Historical dictionary  vol.: 1  let.: B


While the foundation Missionaries of Provence was still in the rumination stage, it seems that the inclusion of brothers was part of Blessed Eugene de Mazenod’s slowly forming plans. On October 28, 1814 he wrote of his disappointment at losing Brother Maur, his companion and domestic, because he had been counting him for his house of missionaries. Brother Maur (Pierre-Martin Bardeau), a former Camaldolese brother whose monastery had been suppressed by Napoleon in 1811, returned with de Mazenod to Aix in 1812 and later decided to join a Trappist monastery. It was about the time that de Mazenod reached the firm decision to found his society, that Brother Maur left Aix on September 18, 1815 for the monastery of Port-du-Salut, where he died on April 12, 1848.

Although de Mazenod founded a community of missionaries, i.e. priests to conduct missions and other priestly ministry, it seems that from the beginning it was his intention to have non-clerical members, or brothers. This was not an innovation; he was merely following the example of other missionary institutes, v.g. the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians or Lazarists), the Redemptorists, etc.

In the introduction of the first Constitutions (1818) he wrote that there would be a section on the brothers and left two blank pages in the manuscript for it. There still had not been any brothers to join the community, and Alphonsus Liguori’s Constitutions, which de Mazenod was using as a model, did not have a section on the brothers. This lacuna in the Constitutions was filled in the subsequent revisions.

The most important article concerning the brothers in the Constitutions approved by Leo XII hi 1826 is the first in the section on the brothers:

“The Society welcomes as sons men of good will, who, though not possessed of the knowledge necessary for missionaries, and even declining to attain it, desire, however, to labor for their own salvation under the guidance of the Rule of our Institute, while employed in duties which pertain in religious institutes to lay brothers.” (1826 CC and RR, Third Part, Chapter 2 § 4)

The nature of the vocation of the brothers can be seen in this article. However, it can be understood only if one recalls that the word “missionary” at that time, both in popular usage and as a technical word in Church documents, included only priests. This explains why the Oblate Constitutions and Rules until 1966 continued de Mazenod’s practice of using the word “missionary” to signify the priest members of the institute. It was only with Vatican II that non-clerics were officially called missionaries.

It is hardly necessary to point out that the early Constitutions were written long before universal education was common, and consequently there is nothing unusual about article eight of the section on the brothers and its supposition that some of the brother candidates could not read or write.

If the brothers were not “missionaries” (because of the restricted meaning of this word), they were Oblates, since they were religious. Although the word “oblate” did not in 1818 form part of the name of the institute, the word “oblation” was adopted by de Mazenod in the first draft of the Constitutions to signify the making of vows. Consequently all the members were Oblates. In practice, however, the priests were called the missionaries, the scholastics were called simple Oblates and the brothers frères convers, i.e. lay brothers.

The brothers were responsible for domestic duties for the common benefit of the Society and of the Church. However, the brothers were not to be considered as servants, but as “true sons of the Society.” (1928 CC and RR, art. 772) Since clerical candidates were also called “sons,” nothing patronizing should be seen in the expression. Contrary to the practice in some other institutes, they were to share the same dinning room and religious exercises, in so far as compatible with there duties and education, with the rest of the community. However, the practice, at least in larger communities, was until after Vatican II for the brothers to have their own table in the dinning room and a separate recreation room. Because of their other duties, they were exempt from Divine Office (which was celebrated in common and in Latin), but were to share in the blessing of this “work” of the Congregation by the recitation of a number of Our Fathers, Hail Marys and Glory Bes corresponding to each hour of the Office.

The religious habit of the priests and scholastics was the soutane or cassock as worn by the secular clerics, generally without the neckpiece of the French clergy, the brothers were to wear according to the Constitutions, when their work did not impeded it, a shorter habit, much like a short cassock. It would seem that in fact in many places the brothers wore ordinary lay clothes. There were various reasons for this such as: lest the brothers be embarrassed if the laity took them to be priests, and oppression from the French government at various times of religious institutes in France. From the beginning of the institute the priests wore around their neck a large crucifix as a sign of their mission. The priests and scholastics received the crucifix at the time of their oblation which in the beginning of the Congregation was always perpetual. Oblation was made at the end of the novitiate by priests, and just before subdiaconate by the scholastics. Since the brothers were not missionaries, they received a small cross as part of their habit at the time of their first oblation, and a small crucifix at the tune of perpetual oblation.

The brothers at the beginning of the Congregation made first oblation for one year, and then for five years before perpetual oblation. There were several changes in this over the years. The 1928 Constitutions specified for the brothers annual vows for three years to be followed by vows for three years before perpetual vows to be made six years after the end of novitiate. Because brothers were subject to military service in France in the nineteenth century, they were not permitted to make their first oblation until they were twenty-one years old.

