Missionary Brothers: A Choice for Life
Brother Enrico Meregalli, PIME, lays his hands on the head of an Indian woman. Like Bro. Felice, Bro. Meregalli uses his carpentry skills to help the people of his mission.
Few remember that, among the first seven missionaries of PIME who left on the pioneer mission in Oceania on April 10, 1852, two – Giuseppe Corti and Luigi Tacchini – were Religious Brothers; at that time they were called catechists. A few months before the martyrdom of Blessed John Baptist Mazzucconi, Corti died from tropical fevers on March 17, 1855: the first of a long list of missionaries that would give their life for the Kingdom of God.
Bro. Felice belongs to this large throng of men who expressed their missionary vocation by serving, with humility and dedication, the single missionary cause that unites missionary priests and missionary brothers. Bro. Felice was a figure of great relevance especially if one considers the mission ad gentes not as an endeavor reserved to a select few “supermen,” but as a dimension of the Christian vocation that cuts across different groups. Thanks to the progress made by the Church in recent years, and to Vatican II, today the religious brotherhood vocation is more and more sought after than in the past.
The encyclical Lumen Gentium presents the Church as the people of God, consequently; also the mission ad gentes must be seen from this point of view. The missionaries of PIME, therefore, are simply baptized people who have received a particular charism (expressed by four basic characteristics, namely: ad gentes, ad extra, ad vitam, together) that they offer to the Church.
Bro. Joseph Mongol Aind, PIME, serves the people of Rajshahi, Bangladesh.
However, they live such charisms in different ways, unique to each: they are all baptized, but some operate as ordained priests. It is from this standpoint, then, the divide between sacred and profane activities is definitely overcome. Equally passé is the reduction of the religious brother to a coadjutor of the priest or, conversely, to a specialized technician who has projects and plans different from those that missionary priests have. Brother Tantardini never considered himself one with a “separate” missionary commitment than that of his priestsly confreres, as if his being a brother would have kept him from the duty of evangelization. However, he bore witness to Christ in a form absolutely unique, marked mainly by hard manual labor, generous availability to serve in a thousand menial, odd jobs as well as to help with the catechesis. Since 1850, the year when PIME was founded, to this day the lay missionary vocation has been lived differently depending on of the way the Church saw herself in different ages.
Today the Religious Brothers of PIME operate in different contexts, each of them putting to best possible use his own professional skills. As is the case, for example, of Brother Massimo Cattaneo who directs the Vocational School of the mission in northern Bangladesh: imparting to young people a type of formation that has a very broad, global perspective. Such outlook enables them to be competitive in the ever-widening international job market; they also receive from him a Catholic vision of life. Bro. Roberto Valenti, in his mission of Papua New Guinea, adopts a similar method at his Vocational School in Watuluma. Brother Fabio Mussi in Cameroon directs numerous and varied development projects, solely by utilizing his own organizational skills, sponsored by the local Caritas agency: from well-excavation to ways of finding sustainable nutritional systems, to vocational training, to the development of renewable energy. Always in Cameroon, Bro. Ottorino Zanatta runs a didactic farm that aims at increasing the sustainability rate of the local agriculture through the education of local farmers.
All of these are concrete examples, demonstrating that the Missions today often need skilled tradesmen and specific skilled contributions; once he has assumed these roles of responsibility much of the ordinary pastoral activities go hand-in-hand. The “generic” and/or the “Jack-of-all-trades” missionary has been long gone, now an outdated concept. Specific services are now required of the missionary; this skilled work and professional acumen often fit a religious brother better than an ordained priest (obviously without generalizing).
More than a few priests of PIME perform healthcare, administrative, social, legal, educational services; are active in the field of social communication; sometimes with an initial preparation, in other cases without. Not only that: often a missionary priest feels that, by doing the aforementioned tasks, he is filling in as a substitute for someone else who would be better qualified; this in addition to the fact that such activities limit time for the ministries for which he was ordained. He might feel especially uncomfortable thinking that the many years of his seminary education were oriented to quite other areas, not trades. A brother could be prepared in a trade school and can engage in these services as a realization of his baptismal and missionary vocation; although, naturally he cannot forget that before being a technician he is a missionary!
Bro. Marco Monti, PIME, at the tomb of Brother Tantardini in Taunggyi, Myanmar.
Historically there are reasons that make the presence and the action of religious brothers even more current and relevant than in Missions of the past. Many countries, especially those in Asia, are increasingly closed to foreigners; in particular those who enter them for religious reasons. Often the missionary priests of PIME enter these countries having to act outwardly as if they were not priests; they have to assume lay assignments that involve considerable sacrifices and sufferings. Quite a few of them are unwilling to go to these countries because they feel that there they could not live out their priestly vocation under those restrictive conditions. On the contrary, a religious brother could fully realize his vocation in such a situation, even if he would be somewhat hampered to express his faith freely.
Therefore we ought to leave it up to the creativity of the Holy Spirit and the availability of our missionaries to reinvent themselves. Above all, it is necessary to pray so that young people of various nationalities are more open to the missionary vocation, also as religious brothers, so that they can give all of their life in service of the Gospel in every corner of the earth.