The final topic the Conference representatives were asked to comment on was the perception of lay brothers in their local churches and societies. Almost all the Conferences reported that lay brothers were poorly understood and under-appreciated. Some of the phrases they used to describe the perception of lay brothers in their areas were: “failed clerics”, “relatively useless” and “useful and edifying domestic servants”. These attitudes, unfortunately, even extended to the local bishops at times, who were happy to have Capuchin priests in their dioceses, but had no appreciation for the lay brothers. Most people, even Catholics, did not understand the lay brotherhood, although often respecting the work the brothers did.
It is hard to see that perceptions have changed much in the last eleven years. If they had, this blog would have a different name. I wondered whether the situation in Italy might be different because of the long history of Capuchins there and the fact that so many of the Order’s saints were Italian lay brothers. I put the question to the participants at the meeting of the lay friars of northern Italy. According to them, perceptions are no different in Italy than in the rest of the world. In retrospect, I should have realized this. I have lost count of the number of times I have had the following conversation* in Italy:
Person: Hello, Father Mark.
Me: Uh, hello. I’m Brother Mark. I’m not ordained, you see.
Person: Oh. Okay, Father Mark.
Most of the lay brothers I know are not terribly upset by people’s lack of understanding of their vocation. They merely sigh (at least figuratively) and go on with their lives. They are happily resigned to be, in the minds of others, just a brother.
* In fairness to the Italians, the word “Padre”, which I translated here as “Father”, is used only for religious priests and brothers. Secular priests are referred to as “Don”, short for “Dominus” or “Lord”.