In each house there was to be a priest with the office of Spiritual Prefect of the Brothers. With their first oblation the brothers came under his responsibility which included solicitude for their religious observance and spiritual formation. The assignment and supervision of their work was the task of the local treasurer.

De Mazenod and the Brothers
Although there had been two candidates for the brotherhood prior to pontifical approval in 1826, they did not persevere. De Mazenod enjoyed the hospitality of the Vincentians at St. Silvester at the Quirinal while seeking Pope Leo XII’s approval of the Constitutions and the Congregation. It was there that he came in daily contact with the brothers of that community. He was so deeply impressed by the quality of these men that he wrote lamenting the fact the Oblates up to that time had no men like the good German brothers with whom he was living (January 28, 1826).
Years later when it came to de Mazenod’s attention that too much work was demanded of the Oblate brothers to the detriment of their spiritual life, he did not hesitate to reprimand those who in practice did not effectively esteem the religious life of the brothers, and their need for adequate time for prayer and other spiritual exercises.

De Mazenod designated Saint Joseph, whom he considered principal patron of the Congregation, as the special patron of the brothers. Much can be seen in this, which is in contrast to the custom of many other institutes for whom the patron saint of the bothers was Saint Martha.

De Mazenod revealed clearly his attitude toward the brothers in a letter concerning a postulant: “He is a man of good will, capable of great sacrifices for the good Lord, for whom he gives up all the advantages that he could have in the world... I give you this advice, so that you do not make a mistake. It is a question of forming him to the religious life, to develop in him the germ of the virtues that the Lord has placed in his heart, along with good measure of good will and perfect devotion. Make of him a good religious and ask of him only that which he is capable of and for which he is made... It may happen that outside the novitiate they complain that we have not placed a pickaxe in his hands, but I repeat again, I am not sending him to you for that purpose” (December 6, 1852).

Integration of the Brothers in the Mission of the Congregation
The acceptance of the foreign missions in 1841 opened a whole new field not only for the priests, but particularly for the brothers. At the time there were only nine professed brothers, but two of them were in the first group of five Oblates to leave for Canada. Brothers, who had until that tune performed only “the traditional work of lay brothers in religious institutes,” would quickly become also teachers and catechists in Canada, England, Ireland, the United States, southern Africa and especially in Ceylon. Even before the Constitutions were changed in 1853 to recognize juridically this new apostolate, de Mazenod would in his correspondence speak of the brothers as catechists. At the 1850 General Chapter the first article on the brothers in the Constitutions was modified by the inclusion of the words: “and also in the instruction of poor children, when judged expedient.” Between 1841 and 1861 more than twenty-five brothers taught school or catechism in the missions ‑ Canada, Ceylon, England, southern Africa. Two brothers were assigned to the minor seminary of Vico as monitors. Already in 1859 it was principally the brothers who staffed the reformatory at Glencree. In 1862 two priests and fourteen brothers were assigned to this institution.

Once the revised Constitutions and Rule were approved by the Holy See, they were published hi 1853 and the text included an “Instruction on the Foreign Missions” signed by de Mazenod. In it Vicars of Mission, i.e. Provincials in the missions, were told that where a priest would be without a priest com­panion, a brother was to be sent with him, and that brothers instructed in the manual arts could not only aid the priest, but replace him in instructing the people.

Although the apostolate of teaching was officially open to the brothers with the 1853 Constitutions, this in itself did not fill the need for teachers. Since English was the language of instruction in many of the Oblate missions, a particular need was felt for English speaking brothers from Ireland. There simply were not enough brothers nor enough brothers prepared to teach. At subsequent general chapters the question was raised repeatedly under different forms. Since there were few, if any schools in the missions, the need was great to found new schools and enlarge the existing ones. To fill this need it was proposed in several General Chapters that a separate category of teaching brothers be founded within the Congregation. While approving the recruiting and training of more brothers to be teachers, the proposal for a special category of brothers was repeatedly rejected. One general chapter approved a proposal, although it was not realized, to have a special juniorate to prepare brothers for teaching. Even though the number of brothers who were teachers was always a minority, the official position of the Congregation was constant: to meet the needs, especially in the missions, brothers were to be formed as teachers without, however, forming a distinct category of brothers. This was in accord with de Mazenod’s principle that each man should be employed in accord with his talents and the needs of the Church and the Congregation.

