By Brother Luke Henkel SVD
On March 25, I had the privilege and joy of attending the inaugural Brothers Symposium at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. This day-long event brought together brothers from all across the country—almost 300 religious who represented more than 15 congregations.
It was an invigorating day of discussing what the brotherhood means in our various congregations, how we live it out, and how we address challenges, questions and concerns about the blessed ambiguity of our vocation. This phrase has been a buzzword since the Vatican’s December 2015 release of a document on brotherhood called “Identity and Mission of the Religious Brother in the Church.”
Brother John Mark Falkenhain OSB, the keynote speaker, was by far the highlight of the day for me. From the beginning, he spoke the words I feel all brothers need to hear. Brother John Mark spent most of his speech dissecting what might be the most common
question a brother hears—a simple, easy question. “Oh, I see you’re in religious life. Are you a priest or just a brother?” We all laughed because we caught the word he wanted to highlight: “just.” We’ve all heard it before.
Are you just a brother?
Just. The word might seem simple, even innocuous—and I doubt it’s meant harmfully. There’s much to be said about the cultural connotations and power of this word “just.” But that’s a topic for another day. There’s a lot of hidden meaning behind that word “just,” and it’s not necessarily as harmless as it seems.
For most of us, he said, there’s the temptation to respond to this question with some sort of justification, half a dozen different excuses or even anger at being compared to priests. After all, how often do people usually mean, “Why didn’t you become a priest?” When this is the real underlying question, it is hurtful.
How should brothers respond to this question? We might say, I’m not just a brother. I’m a teacher, a theologian, a nurse/cook/student/you name it. The answer might be given in terms of our professional title, with a response about what we do or what we offer to our community or the people whom we serve. While this answer isn’t necessarily misleading, it’s not really the whole picture. Our job is not the whole picture we are to paint. We are more than our job. What we offer is not just professional service—anyone can do that.
The question then becomes: What do we offer?
To answer this, Brother John Mark showed a jar of Crofters Organic Fruit Spread. It is, as their motto states, “Just Fruit Spread.” There are no preservatives, no chemicals or additives. It’s simply fruit. There isn’t anything else. It’s just…fruit spread.
And so, he said, when we are faced with the assumption of being “just” brothers, the answer is YES! Brothers are simply brothers. Brothers are present, without additives or chemicals or weird preservatives that no one has ever heard of. Brothers, he emphasized, are natural, organic and simple. We are uncomplicated witnesses, and we walk as Jesus walked—simply, with no hidden intentions or confusing ideologies. This simplicity and singleness of purpose is an extraordinary reminder about what it means to really follow Jesus. It means being witnesses in a special way: unmediated, unbroken, wholly and solely for God. We can then journey on with unfettered zeal and heroism—with true passion because there’s nothing in the way. This, in turn, leaves every brother open to joy, totally free to be what he is called to be.
This is our offering, and this is our source of strength to continue on. Of course, whenever and wherever we look in our world, we can see that things are just so complicated. Nearly every issue and conversation is layered, complex and difficult. Naturally, the answer of simplicity is, well, complicated.
In reflecting on Brother John Mark’s words, I’m reminded of how the very first apostles left behind their professional identities in order to become Jesus’ companions and brothers. They threw down their nets on the shore and gave up their professional title of fishermen in order to follow Jesus.
I’m sure it wasn’t easy for them, and a lot of people misunderstood. Especially back in the day, in a rigid and structured society, this act of going off to simply follow Jesus must have been absurd. Imagine giving up the labels and titles that are easy for people to understand in order to embrace something much more challenging. However, that’s true brotherhood. It’s complicated and it’s difficult only if we let it be.
I am reminded of Saint Teresa of Calcutta and her call for us to live in the joy that Christ gives us. We have Christ in the smile given, in the smile received, in the smile of the poor, in the smile of Christ our brother. That’s simple, and it’s our source of joy. It’s all we have in the end!
This joy is constant. It’s there all the time, and there’s no reason not to bask in it, glow from it, radiate it back outwards to everyone we meet. As brothers, we’re simply following Jesus. And if we do that—if we’re mindful of and faithful to our small yet heroic purpose of simplicity in this chaotic world—then what can get in the way of this joy?
Brothers are to be heroic in our brotherhood. We are to walk on, to proudly, courageously and solely witness to the passion God has for us!