Religious Sisters are often the first group of people that most Catholics and others think of when they think of “official Church ministers” who are not ordained. Yet, Religious Brothers also play a significant role in the ministry and life of the Church. The Franciscans, for example, were not founded by an ordained person — St. Francis, contrary to popular misunderstanding, was not an ordained minister (certainly not a presbyter, and recent scholarship shows rather conclusively that he was also not a deacon, but rather one who might have been admitted by the Holy See to some minor order or the tonsured, clerical state by some form of exception). There is a long tradition of Religious Brothers living out their vocation in the Church as public ministers and men committed to a life of community and prayer as consecrated members of religious orders.
There has been a noticeable absence in any official (and really, any unofficial) theological reflection on this way of living the vita evangelica. Word on the street is that a document, long in the works, on the Religious Brothers is on its way to promulgation from the Vatican, according to a National Catholic Reporter article published yesterday. Here is an excerpt of that article:
Way back in 1985, the Congregation for Religious held a plenary assembly, meaning a full meeting of its members, dedicated to the topic of the brotherhood. At the time, the thinking was that the brotherhood was ripe for a new theological analysis, particularly since 1985 marked the 20th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
Under Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rodé, who served as the congregation’s prefect from 2005 to early 2011, there was a push to revive the topic. Tobin said a document went through several drafts, but none was fully satisfactory, and so it was sent back for revision. At this point, he said, it’s impossible to predict when it might be finished.
Whenever it appears, Tobin said the document will not offer an empirical study of the brotherhood, but rather a theological reflection on the nature of the vocation.
Despite the delay, Tobin said the subject of the brotherhood remains of vital interest.
“It is a glimpse of male religious life in its ‘pure’ form,” Tobin said, “untainted by clericalism or eclipsed by the demands of ordained ministry.”
Furthermore, Tobin said, the first male religious were “brothers,” in the sense of not being ordained priests. He suggested that a reflection on the brotherhood helps male religious get back to their roots.
According to official Vatican statistics, there are roughly 55,000 religious brothers in the world today, including just under 10,000 in the United States, Canada, and Central America. In the United States, the Religious Brothers Conference (www.todaysbrother.com), headquartered in Chicago and founded in the wake of Vatican II, acts as an advocate for the identity and vocation to the brotherhood.
As a member of the Franciscan Order, particularly one who is very interested in contemporary theological reflection and currently serves on the committee for vocations of the largest province of Franciscan friars in North America, I eagerly await the release of this text. We’ll see what happens. Hopefully this text advances a sense of religious life that is not so dependent on implicit dichotomies and the tradition of systemic ecclesiastical injustice of clericalism as is so often the case in such ecclesiological explications. The nearly two-millennia-old tradition of religious brotherhood deserves so much more than that.