Rome, Saturday, March 2, 2013
The General Council chose “Fraternity: Pathways of Reconcili­ation” as the theme of our OGF and spirituality for 2013. In the proposed itinerary, we are invited, first of all, to reflect upon our FRATERNITY. That is: what does being brothers mean for us? What does it mean to have brothers?
Fr. Manuel João Pereira Correia

Fraternity is one of those increasingly rare “goods”, not only because there are “fewer children” and more “only child” today. Fraternity is part of the triad Liberté - Egalité - Fraternité underpinning our democracies that were born after the French Revolution. However, while the first two have taken hold (perhaps because they are easier to regulate), the third is only established with difficulty. It needs a further input of heart and this cannot be imposed.

Much is said about “universal fraternity” and social sensitivity has increased. Unfortunately, it is often similar to the “digital fraternity” of the web, no farther away than a click but failing to fraternise with one’s next door neighbour or even those with whom one lives. The increasing rejection of the fatherhood of God, on the one hand, and, on the other, the difficulties involved in cultural cohabitation, something brought home by migration, make the ties of human fraternity become ever weaker. Yet, Being brothers and having brothers is still one of the nicest, most profound and universal human experiences. We shall endeavour to reflect upon these realities in the light of Holy Scripture and the Comboni tradition.

1.       BEING brothers, a special relationship

Two persons are brothers or sisters when they share (either juridically or naturally) one or both parents. Biologically, brothers and sisters have a similar genetic make-up. Obviously, this does not mean they are “equal”. Other factors contribute to their being “different” such as the order in which they were born, their personal history, how they use their freedom and so forth.

The words “brother” or “sister”, however, may have a broader meaning. Sometimes they may signify a close degree of relationship or belonging to the same ethnic group.

By analogy, two people may call themselves “brothers” by reason of the ties of friendship or mutual agreement between them. The affinity created between people “grouped” around a common interest or ideal may create a sort of “brotherhood” (con-fraternity) and the members may call themselves “brothers”, as in our case.

To conclude, the words “brother” and “sister” are among those most frequently used and preferred when denoting a special relationship between people.

Taking these words as having this meaning, when we call ourselves “brothers” or “sisters”, we mean to say that there is a particular and special relationship between us by reason of the fact that we share the same life ideal. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the more important is what we have in common, the deeper our friendship is. For this reason, some Fathers of the Church (St. Basil and St. Augustine) held that the monastic community is the perfection of friendship.

2.       TO BE BORN as brothers, an original dimension

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word “brother” (ah) is found more than 600 times. If we also count the corresponding word in Greek (adelphos) in the New testament and in the books of the Septuagint, the number rises to over a thousand. This indicates the importance attached to fraternal relationships.

While the “couple” made up of Adam and Eve is the prototype of humanity which establishes its first relational rapport (male and female), the “couple” composed of Cain and Abel is the prototype of brotherhood. Abel is not called son of Adam but “brother of Cain” Abel is given to Cain as his “brother”. The word “brother” appears seven times in the account. Every man/woman is a brother/sister. Brotherhood is an anthropologically original tie, a bond between all people. “Human brotherhood” is second to none.

The person understands who he or she “is”, his or her deepest identity, by accepting fraternity. It is in this “horizontal dimension” established between brothers (rather than in the “vertical dimension” of the stereotyped relationship between parents and children) that the person grows in his or her ability to relate to others. Cain will end up “uprooted” without ties, lost, precisely because he killed his brother, a part of himself.

This radical brotherhood – says Enzo Bianchi – “requires that my identity be an identity that springs from the other who is at my side. I am first of all a brother and it is only when every man is my brother that I can know God as father”.

Cain (the name may mean “jealous”!), the first-born, the stronger one, the sedentary cultivator... rejects the otherness of his brother Abel (hebel, meaning “breath”, weak; perhaps this is why God had a “weakness” or concern for him!), the nomadic shepherd with a different sort of “religiosity”... Cain is jealous of his own state of birth, of being “alone”, without competitors; he therefore sees in Abel a “rival”, a “threat”, and decides to eliminate him. In this way the prototype of brotherhood is tragically broken.

