I was walking through campus the other day when I was stopped by an inquisitive student, who, unbeknownst to him, was about to receive way more in an answer than he ever intended in his question. The question went something like this:
“Hey Brother! You are a brother, right? [Yes I am. My name is Casey, nice to meet you.] So will you stay just a brother, or will you become something else?”
Meant to be a completely innocuous, friendly question, a question that I’m sure many of you have asked yourself, I didn’t take offense at it because I knew that it was asked out of a genuine desire to understand. That being said, I decided to make it a teaching moment:
“You know,” I said with smile so as to assure him that I meant no harm, “That is actually quite an offensive question to some friars. You see, we as friars like to emphasize equality in our fraternities, and each of us takes our vocation as ‘brother’ very seriously. To be ‘just’ a brother implies that being ordained a priest or deacon makes a friar’s vocation or status more important than a friar who is not. We simply do not see our brotherhood in this way.”
Being a friar is a commitment that defines who we are and how we live; it says nothing about what we do as a profession. Some friars have been identified publicly as ordained ministers and therefore do sacramental work, but other friars work as teachers, painters, chaplains, spiritual directors, writers, principles, accountants, justice and peace advocates, caretakers, administrators, tradesmen, groundskeepers, counselors, and musicians. These professions no doubt add another layer to one’s personal identity. There’s no denying that. But what I’d like to argue is that our primary identity is our vocation as friars, and that what we do, while important while we’re doing it, is secondary and altogether temporary.
To me, it’s like the identity of a mother within a household. Would anyone ever dare ask a mother, “Are you going to stay ‘just a mother’ or will you become something else?” Sure, she may have a profession, and that profession may be a very highly respected one. Within the context of her household, however, her being “CEO” or “librarian” has no effect on the primary relationship she has with the rest of the family. She is first and foremost “mother.”
It’s my opinion, just like the mother who is always a mother but only a CEO when at work, that we as friars are always brothers, and only acting in persona christi, that is, set apart from the rest of the congregation as a stand-in for Christ, when we are performing priestly duties. The fact that a friar is ordained should bear absolutely no weight within a fraternity in regards to duties, responsibilities, privileges, or respect, outside of his duties directly related to sacramental ministry. At all other times, he is called to a life of humility and mutuality with each of his brothers, always remembering that his vows are the same as everyone else’s.
In this way, I am always reminded of the funny, and yet powerful question one of our friars often asks new or perspective guys: “So, are you going to be a brother, or just a priest?” In one sense, it is a comical deflection of a potentially frustrating situation that helps to ease any tensions. In another, it helps to capture the core priorities of our charism: Are you going to remain faithful to your fraternity and all of its needs, or are you going to leave your brothers behind to pursue “better” opportunities? As I continue to feel myself called to ordained ministry as a priest in the Catholic Church, I must remind myself of this question daily. No matter where God may lead me in terms of ministerial duties, I still have a duty to be humble, present, and responsible for all of my brothers.
For another perspective on this topic, I suggest reading this article written by my classmate, Br. Ramon Razon, ofm, who has accepted a call to be a religious brother.