On Friday, October 8th, I travelled with four other brothers (two from the Central Province and two from the Southern Province) to the capital city of our great neighbor to the north, that is, to Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Each fall semester, the student brothers of the four U.S. provinces and the Canadian province get together to talk about a particular topic of interest (preaching, science and religion, etc.). This year's topic was ecclesiology and justice. We only scratched the surface, but it left the twelve or so student brothers in attendance with good food for thought. The main goal of these inter-provincial student gatherings is to facilitate collaboration and fraternity amongst the friars of the different provinces. The Dominican Order of Preachers is a world-wide order, so it is important that its members not grow too provincial in either their habits or their charismatic vision. We student brothers of the Central and Southern Provinces are fortunate to be studying in the same studium, because we already live the four pillars of prayer, study, community, and ministry together.
While we were visiting, we had plenty of time to go into the city to see things like the Cathedral of Our Lady of Ottawa (Notre Dame D'Ottawa) and Parliament. Ottawa has a beautiful mix of architectural styles, influenced (fittingly) by British and French architecture. Speaking of French...Ottawa is a bilingual city, and the friars in the priory of St. Jean-Baptiste pray in French. It was good for us to get a taste of Canada's unique French heritage, as it contradicts the typical American idea that Canada is "just like us". Having experienced the Liturgy of the Hours in French while in Cairo, I recognized many of the songs and words. I can now pray the "Glory be" prayer in French, and am doing so when I pray in private.
As the only cooperator brother student representative in attendance, this topic of ecclesiology and justice may have held a different level of importance for me than it did for the cleric brothers. I say this because within the Dominican Order and in the Church at large, the question of how we describe and understand "Church" greatly influences how people are treated, and what roles they are permitted to play. Forms of injustices can creep into our structures, leaving whole groups feeling marginalized, abused, misunderstood, or underappreciated.
Certainly, if you look at the decline of men entering religious life as brothers and then speak to the men who have remained brothers, or who are brothers newly professed--especially those brothers in orders of mixed makeup (non-ordained and ordained)--one of the reasons given for the decline is that the way the Catholic Church community defines and regards the vocation of religious brother implies that it is a "second-class" vocation. The classic example is when people say, "Oh, you're just a brother" or "only a brother". Furthermore, if you read the lives of brother saints like St. Martin de Porres, St. Juan Macias, and soon-to-be St. Andre Bessette, you find words like simple and humble to describe their vocation in contrast to the priestly ministry of their brothers, which was understood to be all-important. For many these words, humble and simple, translate to mean: too dumb for the priesthood. Is it any wonder, then, that men hesitate to embrace such a way of life?
Furthermore, because the Church defines itself so strongly with Sacramental ministry, those engaged in sacramental ministry take on an exalted role, while all the other roles are classed as auxiliary, and their ministers as "cooperators" or "coadjutors". Again, this is translated to mean: second-class or less important.
It does not help that within mixed religious communities that Canon Law has defined things in such a way that non-ordained religious brothers cannot, generally, be confirmed as superiors, even though they may be the most qualified brothers to serve as such, simply because of the idea that it is unfitting for clerics to have non-clerics as authorities over them. But this policy contradicts the understanding that within religious communities the members relate to one another as brothers of equal standing. Thus, this policy of denying to brothers the office of superiors reinforces the impression that brothers are not, in fact, equal members of the community, and that members of mixed communities, in fact, don't relate to each other as equals. The motto: "We're all brothers, and some of us are priests" is either a lie, or a nice idea that is yet to be realized fully--even if lived, generally, as best it can be.
All of this "drama" can be packed into one simple line from the Constitutions of the Order of Preachers: "Since the ministry of the word and of the sacraments of faith is a priestly function, ours is a clerical Order, in whose mission the cooperator brothers too share in many ways, exercising the common priesthood in a manner specific to them" (Fundamental Constitution, vi). It's not as though I take issue with the connection between the Order's mission to preach for the salvation of souls and the role sacraments play in the fulfillment of that salvation--that would be absurd and un-Catholic--what I take issue with here is the way that we allow the Order's vision to justify a hierarchy of importance.
The system of exalting the priesthood over and against religious brotherhood, sisterhood, laity, etc., is misguided. The priesthood, in so far as we are talking about the priesthood of the Messiah himself, is rightly exalted, for it is the means through which he continues to save his people through his ministers and his Church. But those ordained ought not lose a sense that they have a context. And certainly the context of religious priesthood, one would think, would remind cleric brothers that the fullest meaning of priesthood lies in service--in the pouring out of oneself for the sake of others as a brother. Is that not the example of the Messiah? [Just a note...I resist telling priests who they are or ought to be, just as I resist letting them define what a brother is or ought to be. That said, isn't it the meaning of mixed communities of priests and brothers to have the two vocations in dialogue with each other?] Even more importantly, it is essential for the clerics of the Church to understand that all baptized Christians share in the mission of spreading (preaching) the Gospel and bringing people to the sacraments. This is not, in short, the work of the ordained alone. They are our coworkers as much as we are theirs.
All of this, of course, is theoretical, and I am not saying any of it as an authority. All I can say is that in the four years that I have lived as a religious brother I have experienced for myself the problems facing this vocation. I have experienced (even in Ottawa) my vocation treated as a joke to laugh at, I have heard over and over "why aren't you going to be a priest", and I have been reminded that brothers can't be superiors (as if we are unfit for such a role, because we're not ordained, or we're not intelligent enough). These are serious problems, and until they are addressed by the Catholic community, the brother vocation will continue to decline, and, perhaps, die out completely.
But why would it die out completely if the Holy Spirit calls people to be brothers? Well, simply because a vocation is a beautiful thing, but when it is devalued, and when people are humiliated in the living of it, rather than genuinely challenge in the right way by it, even the brothers with the toughest skins and strongest wills might opt to leave rather than stay and end up sad or bitter.
Tomorrow, Pope Benedict will proclaim Brother Andre Bessette, a Holy Cross brother, a saint of the Church. It is a cause for great joy, of course, but it leaves me wondering if St. Andre's holy life can finally teach the Catholic community the difference between the "humble way" and "second class", and the complementarity of the priestly ministry of sacraments and the sacramental ministry possible for all the faithful.
Br. Paul, OP
In my next blog, I hope to continue this discussion, perhaps on a more positive note, examining the personal question of why I remain a Dominican friar, and whether I believe that there are, really, two types of Dominican friars.