father Heft said. "Pope Francis wrote in describing the 'Marian Style of Evangelization,' Mary praised God for 'bringing down the mighty from their thrones' -- perhaps this Mary too would oppose clericalism -- and for 'sending the rich away empty'; perhaps she can help us foster a more robust understanding of Catholic social teaching."

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Jerome Kiley
2 years 9 months ago

Maybe a deepened examination of the use of the title "Father" inherently for priests would shed light on the diminishment of the role of "Brother". The current implication is that spiritual fatherhood and brotherhood are separate, and thus the paradox of both/and at the core of the Christian Life is lost, and we are left with the natural conclusion that a "Brother" has never reached the maturity of being a "Father". And yet spiritual Parenthood is for anyone who generates brotherhood in Christ - and the only way to do that is lose your titles and become a brother/sister yourself. The paradox is that as soon as you are hierarchically "above", you lose your spiritual fecundity. You must be a brother and even a servant, in order to be generative spiritually.
Paul calls himself a spiritual father, but he never used the title Father, nor does he minister the sacraments. He was a brother and servant without a title who preached the Word of God and generated a brother/sisterhood in the family of God - precisely what it is to be a spiritual father.

Robert Killoren
2 years 9 months ago

Back in the sixties it was commonly thought that seminarians who couldn't make the grade with their studies were asked to become brothers. Either that or they were men who preferred working with their hands, especially outdoors. On the other hand I've been taught by brothers who were theologians who could run circles around priests. I think it might have been Fr Thomas Keatng who told the story about a brother who was a cook, the kindest and most spiritual man he knew. One Benedictine I knew was ordained a deacon and then discerned his vocation was as a brother not a father.


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