René Stockman, fc. All are brothers ALL ARE BROTHERS. Identity and mission of the religious brother in the Church. Brothers of Charity Publications

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1 René Stockman, fc All are brothers ALL ARE BROTHERS Identity and mission of the religious brother in the Church Brothers of Charity Publications 1

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3 At the end of 2015, on the occasion of the year of the consecrated life, the long-awaited document on the identity and the mission of the religious brother in the Church came out. In addition to a thorough theological interpretation of the vocation and mission of the religious brother in the heart of the consecrated life, the three dimensions of being a brother are explained: the brother in relationship with Jesus, with his fellow brothers and with the poor. The Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata of Pope John Paul II of 1998 is the basis. In the introduction is clearly indicated that the consecrated life has grown initially as a lay movement, and only later got a more clerical interpretation. From the beginning, members of the religious communities for men were called brother, referring to the text of Jesus: You, however, must not allow yourselves to be called Rabbi, since you have only one Master, and you are all brothers (Mt 23:8). This title indicates the equal dignity and fundamental equality of all believers. Therefore, the religious brother is ideally the one who refers and evokes with his life that all believers are called to give themselves totally to God and the mission of the Church. In summary, it sounds that the identity of the religious brother is a mystery of community focused on a mission. The fraternity is a gift that is received as a mystery, which is shared in community and is given away as a mission. 3

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5 1. The religious brother in the Church community The renewal that was brought by Vatican II highlighted the Church as a mystery of communion, which has its source in the community of the Son with the Father and in the gift of the Holy Spirit. This community is the model, the source and the purpose of the community of Christians with Christ from which the community of Christians grows with each other. Consecrated life must also be placed in this context, and the religious brother should be a living testimony of this community. Today the Church is really seen as a People of God in which all have received equal dignity in baptism and in which all have an equal vocation to holiness and share in the responsibility for the mission to evangelization in the world. Every believer will do this from his own vocation, charism and mission. Religious brothers find their habitat in the context of the community and feel connected in a special way with all Christians and with their fellow brothers in particular. They experience the brotherhood as if it were a confession and testimony of the Trinity. They are like Moses who for the burning bush sees with the eyes of God himself the oppression of his people, who hears their cries and who feels their fears. That is why their partaking in the community also becomes a special sensitivity for the least, with those who are oppressed or marginalized. The memory of all believers of the fundamental values of the Gospel together with the call to sanctify their lives belongs to the first mission of the consecrated brother. All other tasks must emerge from it. Throughout their lives they testify of the absoluteness of God and the radical imitation that follows, regardless of their state of life. The fraternity of the religious brother is an encouragement for the whole Church to put aside all temptation to prevail, always based on that word of Jesus: You are all brothers (Mt 23:8). 5

6 In the history of the consecrated life this was always the central point: the search to follow Christ in his way of life, viz. chaste, poor and obedient. Once a certain clericalization in the consecrated life occurred, the danger creeped that more attention was paid to the priestly functions, and this to the detriment of the exclusive imitation of Christ is his chaste, poor and obedient life. New congregations of brothers renewed steadily this first concern and placed their homes very consciously in the proximity of the poorest. That s why it s important that religious brothers see this as a distinguished mission for today: being witness of the great value of the consecrated life by their life, by being really yeast in the dough, by being near to other believers as experts in the spiritual life and by accompanying as brothers. They will do this by living radically their baptism, because it is from this sacrament that the other sacraments shape their lives. They will do this in great solidarity with all believers and with a special attention for those in need. Here, the introductory text of Gaudium et Spes is cited: The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts (N 1). Religious brothers maintain the unity between the profane and the sacred, and integrate their being lay in their consecrated life. So they bring a strong reference of the divine in the secular realities of culture, science, health, in the care for the least and the marginal. Their life in community is also a strong testimony and refers to the relationship between the Father and the Son, which is a relationship of utter community. 6

7 Finally, their own charism as religious community is an invitation for all the faithful to experience the values of the Gospel in a more radical way. Already in the Acts of the Apostles, emphasis was placed on the importance of fraternal living together. The early Church showed as a community where the Word was heard, the bread was broken and where one was brotherly living together in prayer. This fraternity, which found and finds its strength in the action of the Holy Spirit, also remains for today a great challenge for the Church. Fraternity and mission cannot exist without each other: cultivating the fraternity creates a larger sense for the mission and the development of the mission brings larger fraternity. With Vita Consecrata we can conclude this part: These Religious are called to be brothers of Christ, deeply united with him, the firstborn among many brothers (Rm 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 (No. 60). 7

