[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

SFWRITER.COM > Nonfiction > My Day with the Jesuit Brothers

My Day with the Jesuit Brothers

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1985.

Commissioned by and first published in the March 1985 issue of Compass: A Jesuit Journal.

I was sure I'd walked into the wrong room. Here were two dozen men, middle-aged for the most part, dressed as if they'd just finished eighteen holes of golf: slacks, turtlenecks and sports jackets. True, one older gentleman was wearing a clerical collar, but, since I was on the second floor of Manresa Retreat House in Pickering, Ontario, this came as no surprise. These men, seated on a mismatched collection of couches and chairs, were talking and joking in little groups. I stepped from the doorway to make room for a husky fellow carrying a case of beer on his shoulder.

Another man entered the room. He walked quickly across the wide floor and scooped a silver object out of a chair so that he could sit down. As he put the object aside I saw that it was the remote control for the colour TV in the corner. "Sinful," the new-comer said in mock contempt.

"Don't worry, John," replied a white-haired man next to him. "Ignatius had one. He and Xavier used to fight over who got to use it."

A Jesuit joke? Then these were the Jesuit Brothers I had come to meet! I took a seat near the door.

The first thing I wanted to know was why these men had become Brothers. "I couldn't get into the sisters," quipped one.

The youngest man in the room, Kim Kenney, had a more serious response: "There are three separate and unique calls: Sisters, Priests, and Brothers. It is my call to be a Brother — a consecrated layman. I was not called to be a Priest or a deacon."

Brother Terry Gainer looked in my direction. "You see, the Brotherhood is non-sacramental."

John Masterson — the man who had found the remote control — nodded his head. "The Brother's life is a very special call and a very rare vocation. So much of his life is a mystery to outsiders."

So far, anyway. But I was determined to get a clear picture. Are the Brothers Priests in training? "Not at all," said Kenney. "It's a totally separate vocation." A look at the Bible shows that Christ did indeed establish the Brotherhood and the Priesthood separately. The Brothers trace their roots to Matthew 19:21, in which Christ said to the rich young man, "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, ... and come, follow Me." The Priesthood, on the other hand, arose from Luke 22:19, the Last Supper. Christ requested his followers to "do this in remembrance of Me." I learned, however, that on rare occassions a man does leave the Brotherhood in order to become a Priest.

The men I was speaking to had simply chosen one vocation rather than the other. "I've not been ordained to say mass because I don't feel called to do that," said Kenney. "Many people don't understand my not wanting to be ordained. When I say I won't be, some people say, `What a waste!' They want to know `if not a Priest, then why not at least a deacon?'"

A man on the other side of the room was nodding his head in agreement. He turned out to be Bob Finlay, the Brother who had invited me over the phone to visit Manresa. "There's a stigma associated with being a Brother," he said. It developed that some people look at Brothers as not being in the same league as Priests, sort of second-rate religious.

Kenney objects to that stereotype. "I'm a Jesuit first," he said, "and then a Brother. I was called to be a layman in the Society." He has an intriguing way of describing the differences between Priests and Brothers: "It's like officers and enlisted men," he said. "You need both if you're going to get things done."

Finlay leaned forward in his chair. "Some people become Fathers even though they'd rather do the kinds of things Brothers do. But they don't have courage enough to become a Brother."

"There used to be an image of Brothers as servants to Priests," said Gainer. "Since Vatican II, we've been sliding away from that. There's been an opening of church windows, a whiff of fresh air. The clear lines between Father and Brother have blurred."

The Brothers take the same three vows Jesuit Priests take: obedience, chastity, and poverty. "That's the attraction of being a Brother," said Kenney. "Being consecrated. Taking those three vows."

John Masterson agrees. "My relationship to God is totally different because I've lived this life for thirty years."

The vows lead to the Biblical State of Perfection, something both Brothers and Priests seek. However, the Priesthood is not a state, but rather an office with clearly-defined duties. The Brothers perform a broader range of tasks than the Priests because they do not hold a prescribed office.

