Why I love being a brother!
Image: Brother Raymond Dwyer, F.P.M. (left) and Andrew O’Connell, communications director for the Presentation Brothers, in Hyde Park, London during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Great Britain.
IT WAS A SUNNY TUESDAY MORNING. I was in my final year of high school in Cork, a city in the south of Ireland. It was that time of year when we had to apply for college, and I had a problem: I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do when I left school.
I had a vague sense I wanted to do something to help people and thought I might like to be a social worker. But even that didn’t excite me very much. Yes, I had considered priesthood as an option. I went to Mass every Sunday and prayed every day but somehow I knew that priesthood wasn’t for me.
An intriguing possibility
One morning as we sat waiting for math class to begin, our careers teacher arrived and asked us to assemble in the school hall. We had a guest speaker. He was a Presentation Brother, Brother McCarthy. Like everyone else in the class, I welcomed a break from math, but I wasn’t expecting much from it.
Brother McCarthy started by telling us he wanted to talk about our futures. As he spoke I started to sit up and listen. The way he spoke intrigued me. For a start, even though he was a man in his 50s, he seemed to be on fire with a passion for his way of life, brotherhood. I certainly couldn’t think of many 50-year-olds I knew who were so enthusiastic about their careers! My dad certainly wasn’t!
Then he went on to say that brothers didn’t have careers—they followed a vocation. “Guys,” he said, “this is more than a 9-to-5 job. Our vocation is about service—serving God and serving God’s people. We need a few good men to help us.”
That was beginning to sound like what I was looking for.
He said that brothers were not priests but took vows of dedication to Jesus Christ. Now I was really listening! I knew I wasn’t going to be a priest. This guy wasn’t a priest and yet Christ was the focus of his life. Then he said that if anyone liked what they heard, to give him a call (these were the days before e-mail) and he’d be happy to tell us more.
I went back to class with the other guys. But I was hooked. And I’ll be honest: I’ve been hooked ever since.
We follow Christ each day
A lot has changed since that Tuesday morning in Cork. Today I am the vocation director for the Presentation Brothers. Now it’s my job to visit schools and talk to young men about becoming a religious brother. When I took this position last year I didn’t know what to expect. I had just finished a term as a school chaplain. The school day was pretty predictable. We started at 9 a.m. and finished at 4 p.m. This job is very, very different!
I spend most of my time traveling to meet young men who want advice about their vocation. It’s really encouraging to meet men who want to put Jesus Christ at the heart of their lives.
The biggest challenge of this work is that it has made me ask hard questions about my own call. It can be pretty easy to explain why I joined the Brothers, as I’ve just done, but it can be a lot harder to explain why I’ve stayed and why I get so much happiness and fulfillment from this way of life.
And I suspect that’s what you’re looking for too: a way of life that will bring you deep peace, real fulfillment, and great satisfaction in knowing that you are following Christ closely. That’s what religious brotherhood does for me. This way of living allows me to focus my life on Jesus Christ in a very practical way, helped along by the support of my brothers.
So, practically speaking, how do I, as a brother, follow Christ closely each day?
No day is complete without prayer, brotherhood, work
I’m up at 7 in the morning, and before I pray the Divine Office with the other brothers I have 30 minutes of silent reflection and meditation. Then we attend Mass together. That is a powerful start to the day, and that morning experience can sustain me for the tough parts of the day ahead.
|Brother Ray Dwyer, F.P.M. puts up a vocation display for the Presentation Brothers.|
After Mass we have breakfast together, and that’s also an important part of this life. As brothers we don’t live on our own. We live together in groups known as communities. At the moment there are seven brothers in our house, so breakfast is always a lively meal with everyone chipping in.
It’s now 9 a.m. and I go down the hall to my office and start checking e-mails, responding to telephone calls, and going out to meet discerners. By 10 a.m. I’ve experienced a microcosm of this life: prayer, brotherhood, and work.
