Narrow definitions of rich realities are often not helpful. They restrict our understanding rather than amplify it. Here, rather than define, I will attempt a broad description of the vocation of brothers in the Congregation of the Mission today, leaving room for further developments in the future just as there has been considerable evolution in the past.
Below, I offer seven key elements in the vocation of a Vincentian brother today and tomorrow. As is evident, some of them were key elements in the past too, even if with different nuances.
Brothers in the Congregation of the Mission are lay men living in community, together with priests and clerics, following Christ the Evangelizer and Servant of the Poor.
The emphasis here is on the lay vocation of brothers. While Vincent in his time strongly accented the lay aspect of the brothers’ vocation, he did so within a highly clericalized framework. For him, explicitly, the dignity of priesthood far outshone that of being a brother. Though Vincent treated the brothers well and most of the brothers loved him, they were often regarded as servants of the priests in the Congregation. In the twenty-first century, the dignity of the lay vocation has received a new emphasis, with particular stress on the universal call to mission, the universal call to holiness, and the universal call to create a civilization of love. Brothers are full members of the Congregation, called to embrace and live out the purpose and lifestyle of the Congregation in full equality with the priests and clerics, while doing so in a lay manner.
In the footsteps of Christ, they vow to serve the poor for their whole lives, in community, and to live in chastity, poverty, and obedience.
From the start, brothers in the Congregation, like the priests, pronounced vows. In fact, the brothers showed up in force on October 22, 1655, when Vincent asked the confreres to gather at the Motherhouse for a reading of the papal brief Ex Commissa Nobis, approving the four vows of the Congregation. It was quite a day! The brief was read aloud in Latin and then, for the brothers, in French. Those present was asked to sign a document to testify that “they accepted a brief of this kind and submitted themselves to it.” The number of brothers who signed at Sant-Lazare over the course of a few days was almost equal to the number of priests. Brothers made up 1/3 of the Congregation at that time.
They are committed to a life of daily prayer in common with the priests and clerics of the Congregation.
In his comments about brothers, Vincent spoke again and again about their prayer. He told the priests, the sisters and the seminarians how impressed he was by it. Personally, over the years, I have been struck by the same phenomenon: some of the most prayerful confreres whom I have ever known (as far as one can judge externally) have been brothers.
On the bottom line, a life of prayer, service, and mutual friendship is what draws people to communities. As Vincent often noted: someone who prays can do everything; someone who does not pray is empty.
In this context, Vincent’s statement that the brothers exercise the office of Martha clearly needs considerable nuancing. While brothers often joyfully assume Martha’s servant role in community, they also eagerly take on the listening/praying role of Mary.
In responding to the universal call to holiness, they strive, in their lay vocation, to grow in the five characteristic Vincentian virtues of simplicity, humility, gentleness, self-denial, and zeal.
Francis de Sales had an enormous influence on Vincent. Today, many say that Vincent was more “Salesian” than “Bérullian.” Vincent often referred to Francis’ book The Introduction to a Devout Life, where the universal call to holiness is described in detail.
If the five virtues are central in the life of all members of the Congregation, they seem (if one may say this) all the more characteristic of the life of brothers, since so much of their service is often humble and hidden.
The scope of their service to the poor and to their Vincentian community is extraordinarily broad.
It embraces “traditional” forms of manual labor that enrich daily life in community, as well as a remarkably broad variety of other services. Today, a huge number of ministries lie open to brothers. In my lifetime, I have known brothers who served joyfully as farmers, cooks, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, drivers, teachers, and computer specialists. Today, I know brothers who bring creative competence to setting up websites and animating local communities through song and art. Brothers serve as treasurers, provincial planners, heads of local comunidades de base, instructors in high schools and universities, translators, leaders of prayer, catechists, presiders at services of the Word of God, ministers to the sick in their homes and in hospitals, and, directly or indirectly, as servants of the neediest.
Their age of entry and their educational level at the time of entry will vary.
As in St. Vincent’s time, much will depend on when a candidate hears God’s call, on the gifts God has given him, on his attraction to and ability to live the Vincentian vocation, and on the discernment process into which he will enter within the community.
In other words, there is no single type of brother, no mold. This creates a challenge. In the vocation of a brother, perhaps even more than in the vocation of a priest, reciprocal discernment about how a brother might best serve is essential. The Congregation is called to listen to the gifts and desires of the candidate. The candidate is called to listen to the hopes and needs of the Congregation. Mutuality is indispensable. The formation process for a candidate for brotherhood will flow from this dialogue
While the general outline of the Congregation’s formation of brothers is described in the Ratio Formationis, it must be creatively adapted to the age and talents of candidates.
As with all members of the Congregation, formation for brothers is a lifelong process. Here, however, let me offer a precision. Sometimes we think of ongoing formation as an obligation to continue our formation after the period of initial formation has ended. Written from that perspective, the Ratio Formationis treats ongoing formation in its eighth and last chapter. But it is really the other way around. Ongoing formation should be first! Lifelong formation is the basic, underlying obligation for all of us. It is crucial for our growth and continued renewal. The various stages of formation (what we call “initial” and “ongoing”) should fit into a coherent lifelong process. Someone who at any time stops being formed stagnates and dies.
 Discourse in Romania, May 2, 2019.
 Cf. Amedeo Cencini, “Crear una Cultura Vocacional Hoy,” VICENTIANA (Año 63. N°1. Enero-marzo 2019) 92-93. Cencini treats this theme convincingly in many of his books. Cf. also, Rolando Gutiérrez, C.M., Donde Dios nos quiere (CEME & La Milagrosa. 2020).