This was echoed by Superior General Louis Soullier in his visitation of the British Province in 1893 when he wrote: “Our principle of government is that subjects be used according to their abilities. Just as among the ordained, some have more aptitude for preaching, and others for teaching ‑ differences that we are happy to take into consideration, without nevertheless establishing categories among our priests; thus, among the lay members, some have more aptitude for education, others for manual work. This permits us to satisfy the various needs without creating honorific distinctions or privileged situations.” (Quoted by Larose, Jean-Marie, “La place des Frères coadjuteurs dans la Congrégation”, in Études oblates, 24 (1965), p. 42)

It seems that the only limits to the work that the brothers could do were set by their own talents and the needs of the moment. An indication of this is the unrealized plan in 1849 for two brothers in Oregon to leave with six horses in order to prospect for gold in California as means to support the impoverished mission. Any attempt to chronicle the history the brothers’ work and accomplishments would not only exceed the limitations of this article, but would fail by the omission of the little known, but essential, deeds of countless hidden apostles.

In 1928 the first article on the brothers was transferred to the first chapter of the Constitutions and Rules. The last part of the article was modified to read: “in the performance of domestic duties as lay brothers, and also in rendering such other assistance to the missionaries as may be judged opportune by Superiors (art. 9).” This more subtle wording recognized that the teaching brothers were a minority, and at the same time opened to the brothers other occupations not requiring ordination. The idea that brothers were persons who did not have the knowledge to be missionaries was eliminated, because it was not the case and was objectionable.

While there were universal norms for the training of the scholastics for their ministry, other than the necessity of the novitiate there was no regulation from universal or particular law for the formation of brothers for their work. Some of the larger provinces, such as Canada and Germany, had excellent programs that were conscientiously implemented. Unfortunately such was not the case in a number of smaller provinces and foreign missions. Sad to say good resolutions approved by General Chapters frequently lost out when they faced the hard reality of the shortage of brothers and of adequate formation opportunities.

Extended Apostolic Role – Missionaries
Meeting a few month after the close of Vatican II, the 1966 General Chapter gave for the first time full a picture of the field of apostolic labor opened to the brothers. With the 1966 Constitutions and Rules ad experimentum it was clearly expressed that Oblate priests and brothers form one apostolic community and this greatly influenced the evolution of and understanding of the role of the brothers in the Congregation:

“ [...] priests in union with brothers, bound by religious vows and living together as brothers, closely cooperating with one another in Christ the Savior, devote themselves principally to the preaching the Gospel to the poor” (C 1)

“ [...] priests and brothers will work with one heart, each in his own ministry and in his own field, for the advancement of the Kingdom of God” (C 5).

“They [the brothers] will share in certain pastoral works such as catechizing, teaching, formation, social works and actively participating in the celebrating of liturgy, assuming roles proper to them” (R 17).

“As a result of community solidarity, they share in the life and apostolate of their house simply by carrying out faithfully those charges which are entrusted to them according to their respective aptitudes, whether of an intellectual, technical or manual nature” (R 18).

The 1982 Constitutions broke from the tradition of previous Constitutions by not naming or describing various apostolic works. The work of the Congregation is described in a general fashion as the evangelization of the poor without mentioning specific ministries of the priests or of the brothers:

“We come together in apostolic communities of priests and Brothers, united to God by the vows of religion. Cooperating with the Savior and imitating his example, we commit ourselves principally to evangelizing the poor” (C 1).

“As priests and Brothers, we have complementary responsibilities in evangelizing. We will spare no effort to awaken or reawaken the faith in the people to whom we are sent, and we will help them to discover “who Christ is”. Our mission puts us on constant call to respond to the most urgent needs of the Church through various forms of witness ministry, but especially through proclaiming the Word of God which finds its fulfillment in the celebration of the sacraments and in the service of others” (C 7).

It is to be noted that since Vatican II the term “missionary” includes religious and laity as well as clerics (Ad gentes divinitus, no. 23). This usage is confirmed by the Code of Canon Law (cc. 781 and 784). However, it would be perilous and lead to a fallacious conclusion to interpret the word, which was adopted in the more restricted sense used in an earlier age, in light of today’s understanding, v.g. by not seeing in the word “missionary in the title of the Congregation as essentially including ordained priests and their ministry as pertaining to the very nature of the Congregation as founded by de Mazenod.

Other Post Vatican II Innovations – Oblation

There is no longer any mention in the Constitutions of a spiritual prefect of the brothers. The 1982 Constitutions for the first time established uniform norms for the length of temporary profession for all Oblates ‑ priests, scholastics, and brothers. All are required to make annual profession for a minimum of three years prior to perpetual oblation. Since no minimum age is specified, it is that of the Code of Canon Law ‑ eighteen and twenty-years completed for first and perpetual oblation respectively (cc. 656, § 1, and 658, § 1°).

Following the 1917 Code of Canon Law the Oblate Constitutions required separate novitiates for different categories of religious (1917 CIC c. 558). An individual transferring from one category to another had to make a new novitiate, unless an indult dispensing from the norm was received from the Holy See. This regulation was abolished by Pope Paul VI in 1969 (Renovationis causam, no. 27).

