Editor’s note: The Tennessee Register has been offering regular coverage of The Year of Consecrated Life, which officially ends on Feb. 2, 2016. The Year was launched by Pope Francis to help the laity learn more about religious life and to encourage renewal among consecrated members of religious orders and societies.
|Brother Ignatius Perkins, O.P., will celebrate 55 years as a Dominican Friar on Feb. 8. He has spent his life as a religious brother working in health care and is the former dean of the School of Nursing at Aquinas College in Nashville. Photo courtesy of Dominican Province of St. Joseph
Of all the types of consecrated life, the one with the fewest numbers is that of a religious brother. But for those who have chosen that path, it is a life that offers more freedom to carry the Gospel message to every corner of humanity.
Priests, in some ways, are more limited by the responsibilities they have to their congregations, said Brother Ignatius Perkins, O.P., the former dean of the School of Nursing at Aquinas College in Nashville and now director of health services for the Province of St. Joseph of the Dominican Friars and executive director of the Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry in New York City.
“Brothers have more flexibility in bringing the Gospel message anywhere,” said Brother Ignatius, who has spent most of his life as a nurse and nursing educator. “Our presentation of our charisms as a brother has no limit to it,” whether it’s in health care, education, missions or a host of other ministries.
That flexibility to follow ministry wherever it is needed is reflected in the life of Glenmary Brother Larry Johnson, who currently splits his time between Holy Family Church in Lafayette, Tennessee, and as Glenmary’s second vice president at the religious society’s home base in Cincinnati.
Since joining Glenmary, Brother Larry has helped repair homes for poor people in Appalachia, taught religious education classes in parishes, tutored high school students, managed a shelter for the homeless, worked on peace and justice issues, and overseen formation programs for Glenmary, among other ministries.
Being a Glenmary brother “has allowed me to position myself wherever I can use my gifts and skills to serve,” Brother Larry said.
Religious brothers take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but have no sacramental authority. “We’re the male equivalent of (religious) sisters,” Brother Larry said. “We’re considered laity in the Church. … They can do anything we can do.”
Brother Ignatius heard the call of his vocation as a student at a Catholic high school in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, where Dominican Sisters of St. Mary’s of the Springs taught.
“I was very impressed with the very powerful visual image of the life of the sisters in every aspect of the school,” Brother Ignatius said. He entered the Dominicans the summer after he graduated from high school. “I always felt called to Dominican life and the life of a brother in the order.”
The attraction was centered in the heart of being a Dominican, an order founded to preach the gospel, Brother Ignatius said. “That means bringing the message of the Gospel wherever it’s needed.”
He decided that he wanted to preach the Gospel by working in health care. That eventually led to nursing school. His choice was inspired by an aunt who was a nurse, Brother Ignatius said. “I admired her ability to engage other people in a calm, effective way,” he said. “It was also the model of Martin de Porres who took care of the poor and sick in Lima, Peru. He’s been a very strong role model for me. Everyone was important to him.”
Brother Ignatius earned degrees in nursing from the associate’s level to a doctorate and became one the nation’s leading nursing educators.
As a nursing educator, his emphasis has been on forming healers, not simply technicians. “We all have to follow the model of Christ as the ultimate healer,” he said.
After Brother Larry graduated from high school in the Cleveland, Ohio, area, “I really embraced my faith,” he said. “I started to take it more seriously.”
He was looking for a way to live out his faith when he saw a brochure about a lay volunteer program of the Glenmary religious society, which since its founding in 1939, has been serving in rural areas throughout the South were there are few Catholics.
He kept coming back to Glenmary looking for longer-term volunteer opportunities. “We did a lot of hard manual labor” helping to repair homes. There also was fellowship, reflection and prayer in the evenings, he said. “It really had an impact on me. … It was kind of the first time I ever experienced something like that. It was timely and hit at the right moment.”
In 1976, he entered the Glenmary formation program as a brother. During his formation, he had the opportunity to choose a field of study that might be helpful in the missions. He decided to get a degree in recreation thinking that would be good training in developing and managing programs.
He took his final oath as a Glenmary brother in 1984 and in the years since has served throughout the South serving the poor and building the Church.
“It was the right decision. I find it very rewarding and difficult too,” Brother Larry said of his vocation. “Scripture says we’re promised the fullness of life, joy and sorrow, both sides of the coin. I might have been inconvenienced sometimes but I’ve never suffered hardship.”
The vocation of a religious brother is about relationship, Brother Larry said. “If you’re not in relationship, who are you a brother to? We try to be a brother to all.”
Life as a brother has been “absolutely fantastic,” said Brother Ignatius, who will celebrate 55 years as a Dominican Friar on Feb. 8. “Every day is a new adventure.”
“I never had a doubt about the call,” he said. “The Lord has a plan for you, you just have to listen and figure it out.”