Cooperating with the Grace of God
By: Bill Skowronski
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 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 to do, by God. 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 to discuss the Life, and how to share its joy with others, the Master General of the Order (Fr. Bruno Cadore, O.P.) was clear at 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 housekeeping. Having been taught by Dominican sisters in Racine, Wisconsin, and working as a plumber with his father, Br. Jordan 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. Jordan and Ed 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.
Trapped with St. Martin de Porres, O.P.
By: Br. Joseph Trout, O.P.
My first encounter with St. Martin de Porres was both accidental and inconvenient. It was in Memphis, where I was helping a friend look at graduate schools a couple of months before I entered the novitiate. We decided to stop by the Dominican parish, St. Peter’s, for Mass. Afterwards, we saw they had a shrine and decided to check it out. We passed through a door behind the baptismal fount and went down the stairs to find the National Shrine of Martin de Porres. He was a Dominican Cooperator Brother, and I was about to become a Dominican, so I was interested. At the time I had some notions of becoming a Cooperator Brother, but I was still technically on track to become a priest.
So, we spent a little time down there, lit a few candles and prepared to leave. However, as we went back up the stairs, we found ourselves trapped! A baptism was happening right outside the door and people were crowded all around. In hindsight, we probably could have apologized and slipped through without a problem but we did not want to interrupt. So we went back down to the shrine and prayed a Rosary. It ended, but the baptism was still going on! I remember alternating consternation and laughter as we waited through what seemed to be the longest baptismal ceremony known to mankind.
I only remembered this story a few weeks ago when I was at the shrine for a second time. Was that the time God cemented my vocation as a Cooperator Brother or just a humorous moment with my Brother? I honestly don’t know. God does act in the strangest of ways without our noticing. The inspiration of Martin’s life, however, has a definite impact on me. His story is littered with miraculous events from talking with animals to bilocation. My favorite, however, was the rapid growth of a fruit tree he planted. Years before its time to produce any fruit, Martin passed by it with another brother who was startled by its growth. Martin’s response? He first praised God it had grown so quickly. “Now,” he said, “it will be of use in feeding the poor.”
I like that anecdote because it shows the singular focus of his life: extending the mercy of God by whatever means are available. It is easy to get caught up in the superficially remarkable elements of our life in grace while missing the most remarkable. Our friendship with God and participation in his love for the world, these are the heart of our faith. God does amazing things in this world, but they are a mere taste of what his love holds for us. We can be so easily distracted by what we see. St. Martin constantly reminds Dominican preachers to look past the surface.
Likewise, in trying to emulate St. Martin, it can be easy to say “Brothers do this” or “a Dominican Cooperator Brother serves in X type of ministry.” We have certainly done that throughout our history. Underneath it, however, rests a richer vein. A Dominican Brother is fundamentally a Christian living out faith in God and hope in eternal life through the mission of charity. All Dominicans share certain commonalities in our mission of preaching the Gospel and our common life, but we are also dynamic and varied as God uses us to be his hands and feet.
Brothers today are not asked to be carbon copies of St. Martin de Porres or any other Dominican Cooperator Brother. St. Martin’s work in feeding the poor, tending to the sick, cleaning the priory, etc. is an inspiration and not a pattern or a burden. He lived as his community asked and served God as the Spirit directed following the footsteps of St. Dominic. For me, he is a witness to preaching the Gospel in his context. In my own, I am a high school religion teacher at Fenwick High School (Oak Park, Illinois). Meditating on his life, I ask: How can I follow his evangelical zeal? Am I more focused on teaching as a job, or helping my students to love learning about God and being his disciples? Are good test scores my goal, or instilling a thirst for Jesus – the way, the truth, and the life?
I return often to the story of his miraculous fruit tree. My brother saw the truth of the miracle in front of him – God’s generosity to the poor and needy. His life still preaches the Gospel. Through his intercession he continues to act as Christ’s hands and feet. As we pray for more brothers in our order, he seems to be holding his own as a vocations director – get trapped in a shrine with him and he may not let you go!