8 2. The identity of the religious brother: a mystery of community in service of the mission To understand the identity of the brother, we can look up to the icon where Jesus washes the feet of His Apostles. It was the expression of the way that Jesus really went to extremes in the selfgiving of his life. In the breaking of the bread, which is described in the Synoptists and by washing the feet of His disciples as described in John, Jesus gives the command to the Church to serve to extremes. Thus we are all set on the road by Jesus: You must love one another just as I have loved you. It is by your love for one another, that everyone will recognize you as my disciples (Jn 13:34-35). It is as a community that we serve in the world; it is from God s love that one becomes charitable for all without distinction. The vocation and identity of the religious brother lies in this dynamism The mystery of the brotherhood that we received as a gift The vocation as brother has its roots in the experience of God s love. It is the source of every Christian vocation. As Pope Benedict XVI expressed it so apt in his Encyclical Deus Caritas Est : Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction (N 1). To follow radically the commandment of love: You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength; and you must love your neighbour as yourself (Mk 12:29-31). The vocation of the brother is at the same time experience and testimony of God s love. With the fullness of his existence, the brother enters in the love-community that exists between the Father and the Son and that is fertile in the Spirit and thus becomes the mediator of God s love. It is this love that he received by the action of the Holy Spirit at his baptism, and that made him a temple of the Holy Spirit. With his baptism, he placed himself in line with 8

9 Jesus Himself and he could repeat the words of Jesus: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, for He has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord (Lk 4:18-19). It is in this personal story that starts at baptism that religious devotion is grasped and that it receives its full meaning. The religious devotion is a special and fruitful deepening of the dedication that one receives at baptism and that becomes a private vocation as specific gift of the Holy Spirit. It is a vocation, on a voluntary basis, to belong totally to the Lord, in consecrated celibacy, and thus to give all the space in one s life for the love of God and for the love in the community of people. Every religious devotion bears witness to the mystery of the Redemptive Christ here now being fulfilled. By their life itself, they are the witnesses of Christ, living memories of the way that Jesus lived and acted as a living Word of God. The religious brother lives his secular state through a special dedication and becomes in this way a testimony of the value of the general priesthood to which all believers are called to participate by their baptism and confirmation. He made us a Kingdom of Priests to serve his God and Father (Rv 1:6). The religious brother and the Christian layman experience this universal priesthood in a different way, and both of them have to teach something to each other. The Christian layman calls the brother on not to lock himself up in a confined existence but to open himself for the salvation of mankind, while the religious brother remembers the Christian layman that the development of the world is not an end in itself, but should always be focused on the coming of the Kingdom of God here on earth. Central to the religious brother is his profession: his devotion to God and God alone. It is with the fullness of his existence that he gives his life to God. He will express this dedication in his profession by the experience of the Evangelical counsels which he places under vows. His life receives thereby a prophetic dimension, because he will see the whole reality and man in it from its exclusive relationship to God. He becomes able to read the signs of the times and to understand them as a divine call to make God present in it. His 9

10 whole existence and his prayer will be drawn by this prophetic call to serve in the world. As Mary, he will learn to enter in the new category of Jesus: those who hear the Word of God and the servicing are now his mother and brother (cf. Lk 8:21). And likewise as Mary, he will learn to fully place his life under the Word of God The mystery of the community as a gift we share The mystery of the community as the inner life of the Trinity comes to us as a gift we share with our fellow brothers in the community. Our community is not based on natural relationships, but on the power of the Holy Spirit. Our dedication and our mission are united in our community. Our community life is really an experience of the mystery of God himself: entering in the love of the Father, living from the resurrection of Christ and sharing in the community of the Holy Spirit. The community of brothers is in itself a sign of the Holy priesthood that we all have received through baptism. Community life is the place where God s work of salvation may be visible and tangible. The brothers live there out of their full reality, in joy and in suffering, open to forgiveness that they may receive and pass on as a special mercy. Each community is focused on her mission and is as an ambassador of God s love in the world, an instrument to bring God s message of salvation in the world, especially to the poor. When the Church recognizes a religious community, it is always assigned with a missionary task, in line with the charism. The communities are always focused on service in the Church and in society. The pastoral work that is done there is always community work and is not done by individuals, but in community. It is the entire community that does the service work through the service of its members, and in it is also enclosed the prayer and the suffering of the sick fellow brothers. The whole community is responsible for the ministry that the Church has entrusted her. In a community, structure is necessary, but the attitudes of the members are even more important than the structures. Members 10

