Jesuit Brothers: Companions in Jesus, Partners in Mission

By Therese Fink Meyerhoff

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 – known more commonly as brothers. His request was approved, and brothers began to build the Society.  

“Although St. 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 "necessary exterior matters," generally understood as the more hands-on tasks. But Ignatius 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)

Brother Robert Macke takes measurements in the meteorite lab at the Vatican Observatory.

“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 forbade brothers seeking additional education, a rule adhered to (more or less) until later pronouncements from General Congregations. Today the educational requirements for a Jesuit brother are similar to those of a Jesuit priest.

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Following the restoration of the Society in 1814, the role of the Jesuit brothers devolved into one of more menial tasks, 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. They served as cooks, gardeners, tailors and infirmarians. As needs evolved, brothers became mechanics, plumbers and electricians. Well into the 20th century, the work of the Jesuit brother was hidden: while priests were public figures, brothers quietly did what was needed for priests to do their sacramental work. 

The role of the brother began to change significantly – when else? – in 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 "one and the same" apostolic vocation with priests. 

Five years later, the World Congress of Brothers proclaimed, "[H]ence there are no second-class Jesuits, but only companions in Jesus in one same apostolic work."  

Jesuit brothers today can still be found caring for sick Jesuits … or ailing boilers. But they also serve as high school teachers, campus ministers and researchers. Perhaps the best-known Jesuit brother is Guy Consolmagno, SJ, of the USA Midwest Province, who serves as director of the Vatican Observatory. Working with him is Br. Robert Macke of the USA Central and Southern (UCS) Province. Brother Macke may be one of the world’s foremost scholars on meteorites. 

Brother Lawrence Huck, SJ, also has a somewhat unusual role for Jesuit brothers. He was recently missioned as the Socius, or companion, to the novice director. He is the first Jesuit brother to serve in that position for the UCS province, a role of real significance in the life of any religious organization. He has also served as president of Good Shepherd Nativity School in New Orleans and taught and served in campus ministry at the Jesuit high schools in Tampa and New Orleans. As a master electrician, he also has the skill required to oversee the complete renovation of St. Charles College, the Jesuit community in Grand Coteau, La., as he did from 2010 to 2013.

Brother Lawrence Huck welcomes family members on entrance day at the novitiate.

Brother Huck sees the role of the brother as “the servant of the servants. Brothers are humble. They are generous. There is an earthiness that people are attracted to because they see Christ in that … Everyone needs a brother to talk with sometimes.” 

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. 

“Brothers can do anything and everything a priest can do, except sacramental ministry,” said Br. John Fava, who serves as a police chaplain in St. Louis. “I just think the opportunities for brothers are limitless.”

“We might think of brothers as exercising a priestly ministry—not only as members who support a corporate sacerdotal mission, but precisely in the way that they themselves, as individual brothers, bring Christ to the world and the world to Christ,” Br. William Rehg, SJ, wrote in Value and Viability of a Jesuit Brother's Vocation (Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits, Winter 2008). 

Brother William Rehg meets with a Jesuit scholastic in his office on the campus of Saint Louis University.

“The Jesuit brother, in other words, witnesses to the value of the Jesuit vocation precisely as a religious vocation, apart from any position one might have as a priest in the ministerial hierarchy.”

Brother Rehg first became interested in “some kind of religious or missionary life” while still in grade school. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1976 on the “priesthood track,” but requested a change in his grade to that of brother in 1988. 

“I really love being a Jesuit, but I was not attracted to the priesthood,” he said. Instead he was struck by the spirit of the brothers he saw in his community. “The vocation just fit.” 

After changing grades, he entered a doctoral program at Northwestern University. “At the time, it was still kind of unusual for a brother to get a Ph.D.,” he said. “You did not see a lot of brothers working in higher education.” He has taught philosophy at Saint Louis University since 1992 and currently serves as dean of the College of Philosophy and Letters, the department in which Jesuit scholastics study.

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, lasting only a year, before being reinstituted at the request of the U.S. provincials in 1980 to represent Jesuit brothers and promote the vocation. Two members of the UCS Province are active on the committee: Br. Huck and Br. Fava. 

Brother Fava entered the Society of Jesus because he wanted to teach and was attracted to Jesuit life. He first considered becoming a brother while in the novitiate, but it was while he was teaching that the idea really took hold. 

“How can I better serve the students? Do I need to be a priest to do this?” he asked himself. He determined that freedom from sacramental duties would allow more time and energy for his students; there is no doubt in his mind that he made the right decision. In another decision aimed at service to others, he later became a permanent deacon, enabling him to preside at weddings, baptisms and funerals. 

“I felt that God, the Society and God’s people were calling me to the permanent diaconate, to serve them,” Fava said. “I answered that call. I’m serving any way I can, and I enjoy doing it. I’m doing what I was called to do.”

Brother John Fava gives the invocation at the St. Louis City Police Academy graduation.

Brother Glenn Kerfoot met the Jesuits at Regis College (now University), where a Jesuit priest accompanied him through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults and baptized him. He began to consider life as a Jesuit. 

“When I think of my vocation story, I don’t consider it a ‘call,’ I consider it an invitation,” Br. Kerfoot says. “God sent an invitation, and it was up to me to reply.” He entered in 1986. 

Having grown up as a non-Catholic Christian, he was drawn to community life, to preaching, and to the study and sharing of Scripture, but not to the priesthood. “The priesthood never resonated with me,” he said. “I never felt like I had an invitation to the priesthood. I am called to be a Jesuit, but not to be a priest.” 

With a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s in theology, Br. Kerfoot served in campus ministry at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., for ten years and taught at St. John's College in Belize City, Belize, for another ten. He currently serves as the minister of Xavier Jesuit Center in Denver. 

Like Br. Rehg, Br. Kerfoot petitioned to change grades to become a brother. At the time, this was not uncommon: men drawn to the Society began the journey to priestly ordination only to discover their “invitation” to another vocation. 

Sometimes the invitation can evolve. Brother Kerfoot cites a Jesuit brother from the USA Northeast Province, George Williams, who changed from a scholastic to a brother. While serving as a prison chaplain, he knew he could better serve God’s people if he could grant absolution. So, he changed grades a second time to become a priest.

Brother Glenn Kerfoot's work as minister in a Jesuit community requires planning for and addressing a variety of needs.

In the early years of the Society, as many as 25 percent of Jesuits were brothers. Today there are fewer than 100 brothers in the United States, less than 5% of the total number of Jesuits. The UCS Province is home to 20 brothers. As with all brothers, they serve in a wide range of assignments, some scholarly, some ministerial, some hands-on. 

The decline in the number of Jesuit brothers is a concern to some. As far back as 1978, Superior General Pedro Arrupe 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 a Jesuit brother. The men 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.

“We are all part of the priestly charism of the Society. Brothers share in that. So, the question is, how do we help others encounter God?” Br. Kerfoot says. “Today the vocation of brother is as broad as the Society of Jesus. We go where the needs are.” 

“Ignatius thought obedience was the vow we should be best at,” Br. Rehg said. “To be a Jesuit is to be a person whose vocation is marked by obedience, an openness to being missioned. The Jesuit brother serves wherever and however he is needed.” 

Yesterday, today and tomorrow: Jesuit brothers go wherever they are needed and do whatever needs to be done. 

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Father Jerome Neyrey’s book Indispensable Companions: Jesuit Brothers of the South from Colonial Times to the Present can be ordered through Amazon



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