Likewise no distinction in the dress among various categories of Oblates is made by the 1982 Constitutions:

“The Oblate habit is the same as the clerical dress of the diocese in which we live. When we wear a cassock, our only distinctive sign is the Oblate cross”. (C 64)

Is there a difference in size of Cross of the clerical and lay members? It would seem that according to the spirit of the Constitutions (C 71), all Oblates should have Crosses of the same size, unless this would cause pastoral problems among the faithful. In such a case, the demands of the ministry would suggest that a difference be maintained. However, many bothers may prefer to wear the smaller Cross which they received on the day of their oblation; this is in accord with article 63 of the Constitutions.

Prior to the 1966 the brothers had no active role in the government of the Congregation, provinces, and houses. The 1966 General Chapter granted perpetually professed brothers the right to vote for delegates to General Chapters and to participate in the consultation for provincial. It also stated that a brother could be named treasurer. Superior General Léo Deschâtelets invited six brothers to the 1972 General Chapter, and they were given the right to vote by the Chapter. Among the many decisions made by that Chapter were that: for future chapters at least six brothers were to be named captitulants with the right to vote; brothers in perpetual vows were given active and passive vote, saving canonical requirements for certain offices; brothers could be local assistants, provincial consultors, and members of the general council; perpetually professed brothers could be appointed local superior with an indult from the Holy See. According to the 1982 Constitutions superiors, their vicars and replacements have to be priests (see C 82) but “a brother in perpetual vows may, in certain circumstances and with the necessary indult from the Holy See, be appointed superior of a local community” (R 90). Brothers in temporary vows were also granted consultative voice in certain cases. The 1986 General Chapter decided that the brothers were to be consulted prior to naming the brother capitulants from their region, and that regions with more than 200 brothers should have two brothers named as appointed capitulants, and those with more than 300 brothers would have three brothers capitulants.

Permanent Diaconate
The 1972 General Chapter approved the introduction of the permanent diaconate for suitably qualified brothers. The 1980 General Chapter spelled this out more clearly:

“If a Brother, in perpetual vows discerns that, in response to apostolic needs, the Lord is calling him to the permanent diaconate or to the priesthood, the Provincial in Council may admit him as a candidate after having been authorized to do so by the Superior General in Council.” (R 67)

Brothers, who are permanent deacons, although they are clerics, are still considered within the Congregation to belong to the category of brothers, and not that of clerics. Consequently they cannot be named superior, vicar or replacement without an indult from the Holy See (see C 82; R 90), but they can be among the brothers named by the Superior General as capitulants to general chapters (see R 112).

In his report on the state of the Congregation to the 1980 General Chapter, Superior General Fernand Jetté said:

“The Brothers have always been an important group in the Congregation’s life and activity. Without them, the Congregation would be incomplete. A person can have the vocation of being a religious missionary to the poor according to the Oblate charism without being called to the priesthood. Provinces ought to assure these Oblates, our missionary Brothers, an adequate human and religious, pastoral and professional formation, a formation which respects their own distinct vocation and which provides, for them as for the Fathers, opportunities of re-training and means of integral growth. “ (A.A.G (1980), no. 39)

Six years later in his report to the 1986 General Chapter, Fernand Jetté spoke again of the brothers and their special role in the life of the Congregation:

“We must respect and promote the vocation of the Oblate Brother, in the specific quality that is proper to it. He is a religious-missionary. We should not be trying to make him a deacon or a priest, unless we are faced with a new call which is then to be submitted to serious discernment (R 67). The vocation of a Brother is a vocation that is complete in itself. It has a positive definition, namely, the vocation of a Christian who is called to be an Oblate religious missionary to the poor; it should not be defined negatively as the vocation of an Oblate who is not called to the priesthood... We must refrain from presenting the Congregation under such labels as “Congregation of the Oblate Fathers,” as though it consisted only of priests...

“Historically speaking, the Brothers in the Congregation have played and continue to play an important role, both in terms of maintaining the Congregation’s religious life and of augmenting the effectiveness of her missionary activity. The Brothers’ role is meant to develop even further with the growth of the laity’s role in the Church and as studies on “the ministries are pursued in greater depth. Where, for example, Rule 3 says that “through their technical, professional or pastoral service they are often able to exercise a fruitful ministry...”, would it not be more correct to say: “The ministry proper to them in the work of evangelization is their technical, professional or pastoral service”? Do not such services become ministry from the fact that the Brothers have received a mission they are to fulfill as religious in the Church?” (A.A.G” (1986), nos. 9 and 10).

William H. Woestman, o.m.i.

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