Friday, 13 May 2011

Brother and Priest?

My first post was an explanation of the title of this blog, but I also think it necessary to explain my own title. Sooner or later, people to whom I've introduced myself as 'Brother Paul' get a little puzzled when they see me celebrating Mass. "Oh, I'm sorry," they'll say, "I thought you were a brother." Then when I say, "Yes, I am a brother", you can see the puzzlement increasing.

I must admit to a little mischievous amusement at subverting Catholic preconceptions about priestly titles. After all, we're all used to addressing a priest as 'Father', and when we meet religious orders we learn that the 'Brothers' are those who are not priests. But then along comes an awkward exception - a priest who goes by the title of 'Brother'. What's going on?

"It's the Capuchin custom", I usually tell people, without going on to quote the relevant passage from the Constitutions of the Order: "in accordance with the Rule [of St. Francis], the Testament [of St. Francis] and the earliest custom of the Capuchins, all of us should be called brothers without distinction." Now, however, I have leisure to explain at greater length the why and wherefore.

It all goes back to St. Francis and his followers, all of whom were called 'Brother'. In fact, the word 'friar' is an English corruption of 'frater' - the Latin for 'brother'. An appreciation of universal brotherhood (and sisterhood) under the universal Fatherhood of God is a key aspect of St. Francis' special charism. His tendency to address animals, birds, sun and moon, and even the elements as 'Brother' and 'Sister' is well known. But of course his brotherly feeling towards his fellow humans was even stronger, and he consistently referred to himself as 'Brother Francis'. Importantly, he linked the idea of brotherhood to that of 'minority' or humility. The title was intended to convey not mere equality, but lowliness.

Over the centuries, however, the tendency to take other titles crept in. So when the Capuchin reform tried to restore the original Franciscan charism, one of the measures was an insistence on this humble title of 'Brother'. This is exemplified by St. Lawrence of Brindisi (pictured), who always referred to himself as 'Brother Lawrence', despite holding posts like General Minister of the Order and Papal ambassador. But fast-forward to the 20th century, and we find that even the Capuchins have fallen in with the common usage whereby priests are called 'Father'. Hence, for example, our most famous saint is known as 'Padre Pio' rather than 'Fra Pio'. But the Second Vatican Council asked all Orders to go back to their founding charisms, so it is now written into our Constitutions that all Capuchins should be called brothers.

So much for the historical background, but I would like to say something about the value of this Capuchin peculiarity. Because I will admit that it does cause confusion, and other branches of the Order have decided to go with the usual Catholic custom of addressing priests as 'Father', partly so that people know who the priests are. But without in any way contradicting this normal practice, I want to briefly point out how it can be appropriate and even helpful to call a priest 'Brother'.

Scripture explicitly links the priesthood with brotherhood: "[Jesus] had to be made like His brothers in every respect, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest"(Heb 2:17). Likewise the liturgy, based on Scriptural language, has the priest addressing the people as brothers and sisters; e.g. "Pray, brethren, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father" (or, for those of you who prefer the Latin, "Orate, fraters..."). Lex orandi, lex credendi – the rule of prayer is the rule of belief – if the liturgy implies that priests are the brothers of the people, they are.

Pope Paul VI told priests, "We must become brothers to all at the very same time as we wish to be their shepherds, fathers and teachers." It is this brotherly aspect of the priesthood that we Franciscan priests are particularly well-placed to emphasise. The title 'Brother' serves to remind us that our priesthood should operate out of a primarily fraternal attitude, and reminds others that we are their brothers. Important and special though the priesthood is, priests are of the same flesh and blood, of the same stock, of the same nature as anyone else (cf. Heb 2:11,14). And therein lies the beauty of our calling, to make Jesus Christ our Brother, the incarnate Son of God, present among His people.


  1. What a croc!
    The title of Brother is very important to me. I will be celebrating my 50th anniv. of religious profession this June.
    Although I have seen many good changes over these years, it saddens me that there is so few of us and that there is still such confusion and misunderstanding about MY vocation. You have added nothing to this vacation but confusion, questions, and very little insight. Its 'cute' of you to want to be called Brother, but you are NOT a religious Brother -- you are a religious Priest with the right to be Minister General, Provincial, etc.
    Get a life and stop playing these 'head games' that are meaningless in the real world. Do something positive for the religious Brothers' vocation...We could sure use it!

  2. Great post Brother Paul!

  3. Hi Sean,
    I think it would be great to hear some ideas on what you feel should be done to improve the matters causing your concern - low numbers of Capucins (or is that a wider concern for vocations?) and confusion about the role of Priest/Brother in relation to your own vocation.

    It would also to be good, in my humble opinion, to be respectful of Brother Paul's appreciation of his own title and vocation and to encourage his mission of communicating his faith and understanding here on his blog, while continuing to make your own valuable challenges. I believe Brother Paul is doing something very postive for the Church and for the Brothers' vocation here, and that these early steps are to be lauded and nurtured, as well as being used as an opening for lively debate.

  4. I wish Sean would just come out and say what he thinks! All priests are brothers but not all brothers are priests. I knew a holy lady, greatly influenced by the Capuchins, who thought that all priests should be addressed as 'Brother', the title of 'Father' being reserved for the bishop, who is our father in Christ.

  5. I think your post was very instructive and enlightening, Bro. Paul. I think Bro. Sean is burned out and needs to retire.

  6. Seems to me the Capuchins are merely expressing a certain fact in this custom: they are first of all religious, and some of them are priests. Br Sean is upset about something, but I think he's missed that point. I've often wondered if the near-extinction of lay brothers in some orders of apostolic life is due to them concentrating on the priestly-preaching bit and rather forgetting about the religious bit.

  7. Well put, berenike. I would just expand it by saying that there's been too much focus on ministry as what identifies a religious. If the outward apostolate is the be-all and end-all, then it tends towards everyone being ordained.

    I'm happy to report, however, that in my vocations ministry I'm finding lots of the young men who are interested in joining the Capuchins don't feel any call to the priesthood. I'm just back from visiting one such prospect. I encouraged him by explaining that most Capuchin saints have been lay-brothers.

  8. Brother Sean, it's interesting you should mention about Minister Generals and Provincials. The Capuchin Order is currently lobbying Rome for permission to elect lay-brothers to these 'major-superior' positions. The canon lawyers get their knickers in a twist about it, because it means they'll have to create a new category of religious institute; but hopefully we'll get there.

  9. I am still amazed at how inflammatory and condescending Bro.Sean's remarks were, using remarks to describe Bro. Paul's comments as 'cute' and accusing him of 'head games' htat are 'meaningless in the real world' and saying he needs to 'get a life'. Why so rude? Why so ANGRY? Saying 'what a CROC!'
    I've just never read such talk from one religious to another.
    Obviously Bro. Paul has a more forgiving nature than I do this morning. I confess.