May 1 is the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, and this year it also marks the first annual Religious Brothers Day. An initiative of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and the Religious Brothers Conference, this commemoration is already shedding light on a vocation that too often goes overlooked: the non-ordained religious brother.
In 2016, the Dominican Order celebrated its 800th anniversary. The Order has a long and profound history of preaching the Word of God, fighting heresy at every turn, maintaining the faith through troubling times, and safe-guarding the Church’s intellectual tradition.
And yet, in spite of the order’s reputation and history, there is a little-known facet that helps to hold the Order together. On this first annual Religious Brothers Day, that facet is getting highlighted and brought into the light.
They are known as Cooperator Brothers. These are friars who have taken solemn profession of vows as Dominicans, but who do not have vocations to be priests. They have been a constant presence in the Order of Preachers since the beginning.
The Dominican Province of St. Joseph, in the eastern United States, is holding an informational “come and see” weekend in New York City October 6-8, 2017, and has produced a short video highlighting the work of their Cooperator Brothers. In addition to numerous solemnly-professed brothers, this province now has four cooperator brothers in simple vows, preparing for their solemn vows.
One of these is Brother Martin Davis, OP. He is currently finishing his second year of post-novitiate formation, working towards a Master of Arts in Theology at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. Brother Martin converted to the Catholic faith while attending Hillsdale College.
After college, Brother Martin felt a call to religious life. “I wanted to dedicate my life to God in a more complete way and sought out a religious order,” he said. Brother Martin did not discern a call to the priesthood, but rather a call to religious life. “More specifically, God gave me the desire to live a life in between a contemplative and active life, and hence orders like the Dominicans seemed a natural fit.”
The very idea of a cooperative brother may seem mysterious to some. Why, they wonder, would someone take solemn vows if they’re not going to “go all the way” to the priesthood? This attitude betrays a misunderstanding of vocations, and Brother Martin’s assessment of such a question speaks to this.
“Celibacy is not just a cost that has to be paid for ordination to the priesthood,” he said. “Rather, celibacy allows a man or woman to be free to dedicate their lives to God in a way commended to us by Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul in the Scriptures.” Men become religious brothers because they are responding to a particular call to do so, said Brother Martin.
“Religious brothers seek out a life dedicated to God which has been practiced by numerous holy men throughout the history of the Church in a variety of different forms. But the call to this particular path to holiness remains a longstanding tradition of the Church that can adapt in order to continue to live and preach the Truth of the Eternal Word.”
Over time, many different terms have been used to designate these non-ordained, professed Dominicans, among them “lay brother,” “conversi,” or simply “brother.” Brother Martin sees “cooperator brother” as an appropriate nomenclature, as the term “could be taken to express how the brothers cooperate with the mission of the order to preach for the salvation of souls.”
Brother Daniel Traceski, OP, is another man in post-novitiate formation as a cooperator brother. As a young man, he found himself desiring to seek perfection in the religious state and spend his life and talents in service of God. Discerning a call to the religious life (open to, but not set on, the priesthood), Brother Daniel entered the Dominican novitiate after college, but then left and worked for several years before returning. “God kept my desires alive!” he said. “He gave me an even stronger desire to be a Dominican religious friar, not as a priest but as a cooperator brother.”
“I would hope every unmarried man would be open to a priestly calling from God,” Brother Daniel said. “But if every man who was celibate for the sake of the kingdom of God became a priest, then the priesthood as such wouldn’t seem to be anything special.” The priesthood is a special calling, one that is sometimes distinct from life in a religious order. “The priesthood is not for everyone; it is a special calling that no one should presume to take upon himself if he has not been particularly chosen by Christ.”
Brother Daniel is cautious not to downplay the beauty of a religious vocation by this assumption that it has not value apart from the priesthood. “If every religious man became a priest, does that suggest that religious consecration is not worthy in itself? The evangelical councils are for everyone, and religious embrace them in their totality with vows in order to seek perfection in God – and God, and only God, is enough for us.”
The ways in which the brothers “cooperate” with the priests of the order are multifarious, according to Brother Daniel. “We accompany the priests with our prayers, our labor, and our fraternity,” he said. “While only deacons, priests, and bishops preach homilies and most other instances of preaching in church, we preach and contribute to preaching in different ways.”
Cooperator Brothers profess the vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity, and their lives are centered around (and dependent on) a common life devoted to prayer and liturgy, study and scholarship, preaching and other ministries, and caring for one another.
According to the Province of St. Joseph’s website, “The cooperator brothers have a role in the apostolate of the whole community not only by their work of providing for the needs of the convent, but also by a ministry properly so called both by working with the priests and by engaging in their own apostolic activity according to their talents.” In the Province of St. Joseph, these brothers are involved in just about every facet of ministry, including religious education and pastoral counseling; community ministries such as financial management and supervision, maintenance and services of buildings and properties, health care of the brothers, and food service management; and professional ministries, including social work and healthcare.
Today’s Dominican Cooperator Brothers are the latest in a long line of holy and devoted men, including two particularly of note: St. Martin de Porres and St. Juan Macias. These holy men of service are models for the life of a cooperator brother in the Order of Friars Preachers.
“I am very grateful for what great things God has worked for me in my life,” Brother Martin said. “Awareness of the cooperator brother vocation is important for the Church to foster vocations.
“Helping others to know about the vocation may help some men find their vocation and also demonstrate to the world another aspect of the breadth and beauty of life in the Church of Jesus Christ.”
For more information on the Dominican Order’s cooperator brothers, and information regarding the upcoming vocation weekend, please visit the website of the Dominican Province of St. Joseph.