Where is your brother?” (Gn 4:9). This is the second great question addressed by God to man after that “Where are you?” (Gn 3:10). The similar sound in Biblical Hebrew of the two questions, “Aye Ka” and “Ay (ahi)ka” (“where are you” and “where is your brother”), suggests a correlation.

Genesis appears to be the dramatic story of brotherliness (see the sons of Noah: Isaac and Ishmael; Jacob and Esau; Joseph and his brothers...). Like the relationship between two persons, that of brotherhood was profoundly marked by sin.

The History of Salvation will be a long and difficult rediscovery – behind the masks and appearances – of the fundamental “likeness” that comes from the arcane “image” that we have within ourselves. This image is often disfigured by layers of incrustations, like the famous bronzes of Riace discovered about forty years ago.

Where is your brother? The question is addressed to each one of us and invites us to re-examine our fraternal relationships: in what sort of relationship with others and with “the other” do I live? Do I see him as a rival, an enemy, or as one who complements me and an ally? Do I accept him or “eliminate” him?

3.       BECOMING a brother, the mission of Jesus

Jesus comes to restore the plan of brotherhood conceived by the Father. For this he makes himself a “universal brother”. He sits at table with everyone, including Pharisees and Publicans, “not being ashamed to call them his brothers” (Heb 2:11). On the contrary, he makes himself the brother of “the least” (Mt 25:40).

It is not a question of an abstract and utopian “universal broth­erhood”, similar to that of the French Revolution, and neither is it just philanthropy or human solidarity. “Brotherhood attains its epiphany on the cross” (Enzo Bianchi). He, the first-born, makes himself the guardian of the younger brother and goes in search of him even to hell itself. Jesus answers the Father’s question, “Where is your brother?”, on Cain’s behalf: “I have kept them and I have lost none of those you gave me” (Jn 17:12).

The Risen Christ calls his disciples “brothers” (Jn 20:17). He thus inaugurates a new prototype of fraternity, a community of brothers “who were born, not out of human stock or urge of the flesh or will of man but of God himself” (Jn 1:13).

From being “foreigners and enemies”, Christ has reconciled us in his body (Col 1:21). The Christian community, the Church, is born as a “brotherhood”. The NT speaks of a bond of philadelphia (friendship, brotherly love, from the word adelphos, brother). Peter even invents the term “adelphotes”, brotherhood, to convey its meaning. “Love the brotherhood” (1P 2:17), he says, referring to the Church.

It is interesting to note that, from the III-IV century onwards, due to the high degree of clerical influence, the ecclesiastical vocabulary for brotherhood almost disappears, even in patristics, and barely survives in monastic communities.

With Vatican II, brotherhood again appears in ordinary language. But are we really convinced we are “all brothers”? (Mt 23:8). Judging from the long list of “most illustrious” ecclesiastical titles (that still exist even in religious life), we are still far from being “simply brothers”!

4.       LIVING as brothers, the Comboni legacy

No. 36 of the RL states: “The missionaries gratefully welcome the gift of community life to which the Spirit of the Lord has called them through the original inspiration of the Founder”.

Comboni, because of his conviction and his experience, believed his missionaries should live and work in community. This was the cause of disagreement with Carcereri who wanted to multiply the mission stations at the expense of the common life. In his Rules for his missionaries Comboni says: “Our missionaries live together as brothers with the same vocation... without rivalry or pretensions... ready to bear with one another and to help one other” (W. 1859).

This brotherhood is not ‘monkish’ but apostolic, intimately related to the being of the ‘Comboni missionary’. We may say that it wells up from the inspiration of the Plan of Comboni who, as he contemplated “that love set alight by the divine flame on the hill of Golgotha when it came forth from the side of the Crucified One to embrace the whole human family”, saw in the Africans “an infinite myriad of brothers of the same family and having one Father in heaven”. This ‘vision’, nourished by the ‘divine virtue’ of charity, drove him to “embrace in his arms with the kiss of peace and love” these brothers (cf. Writings, 2742).

