Jesuit Brothers: Companions in Jesus, Partners in Mission

By Therese Meyerhoff and Mike Gabriele

In the beginning, the Society of Jesus was made up of pilgrims and preachers and priests. They had mystics and missionaries … but not a carpenter or cook among them. The original companions were men of many talents who sought to bring souls closer to God, but they were unprepared to make their own meals or clothing, let alone build schools.

And so, just six years after the founding of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius Loyola petitioned the pope to allow the admission of lay co-adjutors—or helpers—more commonly known as brothers. His request was approved, and brothers began to build the Society.

“Although Saint Ignatius founded a ‘priestly order,’ it became immediately apparent that if the priests were to do their ministry, ‘coadjutors’ or assistants were needed to build and maintain the institutions, as well as to provide for the necessities of daily living.” (Jerome Neyrey, SJ, in Indispensable Companions: Jesuit Brothers of the South from Colonial Times to the Present).

Saint Ignatius outlined in the General Examen that brothers would help with the “necessary exterior matters,” which were generally understood as the more hands-on tasks, but he also noted that brothers "may be employed in more important matters in accordance with the talent God gave them.” (The Formula of the Institute of the Society of Jesus, in the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus)

“They came with considerable craft,” Fr. Neyrey said. Many, in fact, were true artisans, including architects and artists whose work has stood the test of time. But others entered with limited training, and the Constitutions at the time forbade brothers from seeking additional education. Even after the restoration of the Society in 1814, the role of Jesuit brothers was more menial in nature, and a sense of class began to emerge within the Society and within Jesuit communities. The brothers attended to the physical, earthly needs of the community, serving as cooks, gardeners, tailors and infirmarians. As needs evolved, they became mechanics, plumbers and electricians. Well into the 20th century, the work of the Jesuit brother was hidden— priests were public figures, and brothers quietly did what was needed for priests to do their sacramental work. Today, however, the educational requirements for a Jesuit brother are similar to those of a Jesuit priest. So how did these post-suppression laborers evolve into today’s Renaissance men?

Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, stands by the CERN particle accelerator, a massive machine designed to test the theories of particle physics. Much of Brother Guy’s work as a researcher and astronomer uses scientific knowledge to strengthen our faith in an awesome, almighty God.

The role of the brother began to change significantly in—when else?— the 1960s. The Society’s 31st General Congregation, convened in 1965, attempted to eliminate social distinctions between brothers and priests in community life by affirming that brothers "have a full share" in the apostolic vocation with priests. “My generation of brothers experienced a major change in ‘the life of a Jesuit Brother’ because of GC-31,” said Brother Donald Murray, SJ, who served for more than 30 years at Boston College High School and currently assists the Advancement Office for the USA Northeast Province. “By an act of this Congregation, we brothers were totally incorporated into the life of the Society. As a Jesuit Brother, I am most grateful to GC-31 for this gift.”

Jesuit brothers today can still be found caring for sick Jesuits … or ailing boilers. But they also serve as high school teachers, campus ministers, researchers and scientists. Perhaps one of the best-known Jesuit brothers is Guy Consolmagno, SJ, of the Maryland Province, who serves as director of the Vatican Observatory. “I don’t think I ever had a reply to a prayer more clear and insistent than my vocation to be a brother,” he said. When asked if being a Jesuit brother has contributed to his work as a scientist: his answer is just as clear and insistent, “It has made all the difference in the world! I love science, but I hate the politics of grants and competition that too often goes with the academic world. As a member of an order, I am free to pursue science for the only good reason—that it is fun! Which is to say, it gives me the joy that I find is a marker of God’s presence.”

Brothers are occasionally referred to as “lay religious.” They live in religious communities and they profess vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but they are not ordained priests, nor are they preparing for ordination. Instead, the brotherhood is a vocation of its own, one that, for many, is just the right fit.

“Being a brother relieves me of the task of doing public ministry,” explained Brother Guy. “It makes it easier for me to be a director of the work.”

