Today marks the anniversary of the day in the novitiate when I told the novice master that, indeed, I did think that I was being called to be a consecrated religious, but not a priest. In the Dominican Order, such a vocation is now called the "cooperator brotherhood".
In the Order of Preachers there were traditionally two types of friars—the priest and the lay brother. The priests went about studying, teaching, and preaching theology while the lay brothers supported the mission through their many arts and crafts. The priests were front and center in the activity of the Order, while the lay brothers were behind the scenes, enjoying a different experience of religious life as they performed manual labor and works of charity.
These are two very understandable and beautiful vocations, but neither of them is mine. To understand my type of vocation, one has to look outside the Dominican Order to monasticism. Historically, monastic communities of men had three modes in which religious life could be lived out: the ordained choir monk, the non-ordained choir monk, and the lay brother. It was understood that priesthood for the monk was a calling from the community based on the community’s need. A man would not become a monk with a certainty that he would be ordained. He joined, rather, to benefit from the vowed life within community, with the intention to study and pray and labor as a contemplative. The goal was union with God, and the loss of preference to anything other than God. This was the ground in which a man who became a monk planted the seed of his spiritual hopes.
Since the priesthood was not the common bond that brought the monks together, and since it was not the reason men became monks, there was not, traditionally, a clerical character to monastic life. Thus, non-ordained choir monks were not viewed as being different kind of monks from the ordained monks. They received the same education, and performed similar work to the ordained monks, symbolized by the fact that both the ordained and the non-ordained monk prayed the divine office together.
The lay brothers, however, were different. They did not pray the divine office with the monks; rather, they had their own devotional schedule. They were specifically attached to the community as laborers, and were not educated in the same way as the monks. This type of religious life is familiar to Dominicans, because our Order had lay brothers, from Oderic of Normandy (the first lay brother) to the famous St. Martin de Porres. Often in hagiography, our lay brothers are described as aspiring to the “humble” way of the lay brother, preferring to sweep the floors of the convents [that the lay brothers designed and built] to preaching from the pulpit and saying Holy Mass for the faithful. They were seen as men of manual work, not intellectual work—-mystics, perhaps, but surely not doctors of the faith.
When looking at the monastic model of religious life it’s easy to see how the priesthood and the lay brotherhood were actually both supporters to the central vocation of the choir monk. As needed, the community ordained monks and accepted lay brothers into their community—-but, at the end of the day, it was still the vocation of the non-ordained choir monk that was the norm for the monastery. It may not come as a surprise, then, that St. Benedict himself was not a priest. No one, however, labels him a “lay brother” by default (which is what would have happened in the Dominican Order).
It would seem that the Dominican Order, due to its apostolic mission to preach, took on a more clerical nature, which allowed only for two of the three religious vocations I have described--religious priesthood and lay brotherhood—-but not the type of non-ordained religious brotherhood described above with non-ordained choir monks like St. Benedict. Simply put, since our mission was not to our own communities alone, but to the world, all religious who were capable of theological study and ministry were expected to be ordained. Priesthood, as a means of fulfilling the Order’s preaching mission, became the dominant form of male religious life, to the extent that Dominicans simply came to lose a sense of the religious vocation that was not joined to priesthood or which did not take the form of the lay brotherhood. In monastic terms, we didn’t have monks, nor could we yet imagine apostolic brotherhood—-the like of which now exists in congregations like the Christian Brothers, Alexian Brothers, and Marist Brothers.
Therefore, any man who entered the Order who did not feel called to priestly ministry was then considered a lay brother. This may have been a perfectly justifiable move, if, indeed, the Order only ever attracted men who wanted to be religious priests or lay brothers—-but what about men who wanted to be religious—neither priests, nor lay brothers? That is to say, what about men who had a calling to pray the Divine Office as vowed religious, to study and minister like the priests and sisters of the Order, but not to do the sacraments or to do manual labor? Was there room in the Order for these men and for this religious vocation? If there wasn't then--is there now? I think the answer to this question will determine whether or not the Dominican Order will have and attract brother vocations in the future.
...The above is based on a reflection I began to write at the start of my pastoral year. The topic of religious brotherhood is a complicated and exciting one, which I have only scratched the surface of here.
Br. Paul, OP