This year the Brotherhood of Hope, a community of religious brothers who evangelize college students at secular schools, is celebrating the 35th anniversary of its founding and the 50th anniversary of the ordination of its founder, Father Philip Merdinger. The young community has 20 professed members and 11 men in pre-novitiate; the youngest is 22 and, at 77, Father Merdinger is the oldest. They are headquartered in Boston, where they serve students at Northeastern University and surrounding colleges; they can also be found at Rutgers, Florida State University and nearby colleges in Tallahassee, and the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where Father Merdinger is living in “active retirement” with two brothers.
Father Merdinger started the community with five laymen in New Jersey in 1980. He had “a clear conviction and insight into the collapse of celibacy in the Church during the Sexual Revolution,” said Brother Ken Apuzzo, the community’s superior. “In our sex-crazed age, lifelong celibacy had become an absurdity.” Communities of brothers have been in significant decline in the past 50 years, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. In 1965, there were 12,271 religious brothers in the United States, as compared to 4,318 in 2014.
As religious, brothers take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The brothers’ habit is a light-colored shirt, modeled on Filipino formal wear, with an anchor on the pocket, symbolizing hope, as well as black pants and a crucifix around their necks. The community begins its day with morning prayer, Mass, and adoration. From there, they head to the college campuses, meeting with students and leading Bible studies and other faith-based activities. The brothers’ homes are open to male students, who can go there for prayer, meetings, and fellowship with the brothers.
In their 35 years of existence, the Brotherhood of Hope has had a significant impact on the students they’ve served, said Brother Ken. At the University of Minnesota, where both he and Father Merdinger serve, the brothers had eight students participate in their first spring retreat. This year, however, 175 students participated in the retreat.
Father Merdinger recently spoke with CWR about his community.
CWR: What is your background?
Father Philip Merdinger: I’m a Jersey boy. I grew up outside Newark. I wanted to be like a priest I knew in high school, so I went to the seminary for the Archdiocese of Newark. After I was in the seminary a few years, I came to believe that the Lord was calling me to the priesthood. I studied for a time in Belgium during the Second Vatican Council; in fact, some of my professors were periti [theological “experts”] who had direct and immediate experience of the Council’s deliberations.
I returned to Newark and was ordained in 1964, before the Council ended. I did parochial service after that, although I never served as a pastor (you had to wait a long time for such an assignment in those days). I got involved with the People of Hope, an ecumenical brotherhood in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then got the inspiration to do something parallel in the Catholic tradition. So, I began the community in 1980. I’ve been quite pleased with our growth since then.
CWR: How did you select your habit?
Father Merdinger: We didn’t want cassocks or robes, which had an orientation toward the clerical and belong to older communities. Ours is a modern one. Vatican II spoke of religious clothing as a simple but evident indication of the community. So we selected a shirt with a little length, closed collar, and a patch.
CWR: What have been some of the challenges you’ve had to face as a community?
Father Merdinger: The greatest is being part of rapidly secularizing society, sexualized and narcissistic. It makes proclaiming the Gospel difficult.
CWR: Why do you think the number of brothers in the United States has declined so dramatically in the past 50 years?
Father Merdinger: There are a lot of reasons. Communities of brothers were small to begin with. There were around 10,000 brothers in America 50 years ago, as opposed to 180,000 nuns. The pressures on committed life have taken their toll, as has the secularization of the culture and the issue of celibacy. I’d say there are a lot of complicated factors.
CWR: What fruits of your work have you seen?
Father Merdinger: While we can only touch a relatively small number of American Catholic university-age students, those with whom we do work often develop a permanent reorientation toward the life of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And, we’ve been around long enough to observe it continuing to affect people well beyond college. I’m content with the direction in which the community is headed. I’m proud to have been its founder.