Br. Ken Cole, 49, is originally from Kitchener, Ont. He has been with the Capuchin Franciscans for five years and will take final, solemn vows next year. A former salesman, he came to realize he was meant for a life of service. Here he serves a meal at St. Francis’ Table in Toronto’s Parkdale area. Photo by Michael Swan

Where have all the brothers gone?

  • April 21, 2013

TORONTO - The thinnest section of the Canadian Catholic Church Directory is the five pages of “Religious Orders of Brothers.”

There are just over 1,000 brothers in Canada, compared to more than 6,000 priests. Not many of the remaining brothers are what anybody would call young.

“The brotherhood in itself is a tremendous vocation,” said Capuchin vocations director Fr. Louis Mousseau.

However, among the 30 Capuchin Franciscans in Canada, only four are brothers. St. Francis would be perplexed. He set out to found a brotherhood and refused to be ordained himself, despite the urging of bishops.

St. Francis only allowed a few brothers to be ordained as a sort of concession. If his brothers were going to live together in friaries they would need someone to say Mass and hear confessions. Rather than bring in a priest from outside (not always possible in little Italian villages of the 13th century) the brothers would choose one of their number to take on the burden of Holy Orders.

These days, it’s rare for anyone to approach the Capuchins asking about the brotherhood.

“It’s a tougher vocation to sell,” said Mousseau. “First of all, not only am I selling celibacy but I’m selling poverty and I’m selling community. It’s a lot more of a challenge for young people, especially today.”

Mostly Mousseau meets young men who are shopping around among religious orders for a path to priesthood. They are attracted by the idea of community and cool to the often isolating experience of the diocesan priesthood.

Ken Cole is the exception. The 49-year-old from Kitchener, Ont., has been with the Capuchins five years and will take final, solemn vows next year.

“I’m not called to priesthood,” he said. “That’s not what my call is. We all have to respond to what God calls us to do.”

In his early 40s, Cole had “the spiff apartment and the nice car and all the toys.” He was a successful wholesale heating and plumbing salesman who began to spend his spare time haunting churches, drop-ins and shelters. Rather than seeing himself at the altar, be began to understand himself as a servant.

Service as a religious vocation is a difficult concept in our time, he said.

“We live in a world where nobody supports anybody. It’s capitalism. We’re out for what we can get — and I did that all my adult life,” he said. “And it got me nothing. I got to the top of the mountain and there was nothing there. Being a brother, being a servant, being part of a community that gives you that more. It’s hard to explain. At the end of the day, I’m called to this.”

Working at St. Francis’ Table in Toronto’s Parkdale area — serving up chicken and mashed potatoes, mopping floors, talking to survivors of the mental health system — Cole finds satisfaction. He also encounters frequent bewilderment from young volunteers and even his own family.

“They ask me what I do, what my role is,” he said. “I say, ‘I’m a brother’ and they say, ‘What is that?’ ”

When Cole told his sister he was excited to be moving to Parkdale to work at St. Francis’ Table, she couldn’t fathom it.

“God love her, she didn’t get it,” said Cole. “She really did not understand it. But that’s OK. I’m not here to make sense. God rarely makes sense, I think. He does things in surprising ways and using tools you wouldn’t expect. So, you’ve got a plumbing and heating salesman.”

At one time the majority of brothers in Canada came from farming families. They were used to working with their hands and had a wide variety of skills. Given their experience, they could see anything from herding cows and driving a tractor to maintaining boilers and shovelling snow as a religious vocation, said Mousseau.

These days the people enquiring about religious life frequently have university degrees and seldom can change a washer to stop a dripping faucet.

“If you ask them, ‘Can you be a mechanic?’ not so many will pursue that as a vocation,” Mousseau said.

Many priests in religious orders are rediscovering their first vocation to the brotherhood, said Oblate Father Miroslaw Olszewski.

“When you look in the history of religious life, it was not about the priesthood,” he said. “People were leaving their cities and going into the wilderness. That is the place where they wanted to follow Jesus, to live closer to God.”

The evangelical counsels — vows of poverty, chastity and obedience which bind religious brothers, sisters and priests but not diocesan priests — don’t necessarily relate to the sacramental, governing, preaching or teaching roles that define priesthood.

“Religious life wasn’t the priesthood. It was to live the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience,” Olszewski said.

“Even in our congregation we are all brothers. First of all we are religious. Then we realize our life in different ways.”

Olszewski spent years as formation director in Cameroon, where African novices easily understood that if the goal is community, brotherhood is the glue holding it together. In the novitiate Oblate candidates were all prepared for life as brothers. Who was called to priesthood was a conversation reserved for later. Capuchin Franciscans also base their formation process on the brotherhood.

“When I go out looking for vocations, I talk about a brotherhood in which some of us become priests, some of us become social workers, some of us may be teachers, and so forth. But the initial formation is the same for everybody,” Mousseau said.

“When I was a boy I thought about being a priest,” said Cole.

“But I thought no, no, no — that’s not for me. Being with the poor directly, being on the street, that’s where I’m from, that’s what I do, that’s where the call is strongest for me.”

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