The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

Men religious are becoming 'invisible' in life of the Church

Published: September 30, 2006   
Brother Ephrem O'Bryan, OSB
Abbot Jerome Kodell, OSB, in the choir stall praying with the monastic community at Subiaco Abbey as he does four times daily.

I am invisible. Or almost. I am becoming invisible. I need your help before I disappear completely. You think you see me but you don't.

When people look at me they often don't see me in my primary identity in the Church (after baptism). What they see is a Catholic priest. And that's true enough. I am a priest and very happy to be identified as one. But that's my second layer. My first layer is invisible.

My first and primary layer is as a member of a religious order. It's not the same thing as priesthood. My first identity is as a religious, a Benedictine monk. I was a monk before I was a priest, and I became a priest as part of my monastic obedience. But most people see me primarily as a priest.

Is that bad? No, and if it were happening only to me, it wouldn't be worth mentioning. But it is happening to men religious in general. Thousands of us are becoming invisible, and what we represent is in danger of disappearing from public consciousness. Whenever one of the many and varied expressions of Catholic life becomes invisible, it is a diminishment in the rich tapestry that is life in the Catholic Church.

For some of us this is nothing new. The most invisible group in the Church are the religious brothers. Every parish has the ministry of a priest, but the presence of a brother is rare, depending on whether brothers are involved in a special ministry in the parish, such as education or spiritual formation. Some brothers are well known locally in monasteries, and in ministries of education, health care and service of the poor. But often, when a brother, shows up, people don't know how to take him. Why don't you go all the way? Or, why aren't you a priest? Did you flunk out?

The awareness of men's religious life is fading out of the everyday consciousness of the Catholic faithful. Sometimes it even drops off the screen of bishops and parish priests. A typical reference in calls for Church vocations is for "priests and sisters." Even when the usage is "priests and religious" it usually means the same thing, because what flashes through our minds is a group of men who are priests and a group of women who are religious.

Several years ago, when a new ministry was being promoted in our diocese, in order to handle the numbers one day was scheduled for informing priests, another for the religious. I signed up for the one for religious, assuming that the session for priests was primarily for pastors of parishes. All the participants of the day for religious were sisters, except for two male Carmelites and me. A lay volunteer helping arrange the meetings asked me, "What are you doing here? This is for religious."

Part of it is my own fault. When I appear in public I don't ordinarily wear my monastic habit but a clerical shirt or suit, which is the identifying garb of a priest. I have to admit I am contributing to the problem by doing this. But even if I wore the monastic habit everywhere I went, it would be one small drop in a very large ocean, especially in states like Arkansas, where there are very few men religious. Anyway, monks are in the minority among men religious who now regularly wear a religious habit even in their home communities.

Why is this invisibility troubling me? Everyone speaks of a vocation crisis in the Church, meaning there aren't as many priests and religious as there were before, not enough to meet what we perceive as the need, and the number is declining.

One sure way to make that crisis worse is to carry on with a diminishing awareness of men's religious life in the Church.

Men called to the religious life do not necessarily have a priestly vocation. And even for those who do, a major difference between the call to the diocesan priesthood and the call to priesthood within the religious life is that an essential aspect of the latter is living one's vocation in community with other vowed men.

When a Catholic man feels God tugging at his heart and seeks guidance and help from other members of the Church, if all we think is available for a man with such a calling in the Church is a vocation to the diocesan priesthood, we will assist him toward the diocesan seminary. Well and good when that is his vocation. But he may be called to serve God in a religious community, and instead of assisting him, we may confuse and possibly discourage him because we don't have the full Catholic vocation context in our own awareness.

He may be called to be a brother, or to be a diocesan priest, or be a religious priest, and for a while he may not know which it is. God will depend on us to help him find out. A one-size-fits-all approach could lose vocations for the Church.

This column originally appeared in The Abbey Message, the newsletter for Subiaco Abbey. It is reprinted with permission.

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