Do you remember your first day with the Alexian Brothers?
Sure. When, on January 1, 1987, my parents brought me to Neuss with two suitcases, the Brothers at the Alexian house in Neuss hadn’t reckoned on my showing up on this particular day. But Brother Ambrosius took me under his wing. After I, my parents and Brother Ambrosius sat down for coffee, I took leave of my parents, and my father said to me, “If it doesn’t work out, we’ll come and get you.”
Well, it’s no wonder. You had just turned 19. Many people at this age haven’t a clue as to where their life’s journey will take them. Was it different for you?
I wouldn’t say it’s surprising that I made this choice – but it was a result of considerable reflection, and I’d definitely made up my mind. And yet, religious callings don’t grow on trees. You have to earn your calling. I did have some kind of intimation that joining the Congregation of Alexian Brothers could be a path for me. Because after all, it’s a calling that involves praying and listening.
Each calling comes from God and is a gift from God. And each calling very likely begins with learning to listen, learning to listen to God, and also to good people, to family, friends and pastoral workers.
Did you listen to your inner voice?
For sure, it’s first and foremost thanks to my family and a few people in my local parish who influenced me that I found my faith. I’m eternally grateful for this testimony to faith and life.
Being an altar boy enabled me to learn about parish life, which I truly loved. The joy I felt in celebrating Mass, praying, and engaging in activities with others has influenced by entire life. Today if I, as a priest, engage in activities in various parishes and celebrate Mass at various churches, my home parish is still very important to me. This has to do with my hometown, with memories, with feelings, and with a certain atmosphere.
How did you happen to get excited about the Congregation of Alexian Brothers? With 74 Orders worldwide and 23 Brothers in Germany, the Congregation of Alexian Brothers isn’t widely known.
I first heard about the Congregation of Alexian Brothers when I saw an ad in Weltbild, where numerous Orders advertised at the time. Today, you’d be far more likely to find such ads on the Internet.
In reaching my decision it was important for me to join a socially active Order, as opposed to a contemplative one. The Congregation of Alexian Brothers felt like a perfect fit for me. I reached my decision quickly. I was a guest of the Congregation during Advent, and in January I became member.
What prompted you to reach your decision so quickly?
At age 19, I had no difficulty making decisions; but at no time did I ever feel that I was being pressured.
People rarely join our Congregation at the age of 19. Most people who join are older, and thus have already found their place in society, and have a career and a family. And so you don’t enter the Order lightly. For me, it was much easier to take this step, and I’m grateful to my Congregation for everything that I’ve had the opportunity to learn and study.
What’s wonderful about life in an Alexian Congregation is growing into it, and learning to adopt a spiritual outlook. No one is expected to be perfect: we all have our faults – and we’re all on the path.
The fixed daily routine, with set times for prayer, work, meals, relaxation and the community is tremendously important, particularly when you first join a Congregation; because many people come from a time where only rapidity counts.
To what extent did your decision have to do with your social milieu? Were you brought up in a religious Catholic family?
This is a common question. It seems that most people associate a religious calling with a strict Catholic upbringing. But it wasn’t that way for me. My parents weren’t any more religious than a lot of other people.
How did your friends and family react when you told them about your decision?
No one said anything negative. In fact, their response was pretty restrained This is surely because this is an unusual path, and most people have no idea what life in a religious community involves.
What does such a life involve?
First of all, life in a religious community is undoubtedly different than it was around 50 years ago. Of course, a vow of poverty, as well as chastity and obedience are still rules that we abide by today. But this has nothing to do with a disciplined way of life that you’re simply subjected to. What it involves instead, and above all, is calling yourself into question. What have I embarked upon? How do I feel about my decision? Will it be possible for me to evaluate freely? What is my path?
People are surely more responsible for themselves than was the case in the past. Central for me were my efforts to build a relationship with Christ and to strengthen and maintain that relationship; and for that you need inwardness and a spiritual outlook. The promises that we make to God and the Church and the community need to be embodied each and every day. This is an ongoing process as is dealing with inward and outer matters; for after all, we live in the present, not in the past, and not in the future either. Knowing this makes me serene and makes me trust in God.
What part do exchanges with your fellow Brothers play?
Speaking with the other Brothers regularly is very important. But unfortunately, in our Congregation we can’t ignore the problem that we lack younger Brothers who will take over when we’re gone. Although I’m currently the only Brother here in Siegburg, I have regular contact with my fellow Brothers in Neuss, Aachen and Münster. We hold various sessions where we gather together, and we celebrate certain religious holidays as a community.
Speaking with the other Brothers is always important, and at every age, because as a Congregation of Brothers, particularly in a small community, we need to be there for each other, in order to strengthen our calling. But this also means that you need to learn to accept advice from another Brother in a spirit of correctio fraterna, or fraternal correction.
Do you sometimes have doubts as to whether you have chosen the right path?
We all have doubts – which is healthy, because doubts prevent us from becoming arrogant and presumptuous. I never have any doubts about God’s divine providence for me and my life.
But I do have doubts as to whether I can fulfill my calling properly, despite my faults, weaknesses and deficiencies.
Crises of faith are also part and parcel of life in a religious community. It’s important to have people in your life who can help you cope with such crises. Confessors, spiritual godparents – there are also many male and female laypersons who make very good spiritual counsellors. I’m glad that I have people like this in my life, who accompany me on my path. Regular spiritual exercises are also helpful.
Nonetheless, Christian communities are becoming increasingly unpopular. Why is this the case?
Many people today are afraid of making binding commitments. This phenomenon pertains not only to religious communities, but also to relationships in general. But I feel that it’s helpful and necessary to make commitments, and to dare to do something.
For it is my belief that commitment is the only way to build trust and feel secure. Only commitments can set you free, so that you’re open to new things.
How can you persuade young men to join the Congregation of Alexian Brothers?
We don’t do TV ads or the like. We offer not a product, but rather an example of how life can become meaningful. And this stems from a 100 year old Alexian tradition. Over the years, many Alexian Brothers have sacrificed themselves to serve others, and have thus surely become saints. They have, in an authentic fashion, embodied what they feel to be their calling as Alexians.
But today, all we can really do is invite people to visit us and see for themselves. Because people interested in our community mainly obtain information nowadays over the Internet, it’s important to us have an updated and modern website. We recently began offering young men who are still searching for the right spiritual path, the opportunity to participate in our Alexian Year program. This involves inviting interested men to spend a year living in our community. This is a good way for such men to try out life in our community, and to decide whether joining the Congregation of Alexian Brothers is right for them.
What criteria do men interested in the Alexian Year program need to meet?
The program is open to anyone, and a candidate’s profession is not a primary consideration. In the past, in order to join the Congregation of Alexian Brothers, you were required to be a registered nurse. But this is no longer the case. Anyone who comes to us can bring their profession with them, for we engage in a broad range of activities, and anyone can find their place here. That said, it is important to us that every Brother have basic knowledge about hospitals, be familiar with hospital structures, and have had hands-on experience with the daily work of a ward, nursing home, or assisted-living centre. This is part of our appeal: the fact that we tend to the needs of the ill and infirm. That’s how it is, and that’s how it always will be.