By Tom Tracy
Dave Vitello was a sophomore at Northeastern University in Boston and active in the Catholic student center there when the Brotherhood of Hope community of religious men came to campus. Impressed by the brothers' example of ministry and life of prayer, he accepted an internship with them at the Catholic student center of Florida State University.
The brothers' mission is to evangelize to college students at secular universities.
"A few things that strike me about their ministry is their devotion to finding lost sheep. They take a lot of time to be available for one-on-one meetings, spending as much time as is needed," said Vitello, 22, an accounting and finance major at Northeastern. He recently married a woman he met through the campus ministry there. "A lot of people have said they appreciate just having the brothers around because of their example of faith and prayer and how the brothers are in love with the Lord."
Currently with 18 vowed members and active at four college campuses nationwide, the Brotherhood of Hope grew out of a charismatic family movement in 1980 called the People of Hope, when six men professed their first temporary vows in New Jersey. It was also in New Jersey that the brothers initiated their first campus ministry at Rutgers University. In addition to Northeastern, Rutgers and Florida State, the brothers minister to students at Boston University.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University surveyed new religious orders in 2006 and mentioned the Brotherhood as unique among American Catholic men's communities -- especially since they are actually expanding their work with young people.
Brother Rahl Bunsa, general superior of the community, said their campus evangelization has resulted in college graduates living in many strong marriages, single Catholics serving in their parishes and starting youth outreaches, and vocations to the priesthood and religious life. (Some 30 alumni have entered either the priesthood, the seminary or consecrated life as a result of their interactions with the brothers. Eight men are currently studying for priesthood in the Florida dioceses.) A few more men are in discernment for joining the Brotherhood directly.
But the Brotherhood's charism also calls for a close connection to the laity. "I don't know of any other new religious order whose main focus is college evangelization," Bunsa said, adding that the brothers are creative with bringing the Gospel to all students and lapsed Catholics on campus, training students to do the same. "It is unfortunate that more resources are not put into campus ministry, because these are future leaders in the Church. To influence young people at such a formative time when they are making decisions for their life is critical."
The brothers move around campus in their trademark blue-gray habits. The founder, Father Philip Merdinger, a faculty member at St. John's Seminary in Boston, was schooled under the Benedictines. The Brotherhood incorporates some monastic chanting and prayers in their daily life. They also seek a simplicity of life in terms of housing and possessions that would reflect traditional religious life.
"It's a very simple, humble and sparse life -- Franciscan-like," Brother Bunsa said. "We also have been schooled in Ignatian spirituality in terms of discernment and active ministry with prayer, along with some Carmelite spirituality in terms of always trying to pursue deeper contemplation. We are certainly Eucharistically grounded."
"All these influences have been implemented over the years in an organic kind of way," he added.
The brothers said the growing challenges young people face today are more difficult than in previous times: Media saturated and heavily distracted with electronic and communications gadgets make it difficult for young people to focus on things that really matter.
However, as in the past, Catholic young people have an innate hunger for purpose in life, freedom, joy and happiness.
"When they experience Christ, it is not rare that we see these students get on fire for their faith and even try to bring their parents back to the faith if they no longer practice," Bunsa said. "We do our best creatively to bring students to a personal encounter with Jesus and an experience of the Holy Spirit and to ground them in a prayer life. Without those things it is very difficult to get far spiritually or in any kind of character formation."
The brothers also host athletic and intramural events on campus. They are invited into the dorms for presentations, and they sponsor a yearly trip to Tanzania, where they help build homes, visit orphanages, Catholic schools, private homes and residences for persons with AIDS. Other campus events include talks on Christian dating or entertainment nights including a Texas poker night.
On Good Fridays on all four campuses, the brothers host a live Stations of the Cross.
"When the brothers meet with students, we try to meet on campus where we can meet more students and be a visible witness of religious life through our habit in the midst of a secular campus," Brother Bunsa said. "We only serve at large, secular universities, trying to go where the Gospel is often ignored, into the thick of secular culture."
Shaina Tanguay, 24, a graduate of Boston University, met the brothers there while attending her first Sunday Mass at the school in September 2001. Today she is studying for a master's degree in theological studies in marriage and family at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, The Catholic University of America.
"My father left my family when I was a senior in high school, and my parents' divorce, which lasted all through college, wasn't finalized until the week of my graduation," Tanguay said. "It was something that, through the help and ministry of the Brotherhood, brought me closer to God and dramatically deeper in my Catholic faith."
During her sophomore year of college, she took a work-study job at the Catholic Center as a cook for Tuesday night spaghetti suppers.
After she graduated, she spent the first year helping with the graduate and young professional group. And for the past two years, she has been assisting with the RCIA classes at Boston University.
"I have also worked in my home parish in Cambridge [Mass.] as a youth minister," she said. "To see how I once isolated myself and loathed the idea of marriage and family, and I am now pursuing a ministry in that very area with a strong desire for marriage and family, is a testament of the amazing witness, call and work of the brothers."
Tom Tracy writes from Florida.