11 of a brother community may also be seen as experts in community building. The main criterion must be love, and it is out of and with this brotherly love that the service work will be carried out. By the consecrated celibacy, the religious brother has the possibility to share his love with all members in the community, and this gives the community a prophetic interpretation in a world that more and more promotes individualism. But at the same time, he experiences that the community remains a fragile sign that every day calls for renewal and recovery. It is also in and with the community that the brother will put his entire life for God and that he will repeat again and again the inquiry of the Will of God in his life. It requires a contemplative dimension in life to look at, to reflect on and to join everything from and with God. Community life is both a gift of God and is also reshaped again and again by God s grace Being a brother as a mission, a gift that is given away With two images from the Gospel, we can describe the mission of a religious brother. First of all, Jesus who as a good shepherd looks to the crowd, because they were like sheep without a shepherd (Mk 6:34) and where He asks his disciples to feed them: Give them something to eat yourselves (Mk 6:37). In addition sounds the judgment criterion: In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to Me (Mt 25:40). Through the centuries, these two tasks were taken very seriously by the religious brothers. The work of evangelization has always been linked to the very specific healing of the human situation: food, health, freedom, sense in life, etc. The brother is really the one who recognizes Jesus in the poorest people and who wants to go as Jesus to the poorest people. But above all, with his life, the brother will witness in complete devotion of Christ s presence in the world. Therefore, initially, it is not important what one does, but who one is. Activities may 11

12 disappear, but the mission is always present in the life of the brother. It is connected to his identity. Today, there is a great thirst for spirituality. When Jesus has spoken with the Samaritan woman, she runs home with the words: Come and see (Jn 4:29). People should also say this of the brother, because he speaks them about God and the desire for a deeper spiritual life wakes up in them. Therefore, the communities should be real schools of Evangelical spirituality and they should act as places where ways to God can be walked on. Contemplative communities have a privileged mission in this world. But of every brother is expected that he is a witness of hope and that he should let feel the tenderness of God in places where the hope is obscured. Many charisms of religious congregations are aimed at searching and healing those who got lost, are lost and marginalized. This brings the religious brother to the limits of existence, to the periphery. It is the place where man is displaced, starving, suffering from unjust structures and the loss of deep human values. It brings him to the periphery in his preferred option for the poor. Like the Good Samaritan, he is the one who really feels sorry for those who are left to their own fate. Of course, sent into the world, the brother will realize his mission in a professional way. Only then he will really be able to contribute to collaborate in the integral salvation of man. It is within the secular mission that he wants to let sound God s love. 12

13 3. Being a brother today is a story of grace The life of a brother is a story of redemption, very specially focused to the lives of the poorest. After all, the brother enters in the love relationship with God and from there, he is sent to the poor. The question of Jesus at the end of the story of the Good Samaritan also sounds in the life of the brother, and his answer is clear: he is sent to the most needy who are present in the heart of his charism. To this end, the brother is always reminded of the fire of the beginning that will lead him over and over again to go very far in his love for the poor, even to giving his own life. In order to understand his mission well, the brother should be set clearly on the road during his initial formation, so that his specific vocation and mission in line with his baptism and confirmation grace can fully flourish, and this placed in the specific charism of the institute to which he belongs. Further formation, continuing education is necessary to continue to translate the charism in everyday life in a fiery manner. It is appropriate to do this in consultation with each other in the community and in consultation with others who share the charism of the congregation. The religious brothers should always make sure that the sense of their existence does not only coincide with the ministry that they fulfill, but that they understand that their whole existence has an apostolic dimension, even broader than the ministry they fulfill. In this way, they will prevent to feel retired as religious when they should stop their more formal ministry. Religious brothers can really be prophets at this time. They show it by opening up their hearts and homes in hospitality for strangers. They show it by listening to others and by finding meaning in life together. Together with the religious sisters, they will defend and support the female values in evangelization. They show it when they stand up for the protection of life and for the integrity of creation. They show it also in the wise use of new technologies. 13

14 Religious brothers recognize themselves in Martha and Mary and do not scare to stay again in the tension between contemplation and action. They realize that they can only be Martha when they are first, as Maria, letting themselves filled by God s love at the feet of the Lord. Bro. René Stockman 14

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16 BROTHERS OF CHARITY BROEDERS VAN LIEFDE FRères de la Charité Fratelli della carità Casa Generalizia Via Giambattista Pagano Roma 16

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