The Importance of being Brother

At the founding of the United States, many issues presented themselves of national import. A reading of George Washington’s first State of the Union address in 1790 provides an overview of the urgent matters facing the fledgling republic. There was, for example, the critical task of building up a national fighting force, funding overseas representation, and establishing a uniform system of weights and measures. Notably absent from President Washington’s agenda--to the dismay of his Vice President, John Adams--was how to address the Chief Executive of the new nation. Among the titles considered were: “His Elective Majesty” “His Mightiness”, “Your Most Benign Highness” and, “His Highness, the President of the United States of America and the Protector of their Liberties”. It was Washington and the more republican-leaning factions of the government who insisted upon the simple and egalitarian form of address we have today: Mr. President.* Let this sink in for a moment. The President of the United States, one of the most important and powerful political office-holders in the world, is addressed with the same title as any elementary school teacher, shopkeeper, or an elderly friend. Despite the President’s tremendous power and influence in the world and ruling over one of the world’s largest and most advanced militaries in the history of the world, he or she is addressed in the same way one addresses a member of the local parish council. As a brother in the American Province of the Society of St. Francis, I am pleased to be part of an organization that shares some of the same egalitarian tendencies that President Washington surprisingly (given his aristocratic background) embraced. With few historical exceptions, the Brothers of the Society of St. Francis all address each other with the same title of “Brother” regardless of clerical status. Historically, this was not always the case in many religious orders. As someone who my own brothers know feels nostalgia for the days before Vatican II (despite being born a generation after it ended) this is one part of religious life I do not wish to resurrect. I have heard from brothers horror stories of how some religious orders (not necessarily SSF) perpetuated a two-tiered system of priest and lay brothers. I have been told how subservient lay brothers were expected to be and how domineering priest brothers were to the non-ordained brothers. One brother familiar with religious communities prior to Vatican II compared the treatment of lay brothers by the ordained brothers to a form of servitude. Thankfully, within the Society of St. Francis, I have not heard many horror stories about this silly divide. Perhaps the relative smallness of SSF and its Anglican ethos helped stave off the worst aspects of clerical pretension that existed in other Anglican and Roman communities. Today, at least within our Order, I don’t personally know of any brother in SSF that goes by “Father” if they are a priest. In fact, the only time I actually do call any of our brothers “Father” is in the context of the Mass. The custom among Anglican Franciscans addressing all brothers as Brother reminds us that the greatest title each of us can have is “Brother.” Even someone like me who enjoys all the pomp and circumstance of the religious life and who has never said “No” to wearing another liturgical accessory or using liturgical titles, cannot help but remember that our founder, St. Francis, saw himself and all of creation as siblings within God’s great family. It’s interesting that, as a kid, I used to see priests and religious brothers and sisters through rose-colored glasses. During our catechism classes at Sts. Joan of Arc and Patrick Catholic School, one of the questions students would always ask the priests were, “Do priests ever sin?” Having lived in the trenches of religious life for nearly 4 years now, I can confidently say, “Yes, Virginia, there are priests that sin.” Like many young Roman Catholic boys growing up, I think my infatuation with the ministry of priests blinded me to their very real humanity. Nowadays, I still have admiration for them and their ministry, but the rose-tinted glasses are removed. Today, I look at priests and know many of them have questioned their vocation. I know many of them probably have their doubts about God and perhaps some have lost their faith in God completely. I know many of them are just as fallible as anyone else. I know all of this because I am just as fallible as them. I too have seriously questioned my vocation and question almost every day my belief in God. Rather than diminishing my admiration of priests and religious brothers and sisters, it makes me admire them even more. How difficult it is to remain a priest, a brother, or a sister while living in a world that has turned its back on organized religion. How brave many of them are for remaining a witness to the purpose of God that continues to be worked out. More than ever, I see them as my brothers or sisters in this perilous journey. More than ever, I see their humanity, their brokenness, and realize just how much we have in common. While I know many religious communities continue to retain a distinction between lay and priest brothers, and while I have no place to say that the Anglican Franciscan way of life would be better for them, I do think the Society of St. Francis has a valuable gift to offer the larger world. To call each other Brother acknowledges our decision to be a part of a worldwide family of Franciscans, stretching back nearly 1000 years. Contained in this family are brothers and sisters who have been martyrs, beggars, priests, popes, politicians, bishops, hermits, and countless other vocations and titles. But, perhaps the title that brought them the most joy was bearing the title of “Brother.”

Brother James Nathaniel can be reached at jamesnathanielssf@gmail.com

*Although comparisons between the Roman Empire and the post-World War II United States are tiring and sometimes a stretch, the Romans did observe a similar, humbling tradition. In Ancient Rome, after a major military victory, a magnificent parade would be celebrated in the streets for the victorious general. He would be painted in red, symbolizing the God Jupiter, placed in a chariot and paraded in the midst of crowds who would gather along the city streets to just gain a glimpse at one of their great heroes. These celebrations, called “triumphs” did not occur every day. To be a military general and have a triumph in your name was the highest honor for any Roman citizen. Yet, despite all this pomp and celebration, behind the general in his chariot stood a Roman slave whispering into his ear throughout the parade, “Memento mori” or “Remember, you are mortal.” It goes to show that, even in the midst of a grand celebration, the great general was reminded of his innate commonality among the people.

OUR PRAYER

+ May our holy father Francis pray to the Lord that we may have the grace to observe the Gospel with greater devotion.  Amen.

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