Religious Brothers Dedicate to Christ Their Life of Faith, Fraternity and Service
Sharing experiences of consecrated life, how they discerned it over the priesthood and their life in community
As a nursing assistant volunteering for the night shift at the Missionaries of Charity’s Denver AIDS home in the mid-’90s, Franciscan Brother of Peace Brother Conrad Richardson received a glimpse of consecrated religious life from the sisters.
Then a young man who had been going deeper in his faith and thinking about the priesthood, Brother Conrad was captivated by the sisters’ joy as they cared for the poorest of the poor at the home.
“It was really my first inside look into what that life of dedication to God [was] in just a completely radical way — serving the Lord together with others and through the vows, the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.”
This year, Brother Conrad, now 49, celebrates 25 years of living those vows as a religious brother with the St. Paul, Minnesota-based Franciscan Brothers of Peace, a vocation he described as “the adventure and exhilaration of being with a band of brothers.”
Religious brothers in other communities also shared about their experiences of consecrated life, how they discerned it over the priesthood, their life in community and the different ways God has called them to serve.
Religious brothers dedicate their lives to serving others while priests as clerics are called to a sacramental life. Regarding the consecrated vocation, canon law states, “Lay institutes … participate in the pastoral function of the Church through spiritual and corporal works of mercy and offer the most diverse services to people” (Code of Canon Law, 676).
Lay institutes consist of all or mostly brothers, whereas in clerical or mixed institutes some or all of the members may be priests, deacons or seminarians, according to the Religious Brothers Conference.
Worldwide, in 2021, there were 49,774 professed religious who weren’t priests, compared to 50,569 in 2020, as reported in the Pontifical Yearbook and the 2021 Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae by Zenit.org. Except in Africa and Asia, where the number of religious brothers has increased, the Vatican Central Office for Church Statistics reported that the global total of religious brothers dropped 8% between 2013 and 2018, while the number of women religious fell 7.5%, as reported in the “Global Sisters Report.”
St. Francis of Assisi and his first 11 companions were not priests when they sought the Holy See’s approval for their new community in the early 13th century. But they received the ecclesiastical tonsure (shearing of their hair), a sacred rite signifying their reception into the clerical order, ascribing them to the divine service in things common to all clerics, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
St. Francis was later ordained a deacon but, in his humility, never became a priest. It’s not known whether his first followers were ordained priests, but both priests and brothers are members of modern Franciscan communities.
The charism of the Franciscan Brothers of Peace appealed to Brother Conrad as he realized his call to become a brother and explored communities.
The Kansas native, who had moved with his family to Denver when he was in fourth grade, then moved north to Minnesota to join the community in 1998. Since then, his ministry has included caring for AIDS patients when the community ran a home for them, ministering to post-abortive women outside abortion facilities, aiding torture victims and helping with the community’s food shelf. With the community, he now also assists Karen refugees from Myanmar living in the Twin Cities.
Another Franciscan community with a very different apostolate — the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word (MFVA) in Irondale, Alabama — drew Brother John Therese Marie when he was a college student in 2010. The community’s lay and priestly friars share the Catholic faith through radio, internet and TV, especially via EWTN Global Catholic Network.
“I was really drawn to a number of things; definitely one of them was, I think, the mission of EWTN — the evangelization aspect,” said Brother John Therese Marie, 33, adding that the network is an important formation and education tool that helps people grow in the faith.
Brother John Therese Marie started watching EWTN in high school, becoming familiar with the network’s foundress, Mother Angelica, and Life on the Rock, a program he now co-hosts with other friars.
While studying business management at Macon State University in Macon, Georgia, he was building on the faith foundation he had received at his home parish in Boerne, Texas, by deepening his prayer life and going to daily Mass, adoration and confession, he said.
After his junior year, Brother John Therese Marie did an online vocation survey that showed he had a strong potential for religious life. He explored different communities and contacted the MFVA friars.
Besides identifying with the community’s mission, he found that the community, now consisting of 10 priests and three brothers, was like a family. “I was very much attracted to their way of life, I think the brotherhood aspect, because they struck me as a very close-knit community, and I felt very accepted and very welcomed.”
Praying the Liturgy of the Hours with the community was new for Brother John Therese Marie, who said he appreciated their balance of prayer throughout the day.
Prayer centered around the Eucharist and the Church’s liturgy, as well as charismatic praise and the celebration of the Lord's Day, are part of the rhythm of daily life for the Boston-based Brotherhood of Hope, according to the community’s website. Brotherhood of Hope Brother Sam Gunn, 58, has been a member of the community, whose apostolate is college campus ministry, for about 30 years.
Now director of campus ministry at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Brother Sam has also worked in the Brotherhood of Hope’s outreaches at four other secular university campuses where they seek to reach students, build community and renew faith, he said.
“Our apostolate is direct evangelization, which means we prioritize in-person, face-to-face encounters as we invite people into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ,” said Brother Sam, who, along with working with students, has pastoral, administrative, development and other duties.
The faith of college students on secular campuses is “severely challenged at this vulnerable stage,” Brother Sam said. “We work hard to offer them hope through engaging activities and healthy relationships in Christian community. We're blazing the way in college outreach and seeing many young people make generous responses of their lives, not just in college, but as lifelong missionary disciples.”
The brothers lead their ministries at the request of bishops, Brother Sam explained. “This gives us visibility to 240,000 students, at least 50,000 of them Catholic. Each year, we take 2,000 students on retreat, providing an opportunity to encounter Christ. Among our alumni, we've seen more than 100 pursue a celibate vocation as a priest or religious and more than 5,000 young people get sacramentally married.”
Brother Sam met brothers from the community at a New Jersey prayer meeting after experiencing a conversion as a first-year art student in New York City. A few weeks later, the brothers invited him to spend a weekend with the community. He said he saw them placing Jesus at the center of their lives and eventually sensed God calling him to join the community.
The Brotherhood of Hope is one of few communities composed mostly of religious brothers — as of July, it has 24 perpetually-vowed members but only three priests. The vocation of religious brother is key to the Brotherhood’s mission, according to Brother Sam.
“Because we have been called by God to serve as religious brothers rather than priests, we are uniquely positioned to reach college students,” he said, adding that instead of being preachers, brothers have more opportunity to accompany students.
The Brotherhood has grown 60% in the past seven years, and 30 men are in various stages of formation, he said.
The Franciscan Brothers of Peace also are mostly brothers, as is stipulated in their community statutes, Brother Conrad said. Of its 12 members, nine are brothers, one is a priest and two have passed away, he said.
Because brothers can focus more on working alongside people, they can reach segments of society that otherwise might not be reached, Brother Conrad said. Smaller groups of community members live in friaries near the people they serve, he said.
When Brother John Therese Marie entered the MFVA community, there were five priests, and the majority were brothers. Now that a majority have been ordained priests, he sees a lot of overlap in the members’ work — what he calls the Franciscan spirit.
“You’re kind of an equal to all,” he said. “You know just the way you can serve people and everything.”
While he loves being a brother, Brother John Therese Marie said he hasn’t ruled out priesthood if it would be the best way to serve his community’s needs.
Being ordained a priest isn’t on Brother Conrad’s radar, but he is planning to become a spiritual director, in part to help with his community’s formation. He’s aware of the special witness of the “band of brothers.”
“People see visibly the entire community — we’re in our habit, and they’re reminded, whether they want to be or not, of something otherworldly,” he said. “We’re kind of like these traffic signs for people of life that, even if it’s just a moment, they’re thinking of something [good] and hopefully it can be a source of hope in a world that is really confused.”