When I decided to become a brother, a lot of my friends asked me why I didn’t become a priest. Even today some people ask me, “Why don’t you go the whole hog to priesthood if you’re going to bother at all?” It sounds like a reasonable question, but it’s based on some bad theology.
For a start it assumes that being a religious brother is not a full expression of service to God and God’s people. Yes, it is different than priesthood, but it is every bit as authentic. Just as it would be unfair (and plain wrong) to suggest that marriage is inferior to religious life, it is also wrong to think that in some way brotherhood is inferior to priesthood. There is no hierarchy of vocations. All are legitimate ways of answering God’s call to witness, love, and service.
Anyway, I don’t feel called to priesthood, to sacramental ministry or leadership of a parish community. It’s just not my vocation. It’s not what I feel God has called me to do. Sadly, I think that a lot of men abandon discernment once they’ve discovered that priesthood is not for them. But my message is that there is another exciting and equally fulfilling path available. It’s called brotherhood.
Brothers do a lot
Maybe the best answer to this question is to take a look at my own life. I’ve been a missionary in the West Indies, a school chaplain and a social worker in Ireland, and now a vocation director. I’ve studied theology, education, and spirituality. I’ve coached football teams and directed parish youth choirs. So, what does a brother do? “A lot” is probably a good answer!
The work that a brother does is largely dependent on his own talents, gifts, and interests. So, for example, I will never be asked to teach math in a school. I hate math. But I could well be invited to work with teenagers in a drug rehabilitation program.
One area of work for the future will be social communications. We are living through a communications revolution. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, which were unknown only a few years ago, are now everyday ways to communicate. People talk about a digital continent. We are going to need missionaries to go to this virtual continent, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Presentation Brothers in the future will be working to present the church’s message using new media. I’ve being doing my part, and I blog at thebloggingbrother.blogspot.com. My hope is that it will help folks to understand my lifestyle as a brother a little better.
Sometimes people say that the work of religious brothers can be done just as competently by laypeople. For example, the Presentation Brothers were founded to provide Catholic education at a time of great poverty in Ireland. Now the state fills that role, they say, so there is no need for brothers.
The flaw in this analysis is that it defines brothers by what we do instead of who we are. Yes, a layperson can do the work of a brother just as well, but being a brother is not about doing a particular job. It’s about total dedication to the mystery of God’s love revealed by Jesus Christ. That dedication is expressed in the three vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience.
What our vows mean
Poverty is not a vow to live in cheerless destitution but rather a promise of solidarity and simple living. I don’t have a 42-inch plasma TV screen in my bedroom, but we do have a regular-sized TV set in the community room that all the brothers use.
We don’t marry because we place Christ at the heart of our lives. It can be tough, but that’s one of the reasons we live in community—for support, friendship, prayer, and brotherhood. I’ve also got some great friends, women and men, who help me along.
The vow of obedience does not mean that one can be assigned to the North Pole in the morning. Instead it’s more to do with cooperating with the other brothers for the good of the mission of our religious congregation.
Pray for wisdom
I’ve been a brother now for a little more than 20 years, and that experience has helped me to answer the question that I know most discerners carry with them: How do I know for sure it is the right way of life for me?
When I’m asked I tell people that my life as a brother has taught me that you will know by praying, by talking to others, and, crucially, by trying it out. So many people today are hesitant about making a decision. It’s good to be careful and prudent, but sometimes hesitation can turn into paralysis. Pray for the gift of courage. Pray for guidance and pray for wisdom.
Occasionally I get calls from men in their 60s who tell me they have been thinking about religious life. I ask them how long they had been thinking about it, and very often they say “all my life.” My advice to you is not to spend all your life thinking about it. Start praying, start talking to some vocations directors, and start trying it out. There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain.
After two decades as a brother I can honestly say that this is a life of potential and promise, of excitement and adventure. What would you expect? It’s a life following Jesus Christ! And ultimately that’s what my life is all about. Is it any wonder that I love being a brother?
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- About Vocation Network and VISION Guide