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A religious brother is a member of a Roman Catholic religious order who commits himself to following Christ in consecrated life of the church by the vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience. A layman (not ordained), he usually lives in a religious community and works in a ministry that suits his talents and gifts. A brother might be a teacher, electrician, cook, lawyer, technician, parish minister, or artist. He tries to live his faith by being a “brother” to others.
Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) many brothers have moved from more traditional to a wide variety of other ministries, especially in the areas of peace and justice. Brothers in communities with priests have become better educated and have moved toward equal standing with ordained members.
As monasticism developed in the early days of Christianity, most monks remained laymen, as ordination to ministry was seen as a hindrance to the monks' vocation to a contemplative life. Guided by the Rule of St. Benedict, the main lifestyle they followed was either agricultural or that of a desert hermit. Various forces and trends through the Middle Ages led to the situation where monks were no longer following this manner of living. Instead, they were focusing primarily on the religious obligations of intercessory prayer, especially for donors to the monasteries. This was encouraged by a spiritual reliance among the general membership of the Catholic Church upon the prayers of monastics to achieve salvation.
One practical consequence of this situation was that the bulk of the physical work which needed to be done for the simple survival of the monastic community came to be done by men who volunteered their services on a fulltime basis, and who followed a less severe regimen of prayer. Called donates or oblati, they were not considered to be monks, but they were nonetheless gradually accepted as members of the monastic community.
In the 17th century, education of the poorer classes began to be seen as a means of providing charity, which had always been a mandate of Christianity. A leading figure of this approach was St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle, a canon of Rheims cathedral, who began to help the poor children of the city. As he was gradually was drawn into education as a means for this purpose, he came to establish a new congregation of men for this work, who were called the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools. De la Salle had initially intended the Institute to be composed of both ordained and lay members, but the death of the candidates he sent to Rome for ordination convinced him to keep the Institute comprised of only laymen. Thus the establishment of a recognized status of "brother" as other than an agricultural laborer came to emerge in the structures of the Church.
The social devastations of the 18th and 19th centuries saw the gradual emergence of various similar congregations of men, dedicated primarily to education. Other examples of such congregations are the Marist Brothers, the Brothers of Holy Cross and the Irish Christian Brothers.
“Sixteen questions about church vocations,” VISION Catholic Religious Vocation Network, http://www.vocation-network.org/articles/show/131
The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, Richard P. McBrien, general ed. (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995)
- Vocation-Network.org information and free resources about Catholic religious vocations and consecrated life.
- VocationMatch.com helps those discerning a Catholic religious vocation sort through and connect with communities and institutes.
- DigitalVocationGuide.org digital edition of VISION, the annual Catholic religious vocation discernment guide.