Brother Chris Derby, SJ, a seasoned teacher and spiritual director, credits a loving care for his brother with special needs growing up and his call to serve others as a Jesuit brother.

Brother Christopher Derby, SJ, a USA Northeast Jesuit currently serving as director of the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, Pa., feels that his vocational pursuit as a brother stemmed partly from his childhood days caring for his own brother. “My brother Brian had cerebral palsy, and we shared a room until I was in high school,” explained Brother Derby. “Because he was non-verbal, his feelings and needs had to be translated to the world outside our family. He had to be fed, changed and carried, and I participated in all those activities. When I was a Jesuit Volunteer and began considering a vocation, I was attracted to the Society of Jesus by the Jesuits with whom I lived and worked at Nativity Mission Center on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The Jesuits there were dedicated to the disadvantaged Latino youth of the neighborhood, and they did their work in a humble, joyful way that was powerfully attractive to me. Although I did not feel a calling to become a priest, when I found out the Society also had brothers, I began considering how God had shaped my life through my relationship to my own brother. The role of ‘brother’ has always been incredibly meaningful to me, rich with possibilities for humble service and companionship. It has never seemed to me a ‘second-best’ or ‘second-class’ calling.”

The Jesuit Brothers Committee of Canada and the United States plays an important role in the changing perceptions of the vocation to the brotherhood. It first began in 1978, and lasted only a year. It was reinstituted at the request of the U.S. provincials in 1980 to represent Jesuit brothers and promote the vocation.

In the early years of the Society, as many as 25% of Jesuits were brothers. Today there are fewer than 100 brothers in Canada and the United States, less than 5% of the total number of Jesuits. Few understand this better than Brother Thomas Kretz, SJ, of the Maryland Province, who has dedicated much of his work to researching and chronicling the history of Jesuit brothers. “So much of what was out there was simply not true,” said Brother Kretz. “I wanted to set the record straight, so I began cataloging every Jesuit brother in the history of the Society, some 83,000 brothers.” From architects and masons, to cooks and farmers, brothers were the behind the scenes force that kept the Jesuit communities operating and their apostolic missions thriving.

Brother Thomas Kretz, SJ, stands by the thousands of sheets that make up his research and cataloging of Jesuit brothers from the dawn of the Society of Jesus.

“Brothers were often the ones giving extra food and clothing to the slaves,” continued Brother Kretz. “Many do not realize that Fr. Peter Claver, an early Jesuit saint known for his dedicated care for thousands of slaves brought from Africa to Colombia, actually had a Jesuit brother working closely with him. It makes perfect sense!”

Brother Kretz also pointed out that just before the suppression ofthe Society in the mid-eighteenth century, many Jesuit provinces consisted of up to 45% brothers. A lot has changed. The decline in the number of Jesuit brothers is a concern to some. In 1978, Superior General Pedro Arrupe, SJ, maintained that the brothers' contribution, “both to community life and that of the apostolate, is irreplaceable … the extinction of this grade of Brothers would be a great loss, a mutilation with grave consequences for the body of the Society and for its apostolate.”

Fortunately, men still hear the invitation to serve as Jesuit brothers. Those entering the Society of Jesus in recent years are intentional in their vocation; they choose the brotherhood because of the “fit,” not because of obstacles such as age or limited education.

When speaking about the Brother’s vocation, a more recent Superior General, Peter Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, who passed away in 2016, often stressed that, “Religious life begins with a non-hierarchical notion of fraternal life, with priesthood added on later.”

Brother Derby agrees. “At the very core of being a brother is the idea of accompanying people as an equal. When we call a priest ‘Father,’ we register an authority, but when we call someone ‘Brother’ or ‘Sister,’ we address them more as a peer. It is an absolute joy when someone says to me, ‘Hey, Bro!’”

Yesterday, today and tomorrow—Jesuit brothers go wherever they are needed and do whatever needs to be done, as “Bros” to their fellow Jesuits,and as “Bros” to all of us looking to find God in all things.

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