Q: What exactly is a cooperator brother?
A: Basically, the Dominican Order has two kinds of friars, clerical (priest, deacons, and seminarians) and lay (cooperator brothers): Cooperator brothers are men whose love for God and desire to serve the Church has led them to seek to live as vowed religious. They are freed by the vow of poverty to give what they have to others; freed by the vow of obedience to do what the Church, through the Order, asks of them; and freed by the vow of chastity to love all those they encounter. With the support of their community of fellow Dominicans, they go about their prayer, study, ministry and preaching with joyful hearts. And though they are not priests, their lives are rooted in the sacramental life of the Church.
Q: What does a cooperator brother do?
A: A cooperator brother can do just about anything the ordained brothers do, except sacramental ministry. This includes teaching, chaplaincy, hospice work, parish pastoral ministry, spiritual direction, retreat work, in-house/provincial administration, maintenance/vocational work, religious education, and works in the arts. Bring the gifts and skills, and the Order will find a way to use them.
Q: What's the formation of a cooperator brother like?
A: The formation of the cooperator brothers is nearly identical to that of the cleric brothers, with whom they live. Dominican life begins with a one year novitiate (in Denver, CO for the Central Province), followed by theological studies (in St. Louis, MO). The kind of theological graduate degree earned by the cooperator brother can vary. If he's interested in more pastoral work, he can earn a Master's in Divinity. If he's interested in working in academics (teaching, etc.), then he can earn a Master's in Theology. He has the option, like the cleric brothers, of earning both degrees. Along with the theological degree, a cooperator brother may be asked by the Order to pursue other degrees or training, based on the province's need, and the particular gifts of the cooperator brother. *Keep in mind, decisions about formation are always worked out with one's student master and provincial, and are not solely the decision of the individual brother.
Q: How do I know if I am called to be a cooperator brother?
A: Assuming that you've discerned that it's the Dominican way of life that most attracts you (based on our emphasis on community life, common prayer, study, and ministry, as well as, spreading the Gospel through the effective use of language)--then you can begin to ask whether you're called to be a Dominican priest or cooperator brother. The most common way to discern the cooperator brotherhood is to figure out whether or not you feel called to the priestly identity, and/or sacramental ministry. If you don't feel called to do sacramental ministry (hear confessions, say mass, etc.) then that may be a good indicator that you aren't called to be a priest. If you still, however, feel called to be chaste, poor, and obedient, living in community with like-minded men, then you may be called to be a religious, in which case, the cooperator brotherhood could work for you. *It's important to note here, that a cooperator brother doesn't define himself by what he's not (a priest), but by what he is (a religious). Keep in mind, the development of religious life (communities of monks, nuns, or hermits) depended on the three vows for understanding itself, not ordination. For example, St. Benedict of Nursia, the "Father of Western Monasticism" was not a priest.
Q: Is there more than one kind of cooperator brother?
A: I ask this question, because I want to emphasize that there are many ways to be a cooperator brother. Our province is a perfect example of this. We have a brother working in provincial administration, brothers who have been or are teachers, a brother doing hospice chaplaincy, another working with children, one on mission in Africa, and others who do in-house maintenance. A brother's ministry can, and the Order has affirmed this, directly or indirectly contribute to the Order's mission--meaning, while we're excited about cooperator brothers doing various ministries once only done by the priest brothers, we still value and respect brothers who prefer to work behind the scenes.
Q: What happened to the black scapular?
A: The black scapular used to be distinctive to the cooperator brother. In art, we still see it in depictions of cooperator brothers like St. Martin de Porres. In modern times, the Order wanted to stress the fact that, while it has different types of friars, they are all equal. As a sign of greater solidarity and unity throughout the Order, all the friars wear the same habit.
*The picture above is of Br. Benedict Baer, OP, speaking with the Dalai Lama.
If you would like to read more of my thoughts on the Dominican Cooperator Brotherhood, see several of my blog reflections on the top:
A: Neither Priest nor Lay Brother: The Middle Ground
B: What the General Chapter of Bologna said on brotherhood
C: Ottawa Reflection, Part I
D: Ottawa Reflection, Part II
E: Ottawa Reflection, Part III
F: The Old Lay Brother Habit
G: Brother Identity, Part I
H: Brother Identity, Part II
I: Brother Identity, Part III
J: Obedience as the Heart of Religious Life
K: How Contemplation Saved My Life