Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Religious Brothers Stress Service, Change

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Religious Brothers Stress Service, Change

Article excerpt

The chapel of St. Laurence High School in Burbank, Ill., was filled with members of the Congregation of Christian Brothers--once called the Christian Brothers of Ireland--together with an equal number of former brothers who had served for varying periods and who still regard the experience as an enriching one. (One older man had left more than 50 years ago, just before final profession. He was now a widower. He often returns to another brothers' community chapel for morning Mass; the ties are never really severed.)

The carefully prepared liturgy paid tribute to Edmund Ignatius Rice, a native of Ireland and founder of two congregations of brothers. John Paul II beatified Rice in October 1996, 152 years after his death. One brother delivered a moving homily about the man now called Blessed Edmund.

Later, brothers who had attended the beatification ceremony in Rome recalled the 10,000 people gathered at St. Peter's, most of them former students from Australia, Africa, Canada, England, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the United States.

"The associates from South Africa and India were as filled with enthusiasm as we were," one brother said. (Many congregations are now enrolling associates or volunteers who participate in the work and carry on the spirit of the congregations.)

For a short time at least, this congregation of brothers enjoyed recognition seldom accorded to the least known of the church's official work force. The colorful scarves worn by their alumni! and friends brightened the gray Piazza di San Pietro.

At St. Laurence, it was a quiet but wonderful Mass. The sound of men singing in choir seems to have the ability to energize the most sluggish soul. The 1,000-year-old "Salve Regina" at the close of the liturgy could have raised Lazarus.

Brothers are found in 116 institutes of religious men in the United States. At least 17 others are composed exclusively of brothers. Presently there are 6,297 brothers in the United States, compared with 48,200 priests and 87,833 sisters. Just over 1,300 brothers are involved in teaching.

Never numerous

Worldwide, there are 59,872 religious brothers, compared with 404,461 priests and 848,455 sisters. In just a few decades, the number of permanent deacons in the United States has grown to nearly twice the number of brothers. Never numerous, brothers are still often omitted from vocation prayers and young men who express an interest in brotherhood are urged to "go the whole way" and be priests.

About half of the 13 brothers at St. Laurence High School are still involved in the school. The remainder are retired or in other apostolates. It would seem that the founding and development of large high schools is now a thing of the past.

Marist Br. Richard Sharp, president of Marist High School in Chicago, pointed out that his congregation has some schools from which all brothers have withdrawn. "Some of our schools are board-run," he said. "And they are staffed by lay volunteers who are trained in Marist spirituality. We are putting our manpower into places other than traditional schools and into rural populations."

The Congregation of Christian Brothers, in common with other congregations, is no longer tied to a single charism. Their motto "facere et dacere" (to do and to teach) now embraces a wider variety of apostolates. Even within their traditional schools such as St. Laurence, lay principals are common. Some brothers teach in schools that are not considered connected with their congregations. While the emphasis remains on community, many brothers are involved in individual apostolates that range from becoming physicians or acting as chaplains in hospitals, from homeless shelter and soup kitchen workers to administrative assistants to bishops. "We continue to fill a significant niche," Sharp concluded. "If brothers didn't do it, nobody else would. …

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