First, the questions:
Is a hero someone to be admired, or someone to be imitated?
If someone loses their life while fighting for a worthy cause, have they wasted their life?
Is a brother in a religious community a banana or an orange?
Something, including a life, is wasted if it is not used for the purpose for which it is intended. So, what is the purpose of life? If someone believes that the purpose of life is to accumulate wealth, to be as comfortable as possible, to be consoled by family and friends, then they will likely regard religious life as a waste. However, if someone believes that the purpose of life is to know, love and serve God, so as to be happy with Him forever in Heaven, then they would see any vocation which facilitates that result as having value. For many, the acid test comes when they hear a loved one say, “I feel called to be a priest,” or “God is calling me to the consecrated life.” That’s when you find out what they really think.
Some people will always see a life of service to others as a life that is wasted. Social workers waste their lives. Someone who has died in the defense of their country has wasted their life. And of course, a person who answers God’s call to serve Him and His Church wastes their life. Their lives haven’t been spent on themselves, but on others.
A spiritual person would think this is a very superficial point-of-view. How can someone holding such opinions ever understand Jesus’ words: “whoever loves his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mk 8:35; cf. Mt. 10:39, 16:35; Lk. 9:24, 17:33; Jn. 12:25).
Truly, a gift that is given, with no expectation of return, is never a waste, whether it is a Christmas gift or the gift of one’s life. And a gift that is given to God, out of love, merits a heavenly reward.
The world may not have noticed the widow’s offering of two small coins (cf. Mk. 12:41-44; Lk. 21:1-4), but Jesus noticed. He said the widow gave more, because she gave all she had. Someone who gives some of their time to serve their local parish or the poor and needy, has done a good thing. But someone who gives all their time, their whole life, has given more, even if they accomplish less. Yes, a life that is given away, for God’s service, is never wasted.
Jesus was the first to give all. Some of His disciples can’t rest until they follow His example, using the same measure of generosity.
Remember the time Jesus invited a young man to join Him in His mission? He said to the youth, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven; and come, follow me” (Mt. 19-21). We all know the rich young man chose treasure in this life rather than treasure in Heaven. He went away sad. But not everyone goes away, like he did. St. Francis is an example of a rich young man who did not return to a self-oriented sadness. He stayed and was happy in his prayerful poverty.
God still calls men and women to His service. But fewer of them say “Yes” to His invitation. Instead, they answer “No” or “Not yet” or “I’ll do it, but only on these conditions…” Then, they wonder why they aren’t happy. It’s because in their heart they have gone away from God’s will. Outside of His Will there is no lasting joy, only fleeting moments of contentment that soon pass. Those who answer God’s call to become co-workers in spreading the Kingdom will face challenges in living-out their commitment, but they’ll also be storing-up treasure in Heaven, all the while. One who gives all, out of love for God, merits all. And if they persevere in their vocation, they’ll find out firsthand how God keeps His promises to them (cf. Matt. 19:29).
If you are a young person who is called to the married life, then get married; you’ll be happy because you are doing God’s Will. But if you are called to religious life, why wait any longer? You’ll have to take the initiative. That’s what adults are expected to do.
So, is a religious brother a second banana? Yes and no. Although it is true that brothers play a supporting role in a religious community, you can’t really describe the vocation of a brother y saying what a priest is not. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. A brother is simply a consecrated man, separated from worldly pursuits, by the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He participates fully in the mission of the religious institute to which he belongs, performing a variety of tasks that can vary over time. A brother does not say Mass, hear confessions and so on. He is not an assistant priest. But what he does can allow the priests of a community to be more available to the people of God.
If we think of a priest as imitating the public life of Jesus, we can think of a brother as participating in the hidden life on Nazareth. There he performs his humble, hidden tasks in company with Mary and Joseph. It is the ideal spirituality of St. Therese of Lisieux – spiritual childhood. After all, it is the same setting, spiritually, that Jesus chose for his own childhood.
Jesus is the first-born of many brethren (cf. Rom. 8:29; Rev. 12:17). That means He has many brothers and sisters – according to the spirit. All His brethren are called to share the family resemblance of sanctifying grace. And some of them are also called to imitate Him more perfectly by dedicating themselves to work in the family business, through the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
The Church is one body and has many members. Not all are apostles; not all are prophets. Some are simply “helpers,” as St. Paul says (cf. 1 Cor. 12:28). St. Paul goes on to say that all the members of the body are equally honored (cf. 1 Cor. 12:20-22). Religious brothers are important participants in the institutes to which they belong. They prepare themselves for Heaven, even while helping in the work for the Church on Earth.
Heroes, like Jesus, St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, are to be admired. Are they also to be imitated? The answer to that depends on how heroic you yourself are.
Br. Bernard Mary, MFVA