Identity and Mission of Religious Brothers

Brother David Henley, vocation director

January 2016

In more than one of my monthly columns, I have dedicated space to writing about Glenmary brothers and the vocation of religious brothers in the Church. This month's column will not be a repetition, but hopefully will elaborate further upon some of those previous columns. The reason for the timing of this particular column is because the "Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life" in the Vatican recently published a new document about religious brothers in conjunction with the Year of Consecrated Life.

That document is titled Identity and Mission of the Religious Brother in the Church.

According to this document, the vocation of the religious brother "is not always well understood and appreciated within the Church." Therefore, it is a reflection intended to "affirm them in their vocations," among other purposes.

Worldwide, religious brothers are only a "fifth of all male religious in the Church." In the United States, nearly a quarter of all male religious are brothers. Currently there are around 4,000 religious brothers and 12,000 priests in the United States. Glenmary's founder, Father William Howard Bishop, said over 50 years ago, "There are too few lay brothers" and "priests are failing in the job of promoting vocations to the brotherhood." His prophetic words are still true today.

As Glenmary's vocation director and a brother, I am called to promote vocations both to priesthood and religious brotherhood. Oftentimes I have heard vocation prospects mention, after visiting Glenmary and meeting community members, "I am not sure which men were priests and which were brothers." I think that often speaks highly of the fraternity we share in the Glenmary community. Not that we are failing to identify ourselves, but rather we are first and foremost called to be missioners, and within that calling some of us are called to be priests and others, brothers.

Fraternity is at the heart of the religious brothers' vocation. As the new Vatican document states, fraternity "makes present the Gospel value of fraternal relationships of equality in the face of the temptation to dominate." In our living together, praying together, working together and sharing together, we are bound together in a spirituality of communion. We are brothers to all: "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."

This new document reminds us brothers that by our vows or oaths, "the consecrated person offers his life to God for reasons such as "a sign of the primacy of God, of a life only for Him" and "of the love of God for his people." A Glenmary brother's Oath is the same as the priest's, a promise of "a special practice of poverty, chastity, obedience and prayer." The Glenmary Vocation Office recently printed a booklet about these four promises titled Our Way of Life. For the discerner interested in learning more about what each of the promises mean to Glenmarians, he can request a copy of the booklet.

The fact that the document reminds brothers of our call to evangelize and participate in the mission is exciting and challenging as well. "The mission consists of making Christ present to the world through personal witness." And "consecrated persons are ‘in mission' by virtue of their very consecration, to which they bear witness in accordance with the ideals of their Institute."

Reading this document has helped me to reflect on my own call as a brother. It has reminded me of the need for continued reflection and commitment to my promises. How can I be a witness of the Lord today? How can I devote more time to fraternity with my brothers? Is my mission serving the neediest and the people living on the peripheries of society?

Currently there are 15 brothers in the Glenmary society. More are needed. Father Bishop said in 1952, "There are too few lay brothers." That statement is still true today. Brothers and priests are needed to serve together in Mission Land, USA.

If you are discerning a call to religious life and particularly as a brother, Identity and Mission of the Religious Brother in the Church is a fine document to read. But I don't recommend doing so without also taking the time to meet and talk with brothers in community. Glenmary has brothers serving in each of our mission regions. Throughout the year, we offer opportunities to visit the missions and meet with these Glenmary brothers.

Contact us if you would like to learn more about this awesome call to be a religious brother and to consecrated life—and how it is lived out as a Glenmary missioner.

Read previous columns by Brother David.