As you know, the Marianist Sisters (the Daughters of Mary Immaculate; the F.M.I.) and the Marianist Brothers and Priests (the Society of Mary; the S.M.) recently celebrated the bicentennials of their foundations (1816 for the Sisters, 1817 for the Brothers.) What exactly is a Marianist sister, brother, or priest? Here is one attempt to explain.
All sisters, brothers and some priests belong to a structure in the Catholic Church that is called “Consecrated Life,” the most well-known forms of which are religious orders and religious congregations that together are often referred to as “Religious Life.” Vatican Council II explains that Religious Life belongs not to the hierarchical structure of the Church (bishops, diocesan priests, deacons), but rather to the Church’s “life and holiness.” (Lumen Gentium, 44). While all of the baptized are called to holiness, those called to religious life seek to follow Jesus Christ in a particular way that fosters their dedication to God alone and helps them to become witnesses of life in Christ and of faith in eternal life.
A sister or brother enters religious life by professing three vows: celibate chastity, religious poverty, and obedience. Celibate chastity is a particular way of loving. We freely choose to forego exclusive romantic relationships, marriage, children and family life as a way of focusing our love on Christ and on loving others freely as Jesus did. Religious poverty means sharing all of my income and resources with my fellow sisters or brothers in community while striving to live simply and in solidarity with those who are truly poor. A religious does not acquire personal wealth, property, possessions or inheritance: all these are shared with the congregation or given away. Religious obedience means seeking complete obedience to God by being obedient to the word of God, the Rule of Life, my religious superiors and the fellow brothers or sisters in community.
The vows shape our life. But an intentional prayer life is also essential. This includes private prayer (the S.M.Rule of Life calls for an hour a day) and communal worship in the liturgy of the hours and Mass. All religious live some form of community life, but this is especially true for Marianists, who live on their own only by rare exception. And every form of religious life has some form of ministry that is usually how they maintain a livelihood, but is always shaped by the mission and charism of the institute.
What about Marianist priests? All religious priests live the same life as the sisters and brothers explained above. Some congregations are all priests, some all brothers, some a mixture. The Marianists are distinctive in that all they are all brothers and about one-third of the members are also priests. (The priests make their perpetual vows as brothers before seminary studies for priesthood are even begun. So Marianist priests are truly “ordained brothers.”)
So why would someone choose this unusual life of vows, prayer, communal life and ministry? Most often it is because one feels called – through a sense of meaning, fulfillment and joy – to the prospect of living this life. It is a way of living out our baptism in imitation of Jesus and Mary. Through the vows we seek to allow Christ to “take full possession of our lives, and through us reach out to others.” (Rule of Life, 23). A few odd people such as myself find this extremely attractive and fulfilling. Please pray for us, and pray for vibrant young Catholic Christians to consider a vocation as a sister or a brother!
Fr. Chris Wittmann, SM, is the Director of Novices, Marianist Province of the US