By Michael Breault, SJ
Here’s a startling fact: By the time of St. Ignatius’ death—a mere 15 years after the founding of the Society of Jesus—Jesuits had established 74 colleges on three continents. How did those hard-driven black robes, whose resources seldom matched their lofty ambitions, accomplish so much, so quickly? The simple answer is they didn’t do it by themselves. Jesuit brothers did much of the heavy lifting. Ignatius swiftly realized the need for non-ordained members who could supply essential support for the Society’s burgeoning apostolates. He began to admit men as brothers: laymen who, as consecrated religious, would share the same vows and community life as priests and scholastics (students training to be priests). Because they weren’t heading for ordination, the brothers didn’t need the long formation required of priests; they were ready for work sooner, and the rapidly growing Society put them to good use. They were bricklayers and farmers, skilled artisans and tradesmen; men who could build a house, stable a horse, cook for 50, run a vineyard or operate a printing press. They sailed to Brazil and helped to found São Paulo and Rio de Janiero. They crossed the Hindu Kush from India to China, canoed the waterways of the Great Lakes and trekked the passes of the Himalayas.
Most Jesuit brothers lived far more quotidian lives than their missionary companions, but whatever their work, it was always in support of the mission. Over time, however, a faint whiff of classism arose, a subtle bias that tended to characterize the brothers solely by the menial tasks they performed. Brother Daniel Peterson, who entered Sacred Heart Novitiate in 1961, a time when the entire country was locked in a struggle to dismantle discrimination, felt dissonance. He recalls thinking, “At a time of such upheaval and stratification, am I jumping into what amounts to a segregated society? Not discrimination based on race, but on the differences between vocations?” His classmate, Brother Douglas Draper remembers, “We lived in the same building as the scholastic novices but in separate wings; we didn’t socialize with them. We had a different novice master. We were destined to do trades. You know, a cook, a baker, a bookkeeper, whatever.”
All that was about to change. Vatican II called for—among many other things—a renewal of the religious orders. For the Jesuits, this included a multi-year reevaluation of the brothers’ vocation. Father Pedro Arrupe and successive Jesuit Superior Generals stressed that brothers were essential to the Society’s identity. Various General Congregations, while not doing away with a constitutional ban that excludes brothers from governance positions, promoted their full integration into the Society’s apostolates, encouraged them to pursue advanced degrees, and authorized them to work in their field of expertise outside the community.
“Vatican II opened the doors and windows for us,” says Br. Draper, who soon benefited from the Society’s reevaluation of the brothers. In 1966, he was missioned to St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco, to assist the dean of students. “I guess I made an impact,” he says with characteristic modesty, “because I was named the dean of students in 1969.” Br. Draper remained in that capacity for 42 years, the longest reign of any Jesuit high school dean in the country. His novice classmate, Br. Peterson, remembers, “Brothers started to be assigned more frequently to various apostolates. Those who didn’t have a college degree were encouraged to go after that. I already had my bachelor’s, so I went to San Jose State and obtained a master’s in librarianship.” Armed with the appropriate tools, Br. Peterson spent 25 productive years at St. Ignatius College Prep and then was appointed province archivist, a position he continues to hold.
Opening the door for more active apostolic engagement sometimes yielded surprising results. Brother Norbert “Biz” Korte went from typing invoices for the Jesuit
Novitiate Winery to suddenly becoming its principal salesman and public face. His image adorned countless national ads that carried the catchy slogan “Heavenly
Wines, Devilishly Good.” Br. Draper remembers Biz with fondness. “He felt that the brothers were treated like second-class citizens, so he always fought for us.”
When Br. Draper had doubts about continuing as dean of students, Biz urged him to carry on, arguing that the brothers needed to be out in the forefront where people could see them and emulate their lives. “Br. Korte was a real role model for me,” says Br. Draper.
Diversity of work has become something of a hallmark for today’s Jesuit brothers. Brother Ryan Mak has just completed medical school and will soon begin his residency at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. He is pictured on the cover of this magazine with Zosia Zdanowicz, a friend and fellow medical student. “Orthopedic surgery was my dream for years,” he says. “But one day I realized that I want to do more than operate on hands for the next 40 years. So, I made a switch to family medicine. I get to do a little bit of everything, from cradle to grave. And family medicine is known for social justice and advocacy. I think that makes perfect sense as a Jesuit.” Although Ryan’s way of being a Jesuit brother differs from the brothers of previous eras, he feels spiritually connected to them and finds beauty in their dedication to serving their fellow Jesuits. “Guys will joke that I’m going to wind up taking care of them at our retirement center in Los Gatos. I laugh about it, but, you know, I would love that. To be like the brothers back in the day who built the houses and did the plumbing and cleaned and cooked. It’s such a beautiful expression of care,” he says. “Being a brother gives me the freedom and intentionality to be, first and foremost, a Jesuit.”
Brother Henry Perez entered the Society after a 30-year career in advertising and raising a son. His life as a Jesuit is no less busy. While working on a master’s in marriage and family therapy, Henry created Genevieve’s Garden at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Hollywood. The Garden offers a safe place for the housing challenged to relax and have lunch. Henry admits to the occasional nightmare about his life in advertising. “Some mornings I wake up and I think, oh my God, I don’t have any clients. I don’t have any jobs in line. How am I going to make payroll this quarter? And then I realize, wait, I’m not in sales anymore.” Henry now spends his weekdays in shirtsleeves, preparing food, organizing volunteers and welcoming guests to the Garden. It’s challenging work. “I mean, it doesn’t get any dirtier than here at the Garden,” he says. “It’s on the front line. But we’re supposed to feed his sheep and take care of his sheep and love his sheep. And that’s what we’re doing here. So yeah, I’m very happy to be a brother.”
Brother James Siwicki’s vocation journey is an outstanding example of patience and careful discernment. Powerful encounters with marginalized people led Jim to walk away from a corporate career and join the Society, although when he arrived at the novitiate, the option of becoming a brother was not mentioned. “There was a general assumption that you were going to be a priest. I don’t remember anyone ever asking me if I wanted to be a brother.”
Jim remained a scholastic through most of formation, although he felt an occasional stirring inside, which he now recognizes as an invitation to life as a brother. As he headed toward theology studies, Jim earned a master’s in social work and treated mental health clients at a free clinic. “Gradually, it crystallized that God was trying to lead me to become a brother,” he says.
Altering the trajectory of his vocation has allowed Jim to apply all his talents to the service of others. Life as a brother brings him satisfaction and joy, although he admits that he’ll occasionally encounter the old, limited understanding of the brother vocation. “Sometimes when I tell someone I’m a Jesuit brother, there’s a feeling that somehow I’m half-baked. Sort of insinuating that if I had just taken a few more courses, I’d be a priest.” Jim laughs, “Like I should pop back into the Jesuit microwave oven. But the thing about microwaves is sometimes two minutes is all you need to get fully baked.”
In some aspects, Jim’s vocation story mirrors my own. I was a scholastic through most of formation. I, too, picked up a master’s along the way and worked professionally in my field of expertise. It took us both a long time to come to the same realization, that—even though we are not called to ordained ministry—the brother’s vocation is an authentic apostolic way of answering God’s call to religious life and contributing to the ministry of the Society.
Brother Michael Breault, SJ, is a Peabody-winning writer, producer and director, focusing primarily on the stage and television. He is currently writing and producing a six-part series with Tellux Film Group and Loyola Productions. For the Society, Br. Breault has served as the director of vocation promotion for the Jesuits of Canada and the United States, the minister of the Culver City novitiate and the social media manager for Jesuits West.