The death of a brother

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On Thursday morning, July 15th 2010, the Feast of St. Bonaventure, we received the shocking news that our brother John-Joseph Dolan, OFM Conv. had died in Rome. He was 59 years old. It seems he had a heart attack related to “walking pneumonia”.

JJ, as we called him, was my novitiate classmate, a pillar of our province and one of our Order’s Assistant Generals. He lived and breathed Franciscanism… he was also a lot of fun. He could capture your imagination with tales from early church history. At other times he would lift our hearts with a passionate reflection that would challenge our friars to embrace a more radical life. At other times, over a cigar and some scotch he would have us howling with laughter at some of his experiences and commentary on current events in the world and most often in our brotherhood.

John-Joseph and I at the Trevi Fountain - July 3, 2010

John-Joseph, or as his family calls him, Joey, was a fine man from Buffalo. He never forgot his roots in New York nor his love for the United States. Yet he was early on a man of the world; open and sensitive to cultures and diversity. He had a tremendous gift of hospitality that has meant that hundreds of friars around the world in Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe and North America are mourning a good friend… and more importantly their brother.

Here’s a reflection John-Joseph wrote in 2009 for CMSM on the vocation of brothers which captures his vision well.

Rest in peace my friend and inspire us to continue the journey you began with us.

The Brother’s Vocation

Friar John-Joseph Dolan, OFM Conv., is currently in his ninth year in Rome and second term as the General Assistant for the Conventual Franciscan Friars, with responsibility for USA, Canada, Jamaica, Great Britain, and Ireland.  In 2001 he became the first Religious Brother on the Conventual  General Definitory since the time of Francis.

Frequently in literature the road beginning at our door and front steps and ending “God only knows where” is a metaphor for the adventures, dangers, discoveries and relationships in our journey through life. Be it a pilgrimage (sacred or secular), a coming-of-age story, a flight,   or an epic quest of the ever-popular Tolkien or Merlin-Arthurian genre—all journeys take us away from the comfortable and ordinary of our every-day life, to places and horizons beyond our immediate vision, experience and control, and ultimately lead us to the goal of our search, the Grail – ourselves. All roads—in all directions—are ultimately “roads back” to where we began; all journeys are ultimately journeys of self-discovery—discovery of the person whom God has called us to be.

This year is my 40th in Religious life and fraternity. When I left home in 1969, I could not have imagined the “twists and turns” that led me from college to the inner city to rural farmland to a non-canonical community of Brothers to the Order of Friars Minor Conventual   and eventually here to the banks of the Tiber—or Tevere as the locals would have it. I spent the first decades getting my hands dirty working with the poor and underprivileged, community organizing around housing issues, nursing the sick, teaching, and promoting social justice on a parish, diocesan, and Order-wide level. I have spent the last two in globetrotting and internal ministries:  formation and administration/leadership (provincial, national, and general level). On this road (which has brought me to every continent save Antarctica) in addition to the blessing of family and true friends, there has been one constant, the joy of my vocation—of serving God and the Church, living the Franciscan charism with my brothers and sisters, and doing this as a Religious Brother.

In the contemporary Church, there are many ways of expressing this vocation – monastic, apostolic, conventual, with a myriad of choices of apostolates, an almost endless array of charisms to direct it, and lifestyles to support it (hermit, communities of all Brothers, so-called mixed communities where the institute’s charism is lived out in either a lay or clerical manner, or as we Franciscans prefer, fraternal institutes of monks or friars in which one also happens to be a priest, a deacon, or a Brother). The common thread is a relationship—the vocation to be a Brother to all, to stand with all in the Church and Society as equals in ministry and the thirst for salvation, holiness, justice and dignity for all human beings “made in the image and likeness of God.”  Each of the choices above brings its own set of rewards and challenges.  The vocation of a Religious Brother today is often hidden from the public view (either confined to the proper schools, hospitals, charitable foundations of all-Brother institutes or internal services and ministries of the mixed institutes) and is almost universally misunderstood. If I had a penny for every time I was asked why I did not become a priest, I would be a very rich man. Often—unfortunately—it has been priests, deacons, Religious Sisters and even confreres who have posed the inquiry.

I did not choose not to be a priest in the same way that I did not choose not to be a medical doctor, a rocket scientist, or a married man with children. I chose to be a Religious, to be a Franciscan, to be a friar, to be a Conventual, to be a Religious Brother. I believe that I was called—to turn on its head a common phrase—to “go all the way” and embrace fully the consecrated life in the evangelical manner of the Franciscan Family without any other predetermined choices, conditions or ministries. I believe that Religious life —in and of itself—is a full vocation and needs nothing else joined to it to be lived fully as a prophetic sign in the world and a means of sanctification. In fact, I believe that both the very profession of vows (promises, oaths, etc) and the life in community (defined and lived in various ways) is ministry, is evangelization, is the preaching of the Gospel. The active apostolates are further expressions of this love of God and neighbor.

The vocation of the Religious Brother is the oldest from of consecrated life for men in the Church, and it was the predominant form of Religious life for the first millennium of Christianity. Unfortunately, it seems to be declining, and is often not appreciated or promoted sufficiently by the hierarchical Church—despite what her teachings and pronouncements say.  Even today, the vocation and charism of the members of mixed and fraternal institutes is injured by the Church’s position on clerical jurisdiction and its subsequent legislation. In the third millennium, Anthony of Egypt, Francis of Assisi and Benedict of Nursia could not exercise formal authority in the movements they founded.  Imagine that! This is highly unfortunate, especially today given the stratification of power, privilege and authority exercised both “in the world” and in the Church—and the widespread concomitant alienation.  On the other hand, authority is not limited to institutional positions or mandates. One can exercise moral authority without the other and vice versa.

The Brother’s vocation is one of bonding and reconciliation—with laymen and women, his ministry is deemed lay and he frequently can enter arenas on behalf of the Church where clerics are not able to penetrate, with Religious Sisters and nuns, he is a fellow Religious giving witness to the priority of God through the evangelical counsels lived simply and without the added benefit of Orders, with priests and deacons, he is a co-worker and can often more easily enter into an all male world. His is the only vocation that so clearly attests to the fullness of Religious life separate from ordained ministry and hierarchy and freely chosen —and in the mixed and fraternal institutes, he has the added privilege and duty of witnessing to the primacy and integrity of the institute’s charism and vocation to his confreres.

The journey home should be a journey back to ourselves—changed and converted. I cannot say that I have enjoyed every passage of mine, but each moment was grace-filled and invigorating. Forty years later, I would without hesitation choose again to be a Religious Brother (I cannot envision being friar any other way) and would encourage others to do so. In fact, that’s just what I did again the other day.