Right before our eyes, cooperator brothers are disappearing from the Order of Preachers. How will the decline of our brothers impact the Order and our preaching mission? The Cooperator Brother Study, requested by the Master General of the Dominican Order, compares the number of cooperator brothers in the Order from the year 1980 to 2014. In 1980, 838 friars in the entire Order were cooperator brothers. In 2014, only 322 remain: a 62% reduction. Decline in the number of ordained friars in the same time period was 21%. Based on this study, cooperator brothers are disappearing three times faster than clerical brothers. Compounding the recent decline is the advanced age among the remaining 322 cooperator brothers and the relatively low number of vocations. All indicators point to a continual rapid decline among the cooperator brother vocation.
Cooperator brothers are vanishing. With the exception of Poland and Vietnam, the brother's presence in most provinces is minimal. Out of the 51 total provinces, 8 provinces have no cooperator brothers, 31 have 5 or fewer and 42 have ten or fewer cooperator brothers.
St Juan Macias - cooperator brother from Lima, Peru.
If the current decline is not met with a renewal in the Order and new vocations, the cooperator brother vocation may fade into history. It has been a rich and holy history. However, perhaps it is time to reflect on why Dominicans have always integrated a non-ordained presence among the friars.
Is the vocation of the cooperator brother essential to the Order’s charism? Will the disappearance of the brothers in the mission of the Order radically change St Dominic’s vision? Can the Order be sustained without our brothers? How will the disappearance of the non-ordained friar impact our preaching in today's world? As one discerning the Dominican cooperator brother vocation, I ask why the Order of Preachers, from its inception, has always included a non-ordained presence.
I propose three reasons why cooperator brothers are essential to the Dominican charism.
First, cooperator brothers offer a fraternal versus a paternal presence. Dominicans are called to serve one another as brothers in charity as practiced and modeled by Jesus and the apostles. The Gospel of Luke reminds us that “the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest,” (9: 47-48). In our own Constitution, we are reminded that all brothers are directly linked first by profession.
Second, cooperator brothers help maintain a sense of balance for the Order. The brothers have been models of service, prayer, and charity.
And third, cooperator brothers increase the diversity of our Holy Preaching to the world. As St Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 state so clearly, we need many diverse parts to make up the body of Christ.
St. Martin de Porres - our most widely known cooperator brother.
The previous three reasons are meaningful, but I offer a more fundamental argument. Preaching is our mission. Preaching is why we exist. Preaching is why we need a vibrant cooperator brother presence. How we view the impact, effect, and influence of our cooperator brothers in the preaching mission is the key issue.
We preach as a community. Our preaching begins with a communal rather than an individual focus. Our preaching begins with the internal sense of who we are as brothers rather than the question, "What is my external ministry". Who we are as community and how we live as community is more important and more impactful than what we do. What kind of brother I am speaks more loudly than any individual homily pronounced, book written, or class taught. When we preach, people hear first the sense of love and integrity of our community life before they hear our words.
How we view the role of our cooperator brothers in the Dominican preaching is fundamental. If Dominican preaching is not affected by the presence of the brothers, then maybe the Holy Spirit is saying it is time for the brothers to drift into history. If, however, our Dominican preaching is influenced by the presence of our brothers, then this changes how this issue should be viewed. If cooperator brothers change the very core of who we are as a community and therefore the value of our preaching, then all friars are affected. The decline of the brothers becomes a decline for the entire Order. This problem is a problem for every friar. Solving the decline is urgent for every friar.
We must all work for renewal and that renewal must come from every friar. We must eradicate attitudes that say this is an internal problem only for cooperator brothers. Preaching is the core of why we exist. All Dominican preaching is affected. We are all preachers; we must all own the problem.
Let us joyfully recall that St Dominic instituted the role of non-ordained brothers among the friars by summoning Oderic of Normandy as one of the original sixteen called to go out and preach. Let us joyfully recall that Holy Mother Church has blessed our way of life by declaring 4 cooperator brothers as saints and over 70 as martyrs. Let us work together, as a united community of friars, to renew our Order in the founding spirit of Dominic and as our constitution demands.