In Finlay's eyes, obedience "is the basis of all Christian life. The Brother's life is one of commitment and service for the glory of God."

The other two vows, poverty and chastity, certainly simplify mortal existence. Still, the price — giving up having a family — seems high. "I've got a family," said Brother Ray Fairney firmly. "I work with children. To them I'm not Brother Ray. I'm their brother, Ray."

There's also the family of Jesuits. "Community is very important," said Bob Finlay. "I live in a house with eight people. There are seven guest rooms for Jesuits passing through Toronto."

Terry Gainer agrees. "Brothers and Fathers are one community now. It didn't used to be that way: we used to have separate recreation rooms. Now we support each other."

The lifestyle is one that would appeal to many. "Nobody tells me when to get up, when to start work, when to pray," said John Masterson. Kim Kenney nodded. "You make your own way as you go along."

But what exactly does a Jesuit Brother do? "I have a friend who is a very successful professional man," said Masterson. "We had lunch a while ago and he asked me exactly what kind of work I did as a Jesuit Brother. I told him I manage a retreat centre, look after food for the centre, work at retreat weekends — a variety of domestic jobs. He looked at me and said `My God, you're nothing but a common ordinary working man!' I looked back and said, `Since when has that been a disgrace?'"

Brother Ray Fairney echoed Masterson's point. "We do whatever's necessary. We do the physical work."

And how are their tasks assigned?

"They use a laying-on-of-hands technique," said Brother Frank Dolese. "'Thou art a cook. Thou art a teacher.'" But what if a Brother isn't happy with his assigned tasks? "He does as he's told," snaps Dolese, the man I'd noted earlier who was wearing clerical dress.

The other Brothers aren't as hard-nosed. "That's the way it was," said Brother Gainer. "Things are different now. They take into account your interests and skills and try to match them to the tasks at hand."

Does it always work out? "You do get some square pegs in round holes," said Dolese, softening a bit.

"I'm given my job and they trust that I can handle it," said Masterson. "Of course, if it's not working out, I hear about it."

Though the jobs tend to be manual labour, Brothers also work as accountants and trainers. "We help prepare laymen to take over as church administrators or to become teachers themselves," said Kenney, himself an accountant prior to joining the Brotherhood.

"Whatever the job is," said Masterson, "it will be one you can do."

And what do Brothers do after they retire? Terry Gainer smiled. "There's no such thing as retirement in the conventional sense." Kenney agrees: "We've got an 80-year-old picking apples and a 71-year-old carpenter." Of course, the Society looks after those who grow infirm or require medical care. Just behind Manresa is a home for older Jesuits. Some of the Brothers work there.

Bob Finlay, who looks after printing and book binding at Regis College in Toronto, wants to demolish another stereotype. "There's an image of the Brother as uneducated. That's changing. Brothers now pursue their education as needed."

Kim Kenney nodded. "There's a Brother in the U.S. who's working on his Ph.D. now."

Of course, the Jesuit Brothers hadn't gathered solely for my benefit. They had their own agenda for the meeting. A major portion of it was given over to the problem of the Brotherhood's declining numbers. Kim Kenney, 32, is the first new Brother in Upper Canada Province in 16 years. And all told, there are only 37 Brothers in the Province.

John Masterson led the discussion. "I've visited communities were there haven't been Brothers in my lifetime," he said. "Promoting the Brother's vocation has to be a high priority. We've got to get our own people behind the effort" — referring not just to the Jesuit Brothers but also their higher-profile colleagues, the Jesuit Fathers. "External promotion is creating a problem for us. We suffer from lack of exposure."

Why is it difficult to get Brothers?

"The commitment scares them off," said Kenney.

Brother Dolese agrees. "Lots of young people are willing to commit themselves 100% for five years. But five hundred years? They laugh at you."

"That's true," said another Brother. "Today's young people have trouble with nuns and with our vocation. For instance, there are lots of young women who help in the church, doing all sorts of things. They're delighted to be doing it, too. But you'd shock them if you suggested they become nuns."

