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Brothers of Charity

The world needs more brothers. The Church needs more brothers. Not the "blood brother" kind, but the kind of brothers found in religious orders.

Most people today don't have any contact with religious brothers. In the United States in the late 1960s, there were more than 5,000 brothers, mostly in teaching orders. But today, there are only about 1,000 professed brothers.

Brothers are not priests. But they do take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They are men who consecrate their lives to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

I recently spent a week with the Brothers of Charity in Belgium. I came away with a new appreciation of what professed religious brothers bring to the Catholic Church and the world.

The Brothers of Charity whom I visited work with the people that the rest of the world has marginalized or forgotten: the mentally ill, the blind, the deaf and the severely handicapped.

As one brother said to me, "There will always be work for the brothers. But there will never be enough brothers."

There are approximately 700 Brothers of Charity and associate members scattered throughout 30 countries. In the United States, they have houses in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Some of the brothers receive their training in liberal arts and nursing through Catholic University in Washington.

In the past, most Brothers of Charity came from Flanders, the northern part of Belgium. That is where they were founded. But today they also come from Africa and Asia, and recently the order opened houses of formation in Indonesia and Kenya, where more than 40 new brothers entered this past year.

Why do we need more brothers such as the Brothers of Charity?

In simple terms, it is because their work is the ministry of Jesus. They bring healing to the sick, comfort to the dying, sight to the blind and help to people who are troubled by the demons of mental illness. There is something special about their presence and work, which is done out of love.

In Belgium, the brothers have had a huge influence on the care of hundreds of mentally ill people. While there, I was especially touched by their work with the mentally ill.

Back in the 19th century, the mentally ill were kept in cages and chained in shackles. In one of their first foundations, the Brothers of Charity liberated the mentally ill from the dungeon of a castle in Ghent.

With one of their first psychiatrists, Joseph Guislain, they built a hospital for the mentally ill that became a model of care. It is now a museum on the history of psychiatry. A newer hospital is nearby.

Today the Brothers of Charity are joined by many lay co-workers, and they have more than 10,000 employees in all their institutions in Belgium.

In the United States in the nation's capital, the brothers are opening a house for homeless veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The new house will be located in a former Catholic elementary school. It will have rooms for 12 veterans and offer them medical and psychiatric care. The residents will also have recreation and a chapel for prayer.

There is something special about the Brothers of Charity. They are humble men of faith and prayer. The ones I met are filled with enthusiasm and joy. They are competent professionals, but above all they are rooted in love - of God and neighbor.

The world could use a lot more brothers like them.

Fr. Daly is pastor of St. John Vianney Church in Prince Frederick, Md.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011