Wednesday, November 08, 2017 - Updated: 3:50 pm
Brother Michael Suazo’s assignments have taken him across the country to different parishes, schools, community centers and offices. He has served the faithful, the young, the poor, the discounted and those seeking to live a religious life.
Currently, as the director of vocations for the Congregation of the Holy Spirit Province of the United States, Brother Michael’s role is to be an approachable representative of the order. He is happy and always willing to provide information as to what his order of brothers is all about.
But what exactly is a brother?
A religious brother is a member of a religious order who commits himself to following Christ in consecrated life of the church by vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. Though not all orders of brothers are the same, Brother Michael is a Spiritan, which is different from other communities because their primary focus is evangelization.
“We evangelize people who haven’t heard the word of God,” Brother Michael said. “We also evangelize with folks who others won’t work with. In the olden days there were places in the South who wouldn’t work with minorities, but we would always work with minorities, as well as refugees and other marginalized people.”
Brother Michael is a product of that type of first evangelization. His home parish as a child was St. Patrick in West Oakland, California. He grew up in a poor neighborhood and was taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.
One summer, when he was in fourth grade, a group of Christian Brothers from St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, came up with an academic summer camp as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in 1964.
“Through that program I came to know who the brothers were and that there are others out there,” he said.
In 1971, when he was 17, Brother Michael entered the Spiritan seminary in Houston and furthered his formation in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and San Antonio, Texas. His first assignment in 1977 was at Holy Ghost Parish in New Orleans as an associate. There, he was the director of CCD and also taught catechism when the school couldn’t afford Catholic teachers.
He also served as an associate at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Indio, California, and St. Anthony in Riverside, California.
He began administrative duties in 1984 working at the provincial house in San Antonio and in 1990 he became province secretary. In 1996, the order’s provincial house moved to Houston where Brother Michael continued to work as secretary as well as vocations director for the western province. In 2009, the eastern and western provinces merged into one and Brother Michael continues to serve as vocations director. He has been at the headquarters for the U.S. Province in Bethel Park since 2010.
He is also the assistant operations manager of the Spiritan Retreat Center, a 53-room former seminary that sits on the headquarters’ 40 acres. Brother Michael is also a member of the Robert Morris University Campus Ministry Advisory Board. The brother attends Mass with students and takes part in various activities.
“I make it a priority to be there with them,” he said.
Teaching is a major focus for many orders of brothers, but not necessarily the Spiritans.
“As a Spiritan, we can pretty much do anything,” Brother Michael said. “Some orders expect their brothers to just be teachers. We can be teachers, administrators, lawyers or cooks.”
Along with evangelization, another outlet that separates Spiritans from other orders is that they come to the aid of bishops. Brother Michael has experience in other dioceses in helping combine parishes and starting new parishes.
“We’ve started parishes and helped get them up and running,” he said. “We allow the people to speak for themselves and move forward.”
The process of becoming a brother has changed over the years, he said. In the past, priest candidates and brother candidates were often on different paths of study and formation. Today’s brother candidates must study philosophy as part of his theology learning, like a priest candidate, though the brother is free to study other areas.
“It depends what his gifts might be,” Brother Michael said. “If he doesn’t know what his personal gifts are, he can see what the needs of the community are. There are always needs in administration and becoming a catechist to educate other catechists.”
Part of the formation that every candidate must go through is a period of learning how to be a chaplain, such as a hospital chaplain, developing a rapport with patients and beginning conversations. Brother candidates are to get a bachelor’s degree in pre-novitiate years. After the novice year, he makes his first vows for three years and is invited into theology studies with the goal of obtaining a master’s degree in a similar area.
“If a young man wants to be a brother, he has to realize that there’s other vocations for him to look at,” Brother Michael said. “For them to come in with their eyes open, they need to realize that there are different groups and it’s necessary to understand what every group offers.
“Someone who wants to be a brother, really wants to be a brother. It’s not as if a brother is some sort of fallback for being a priest. That kind of attitude could make a candidate feel inferior and that’s not what we want. They need to be informed and given straightforward information. When God calls people, he will keep at it until a person at least tries to discern a vocation to understand what it’s all about.”
Brother Michael said there are less than 3,000 Spiritan brothers worldwide and under 100 in the United States. Some foreign brothers of the order come to the United States to further their education and serve in schools and parishes. Locally, the Spiritan brothers help out at St. Bede Parish in Pittsburgh’s Point Breeze neighborhood. They are also at Duquesne University to teach and minister to students.