Just how firm is the commitment a Brother must make? "It takes two years to become a Brother," said Kenney, who himself has been working on it for six months now. The two years are like an engagement before marriage, in which the novice lives by the vows. If he wishes to leave during this time, he may. For that matter, if he doesn't seem to be fitting in, he may be asked to go. At the end of the two years, a formal commitment is made. Once the final vows are taken he is a Brother for life. Only under extraordinary circumstances will the Holy See in Rome release a Brother from his vows.

One Brother nodded slowly as he recalled his vows. "Chastity. Obedience. Poverty. All opposite to what I'd naturally want. But the vows are wonderful, they mould our entire being." He paused for a moment, as if deciding whether to continue. "There's a problem within the church — this business of not accepting Brothers. Say I'm 20 years old. I could become a Brother. Or I could go into the Permanent Deaconate. A Deacon is very close to God, too, and he can have a wife and family. How do we offset that? All the things a Brother does can be done at a higher level of church acceptance by a Deacon."

Masterson is worried. "Brothers are part of the total charisma of the Society. If the Brothers disappear, it will be a totally different Society than the one Ignatius founded."

By now lunch time had rolled around. I'd been invited to break bread with these Brothers. I was prepared for just that: a simple, ritualized meal. I wasn't prepared for my choice of lasagna or beef macaroni, soup, and fresh fruit and cookies for dessert. There's no denying that the three vows do require sacrifices, but the Brothers don't skimp when it comes to food. They work hard and they eat well.

I chose to sit with Brother Dolese. I wanted to ask him why he alone wore traditional religious clothing. "They all should," he said firmly. He gave me a photocopy of a 17-year-old article entitled Dress for the Male Religious. The view of Dolese, and of the article's author, Michigan Jesuit Nicholas A. Predovich, is that the clerical collar and cassock are important symbols of a Brother's witnessing, one of many signs of his deep, specific Christian commitment.

I stole a word with Terry Gainer about the casual clothes he and his colleagues wore. "I have a cassock," he said. "But it's been ages since I've worn it. That's one of the things that's changed since Vatican II." Another of my preconceptions had to be given up. Instead of a static, tradition-bound organization, I was seeing a dynamic group, in which the older and younger generations had differing views.

After lunch I went for a walk around the grounds of Manresa with Brother Ray Fairney. It was an early spring day, some snow still on the ground, the towering trees still without leaves. To many people, spring means baseball. I was surprised to find it held the same connotation for Brother Fairney. He goes off to Toronto to see the Blue Jays play when he has a chance: the Brothers have season's tickets and they take turns going. Of course, if there's work to be done, no one goes to the game, but usually the schedules can be juggled so that everyone has a little time for himself.

"Sometimes when I'm in Toronto I see a book on baseball that I want," Fairney said. "Of course, I don't have any money of my own; that's part of the vow of poverty. But if I make a reasonable request for something — a paperback, say; not one of those $20 hardcovers — then usually they'll let me get it."

Enjoying Brother Fairney's company, I hadn't realized how far we'd walked from the main building. We turned around and headed back. I asked him what a Brother's social life is like. "If you're the kind who'd be a loner on the outside, then you'd be a loner in the Brotherhood," he said. "But if you mix well with people, you'll fit in well here."

All too soon my time with the Brothers of the Society of Jesus had come to an end. A Brother named Gerry Forest drove me back to the train station. Of course, the car wasn't his. "It's a company car," he said with a laugh. As we pulled into the station, I asked him perhaps the most important question of all. Is he happy being a Brother? There was no hesitation in his reply. "In July, I'll have been a Brother for 20 years. If I had it to do over, I'd do it again. It's a good life."

More Good Reading

An interview with Rob about the process of being interviewed (1,500 words)
Top Ten Things to Know About Robert J. Sawyer
Nonfiction Index

My Very Occasional Newsletter

About Rob
Book Clubs
Press Kit
How to Write
Email Rob
Canadian SF



Copyright © 1995-2024 by Robert J. Sawyer.