The Brotherhood of Hope, a community of religious brothers whose charism is to evangelize young adults on secular college campuses, is celebrating the 35th anniversary of its founding and the 50th anniversary of the ordination of its priest-founder, Father Philip Merdinger. Since the group formed, its work it has made a significant impact on the lives of many, said Brother Ken Apuzzo, the community’s superior.
“Not having the sacramental responsibility of priests gives us the freedom to go out where people are lost and disconnected from God,” Brother Ken said. “As in the parable of the lost sheep, we find the lost one and walk him back to church.
“However, today we seem to experience the parable in reverse: The one is in church, and the 99 are lost.”
‘Renewal of brotherhood’
Father Merdinger founded the community with five laymen in New Jersey in 1980 with “a clear conviction and insight into the collapse of celibacy in the Church during the sexual revolution,” Brother Ken explained. “In our sex-crazed age, lifelong celibacy had become an absurdity.”
The number of brothers living a consecrated life dedicated to the Church has been in significant decline in the past 50 years, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. In 1965, there were 12,271 religious brothers in the United States, as compared to 4,318 in 2014.
“It’s a disappearing vocation,” Brother Ken said. “In fact, we meet older brothers from other communities who advise us, ‘Don’t be a brother, be a priest.’”
There is also an attitude, he noted, that brothers are men who didn’t have the talent to be priests, and instead are “Class B religious.”
But Brother Ken disagrees. “I believe God is using us to bring about a renewal of brotherhood.”
Brother Ken, 55, is from the Bronx, New York. He first encountered the Brotherhood of Hope while attending Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where they helped revive his Catholic faith. He joined the community in 1981, before the community was allowed to begin wearing a religious habit.
Today, the community has 20 brothers and 11 men in pre-novitiate, ranging in age between 22 and 77. As religious, they take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The Brothers of Hope are headquartered in Boston, where they serve students at Northeastern University and surrounding colleges, along with Rutgers, Florida State University and nearby colleges in Tallahassee, Florida, and the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Embracing their charism
Brother Ken is working to establish the community at the University of Minnesota, where in just a year he’s seen dramatic results. The campus ministry’s spring retreat last year drew only eight student participants despite drawing from a campus of 60,000. With Brother Ken’s involvement this year, the same retreat drew 175.
“It’s one of the greatest joys of my life,” he said. “We’ve seen thousands of young people discover God’s love and move on to mature in their relationship with him.”
Dan Chedid, 22, a 2015 Rutgers graduate, is an example of one such student. He participated in a Brothers of Hope men’s group and soon found his life transformed.
“They really helped change my life, forming me as a good Catholic man,” Chedid said. “I’m grateful for having met them, and consider some of them my best friends.”
Chedid said the brothers played sports with the students and were regularly available to talk. They enjoyed a good-humored relationship so that “you poke fun at them, and they poke fun at you. Everyone loves the brothers.”
Chedid was motivated to offer a year of his life to becoming a mission leader at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, administering to students under the direction of the brothers. Like them, he’ll “get to know the students, and help bring them into relationship with Jesus.”
Brother Parker Jordan, 29, made his perpetual vows in 2014 and is working at Rutgers. He grew up in Tallahassee, where he first met the brothers as a child. Like Chedid, Brother Parker was drawn by their warmth and good cheer. “I thought being a brother would be cool. They loved God, yet knew how to be real and hang out,” he said. “Even as a boy, I thought, ‘I could see myself doing this.’”
He attended Florida State, which he described as “the No. 1 party school,” and continued to be impressed with the fraternal life and camaraderie of the brothers, who had ministered there since 1994. Although he came from a good family and had planned to marry and have children, he realized the brothers were “a family in the order of grace, called to live more deeply for the Lord.”
Since joining the Brothers of Hope in 2008, he has enjoyed strong friendships with his fellow brothers, along with an essential common life that includes praying, eating and socializing together each day. Students unsure of the vocation of religious brothers observe their common life, fraternal bond and mutual charity, and it fosters a desire for community in them, Brother Parker believes. “They realize that there is something about our way of life that can point them to God.”
Additionally, living a life of consecrated chastity stands in contrast to the sexual permissiveness to which the students are exposed.
“They see we are not in sexual relationships but are happy. It baffles them,” Brother Parker said. “They come to see that for us, Jesus is enough.”
For some priests and religious, celibacy “is part of the package,” he continued, “but for us, that’s the call. We embrace celibacy as a gift, as a single-hearted devotion to the Lord.”
Like Brother Ken, Brother Parker has seen many conversions to the Catholic Faith. He recalled the example of a Chinese man, who grew up an orphan with no religion, who came to a meeting he’d organized.
“He had a hunger for more, and soon became an icon of the community. He was received into the Church two years ago,” Brother Parker said. “It’s an amazing story, as he started with nothing.”
The brothers’ habit is a light-colored shirt, modeled on Filipino formal wear, with an anchor on the pocket, symbolizing hope. With it, they wear black pants and a crucifix around their necks. The anchor can be a source of confusion, as students wonder if they are Navy chaplains.
Brother Ken said their religious clothing was chosen after lengthy reflection. “Being a post-Vatican II community, we chose not to wear a full robe of an older community. The robes are beautiful but harken to a different time.”
The modified habit has been helpful, he believes, because the faithlessness that exists on secular campuses results in their meeting many students “not comfortable with strong Catholic signs.”
The brothers’ typical day begins with morning prayer, Mass at a local parish and adoration after Mass. From there, they hit the college campus. “For us, a good day is not spent inside a church building but meeting individually with students,” Brother Ken said.
As there is much campus activity in the evenings, after community dinner, they return to the campus, where they lead Bible studies, social activities and other faith-related events. The brothers’ houses are also ministry centers, where young men are welcome to come for prayer, meetings and to be exposed to the lives of the brothers.
Brother Ken said most inquires about joining the community come from students who have interacted with the brothers on campus. One of the greatest difficulties in 2015, he said, is that few young men understand the vocation of a brother and therefore do not go looking for it if they have never met one. Additionally, many young men who express interest in the community are discouraged from joining by their parents.
“Our approach to vocations is that we’re not recruiters,” Brother Ken said. “We want to help students to know the love of God, and if God wills them to become a brother, that’s great. But, we’re respectful of where God wants them to be.”
“The life of a brother is not flashy or in the spotlight, but often hidden,” Brother Parker said. “Our job is not to be served, but to serve.”
Jim Graves writes from California.