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In the shadows

Andrew Thagard | Tuesday, April 6, 2004

Brother Thomas More Beere’s story sounds almost unreal. For over half a century, Beere, 79, has dedicated his life to educating children and promoting the word of God – initially in the United States but predominately in Bangladesh.”At that time, Bangladesh was probably the poorest country in the world,” he said, remembering his time there while sitting on a couch in Columba Hall’s parlor. “I spent [the first] year, every day, all day long, [learning the language]. The syntax, the words – everything is completely different.”Beere remained in Bangladesh for 54 years, teaching at high schools, recruiting boys for vocations in religious life and later training young men at a trade school. His experiences represent a lifetime of service that few could match. It’s a life that’s brought him tremendous joy but also a degree of sadness, particularly in regard to the limited time he’s spent with his family.”I really enjoyed my time there,” he said. “I was never home [however] for funerals or weddings. This summer I’m going to the wedding of one of my grandnephews. They said, ‘You have to come, you’ve never been to a wedding.'”While many of his contemporaries have either passed away or relocated to warmer climates to enjoy the retired lifestyle, Beere and his colleagues are still up at 7 a.m. for morning prayer and return home at 5 p.m. for evening prayer and Mass after a day that usually involves ministry of some kind.Beere and the other men of Columba Hall are Holy Cross Brothers. Combined, they’ve contributed hundreds of years of service to an order whose mission centers on education. The Brothers of Holy Cross have given the world Blessed Brother Andre Bessette, a reported miracle worker, and Brother Columba O’Neill, a man renowned for his devotion to the sacred heart of Jesus. The brothers have established elementary schools, high schools and colleges in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. And, if you ask a member of their order, Notre Dame itself was founded by a group of Holy Cross brothers accompanied by their “chaplain,” Father Edward Sorin.”Part of why we exist is to serve other people,” explains Brother Robert Fillmore, the Provincial Superior for the Midwest and a man who has given 44 years to the order to date.But for all its accomplishments, the Brothers of Holy Cross remain largely in the shadows and today – 184 years after it was founded – a long-term decline in vocations makes its future somewhat uncertain.Looking backThe order of the Brothers of Holy Cross, originally named the Brothers of Saint Joseph, was born in France during a period of heightened persecution of the Catholic Church after the nation’s bloody revolution. Its founder envisioned the small group of men reestablishing schools throughout France which had largely closed down during the previous years of turmoil.”Our founder discovered the real need to establish schools again,” Fillmore said. “Education was the major thrust [then] and that is what we continue to do [today].”By 1835 Father Basil Moreau, who was overseeing the order, orchestrated the merging of the brothers with groups of priests and nuns to form the Congregation of Holy Cross. Six years later, the congregation reached the American frontier and during the century that followed, it continued its original mission of education as it expanded outward.Vatican II instituted dramatic changes throughout the Catholic Church, particularly in terms of its relationship with the laity. This resulted in increased opportunities for the non-clerical – opportunities that some would argue had a bigger impact on nuns and brothers than priests.A brother’s role”Only a priest can do the work of a priest but you can’t hardly name anything [done by a brother] that can’t be done by qualified lay people,” said Brother Richard Gilman, president of Holy Cross College.Still, the process of becoming a brother remains a long one that usually takes a minimum of four years. It includes a one-year period of discernment, a one-year post-college candidate program, a two-year novitiate – what Fillmore calls “boot camp for brothers” in which candidates receive their formal training – and final vows. As a result, brothers, explains Fillmore, are recognized by the Church as consecrated lay people. The Holy Cross Brothers adopt the vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. Unlike priests, brothers cannot celebrate Mass or hear confessions but as Brother Joseph McTaggart interjects, “that’s defining [our mission] in terms of a negative.”Indeed, most brothers hold priests and their ministry in high regard but ministering the sacraments and looking after a parish isn’t what they felt called to do.”I thought first about becoming a priest because two of my friends from high school were in the seminary,” Beere said. “I [decided] I did not want to minister the sacraments … I did want to be a teacher and I did want to become involved with young people. I wanted to be able to lead a religious life.”Beere said that it’s a decision he’s never regretted.”My father [a craftsman] was very upset at the time. He wanted me to become a priest so that he could make me a chalice,” he remembers with a chuckle. “Everyone has different ideals. It’s very important to get in somewhere that will [motivate you for a] lifetime.”Looming challengesMotivating young men to join the order, however, is something that has challenged the brothers in recent years, despite increased opportunities to serve the needy and attempts at modernization. In the decades that followed Vatican II, interest in religious life initially increased, but in recent times the flow of vocations has slowed to a trickle. In response to changes in the Church, the order has expanded the scope of its ministry. In 1986, it outlined changes to the organization, dividing brothers into smaller communities, creating a less structured day and officially exchanging habits for layman’s garb.Despite the changes, recruitment of new brothers remains a challenge for the order.”Everybody’s saying the numbers will go back [up] and everything will go back to the way it was,” Gilman said. “I don’t think it will … There’s definitely a role for the life of a brother … but from my point of view I think the Holy Spirit is saying we don’t need as many.”Uncertain futureIn recent times, the order recruits about one new member annually in the United States, Fillmore said. The last time a man took his final vows in the Midwest province, however, was 18 years ago. And while vocations in developing nations are higher, the average age of a Holy Cross brother was 60.5 worldwide in 1995. This average age has decreased slightly in recent years, but the change is due more to the death of older brothers than an influx of new members, Fillmore said.Today there are 664 Holy Cross brothers worldwide but many are retired. Meeting the needs of older brothers while continuing its ministry is one of the primary challenges that the order faces.”We just don’t have the people to minister … it’s sad but it’s the way it is,” Fillmore said. “It’s a life and death situation in terms of [our future]. The tragedy is it’s such a good life.”The decline in vocations, say many brothers, is not due to a lack of motivated, spiritual people but to a channeling of that energy into different forms.”Certainly the spirit is working in persons of your age. The desire to give is still there,” said Brother James Newberry, citing the high number of Notre Dame graduates who go on to pursue service work as an example. “But, I don’t think [this generation] perceives the religious life of today as something they’re interested in.”Still, the order is working hard to ensure its continuation and there is an air of determination among its members that statistics can’t capture. It’s present in the resolve of brothers who teach disadvantaged children around the world. It’s evident in the hope that brothers like Fillmore have in the discernment house that will be constructed in Holy Cross Village to promote vocations. And it’s present in the tenacity of the order’s oldest members. Members like Brother Thaddeus Gottemoller, 92, who has served the Congregation of Holy Cross for 72 years and continues to tend the grounds surrounding Columba Hall and make rosaries from materials he inherited from his father decades ago.It seems doubtful that this group of men who tamed the Indiana wilderness, worked to better the lives of countless generations of Bangladesh’s poor and who minister to today’s aging will go without a fight.