To help acknowledge and better promote the vocation of consecrated religious, the Vatican issued the long awaited 54-page document dedicated to the role and vocation of religious brothers who are not priests, describing the importance of their life and mission in the church.
The Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life released a document titled “Identity and Mission of the Religious Brother in the Church” written in five languages on Dec. 14 as a guide for the Catholic Church.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had asked the Institute in 2008 to outline an instruction in order to underline the significance of the vocation of lay brothers, especially given “the challenges they must face” in today’s world. The document was presented at a press conference by the head of the Congregation, Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, and Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, secretary of the congregation.
“We think one of the reasons for the decline in these vocations is due to a certain lack of attention on the part of the church” to brothers, who are mentioned only in passing in the documents of the Second Vatican Council and Vatican documents published later, he had told Vatican Radio in 2010.
As at 2013, the total number of religious brothers around the world was more than 55,250 according to the recent Vatican statistics. However, the total number of priests — diocesan and religious order — around the world was nearly 415,350, with a constant increase in diocesan priests across Africa, Asia and the US, and an alarming decrease in Europe. Over the past 50 years the Consecrated Brothers which had about 16,000 members in 1965 have less than 5,000 members today.
In his presentation Archbishop Carballo noted that the origin of this figure in the Church dates back to the centuries following Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan recognizing Christianity as an official religion. From this point on, he said, people began using the faith for their own interests, losing the fervor of the first Christian communities who often lived in fear of their lives. From that time on, men seeking to maintain an authentic witness to Christ’s teachings consecrated themselves to a life of solitude, or later, to a life of community service.
Archbishop Rodriguez said the document is meant to highlight “the richness and necessity of all the vocations in the church, especially the vocation of lay religious life for men and women.” He said he also hoped that the teachings in the documents would help all members of the church become more aware and better appreciate the service and gifts of religious brothers.
Cardinal Braz de Aviz explained that the document addresses the identity of the religious brother in three ways, firstly, as the mystery of a gift received from God; secondly, as a communion of the gift shared; and, thirdly, as a mission of the gift to be freely given away.
The text urged religious brothers to see no human situation as “alien” to their presence. Whether they engage in manual labor, defend human rights, teach, work in health care or serve in other ways, religious brothers must accept God’s invitation to go to the world’s peripheries and lead people to salvation.
“Today, the world needs consecrated brothers who on their own want to bear witness to knowing and loving the God of life.”
The document said religious brothers can be the “prophets for our time” which is witnessing “great social change.”
The document called for improving relationships and a sense of “equal dignity” in so-called “mixed” religious institutes whose members include lay brothers and religious priests. It said priests and the church hierarchy should promote and better appreciate the vocation of lay brothers and sisters, ensuring they can “participate actively in the organs of consultation, decision-making and implementation within the local church.”
Next year from January 28th to February 2nd about six thousand religious men and women will meet in Rome for a jubilee year encounter themed ‘Consecrated Life in Communion.