A Brother’s Calling
“You’re not a priest. What do you do?” I remember asking a Religious Brother many years ago. When young I had served Mass regularly and could appreciate what priests did but ‘brothers’ were new to me!
Later I undertook some research into ‘Religious brothers’ as their vocation continued to intrigue me. In this, I knew they were able, academically well-qualified and pastorally experienced men who answered the call to service in a way which was personal to them.
The vocation of a brother is ‘to brother’. They do this through encouraging, listening, sharing and accompanying one’s brothers and sisters in Christ as they journey through life. A brother can be a member of different communities such as his religious community, family, friends, workplace, and within the locality he lives in.
A brother’s calling to service can be in areas such as education, social work, nursing, manual work, community work, justice and peace, parish work as well as being a member of their community. But first and foremost, he is a brother.
A number of years ago, I spent some time speaking with Br Guy who was a Little Brother of Jesus.They had been founded in 1933 by a small group of men as they felt called to follow the witness of the now St. Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) who lived alone in the Sahara Desert in Algeria among the Tourareg people. This founding shows “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a grain of wheat, but if it dies it yields a rich harvest” (Jn 12:24).
The first Little brother to come to Britain was Br Roger who in 1952 began to establish the brothers’ presence in Leeds. Br Guy came from Lyons in 1961 and lived in Leeds in the same house as his neighbours. There were no external signs that the house was occupied by a group of brothers. This was deliberate as the brothers identify with their neighbours. They don’t go out to the people from a big house in an affluent area; they live among them.
He shared that the brothers live in places which are deemed to be areas where poverty in its many forms is present. They live the Gospel through sharing in the everyday lives of their neighbours, in their joys and sorrows also in working as others do. Here, they have the vocation of being a presence. Br Ian who lived in Leeds then moved to London told me “The brothers’ charism is to be contemplatives in the world.”.
Little brothers would not undertake any form of church ministry. Br Guy worked in a factory alongside people from the area. He was the union shop-steward so in many ways he was the ‘the voice of the voiceless’.
Brother Ian said “the brothers find in ordinary life a meeting place with God as Jesus did”. As Charles de Foucauld wrote ‘It is only necessary to live among people, sharing the human condition and being present to them in love’. Little brothers see their vocation as ‘living the life of Nazareth … the hidden life of Jesus of Nazareth’.
Br Xavier lived for over thirty years in Leeds with Br Guy. He too experienced the life of locals through both working and experiencing redundancy. This happened to many as industry was changing.
Br Thierry came to Leeds in 1971 where he worked on a building site. In 1973 both and Br Yvan founded a community in London and soon Br Thierry became involved with the L’Arche community where people with disabilities and assistants lived together.
Occasionally a brother may be ordained priest enabling the brothers to celebrate the Eucharist as a community. One of the brothers, Br Ian, had been living in London for many years when he was asked to be ordained. On the morning of his ordination, he was at the local college cleaning offices as he did most days! Although ordained, Br Ian was first and foremost a brother.
In Leeds Br Guy got involved in the local community through volunteering at the Development Education Centre as well as being involved with Justice and Peace. He was a man who shared compassion towards others particularly refugees and asylum seekers. He remained in Leeds until his death in 2013.
Today, there are only one hundred and thirty Little Brothers of Jesus in the world and, sadly, they are no longer in Britain.
On Vocations Sunday we often hear the bishops and priests asking us to pray that more men answer the call of God to the priesthood and be shepherds of the flock. Yet rarely do I hear ‘Let us pray for more men to answer the call of God to be Brothers’.
Pope Francis chose the theme for this year’s Vocations Sunday as ‘Vocation: Grace and Mission’. He states that ‘our common vocation is to give ourselves in love’. People live their baptism in various ways, that is as laity, religious, or ordained as all have a role within, what is called, the ‘vocational symphony’. Here, each of us have a contribution to make in living the gospel.
In relation to this, let us hope more men may, like Br Guy, Br Yvan, Br Ian, Br Thierry, and Br Michel did so, discern the call ‘to brother’ and give themselves in love.
Deacon Michael O’Donnell