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Brother Ed van Merrienboer, O.P. is the Director of Faith Formation at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Madison, WI. Previously, he was the Master of the Order’s Assistant for the Apostolic Life, in Rome. Brother Jordan Coonen, O.P. makes and sells crafts, depicting religious images. His string art and wooden plaques are sold in four religious goods stores throughout Denver, Colorado. Brothers Joe Trout, O.P. and Paul Byrd, O.P. teach Theology and English, respectively, at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Illinois, one of the most prestigious college prep schools in the country. Brother Byrd is also a published poet. Yet, at some point, each of them has been asked in various ways: Why don’t you “go all the way” and become a priest?
People who ask are caught up in the idea of a vocation being what a person is capable of and not what he or she is called by God to do. That idea imagines a religious vocation on a singular line with only one end—priesthood. But, for these Cooperator Brothers, fully professed Dominicans who will never become priests, the life they chose is not consolation. Rather, as it is best translated, these men are cooperating with the grace of God.
When 50 Dominican Cooperator Brothers gathered in Lima, Peru discussed the Life, and how to share its joy with others, the Master General of the Order (Fr. Bruno Cadore, O.P.) was clear on several points. He said he was not all that interested in what the Brother has been in the past. Rather, he was interested in what the Church needs right now. What is it, he asked, in 2015, that a Dominican Brother—not a priest—contributes to our communities and our work in the Church in an era when the significance of the laity is so huge? We all have a role. This isn’t just Father’s work. How do we contribute to that work, and to that preaching?
Particularly for the Dominicans, the Order of Preachers, we see another common misperception regarding the Life of the Cooperator Brother: If you’re giving your life to God, you should be one of the ones standing at the front. Why don’t you want to be one of the leaders?
Christians have a perception that religious leaders are people who give homilies, who stand at the front of the church. The friars are the Order of Preachers, not the Order of St. Dominic. Even so, very little of the early history of the Order is attributed to homilies and Masses. As Fr. Bruno would agree, it is a big loss when we think of preaching just as the homily, because then only priests preach, and that’s not true. We are all sent to preach the Gospel in whatever way God calls us.
“We joined to serve the Church within the Order of Preachers, but we don’t all preach from the pulpit,” Br. Coonen said. “We profess the same vows and we are equals as Dominicans and professed Religious.”
For a period of time, what it meant to be a Cooperator Brother was very clearly and narrowly defined. When Br. Coonen joined the Order in 1959, Cooperator Brothers helped with cleaning, cooking, and maintenance. Having been taught by Dominican sisters in Racine, Wisconsin, and working as a plumber with his father, Br. Coonen joined to do maintenance. Cooperator Brothers had their own novitiate, their own place in the community, and rarely intermingled with the professed clerics (men on the path to the priesthood).
Similarly, Br. van Merrienboer joined the Dominican Order in 1961 after witnessing the sacrificial love of the Dominican sisters in New Orleans. Like them, he wanted to teach. And in the 1960s, Brs. Coonen and van Merrienboer were not alone. In the Central Province alone, there were over 100 Cooperator Brothers.
The decades after Vatican II seem to have been a period when there was almost no definition for what it meant to be a Cooperator, and the worldwide Order saw a significant loss in numbers. Today, the Central Province has only 15 Cooperator Brothers, but five of them joined the Order in the last five years. A major reason for this recent resurgence may be that the life of a Cooperator Brother is vastly different for Br. Trout than it was for his predecessors.
“I never got the impression that being formed as a brother meant having any particular type of work in mind,” Br. Trout said. “The question is, what are my gifts and where can I be helpful to the Province in our preaching of the Gospel.”
Being helpful—or useful to the souls of others—remains at the core of the Cooperator Brothers, who join to serve the Church. That’s as far as anyone with a vocation can go in cooperating with the grace of God; and it’s leading in a way all lay people can be inspired to follow.
If you, or someone you know, feels called to Religious Life, please share this article. For more information, contact Fr. Andy McAlpin, O.P., Central Province Promoter for Vocations.