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Key Elements of the Religious Brotherhood Vocation

What is a brother? Why become a brother? What is the difference between a brother and a priest? Why aren’t all brothers priests? 

These are some of the questions that often emerge because people are unaware of the Church’s history and teaching concerning consecrated and religious life. 

Below are nine key elements describing the nature of the vocation to religious brotherhood. Click a particular element for a more complete explanation along with relevant Church document citations that apply specifically to religious brotherhood. 

1) An Intensification of Baptismal Consecration
A religious brother shares with all Christians the common dignity of baptism whereby one is joined to Christ and summoned to holiness and the Church’s mission. However, a brother’s consecration is a fuller manifestation of baptismal consecration (PC, no. 5). Through it he is joined in a special and spousal manner to Jesus (RD, nn. 4, 7; VC , no. 93). In pursuing “more abundant fruit from this baptismal grace, he intends … to free himself from those obstacles which might draw him away from the fervor of charity and the perfection of divine worship” (LG, no. 44). Similarly, a brother’s consecration is also seen as a development of the Sacrament of Confirmation (VC, no. 3).

2) A Total Self-Gift to God Through the Evangelical Counsels
A brother’s consecration primarily manifests God’s mysterious, gratuitous, and privileged summons. But it also manifests the brother’s personal, free response to this divine calling. God’s grace enables him to respond so that his consecration “is expressed on the human side by a profound and free self-surrender. The resulting relationship is pure gift” (EE, no. 5). This relationship is deepened through prayer, yet a brother’s whole life is a continuous worship of God in love (CIC 607.1). The evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience are the means of this self-donation, and they foster the perfection of the love of God and neighbor in an outstanding manner (LG, no. 45). They are “a triple expression of a single ‘yes’ to the one relationship of total consecration” (EE, no. 14).

3) A Fraternal Life in Common
As a sign of the Trinity’s unity, brothers share a communal life in charity. This fraternity, a visible manifestation of the Church’s communion, “has always appeared as a radical expression” of Christian unity, and is a prophecy of heaven’s unity (CN, no. 10). Brothers are to be “experts in communion” for the Church and the world (ibid, VC, no. 46). The unifying Holy Spirit seeks to progressively deepen their communion and have it foster unity elsewhere. Fraternal unity must also be incarnated in specifics, such as “a shared tradition, common works, well-considered structures, pooled resources … sharing of prayer, work, meals, leisure,” etc. (EE, no.18, 19).

4) A Detachment from the World
In order to effect both deeper attachment to Jesus and greater public witness, a brother’s life requires some separation from the world (CIC 607.3). For centuries religious life has witnessed to this world-detachment. It includes wearing a habit (as a sign of simplicity and consecration) and sharing a pattern governing the whole of life. But attitudes and lifestyle must also be part of the public witness, such as restraint in forms of relaxation, entertainment, and comfort (ES 1.2, CD, no. 33-35, EE, no. 34).

5) A Life of Prophetic Witness to the Kingdom of God 
The virtue of hope enables a brother to reveal the mystery of God’s Kingdom—present already but completed in Heaven. He strives “to live now what will be in the afterlife” (EE, no. 8), and he more clearly manifests to others “the presence of heavenly goods already possessed here below” (LG, no. 44, CIC, no. 599). He witnesses to this passing world about the future resurrection and ecstatic union with God Himself (RD, no. 11). Consecrated chastity gives particular eloquence to this foretaste of glory (VC, no. 26).

6) A Life of Service to the Church
Through evangelical consecration a brother devotes himself “wholly to mission” (VC, no. 72). He is “more intimately consecrated to divine service” (LG, no. 44), and he serves in the Church’s name (CIC, no. 313). His life itself is a mission, following the example of his Lord (VC, no. 72). By his life-mission all the baptized are inspired to fulfill their own vocation and the Church’s mission (LG, no. 44). A brother’s service is sacrificial, for it is “a life of self-giving love, of practical and generous service,” imitating the Son who came to serve others (VC, no. 75).

7) A Mission Undertaken in Common
Brothers serve a common mission, which flows from and nourishes their common fraternal life. They undertake this mission as a corporate effort in a unified spirit. Even though brothers do not always work together, each one’s work is directly related to the common mission approved by the Church (EE, no. 23).

8) An Identity and Spirituality As Brothers 
The very term ‘brother’ suggests a rich identity and spirituality (VC, no. 60). Brothers “are called to be brothers of Christ, deeply united with him, ‘the firstborn among many brothers’ (Rom 8:29), brothers to one another, in mutual love and working together in the Church in the same service of what is good; brothers to everyone, in their witness to Christ’s love for all, especially the lowliest, the neediest; brothers for a greater brotherhood in the Church” (John Paul II, General Audience, 2/22/95). Brothers are an effective reminder to religious priests of “the fundamental dimension of brotherhood in Christ, to be lived among themselves and with every man and woman, and they proclaim to all the Lord’s words: ‘And you are all brothers’ (Mt 23:8)” (VC, no. 60).

9) A Complete Vocation Encouraged by the Church
Brothers manifest the Church’s teaching that the profession of the evangelical counsels is complete in itself (PC, no. 10). “Consequently, both for the individual and for the Church, it is a value in itself, apart from the sacred ministry” (VC, no. 60). Although Vatican II avers that there is nothing to prevent some brothers from being admitted to Holy Orders for the priestly service of the community, the lay character of these institutes is to remain intact (PC, no. 10). Furthermore, John Paul II notes that the Council “does not give any explicit encouragement for this, precisely because it wishes institutes of brothers to remain faithful to their vocation and mission” (VC, no. 60).

Abbreviations:

CIC – Codex Iuris Canonici 
ET – Evangelica Testificatio
CD – Christus Dominus 
LG – Lumen Gentium
CN – Congregavit Nos 
PC – Perfectae Caritatis
CRSI – Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes
RD – Redemptionis Donum 
EE – Essential Elements
RM – Redemptoris Missio
ES – Ecclesiae Sanctae
VC – Vita Consecrata

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