Brotherhoods are not new in the Church; they have a long and important history. The early Church was a small and intimate group of believers who, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, “were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common” (4:32).
Over time, as the numbers of the Church’s members swelled, that original intimacy was weakened. One of the ways Christians sought to recover the unity and mutual support of the early Church was by forming brotherhoods, usually under the patronage of a Saint, in which penance and prayer were promoted. Many brotherhoods took on important responsibilities in society, such as establishing hospitals for the care of the poor and sick and burying the dead. As they grew more numerous, they became an integral part of the Church, so that throughout the Middle Ages and well into modern times, membership in a brotherhood was a normal part of religious life for the Catholic layman. To this day, in countries with a strong Catholic culture, brotherhoods continue to be a popular and vital element of the Church.
Europe and the World
The earliest brotherhood we know of by name was the Confraternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, founded in Paris in the eleventh Century. Later, especially under the patronage of the Franciscan Friars, brotherhoods were founded in honor of the Passion of our Lord and were especially dedicated to penance. These brotherhoods became well-known for their penitential processions through the streets, especially during Holy week, as is still the custom throughout Spain and Latin America. The Dominican order founded the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary, and the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament which promote the devotion to the Holy Eucharist by means of public prayers and Corpus Christi processions.
When the Catholic faith began to spread beyond Europe in the 16th century, missionaries brought the tradition of brotherhoods to the countries in which they preached. Historians acknowledge that the quick and enthusiastic spread of the faith in the missions of the Americas and in Asia, was due in large part to the establishment of brotherhoods through which the new Christians could participate in the work of evangelization themselves. For instance, in the Japanese missions of the seventeenth century, the number of priests was few. Yet, conversions to the faith were very numerous there because the missionaries, especially the Jesuits, founded brotherhoods which became great tools of evangelization. When Catholic priests were later banned completely from Japan, lay brotherhoods continued to work in secret to keep the Catholic faith alive for centuries.
Likewise, when the Catholic faith reached the Americas in the sixteenth century, brotherhoods were also a feature of the newly planted Church. In fact, the Indians of Mexico and South America became enthusiastic members of Catholic brotherhoods, because then, as now, membership in a brotherhood provided a means for them to make the faith their own. In the seventeenth century, the Spanish and Mexican settlers who came to what is now the Southwest of the United States likewise brought with them their beloved tradition of brotherhoods. When clergy became scarce in those regions, it was a brotherhood, the Hermandad de Nuestro Padre Jesus, that took on the duty of maintaining the Catholic faith. This brotherhood, also known as the Penitentes, still plays an active part of Catholic life in New Mexico and Colorado. It is to this time-honored tradition that our brotherhood belongs.