November/December 2014
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Being a Brother

What is a Maryknoll Brother? Ask those who live the vocation. Brother John Blazo will tell you, "It's being a bridge between ordained and lay ministry." Brother Thomas Hickey says, "It's a lifestyle, not a title." Brother Wayne Fitzpatrick answers, "It's one called to serve his brothers and sisters through community, prayer and hospitality." No matter their wording, all agree Brothers strive to follow Jesus, who lived as a brother to all.

Brothers have been an integral part of Maryknoll from the earliest days. In the spring of 1912, four months before the arrival of the first seminarians, Thomas McCann of Brooklyn, N.Y., came to offer his services to the fledgling mission enterprise. He did not feel called to priesthood, he said, but wanted to be a missioner. Co-founder Father James A. Walsh had already roughed out a plan for such men. They would assist in raising mission awareness and help the cause "by prayer and care of temporalities."

Thomas McCann became the first Maryknoll Brother. He was indefatigable in helping co-founder Father Thomas F. Price drum up interest among U.S. Catholics in the new mission society and in doing whatever needed to be done in day-to-day operations. His spirit of generous service set the bar for future Maryknoll Brothers.

In the mission society's first 25 years some 200 men applied to join the Auxiliary Brothers of St. Michael, as they were called. They brought their professional skills and talents to aid the spread of the Gospel. Eventually, like the Maryknoll priests, the Brothers would take an oath of obedience to the Society that included a lifetime commitment to celibacy.

The Brothers' formation focused on prayer and manual labor, initially at Maryknoll's new headquarters in Ossining, N.Y. The first Maryknoll Brother to go overseas was Albert Staubli, a master builder, who was assigned to China in 1921. As more and more Brothers went to overseas missions, says Brother John Beeching, they were able to draw on the training they had received in uniting prayer and work. Beeching quotes an excerpt from Glen Kittler's book The Maryknoll Fathers that offers a glimpse of the life of those early Brothers:

"Once the mission buildings were up, the Brothers put in the lights and heating systems, kept the mission cars and boats running, ran the dispensaries and kitchens and office, grew the vegetables and tended the animals, printed the textbooks and catechisms, then taught from them, and in the process of doing all these things, they trained local people in the skills, thereby providing a means of livelihood to men who had had none. Yet in the end it wasn't so much what they did that mattered but why they did it and how they did it. That's what made them active contemplatives."

The end of World War II brought an influx of ex-servicemen to the Maryknoll Brothers, among them Peter Agnone and Conrad Fleisch. "At the Navy chapel I found a brochure titled ‘You Too Could Become a Maryknoll Brother,' " says Agnone, who accepted the invitation in 1947. "Brother Xavier Lamb (one of the pioneer Brothers) welcomed me with a bottle of holy water and a candy bar!"  Agnone, now retired at Mission St. Teresa's, served in Tanzania, Kenya, Western Samoa and Rome.
His classmate Conrad Fleisch, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday, spent his entire missionary career in the United States, in charge of building maintenance. That, Fleisch says, was serving in mission just as much as working overseas. "I was contributing to the organization by doing what I do best," he says, adding that it's not so much the job as its basis in prayer that constitutes the missionary Brother's vocation.

Emphasis on a strong spiritual formation for Maryknoll Brothers remained as the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) effected other changes in their lives. The term "Auxiliary" was dropped from their title and Brothers were recognized as missioners in their own right. The Brothers' formation program was expanded to include a foundation in theology and Scripture, and the Brothers were given more opportunities to earn advanced degrees and training in new ministries.

Brother Thomas Hickey, for instance, who had a background in accounting, went back to school for gerontology and psychology. He now ministers to the retired Maryknoll priests and Brothers in assisted living.

"Sometimes they just need a reassuring touch," he says. "The role of a Brother is touching people's lives and journeying with them."

Loren Beaudry has journeyed with youth and the elderly in Kenya, Namibia and now Tanzania, always ministering as a Brother with one goal: "I try to bring out the good in people," he says. "We are all in need of God's grace and forgiveness."

That kind of acceptance has come back to Brother John Nitsch in Chile, where, he says, "The people have taken me as I am, with my weaknesses and gifts." He has gotten closer to the people, he says, "by not being an authority figure but sitting with them in the pews."

For John Blazo, being a Brother has been an asset in doing mission education in Nicaragua and Guatemala and now in the eastern United States. Recalling local church leaders overseas, he says, "They had tremendous respect for priests and me, as a Brother, but while they knew what priests did, they weren't sure what I did. I helped them see that whatever I could do, they could do. I wasn't ordained but was a layperson just like them. This, I think, helped them carry out their ministries with more confidence."

