What does a religious brother have to say about marriage and family life?

By Fr. Basil Cole, O.P.

Recently, the Congregation for Consecrated Life, and Societies of Apostolic Life produced a document entitled Identity and Mission of the Religious Brother in the Church. A brother (a word implying a relationship to others) makes a profession of the three evangelical vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, putting aside three major goods: seeking material things by living frugally, having a wife and family, and surrendering a certain autonomy of the will by submitting himself to a superior as representing the Lord Jesus under a constitution or rule of life. While professing vows of religion is not a sacrament, it is a consecration from God creating a bond with the Triune God, a treasure beyond our understanding though often not experienced as a treasure. The brother (sister as well) becomes a living icon of Christ notwithstanding his imperfections and being a penitential sinner. He is a mystery of faith consecrated by the Holy Spirit for intimacy with God and for mission to the world according to his charisms and gifts of the Holy Spirit. He may live a very hidden and silent life of a cloistered monk seeking God or he may live as a professional hospital worker, teacher, or social justice activist—in the best sense of the word. Whatever he does flows from what he is as a God-seeker, linked most often with evangelizing some aspect of God’s people, or seeking to bring the gospel to the margins of the socially underprivileged. He may seek to be with the poorest of the poor or helping youth discover the riches of seeking Christ in their lives. But more deeply, he is united with others like him in a community sharing the same charisms and goals of the consecrated life of his founder, but always as a layman not a priest. He is meant to  “keep alive the memory of the love of Christ who loved his own to the end” as Vita Consecrata expresses it no. 75).

friarThe sacrament of marriage, like the consecrated life, is also a bond created by God that unites a couple for interpersonal communion, ministry to their offspring, and a building up of the common good of society. In fact, Gaudium et Spes (46b) speaks of this state as a kind of consecration, and receiving any sacrament is meant to intensify a greater union with God. When husband and wife understand that they are to seek God through the daily works of intercommunion and family life, they too become a living sign of Christ in the world as a couple. They become like mediators for one another of grace and forgiveness since the same problems of the brother are theirs as well, that is, blindness of mind, weakness of will, selfishness to be overcome, and emotions to be integrated with reason and faith. Some saints in more ancient times would say it takes more virtue to live a holy life as a husband and wife than as a monk.

Like a community of brothers in religion, a household is a “place of multiple commitments, mutual interdependence” (shared authority of husband and wife) “of harmony and solidarity that are open and reach out, in a demanding way of life, in the discernment of their lifestyle in the light of the gospel.”[1] Families need other families to seek out help in raising children and counsel concerning other responsibilities.

The document continues by reminding brothers that “community is a fragile sign: in needs constant renewal; it must be lived on the path to holiness and with an evangelical dynamism that enlivens and constantly remakes the structures.”[2] If this sentence is true for the religious brother who lives with the presence of Christ and the availability of the sacraments, it is likewise true for married family. To live frugally by restraining the desires for material things, the finest foods and vacations, using free time well, learning to serve each other rather than dominating one another, to approach authentic conjugal love with awe and reverence being a potentially graced act, learning how to share thoughts, dreams, forgiveness, being patient with the foibles and faults of the household, all requires to be drenched in grace. This grace offered during these stresses and strains comes when the family prays together, goes to frequent confession, Mass and Holy communion, seeks to make small sacrifices for themselves and the destitute.

If the family or domestic church is a symbol of the Universal Church, then it needs to aim at becoming apostolic beginning at home but not ending there. Often, the Holy Spirit inspires whole families to go the missions to evangelize. Often CEO’s and business persons work together to bring Christian principles to bear on the economy, politics and the media. We find these persons belonging to Legatus, the Knights of Columbus, members of Third Orders or lay fraternities connected with Brothers’ congregations or priestly Orders, which build up their prayer life and prompts them to actualize the spiritual and corporal works of mercy for the community by living the spirit of the evangelical counsels. All of this rebounds onto the marriage and the family of a couple when done within the bounds of their own personal responsibilities at home.

Pope Benedict once wrote,“If my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not just something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift.”[3] This is cited in the Brother’s document but is applicable to marriage and family life as well. We find ourselves when we give ourselves to others and not merely talk about it. This requires that one believe the words of Pope Francis, “I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world. We have to regard ourselves as sealed, even branded, by this mission of bringing light, blessing enlivening, raising up, healing and freeing.”[4] This too is the vocation of mother and father to children, husband and wife to one another.

[1] Identity and Mission, 25b.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Deus Caritas Est, 34 cited in Identity footnote 73.

[4] Evangelii Gaudium 273 cited in Identity footnote 78.

Father Basil Cole, O.P. is currently a Professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Father is also author of Music and Morals, The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood and coauthor of Christian Totality; Theology of Consecrated Life. A native San Franciscan, Father has been a prior in the Western province of the Dominicans, a parish missionary and retreat master, and invited professor of moral and spiritual theology at the Angelicum in Rome.
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