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‘I often wondered why Brother So-and-so never took to the priesthood despite his academic degrees. But then each man to his chosen profession.’ This statement, in a column in a daily newspaper in which the writer was paying tribute to a recently deceased friend who was a De La Salle religious brother , is a variation of a question your editor has been asked or has heard many times over the years. Below is an expanded version of a letter in response published by the newspaper.
Brother So-and-so’s chosen profession was education. Being a religious brother is not a profession but a call from God, a vocation. The vocation of the religious brother is exactly like that of the religious sister. It is a call to live in community with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in order to serve the wider community in accordance with the congregation’s specific mission. In the case of the De La Salle brothers that is education. Theologically, religious brothers and sisters are laypeople.
I was educated in Dublin for ten years by the Irish Christian Brothers, an international community now known as the Congregation of Christian Brothers or the Edmund Rice Christian Brothers whose current head, Bro. Philip Pinto, is Indian. They have a community in the Diocese of Kabankalan. I have the deepest respect for the brothers who taught me. Later in my life two Marist Brothers became friends. The Marist Brothers are also a teaching congregation. Br Luke Pearson FMS, an American, and I studied together in Toronto in 1981-82. Some years later he came to the Philippines to be part of the staff at the Marist Asia-Pacific Center (MAPAC) in Marikina City and taught at the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies (IFRS) in New Manila, Quezon City. Br Columbanus Pratt FMS, an Australian, was also a member of the staff in MAPAC for some years. When younger, he spent many years teaching in what is now Notre Dame of Marbel University. Both have now gone to their reward.
There are orders and congregations of religious brothers whose work is caring for the sick, eg, the Alexian Brothers, the St John of God Brothers. The latter call some members to be priests in order to serve the Order and the sick. Many orders and congregations have both priests and brothers, eg, the Jesuits, the Redemptorists, the SVDs.
The various orders of friars have both priests and brothers. The word ‘friar’ comes from the Latin ‘frater’, which means ‘brother’. The Spanish term is ‘fray’, plural ‘frailes’, words that are familiar to Filipinos. In The 2011 Catholic Directory of the Philippines the Capuchin Franciscans (OFMCap) use only the title ‘Brother’, which may be abbreviated as ‘Br’ or ‘Bro’, for all their members, including priests.
The religious brother is not called by God to be a priest any more than the religious sister is, The educational attainments of a particular brother have no bearing on the priesthood. What matters is God’s call to be a brother.
The noble vocation of the religious brother is widely misunderstood. Confusion is added to this by diocesan seminarians, who are not religious, using the term ‘Brother’ for themselves. If my memory serves me correctly, the religious brothers at the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines asked that the title “Brother” be used only by religious brothers, in order to avoid such confusion about their vocation.