Monday 28 March 2016

The Identity and Mission of the Religious Brother in the Church

The CIVCSA recently released a long-in-the-making document on the Identity and Mission of the Religious Brother in the Church.

I try to summarize here the main points of this document.

1. The name Brother 

First of all, it notes that the name BROTHER is traditional (perhaps the Frate of the Franciscans and others) - but that following Vita Consecrata 60, it will use the term Religious Brother, or simply Brother. This choice is itself significant, because the document identifies Fraternity as the specifying element of the identity and mission of the Brother. For what concerns the consecrated aspect of his vocation, it refers back to Vita Consecrata and the ecclesiology of communion promoted by Vatican II. (#3)

Thus the name Brother "underlines the common dignity and fundamental equality of all believers" - sons in the Son of the same Father, and called to form a universal brotherhood in Christ, the firstborn of many brothers. (#1) Within the ecclesial community, the Brother is "the prophetic memory of Jesus-Brother, who told his followers: 'And you are all brothers' (Mt 23:8)." (#1)

2. The Brother as a sign and icon of fraternity-communion

Some have found this somewhat disappointing and even reductive, on the grounds that the true root of the vocation is consecration. But if we believe that God is Communion-Love, fraternity cannot be considered marginal. It is at the very core of the faith. The document notes that the renewal brought about by Vatican II illuminated the core of the being of the church: that it is a mystery of communion. That mystery is the divine plan for the salvation of humanity. And the source of this mystery is the Trinity. The communion that is the Trinity is, in fact, the model, source and goal of the communion of Christians with Christ and with one another. (#5)

Consecrated life, which finds itself at the very heart of the Church (VC 3), must look into that heart to discover and understand itself. And so it is that the Brother finds here, in the heart of the Church, in communion, the "profound meaning of his own vocation." (#5)

3. The underlying logic of relation

There is an important theological shift that underlies the whole document. We might refer to this as the shift to definition not by exclusion but by relation - an ontology of relation, or a logic of relation.

The tendency of the more traditional theology of consecrated life, or of the states of life in the church, was to define by exclusion or separation, by what made us different from one another. Thus religious were defined by the vows which the layperson and the secular priest did not take, and the priest was defined by the ministry that he was able to perform and which the religious per se were not able to, and so on - with the laity more or less being left out of the picture.

Since Christifideles Laici, certainly, and perhaps a bit earlier - VC - but not so clearly in Pastores Dabo Vobis, if I am not mistaken, we have been seeing this new ontology of relation underlying the teaching about the states of life within the church - the attempt to define by relation rather than exclusion. That is why we have such an abundant use of the term 'sign' in the document we are considering, along with the terms 'prophet' and 'witness' or 'testimony'. Thus, all in the church are called to be brothers and sisters, but the religious Brother is the prophetic memory of Jesus-Brother, who reminds all his followers that they are brothers, sons and daughters of the one Father.
"Many of the characteristics deemed formerly as specific or even exclusive to consecrated life are considered today as belonging to the common treasure of the Church and are proposed for all the faithful. Religious today are challenged to recognise themselves in what, though being held in common, they live in such a particular way that it becomes, through their lives, a sign for everyone." (#3)
Pope Francis has been saying, in fact, that radicality is not exclusive to consecrated people: all are called to the radical following of Jesus. Consecrated people are called to be witnesses, prophetic signs. That is why the pope lays so much stress on joy: Wherever there are consecrated persons, there is joy. And that is why I find it so significant that the very first booklet released by the CIVCSA during the Year of Consecrated Life was on Joy: Rejoice! All are called to radical following of Jesus, and, indeed, all are called to a joyful following; but religious are the ones who remind everyone of this, and so they are by vocation called to joy. A dour religious would be a contradiction in terms.

I like this explanation, this new logic of relation. It helps us understand the vocation of the deacon, for example. The deacon, we are used to say, is characterized by service, diakonia. But all are called to serve, in imitation and in obedience to Jesus who gave us the example and asked us to do it in memory of him. The deacon's vocation and mission is to be a sign, an icon, a reminder to all of us in the church of this important and vital aspect of the following of Jesus.

Thus the Servant of YHWH is made a covenant of the people (Is 42,6). Jesus seals this new covenant and calls the church to continue this mission of being a covenant of the people. "Being part of this people and its mission, the Religious Brother lives the call to be memory of the covenant by his consecration to God in a fraternal life in community for mission. (VC 72)." (#5)

Religious Brothers finds their natural habitat in the context of communion. In the church, "they keep alive the obligation of brotherhood as a confession of the Trinity." (#6)

4. A communion and a fraternity that expands 

"The bonds of communion of the Religious Brother extend beyond the boundaries of the Church, because he is driven by the same 'universal character that distinguishes the People of God'. (LG 19)" (#6)

Pope Francis takes up this theme in his letter of indiction of the Year of Consecrated Life, when he speaks of the expansion of community in concentric circles, inviting consecrated persons to look beyond their own communities to other institutes within the church, and beyond to other churches, and even to other religions and to humanity itself.

At the root of the vocation of the Brother is an experience of solidarity, like that of Moses. The Brother has a fine sensitivity to everything that hurts the dignity of the least privileged. (#6)

5. The 'obscuring' of the vocation of the Brother

The document admits that the vocation of the Brother has run the risk, especially in male religious congregations, of being obscured by the priestly ministry.

It emphasizes that the fundamental objective of consecrated life is "the cultivation of the collective Christian treasure, which is contained and given to all the faithful in the sacraments of initiation" and adds that it does this "in a special way, seeking to imitate Christ in his way of living: chaste, poor and obedient. (VC 16, 31)." (#9) [The objective: cultivating the common treasure. The way: by being a living memorial of Christ.]

Interestingly, in the list of aspects of the common treasure we find also "personal integration of laicità and sacralità," translated, badly, as the lay and consecrated identity. But the line that follows is clearer: "Thus he maintains the unity between the profane and the sacred, a unity which has become more evident since the human incarnation of the Son of God." (#10) I think this is important for the Salesian Brother: he is one who, by his vocation, integrates the secular/profane and the sacred dimensions of the common treasure of the church.

Another aspect of the common treasure that is relevant to the Salesian Brother is his being a "sign of God's presence in secular realities."  The Brother "seeks and points to God in the secular realities of culture, science, human health, the workplace, and the care of the weak and disadvantaged. Similarly, he seeks and points to the human being, man and woman, 'whole and entire, body and soul, heart and conscience, mind and will,' convinced that 'the human person deserves to be preserved; human society deserves to be renewed'." (#10) We have here the great example of the Jesuit Brother Giuseppe Castiglione, missionary in China in the 18th century, acknowledged by the Chinese as a great artist, painter and architect.

5. The structure of the document

The document emphasizes that fraternity is, first of all, a gift; then, that it is a gift that is shared, creating community; and finally, that it is also mission.

We recognize the divine origin of fraternity and communion.

We recognize that we are not first of all individuals: we are community. God calls us as community, the Spirit creates brotherhood.

We recognize also that the deepest mission of the church is to cooperate with God in creating and constructing community, universal brotherhood - and that within this mission, the Brother has a special role, that of sign, prophet, icon, witness to brotherhood.

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