Today as in the past, members of lay religious institutes contribute greatly to Church’s mission of evangelization and her pastoral activity
At the General Audience of Wednesday, 22 February, the Holy Father continued his discussion of consecrated life, speaking this week on the role of male religious who do not receive Holy Orders. The Pope expressed the wish that vocations to the brotherhood would enjoy new growth, as he spoke of his esteem for all that lay religious have accomplished in the Church. The Holy Father's catechesis was the 118th in the series on the mystery of the Church and was given in Italian.
1. In religious institutes which consist mainly of priests, there are many "brothers" who are fully-fledged members although they have not received Holy Orders. They sometimes have the title of "co-operators", or an equivalent term. In the ancient mendicant orders they were generally known as "lay brothers". In this expression, the term "brothers" means "religious" and the qualification "lay" means "those not ordained priests". If it is then considered that in several of the ancient orders such religious were called "conversi", in most cases it is easy to perceive the historical reference to their vocation—in other words, to the conversion which originally impelled them to give themselves to God in service to the "priest brothers" after years of life spent in various secular careers: administrative, civil, military, commercial, etc.
However, the words of the Second Vatican Council remain decisive. They state that the "lay religious life... is a state for the profession of the evangelical counsels which is complete in itself" (Decree Perfectae caritatis, n. 10). Commitment to. the priestly ministry is not required by the consecration which is proper to the religious state, and therefore even without priestly ordination a religious may live his consecration to the full.
Lay religious life is a way of perfection
2. In looking at the historical development of consecrated life in the Church, a significant fact is clear: the members of the first religious communities were called "brothers" without distinction, and the great majority of them did not receive priestly ordination because they did not have a vocation to the ministry. A priest could join these communities but could not claim privileges because of Holy Orders. When priests were needed, one of the "brothers" was ordained in order to meet the community's sacramental needs. Over the centuries, the proportion of monks who were priests or deacons in comparison to the number of those who were not priests continued to grow. Gradually a division was established between clerical members and lay "brothers" or conversi. The ideal of a consecrated life without the priesthood lives on in St Francis of Assisi, who did not feel personally called to the priestly ministry, although he later agreed to be ordained a deacon. Francis can be considered an example of the holiness of a "lay" religious life. His witness demonstrates the perfection that can be reached by this way of life.
3. Lay religious life has continued to flourish down the centuries. In our age too it has endured and has developed in two directions. On the one hand, we have a certain number of lay brothers who have joined various clerical institutes With regard to them, the Second Vatican Council makes one recommendation: "In order to strengthen the bond of brotherhood between the members of an institute, those who are called lay brothers co-operators or some such name should be associated more closely with the life and work of the community" (Perfectae caritatis, n. 15).
Then there are lay institutes which, recognized as such by the authority of the Church, have their own proper role by virtue of their nature, character and aim. This is defined by their founder or by a legitimate tradition, and does not include the exercise of Holy Orders (CIC, can. 588, §3). These "institutes of brothers", as they are called, do indeed carry out a precise function which is valuable in itself and particularly useful in the Church's life.
4. The Second Vatican Council was thinking in particular of these secular institutes when it showed its appreciation for the state of lay religious life: "The holy Synod holds it in high esteem, for it is so useful to the Church in the exercise of her pastoral duty of educating the young, caring for the sick, and in her other ministries. It confirms the members in their vocation and urges them to adapt their life to modem requirements" (Perfectae caritatis, n. 10). The Church's recent history confirms the important role played by the religious who belong to these institutes, especially in educational or charitable works. It can be said that in many places it is they who have given the young a Christian education, founding schools of every kind and for all levels. Again, it is they who have created and administered institutions offering social assistance to the sick and the physically and mentally handicapped, for whom they have also provided the necessary buildings and equipment. Thus their witness to the Christian faith, their dedication and their sacrifice should be admired and praised, while it is to be hoped that the aid of benefactors—in the best Christian tradition—and subsidies provided by modern social legislation may increasingly enable them to care for the poor.
The "great esteem" expressed by the Council shows that the Church's authority highly appreciates the gift offered by "brothers" to Christian society through the ages, and their collaboration in evangelization and in the pastoral and social care of peoples. Today more than ever, we can and must recognize their historical role and their ecclesial function as witnesses and ministers of Christ's kingdom.
5. The Council made provision for brothers' institutes to benefit from the pastoral ministry necessary for the development of their religious life. This is the meaning of the statement which resolved a problem frequently discussed inside and outside these worthy institutes: "there is nothing to prevent some members of institutes of brothers being admitted to Holy Orders—the lay character of the institutes remaining intact—by provision of their General Chapter and in order to meet the need for priestly ministration in their houses" (Perfectae caritatis, n. 10). This is a possibility to be evaluated in accordance with the needs of time and place, but in harmony with the most ancient tradition of monastic institutes, which are thus able to flourish again. The Council recognized this possibility and stated that there was no impediment to its implementation: but it lets the highest governing assembly of these institutes—the General Chapter— decide, without offering explicit encouragement in this regard, precisely because it is concerned that these institutes of "brothers" continue in line with their vocation and mission.
May Church be enriched with vocations to the brotherhood
6. I cannot bring this discussion to a close without stressing the rich spirituality suggested by the term "brothers". These religious are called to be brothers of Christ, deeply united with him "the firstborn among many brothers" (Rom 8:29). Brothers to one another, in mutual love and working together in the Church in the same service to what is good. Brothers to every man, in their witness to Christ's love for all, especially the lowliest, the neediest; brothers for a greater brotherhood in the Church.
Unfortunately in recent times a decreased number of vocations to the lay religious life is becoming apparent in both clerical and secular institutes. A new effort must be made to foster these important and noble vocations so they may thrive anew: a fresh effort to promote vocations, with a new commitment to prayer. The possibility of a "lay" consecrated life must also be presented as a way of true religious perfection in both the old and new male institutes.
At the same time, it is most important that in clerical institutes whose members also include "lay" brothers, the latter should play a suitable role so as to cooperate actively in the institute's life and apostolate. Then there is a need to encourage lay institutes to persevere on the path of their vocation, adapting to a changing society, but constantly retaining and deepening the spirit of total selfgiving to Christ and to the Church as expressed in their individual charism. I ask the Lord that an ever growing number of brothers may enrich the Church's holiness and mission.
L’Osservatore Romano March 1, 1995