A Life Dedicated to Others

A 'good brother' helps us understand and appreciate the sacred world of lifelong devotion

As someone who was raised Lutheran, the secret world of religious brothers and monks has been a fascinating mystery to me for years — one that I only recently began to unravel after converting to Catholicism four years ago.

(I felt that I understood nuns pretty well after growing up watching “The Flying Nun” and “The Sound of Music” — but I digress.)

There are clear differences between brothers, friars, monks, and priests — differences worth clarifying, as well as the different types of vocations for a priest.

A Catholic priest is a man who has received the Sacrament of Holy Orders and studied in a seminary to take on the duties of a priest. Those duties include celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Sacrament of Reconciliation (hearing confessions, assigning penance, and giving absolution), and celebrating other Sacraments that only a priest is permitted by the church to perform.

While priests all share these essential core duties, there are differences between priests who are part of a religious order geared toward service among the public (friars), priests who live cloistered in a convent or monastery (monks), and diocesan priests (the most common) who are pastors at individual parishes in communities all over the world.

I was Catholic for nearly a year before I’d learned that not all religious brothers are priests — and not all are considered monks. Turns out I had much to learn about these prayerful men in robes (of different colors depending on the order), so I turned to an expert — a brother himself.

My family’s spiritual home in Philadelphia is a parish run by the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy. Our church is run not by monks, but by religious friars. Friars — from fraire, which in the Middle Ages meant “brother” — are religious brothers who pray and work among the public. They work in parishes, hospitals, schools, and other locations.

Monks live, work, and pray inside a cloistered monastery. So our parish differs from the overwhelming majority of parishes headed by a Diocesan priest. This afforded me easy access to get the truth directly from the friar’s mouth, so to speak.

I had seen men who wore brown robes or black robes, but the friars who live and work at our parish wear robes of white. This is the habit of the order, much like a religious sister or a nun’s religious garments are called habits, and they differ in style or color for different orders.

Brother Matthew Levis, O. de M., lives and works at Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Philadelphia. The “O. de M.” after his name means “Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy,” and he was kind enough to fill in the many gaps in my knowledge. He is 51 years old, exceedingly friendly, and told me his nickname is “The Good Brother” (although in my experience his other brothers are just swell, too).

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Brother Matthew first explained to me that within a religious order, “We’re all brothers first. Out of the brotherhood comes a second vocation — if you’re called to that — and that is the priesthood.”

So here was the explanation I was looking for: Not all friars (and not all monks) are priests, BUT all priests within a religious order are brothers.

The path toward religious life is long and requires patience, sacrifice, and hard work. There are many different orders and sometimes a community might not be the right fit. Brother Matthew’s journey led him first to the Redemptorists and then to the Alexians — but in neither order did he profess lifetime vows.

He refused to give up. He knew God was calling him to religious life, so he tried one more time. As he tells it, he opened a Catholic magazine to the back pages, closed his eyes, and plopped his finger down. When he opened his eyes, his finger had landed on an ad for the Mercerdarians. (Cue laughter!)

I’m fairly certain Brother Matthew’s decision making process wasn’t quite as simple as that.

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After doing more research (that doubtless involved keeping his eyes open this time), he applied and was accepted to enter the postulancy of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy. A postulant is a man who is strongly considering entering into the order permanently, but has not made any vows.

Brother Matthew spent nine months as a postulant, and then one year as a novice (a man who has been accepted into the community and receives the title “brother” but has not taken any vows). Then came six years of simple vows that are binding for one year and are renewed each year until the solemn vows are professed. The three solemn vows that are common to most religious orders of men are poverty, chastity, and obedience.

For the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy, there is a rare and fourth solemn vow: to die in place of captive Christians in danger of apostasy and death.

Becoming a professed, lifelong member of a religious order involves dedicating oneself wholly to the will of God and obedience to the mission of the order. As Brother Matthew told me, “We receive the title ‘brother’ when we enter into community, but to brother as a verb — to be someone’s spiritual brother, to meet that person’s needs with compassion and the love of Christ — that’s what brotherhood is.”

May God bless all those who hear the call and have the courage to follow it.

Jewels Green is a mother, writer, public speaker and advocate for the right to life from conception to natural death.