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Path of religious brothers and priests is distinct
By Brandon A. Evans
While the life of a priest can be countercultural enough in our day and age, it is even more puzzling to some people why religious men would want to be “only a brother.”
It’s an attitude that Holy Cross Brother Joseph Umile, president of Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis, has dealt with before.
“I’ve had people ask me how come I didn’t go all the way,” Brother Joseph said in regard to priestly ordination.
Many people see becoming a brother in a religious order as a step to the priesthood, he said, and the old joke was that brothers are religious who couldn’t learn Latin.
In reality, the lives of priests and brothers are unique paths within a religious community. The Congregation of Holy Cross is comprised of two equal societies of brothers and priests, most of whom focus on education.
The question that a man has to ask himself, Brother Joseph said, is how he sees himself functioning as a religious. What sets apart a priest is a special commitment to the sacraments—no matter if he has a parish assignment or not.
“The essence of their way of life is still to be the sacramental ministers of the Church, and that is fundamentally different than a brother,” he said.
For him, “it really wasn’t a question.”
Today, he added, most of their formation is done in such a way that the decision to become a priest or a brother is delayed until a man becomes a greater part of the community and religious life.
The realization of what God was calling Brother Joseph to do came while he was working as a French teacher in the Holy Cross high school he had attended. This was right after he completed his college education.
“I became interested and close to the brothers,” he said. “I kind of liked their vision of life and their community life.”
He began joining the brothers for shared meals and the Liturgy of the Hours, and in 1975 entered the community for a year, followed by a year in the novitiate, then nine years of work.
One of the challenges he encountered during his service in the community was related to his vow of obedience. While at a school in Connecticut, serving in a capacity that he felt was fruitful, Brother Joseph received a difficult request from his provincial superior.
“They needed somebody to go to Rome,” he said, to serve as the headmaster of a failing boarding school. It would be a position that would last for 10 years.
“It wasn’t like I was ordered to go,” he said, “but the provincial sits down and says ‘I really need you to do this.’ ”
“We trust that God speaks through our superiors,” he said, so it is with trust that a religious sees the requests of God in those of the superior. It is a situation in which “they need you to do something and you vowed that you would respond.
“As it turned out, it was in the beginning the most horrific experience of my life because I walked into a hornets’ nest,” Brother Joseph said.
The school was failing financially, enrollment was dropping and he had to learn Italian, on top of it all.
In the end, he wasn’t able to save the school, but still calls it “the time of my life that I remember the most.”
And, moreover, it prepared him to come to Bishop Chatard, which, 14 years ago, faced similar difficulties.
As president, he coordinates fundraising, alumni relations, planning and financing. Unlike a Holy Cross-run school, though, Brother Joseph is now separated by distance from other Holy Cross brothers or priests.
Still, for him it is not a cause of despair.
Not only does he see members of his congregation, and his province in New York, on a regular basis each year—both formally and informally—but he also lives with archdiocesan priests.
“It may not be a religious community, in the strictest sense, but I live within the context of a religious life,” Brother Joseph said.
Besides that, there is the comfort that he brings to our local Church through his presence as a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross.
“One of the very basic tenets of our congregation is wherever one of us is, our congregation is,” he said.
Being such a presence is also a way to witness to the young people he serves at Bishop Chatard.
He said that young people today seem more open than in years past to considering a life as a professed religious or diocesan priest.
He tries to tell them that such a vocation is “possible for anybody—just be open to it.”
Brother Joseph uses himself as the prime example, telling young people not to assume that because they did not get “the call” in high school or college that it doesn’t necessarily indicate what God wants for them.
“If you talked to me about being a brother or a priest in high school, I would have laughed in your face because there was nothing farther from my mind,” he said. “There is no right time for God’s call in a vocation. It can happen at any point.
“There’s no such thing as a delayed vocation or a late vocation,” he said. “It comes in its own due time.” †