Reflection: What is the Difference Between Diocesan
and Religious Priests and Brothers
by Father Don Thomas
As Catholics we have believed for two thousand years that at the last supper on Holy Thursday night, the night before he died, Jesus instituted two sacraments, Holy Eucharist and Holy Orders. He made the twelve apostles priests and gave them the commission or the power to change the bread and wine into his body and blood. It was to be a perpetual memorial act of love and life, the gift of his body and blood in the Eucharist.
As history unfolded, these priests lived out in the world with the people they were serving. The Latin word for "world" is "saeculum", and there's the derivation of the expression "secular priests", those out in the world, ministering to God's people. As the years passed, there were men and women who voluntarily decided to go apart from the world, taking the three vows of religion, namely, poverty, chastity and obedience.
Any man or woman who makes the three vows is called a religious—a religious priest, sister or brother. This essentially is what makes a "religious" different from a "secular". The secular priests never take the three vows of religion. They do make a promise to their bishop at ordination to obey him as their spiritual leader for a particular diocese, and they also make a promise to remain celibate—not to marry. It bears repeating, to say that diocesan priests do not take the three vows of religion—poverty, chastity and obedience. The promise of celibacy is not the same as the vow of chastity.
A consideration that is somewhat helpful in understanding the difference between diocesan priests as opposed to religious priests is the fact that, other than initials for a degree that a priest may have gained academically, like a master's degree or a bachelor of arts degree or a degree in sacred scripture—as a rule, a diocesan priest does not have special initials after his name. A religious priest, sister or brother does. When a man or woman joins a religious community like the Jesuits, the Dominicans, the LaSalettes, the Josephites and others, these religious communities are identified by initials that represent the name of the particular religious order or congregation.
All the technical work is done in Latin when a community is founded and approved by Rome. The Jesuits have the letters S.J." after their names because the technical name is "Societas Jesus" in Latin—thus S.J. The title for the Dominicans is "Ordo Predicatorum", the Order of Preachers, thus. "O.P." after their names. The Missionaries of LaSalette in Latin would be "Missionarus Salettensis", thus the "M.S." after their name. Perhaps you will recall there is no article in Latin, like "La" as in French, and that is why in Latin you say LaSalette—"Salettensis". This is also true for Religious Sisters and Brothers, depending upon which religious community or order they belong to according to the vows they have professed. Do not feel badly if you do not know all the initials or all the different orders or communities of priests, sisters or brothers. There are hundreds of them, and sometimes we get to know them because they serve in our home parish or teach us in school or care for us in their hospitals. Recall once again, diocesan or secular priests do not have initials after their names as a rule.
Many people today reflect on the shortage of priests, sisters and brothers and raise the questions as to why they just don't bunch some of these communities and produce some big groups. The reason this is not possible is because vows are taken according to the constitutions of the various communities. Some orders or communities are founded for teaching, for medical ministry, for foreign mission ministry, etc. They all want to serve God and serve the church. But then, by way of analogy, all the military branches of service want to serve the country. However, we have to admit that the role of each branch is different. No one would want a sailor who has never been in a plane to be told suddenly that he is to fly a plane back to the states from overseas. And a nun who joins a teaching order does not want to be told suddenly that she is to report for work in a hospital emergency room when she cannot stand the sight of blood. The role of each military branch is different from the others, and the role of each religious community is distinct from the others.
I would think that if some communities have the same purpose for existing as another order, possibly they could be united. However, for the reasons I stated above, such amalgamation is not the answer.
A religious brother is a man who feels called to serve God in ministry, but while he wants to take vows and join a community and live according to the rule and constitutions of that particular order, he does not want the responsibility of the priesthood. And do not forget this important fact. Just as the vocation of doctors and nurses are essentially different, priesthood and brotherhood are distinct vocations. One of the most important facts I want to emphasize is that when a man takes his vows as a member of a particular order or community, he is equally a member of that order, whether he be a priest or a brother. For the longest time, brothers were treated as second class citizens. Roles may be different as priests and brothers but taking the same vows according to the constitution is what makes them equal as professed members. Expressions like "he's just a brother, I'm a priest" have been most unfair and hurtful for years.
When a sign, for example, that says "LaSalette Fathers" is posted, with no reference to the LaSalette Brothers, it is very divisive and unjust, and the answer to that problem is a sign reading "Missionaries of LaSalette", for it includes the priests and the brothers. As a priest I have seen extraordinary men who were brothers and they were gifted in so many different ways like repairing cars, wiring buildings electrically, running farms, constructing buildings as carpenters, serving as sacristans, finance ministers, secretarial and medical professionals, and on and on. Great strides have been made and every religious community should say "thank God for that". Justice has prevailed