May 1, 2019 — In the beginning, the Society of Jesus was made up of pilgrims and preachers and priests. They had mystics and missionaries … but not a carpenter or cook among them. The original Companions were men of many talents who sought to bring souls closer to God, but they were unprepared to make their own meals or clothing, let alone build schools.
And so, just six years after the founding of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius Loyola petitioned the pope to allow the admission of lay co-adjutors — or helpers — known more commonly as brothers. His request was approved, and brothers began to build the Society.
“Although St. Ignatius founded a ‘priestly order,’ it became immediately apparent that if the priests were to do their ministry … ‘coadjutors’ or assistants were needed to build and maintain the institutions, as well as to provide for the necessities of daily living,” wrote Fr. Jerome Neyrey, SJ, in his book “Indispensable Companions: Jesuit Brothers of the South from Colonial Times to the Present.”
St. Ignatius outlined in the General Examen that brothers would help with "necessary exterior matters," generally understood as the more hands-on tasks. But Ignatius also noted that brothers "may be employed in more important matters in accordance with the talent God gave them.” Many, in fact, were true artisans, including architects and artists whose work has stood the test of time. But others entered with limited training, and the Constitutions at the time forbade brothers from seeking additional education.
Even after the restoration of the Society in 1814, the role of Jesuit brothers was more menial in nature. The brothers attended to the physical, earthly needs of the community, serving as cooks, gardeners, tailors and infirmarians. As needs evolved, they became mechanics, plumbers and electricians. Well into the 20th century, the work of the Jesuit brother was hidden — priests were public figures, and brothers quietly did what was needed for priests to do their sacramental work. Today, however, the educational requirements for a Jesuit brother are similar to those of a Jesuit priest. So how did these post-suppression laborers evolve into today’s Renaissance men?
The role of the brother began to change significantly in — when else? — the 1960s. The Society’s 31st General Congregation, convened in 1965, attempted to eliminate social distinctions between brothers and priests in community life by affirming that brothers "have a full share" in the apostolic vocation with priests. Jesuit brothers today can still be found caring for sick Jesuits. But they also serve as high school teachers, campus ministers, researchers and scientists.
Brothers are occasionally referred to as “lay religious.” They live in religious communities and they profess vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but they are not ordained priests, nor are they preparing for ordination. Instead, the brotherhood is a vocation of its own, one that, for many, is just the right fit.
Br. Dan Leckman, SJ, is one of those who felt called to be a brother because of the flexibility and availability in the brother’s vocation. “God has revealed to me in prayer that he does not want me to be a Father to humanity. He wants me to be a brother,” he says. It brings Br. Leckman peace that “no matter who needs my help, I will always be lovingly available to them.”
Well-known Br. Guy Consolmagno, SJ, serves as director of the Vatican Observatory. He believes his role as a Jesuit brother has enhanced his work as a scientist. “I love science, but I hate the politics of grants and competition that too often goes with the academic world,” he says. “As a member of an order, I am free to pursue science for the only good reason — that it is fun! Which is to say, it gives me the joy that I find is a marker of God’s presence.” Working with him is Br. Robert Macke, SJ, who may be one of the world’s foremost scholars on meteorites.
Br. Christopher Derby, SJ, feels his vocational pursuit as a brother stemmed partly from his childhood days caring for his own brother, Brian, who had cerebral palsy. “Because he was non-verbal, his feelings and needs had to be translated to the world outside our family. He had to be fed, changed and carried, and I participated in all those activities,” Br. Derby says. “When I found out the Society also had brothers, I began considering how God had shaped my life through my relationship to my own brother. The role of ‘brother’ has always been incredibly meaningful to me, rich with possibilities for humble service and companionship.”
Br. Glenn Kerfoot, SJ, met the Jesuits at Regis College in Denver, Colorado (now Regis University). “When I think of my vocation story, I don’t consider it a ‘call,’ I consider it an invitation,” he says. “God sent an invitation, and it was up to me to reply.” Sometimes, the invitation can evolve. Br. Kerfoot petitioned to change grades to become a brother. He references a former Jesuit brother, George Williams, who became a priest: while serving as a prison chaplain, Fr. Williams knew he could better serve God’s people if he could grant absolution.
In the early years of the Society, as many as 25% of Jesuits were brothers. Today, there are fewer than 100 brothers in the United States, less than 5% of the total number of Jesuits. Fortunately, men still hear the invitation to serve as Jesuit brothers. Those entering the Society of Jesus in recent years are intentional in their vocation; they choose the brotherhood because of the “fit,” not because of obstacles such as age or limited education.
Br. Ken Homan, SJ, says he feels called to be a brother because of its history and future. “Brothers have a history of real hands-on work, which I very much love and appreciate. But as the Jesuits continue to shift in terms of numbers, of what the world needs of us, etc., that role as a brother has shifted. And since I love adventure, learning what it means to be a brother is something I really love.”
Br. Matt Wooters, SJ, serves as a teacher and counselor at Nativity Jesuit Academy in Milwaukee. “For better or worse, talking to a priest can be intimidating (especially for those who feel far from the church), but as a brother I see myself as a bridge of sorts. I have heard from peers, clients, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, that people feel like they can let their guard down and be themselves around me because I am their brother.”
As Br. Derby says, “The very core of being a brother is the idea of accompanying people as an equal. When we call a priest ‘Father,’ we register an authority, but when we call someone ‘Brother’ or ‘Sister,’ we address them more as a peer. It is an absolute joy when someone says to me, ‘Hey, Bro!’”
Yesterday, today and tomorrow — Jesuit brothers go wherever they are needed and do whatever needs to be done, as “Bros” to their fellow Jesuits, and as “Bros” to all of us looking to find God in all things.
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