This charismatic “inspiration” of the Founder has become the heritage of the Institute. In the Rules of 1921 and 1924 (before and after the separation) we find a beautiful and meaningful example of this (see cover image): “... The spirit proper to the Congregation is the spirit of charity... that must unite all as children around their father, the Divine Heart of Jesus. Therefore all must glory in the name of Sons of the Sacred Heart, love one another in true charity, as brothers, bearing with one another’s faults and failings; assist each other in their needs showing esteem and respect to all the confreres...”. (243-4)

This rich heritage has been taken up and passed on by the present Rule of Life. In fact, the foremost characteristic of the Comboni Institute continues to be “a community of brothers” (RL 10).

Conclusion: We are not born but become Brothers!

Where has this reflection on fraternity led us? I would like to mention just three conclusions.

1. Brotherhood is a value that is esteemed and sought after but it is also a fragile and delicate value due to the instinct of Cain which abides within us. We must be vigilant because “sin is crouching at the door” of our hearts (Gn 4:7). We must ask ourselves whether behind some “Abel” victims there is not a misrepresentation of Cain set upon “eliminating” his brother even by simply ignoring him!

Brotherhood is possible only where there is mutual for­giveness. The community becomes the “place of forgiveness and celebration” (Jean Vanier).

2. The general difficulty in living fraternity, including its biological form, ought to bring us to re-qualify our judgements, often quite negative, regarding our communities. We frequently take as our reference point (ideal?) the form of brotherhood created by blood relationship and forgetting the sad and all too frequent situation of brothers and sisters who stop speaking to each other for years or even hate each other. It often happens that the only thing that unites them is a clannish “solidarity”.

Tensions and difficulties are only natural and are, sometimes, a gift and a grace like necessary birth pains. After all, the effort to live “as brothers” in international communities where there are strong differences of culture, language, age, character, sensibilities and formation... is already a small miracle of grace. People from outside often understandably comment on this.

A more optimistic and benevolent view is capable of rejoicing and praising the Lord for the brotherhood which “already” exists among us, instead of complaining or blaming others for what is “still” lacking.

3. Sometimes it seems there is a false premise - that which says a priori that “we are” all brothers and would draw its conclusions. We are indeed “all brothers” but in a state of “becoming”! We would do well to remember that humankind is “in a state of war”. This is the right starting point. Only God can make the human community possible. “He is our peace” (Eph 2:4). “Without Christ we would be incapable of either recognising a brother or coming close to him. It is our own ego that bars our way. Christ has opened the way that leads to God and our brother” (Bonhoeffer, Life in Common).

As is unequivocally stated in the document “Fraternal Life in Community” (FLC), we are “convoked”, called together (FLC 44), to “become” brothers.

From the gift of communion there arises the duty to build fraternity, in other words, to become brothers and sisters in a given community where all are called to live together” (FLC 11). The religious community is the “place where we become brothers” !

In other words, by our Comboni profession we have not become brothers but have taken a journey to becoming so. This requires the daily “decision” to renew one’s commitment to fraternity! The sixteenth-century humanist Pico della Mirandola said: “The Father infused into the human being, when he came into the world, seeds of all kinds and the germs of every life species. These would have grown in him and they would have borne fruit in him”. Fraternity is not a plant that grows unaided: it must be cultivated and cared for. Otherwise, it will be choked by thorns and weeds.

Sooner or later, we all will find ourselves at a crossroads. For some it will be the dramatic conclusion of having to agree with J. P. Sartre: “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (Hell is the others). For others it will be the surprising discovery of Sœur Emmanuelle: “Le paradis, c’est les autres” (Paradise is the others).

When the community is the “place where the daily and patient move from ‘I’ to ‘we’ takes place” (FLC 39), we too will say: “How good and how pleasant it is when brothers live in unity” (Ps 133).

Then we shall prophetically anticipate the future fraternity, where – according to the seventeenth-century Jesuit Drexel in his Table of Joys and Paradise – “Each one of the blessed will share in the happiness of all and all will share in the happiness of each one, as if it were their own. (In paradise) all may say of each one: this is another me; so much that each one is as happy with the happiness of their companion as with their own”.
Fr. Manuel João P. Correia