Part III Cooperator Brother Identity


III) Cooperator Brother Identity
The cooperator brother once wore a distinct habit, once lived in distinct quarters in the convent, and once had a distinct formation. His identity, then, was in sharp contrast to his ordained brother, really defined by the differences in the two separate vocations. Today, the differences between the two vocations are no longer so distinct. The non-ordained and the ordained wear the same habit; pray the same office in the same chapel; eat, sleep, and live in the same building; and even more radical, they receive relatively the same formation and education from the Order. If a cooperator brother was standing next to his priest-brother, a stranger wouldn’t know that there was a difference in their vocations.
These changes are evidence of the Dominican Order’s willingness to embrace its non-ordained brothers in a new way, more fully as equals to its ordained members. This is progress: but let us not be mistaken, there is a difference in the vocation of a cooperator brother and a priest brother. Their charisms may be the same, certainly, but whereas the priest finds his fulfillment in ordination and sacramental ministry, the cooperator brother finds his in his brotherly service to his neighbor, in whatever form that service takes. While the church with its altar and pulpit may be the primary setting for the preaching of the Gospel for the priest brother, the cooperator brother must preach wherever he finds himself.
There have been many men in the past who, because of their low level of education, were not permitted to study for the priesthood. Their stories do not reflect the many men who willingly embraced the non-ordained brotherhood as a vocation that is second to none, because it is the one they were given by God. Likewise, the men who enter the cooperator brotherhood in modern times must have the understanding that theirs is a unique calling, one which will demand a confidence in their vocation as a preacher of the Gospel, servant of the needy, and brother to all. This is especially true now that the number of cooperator brothers has decreased.
It is tempting to believe that in these times that the relevance of the cooperator brotherhood relies on the non-ordained brother’s ability to earn academic degrees, to do certain kinds of work, and/or to bring in a certain level of income for the Order. This goes back to those historical conditions for allowing the non-ordained into a clerical order. This mentality, however, misses the purpose to religious life: which is to facilitate the sanctification of a soul called by God to leave all behind in order to follow Christ more perfectly. St. Paul was not mistaken when he wrote that the members of community should work to support themselves, but so long as the individual is willing to work, there must be a progression from the pragmatic concerns of the community toward the spiritual fraternity that motivates its members. It would be a loss, therefore, if the cooperator brotherhood was either discontinued, or if it became merely a group of professionals who just happen to be religious; the first, because the Order would be denying itself valid vocations, the second because the spirituality of brotherhood would be compromised by secular definitions for success and self worth. A vocation, after all, is a gift, not a commodity.