This past week, I participated in the annual gathering of Brazilian lay brothers, held in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul – land of the Brazilian gauchos. The group had also invited me in 2011 and, although hobbled by my inability to speak Portuguese, I was happy for the opportunity to affirm our form of life and to see how it is experienced in another part of the world. The welcome I received was as warm as the Brazilian summer.
By way of background, Brazil, with over 1,200 friars, has one of the largest Capuchin presences in the world, exceeded only by Italy and India. Among friars who have been perpetually professed at least six years, the percentage of lay brothers in Brazil is between 16% and 17% (the world average is just under 16%). In many ways, the experiences of lay brothers in Brazil closely matches those of the North America, the area with which I am most familiar. One notable difference, however, is that the average age of the Brazilian brothers is significantly lower.
This was the fourth such meeting held since 2007, and its purpose is to check the progress made on a series of goals set out at that first meeting. About forty friars from all but one of Brazil’s jurisdictions attended this year’s gathering, whose theme was: “Witness, spirituality and prophecy.” Talks by Br Jaime Bettega on “Religious Life and Professional Formation” and by Br Aldir Crocoli on “A Franciscan Perspective and Spirituality of Work” were well received by the group. In addition, a brother from each of the jurisdictions present gave an overview of the ministries and works being done by lay friars. A large percentage are working in “internal” ministries formators, provincial secretaries, or provincial bursars. A growing number of provinces have a lay brother on the vocation promotion team. I was surprised to hear how many brothers are working in parochial ministries as catechists or as parochial assistants. Some brothers are involved in agricultural work, but with the increasing mechanization of farm work, their number is rapidly falling. Recently, some brothers have begun new ministries, such as a clinic for those infected with HIV/AIDS, chemical dependency counselors or giving assistance to immigrants. Some of these latter ministries, in particular, were made possible by offering the opportunity for specialized training to brothers.
Seeing the joy and dedication with which the lay brothers of Brazil are living their vocation as Capuchin Friars Minor was an uplifting experience that I will not soon forget. Copies of the talks and of the Letter to the Brothers (all in Portuguese) are available here on the website of the Rio Grande do Sul Province.