In Guatemala, it was the people who helped Brother Robert Butsch carry out his ministry with confidence when he supervised construction of buildings there in 1963. "I learned to speak Spanish on the scaffolding from the workmen," says Butsch, who has a degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University. And from a veteran Maryknoll Brother, Felix Fournier, he learned that being a Brother means responding to the need of the day. In Guatemala and later Nicaragua, Butsch responded to needs ranging from bringing water to remote villages to training catechists. Assigned to Egypt, he discovered another need for his skills: making special shoes for Hansen's disease (leprosy) patients to cushion their wounds. He trained others to continue the work. "But," he says, "I mainly tried to teach the patients that their skin is good and with proper treatment, it can heal."

Today young men like Ryan Thibert continue to join the Maryknoll Brothers. The 29-year-old native of Ontario, Canada, is in his first year of orientation at Maryknoll's formation house in Chicago, where he is deepening his spiritual life and earning a degree in art, which he hopes to use in ministry. "What attracted me to be a Maryknoll Brother," he says, "is the call of the Spirit to give my life to God in service to others and to go wherever the need may be." That seems to say it all.

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Nov/Dec 2014 E-zine
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EXODUS OF CHILDREN ~ Violence in Central America provokes mass forced migration of minors.

PRIESTS FOR PEOPLE IN PETÉN ~ Two Maryknoll missioners bring years of experience to Guatemalan jungle.

CHRISTMAS UNDER SIEGE ~ A Maryknoll priest in South Sudan recalls the perilous time of Jesus’ birth.

THE WHEEL OF MISSION ~ New Maryknoll Sister and her family find faith journey moves in loops.

25 YEARS LATER ~ Remembering six Jesuits and two women murdered in El Salvador.

LIVING LIFE FULLY WITH HIV ~ A Maryknoll priest reflects on his ministry in the AIDS pandemic.

THAT'S LIFE ~ Maryknoll lay missioners serving in Bolivia discover the most effective way to make a difference.

THIRD WAVE MISSIONERS ~ Maryknoll Affiliates move into the future on a new wave of mission.

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Chosen by God

I remember many times as a young girl hoping against hope that I would be chosen to make the team for a pick-up game of baseball at the neighborhood playground. What agony I felt as one after another was chosen for the team until, finally, I found myself asking God, "At least don't let me be the last one."

No doubt each one of us has a story about waiting to be chosen for something. The good news is that all of us, from all eternity, have been chosen by God "to live through love in God's presence."

That's what we are told in the reading from St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians (1:4) on December 8, the feast of Mary's Immaculate Conception.

Here in Nicaragua people have caught that spirit. You can feel it when you join them on the eve of the feast as they fill the streets of every town and city, boisterously singing songs in honor of Mary and visiting homes where shrines have been lovingly arranged for the novena of days leading up to the feast.

Listen to their hymns and to the firecrackers in the background. Note the amazing fireworks that light up the December sky.

At each Nicaraguan home a family waits to give out specially made sweets, fruit, a small bowl or handmade gift. The families have made a promise to Mary to do this in return for the answer to a prayer request, such as health for a loved one who is ill or the return of a son or daughter from war.

At each home shrine, people pause their singing to shout, "¿Qué causa tanta alegría?" (What causes so much joy?) And all who hear shout back, "La Concepción de María" (the Conception of Mary).They end with "Que viva María; que viva Nicaragua!" (Long live Mary; long live Nicaragua!).

How deeply intertwined are the people's love of Mary with their love for their country—a country where too many families subsist on less than $2 a day.

In the Gospel, Luke tells us of the angel's message from God to Mary: "You have been graced." She replies, "I am the servant of the Lord; let what you have said be done to me."

In this season of Advent, with winter approaching in the northern hemisphere, we are reminded that Mary's story was one of darkness giving birth to light. God called to Mary: "I have chosen you. Become the bearer of God."

Will we always understand God's call to us? I think not. But like Mary, we must listen. It is not possible to keep God's grace from coming. But what is possible is to miss God calling to us in our neighborhood and workplace, in the nightly news telling of ways our sisters and brothers have been affected by an earthquake, torrential rains, a mudslide, the collapse of a mine or the eruption of a volcano. God says to us: "Be silent, listen, wait, wonder; something is on the horizon, the likes of which you have never seen." The God-Jesus, who took flesh in Mary, wants to take flesh in us too.

As you think of our brothers and sisters in Nicaragua and their faith-filled processions through the streets, may you know that, with them and with Mary in her Immaculate Conception, you too have been chosen to live through love in God's presence.

How will you respond?

Maryknoll Affiliate Catherine (Kitty) Madden, from Adrian, Mich., a former Maryknoll lay missioner, has been serving in Nicaragua for 23 years. Currently she is a volunteer social worker at the Casa Materna Mary Ann Jackman, a center in Matagalpa for women with high-risk pregnancies that was named for a deceased Nicaraguan mother. This reflection is condensed from the Orbis book, A Maryknoll Liturgical Year: Reflections on the Readings for Year A.

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Missioner Tales November/December 2014
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