Brother Raphael felt a calling from an early age. In his early 20s, he knew that he was called to serve God as a member of a religious order. By joining the Alexian brothers, he found a community whose spirituality and work appealed to him and that has filled his life with joy and contentedness.
Brother Raphael Bernhardt (70), whose civilian name is Guido Bernhardt, was born in Schwelm near Wuppertal. On 1 June 1964, he became a postulant of the Alexian order. His noviciate began on 8 December 1964, and he trained as a nurse assistant in Münster and later also in Krefeld. After the exam, he first worked in a psychiatric institution in Krefeld. In 1974, he became deputy house rector in Aachen: In 1990, he relocated to Cologne where he worked as a hospital chaplain. In 2003, he came to Münster and has since then been working in various rehabilitation institutions.
Brother Raphael, on 7 December 2014, you will celebrate 50 years with the Alexian order. What was the moment in your life when you decided at the tender age of twenty to become a religious brother?
The idea arose first when I stilled lived in Schwelm where the Vincentian Sisters ran a hospital. On the hospital grounds was a small chapel where Mass was celebrated every Sunday. I was about 14 years of age at the time and training as an engraver. Even at that young age, I was very interested in church life. I did not only regularly attend Mass but also served as an altar boy, feeling very much part of the Church.
One day, I met one of the Vincentian Sisters on the street. I gathered up all my courage and began asking her all I always wanted to know about religious life. To my relief, she promptly answered all my questions. Over the next few years, the desire of joining a religious order grew in me. I continued however in my career and it took quite a few years until something happened that decided the further path of my life.
On my way to Sunday Mass in the above chapel, I briefly called on my grandparents who lived nearby. This had become a habit of mine, as they spoilt me with homemade crumb cake and always had a warm welcome for me.
On the table was a copy of the "Paderborner Liboriusblatt", a religious newspaper that I leaved through with great interest. On the second last page, my eyes caught a small ad in a broad black frame: "Young Catholic man, do you feel you are called to serve the poorest of the poor as a member of a religious order? If so, please write to us. We are looking forward to your letter! The Alexian Brotherhood in Aachen."
This small notice stuck in my head as I went to Mass. There, I prayed in silence: "Dear God, if you think this is the road I should take, please give me a sign." At that moment, I suddenly felt very warm inside and elated in a way that I had never felt before. With a heart full of joy and resolve, I went home. The very same evening, I wrote a letter to the Alexian Brothers in Aachen. I did it in private, as I did not want to share my decision with my parents at this stage. A few days letter, I got a reply. My mother brought the letter up to my room, and did of course not fail to spot the seal of the Alexian Brotherhood on the envelope. You cannot image my excitement when I opened the letter. From that moment, I was on the way to becoming a religious bother.
Are you telling us that you joined the Alexian Brotherhood right after you received this letter?
No, things did not move that fast. Initially, I was invited to visit the monastery and institutions of the Alexian Brothers in Aachen. The novice master at the time was Brother Ewald, who collected me from the train station and made me feel welcome. During my first visit, I was fascinated by the psychiatric services, but also a bit frightened. Initially, I could not see myself ever working with mentally ill patients. You must not forget that I was very young at the time and still an apprentice. After lunch with the brothers, I knew that I had arrived in a place that was my home. It took however still a couple of years until I was mentally and spiritually ready to join the order.
At the age of twenty, I finally entered the order as a postulant. I trained as a nurse assistant and have since been working as a carer for people with mental illnesses. Since 2003, I have been specialising as a rehabilitation assistant.
The Alexian Brotherhood believes in following Christ by caring for people who need our passionate help. Its motto is "The Love of Christ Compels Us". In its institutions, the order is following this maxim. What exactly makes your work so special?
My work makes my life rich. The love that I try to show through my work comes back to me every day. This makes me happy and tells me I have made the right decision. Every day, I can share the love God has for me with others, who need this love. My strength derives from living and working within the community of the brotherhood.
What does it mean for you to feel so close to God?
I have a very personal relationship with God, who is like a close friend to whom I can talk any time. For me, God is a real presence in my daily life. Through prayer, I can feel near to Him. For people who truly believe, God is always close. I know that everything that happens in this world is God's will.
The Alexian Brotherhood promotes the sharing of faith. When living in a monastic community, is there any space or time for a private life?
I always try to leave my door a little open. This enables me to remain involved in what is happening within our community and signals to others that I am always there for a chat. I therefore never feel alone and take part in a wider world. Living in such a close-knit community is of course only possible if we are committed to tolerance and respect for others. I think that actually applies to everybody's life. In the end, even we brothers are only humans with strengths and weaknesses. Some people have a rather romantic and unrealistic image of monastic life. What counts in the end is our openness to others and our willingness to support each other. We share our faith in God and try to live our faith, together as a community. That's really what makes our order so very special.
How important it is for you to meet members of other orders?
I always look forward to meeting religious from any group, as these encounters give me new strength and support. We can learn from each other.
Do you think that joining a monastery is still an option today?
Yes. If you fell called by God, you need to follow this vocation. It doesn't matter where you are and in what times you live.
This sound rather abstract. What does it actually mean to have a vocation?
A vocation is a gift from God. After baptism, it is probably the greatest gift God can bestow on a person. Many therefore speak of a second baptism. Vocation means that one has to follow the path God has chosen for us.
Brother Raphael, what are your hopes for the future?
I simply want to serve God and people for as many years as I can. That is all I aspire to.
Brother Raphael, thank you for this interview. May I ask you a personal question? What makes you so obviously content and secure in yourself?
When you believe with passion in what you do, you become very much yourself. Happiness is a very personal thing. If you are at peace with yourself and the world around you, it shows. And others will pick up on it and hopefully benefit from it too. My first and only love is the love of God to whom my life is dedicated. He has made me what I am today. I never felt that I was missing something in life. I love living in a religious community, I love my work and feel simply content with my life.
Barbara Krause (Alexianer Krefeld GmbH) spoke with Brother Raphael Bernhardt
at the occasion of his 50th anniversary with the Alexian Order.