Two mysterious, silent friars (for some reason)

In a way, that recent New York Times essay about the lives of Brother Julian and Brother Adrian Riester — twin Franciscan friars who died, on the same day, at age 92 — seems like the perfect example of a religion story that gets it, that shows faith as a powerful factor in the lives of these intriguing people.

The writing is gorgeous and I mean that. The tone is light, but the Dan Barry essay takes the brothers seriously. There are heavy issues lurking in the background (such as an elitist, caste-like culture among the Franciscan academics), but they do not burden the reader in ways that destroy the mood. The text contains scores of fascinating details.

As one faithful GetReligion reader said, when sending in the URL:

Unadorned and guileless reporting, like the two brothers.

Here is the opening of this first-person piece:

ST. BONAVENTURE, N.Y. – They were like paired birds of Franciscan brown. If Brother Julian was gardening in front of the friary, Brother Adrian weeded in the back. If Adrian was driving the van, Julian sat by his side. Preparing the altar for chapel, chopping wood for kindling, exulting in ice cream at the Twist & Shake, the identical Riester twins were together, always.

For many years at my alma mater, St. Bonaventure University, these simple men were workers, not teachers, and so ever-present in the pastoral setting as to be unseen. Taken for granted, like the rushing hush of the Allegheny River at the university’s edge, or the back-and-forth of the birdsong in the surrounding trees.

Two weeks ago, the twins died on the same day in a Florida hospital; they were 92. Brother Julian died in the morning and Brother Adrian died in the evening, after being told of Julian’s death. Few who knew them were surprised, and many were relieved, as it would have been hard to imagine one surviving without the other.

To cut to the chase, the poignancy of their deaths, in the age of social media, turned into a news flash that zipped around the world — in part due to people forwarding a short news story in the Buffalo News. Now, stories about the brothers are all over the place.

So, having praised the Times article, what else can I say about this piece?

Well, it is in first person. It’s not a news article. Thus, we could say that the contents of this piece tells us as much about Barry as it does the twins. It may tell us quite a bit about life at St. Bonaventure, too (where, we are told, the number of Franciscan brothers is in sharp decline).

However, after reading the article, I was somewhat troubled. I immediately searched the text for the word “Jesus.” Nothing. How about “Mary”? Nothing. So, a “God” search found a reference to the twins living in the “God-given now,” as opposed to living in the past or worrying about the future. We also know that they finally had a wreck while driving the friary van — they were both praying the rosary. We know that they used to sit in the chapel and pray, because the story ends like this:

Last week, Brother Julian and Brother Adrian Riester were returned to St. Bonaventure for a memorial service and a side-by-side burial. Their coffins were carried by, among others, a few of the dozen or so Franciscans still on campus; their brothers.

The solemn and joyful day encouraged more stories about the twins. How they adorned the friary trees with birdhouses. How they toured the campus on identical bicycles, one with a pinwheel on its handlebars. And how they often sat in prayer in the chapel, so still that you might not know they were there.

That’s beautiful stuff. However, I was left wanting to know, well, why these men gave their lives to Jesus Christ and to the Catholic Church. Was there any actual content to that testimony or were they absolutely, completely silent? We are told:

Sister Margaret Carney, the university president and a Franciscan scholar, gave great thought to the why. Her conclusion: “The twins incarnate something that people have a hunger to know.”

OK, I’ll ask: Know what? What is it that people hunger to know? That service to one’s fellow man is beautiful and worthwhile? Yes, that is certainly true. But we are talking about men who lived their lives dedicated to a very specific approach to faith. Could readers learn just a bit about that?

We are told that they argued over the fine details of woodwork. That’s interesting and colorful. But is that essential? Would it help to know just a bit about the actual beliefs and faith and shaped their whole lives? We are told that they stripped life to its essence and that this helped others. Fine. A detail or two, please?

Once again, we have a story that is “spiritual,” but not really “religious” in the sense of offering any insights into the content of the lives of these two men. Maybe they really were silent (they were friars, not priests), but I doubt that. I think that it is likely that the church, Jesus and the saints are in there somewhere.

We end up with a gorgeous, but strangely empty, story. Sorry, but that’s how I see it.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • David WL

    In the second paragraph, in parentheses, I think you mean:

    “(such as an elitist, caste-like culture among the Franciscan academics)”

  • melxiopp

    Maybe they really were silent (they were friars, not priests)…

    According to the website of the the Order of Friars Minor Conventual (“the Conventual Franciscans”), “Some Franciscans are priests and some are brothers”. In addition, the Third Order Regular of Franciscan friars is an international community of priests and lay brothers.

    There isn’t necessarily a dichotomy between friar and priest.

    This phrase also implies friars take some sort of a vow of silence, which is not true (or, at least, common).

  • John Rivera

    melxiopp is correct. All Franciscans are friars, as are members of other mendicant orders, like the Augustinians, Carmelites and Dominicans.

  • John Rivera

    All Franciscan men are friars, I should say.

  • Jerry

    Once again, we have a story that is “spiritual,” but not really “religious” in the sense of offering any insights into the content of the lives of these two men.

    You are using a different meaning for the word spiritual than I would. Spiritual, of the spirit, is all about the interior lives rather than the external religious forms. In other words, what St. Teresa of Avila called the “Interior Castle”. I might ding the story for not having enough details about both aspects, the religious or exoteric and the spiritual or esoteric aspects of their lives.

  • Harold

    Since they were so humble and quiet, they probably didn’t express their faith like a charismatic or evangelical who peppers every conversation with God-talk and “have a blessed day.” So is it really surprising that there are few people who have heard them articulate their faith, beyond through their acts?

  • tmatt


    Fixed. Thanks for the edit.

    Melxioop, etc.

    I know the Franciscans pretty well, with some ties to Franciscan U. I was merely saying — as the Times article kind of suggests — that the twins were friars who had not taken the step of being ordained to the priesthood. Thus, they have have lived a quieter, more semi-monastic life.


    You missed the point. This has nothing to do with any sort of “evangelical” style, or something. It has to speaking convictions about the faith and their own testimony as to their faith and vocations. As I said, I know some Franciscans.

  • Harold

    TMatt, you missed my point. Your own description of their lives explains why there are probably few people who have heard them talk about their faith, but many people who have seen them act on it. So if few people have actually heard the twins talk about their faith, how could they be quoted on it?

  • Kate Shellnutt

    Ever since I interviewed a set of twin Catholic priests, I’ve been particularly interested in the spiritual connection that leads twins to get the call to vocations, so I’m glad this story was able to highlight all the things they shared, until the day they both died.

  • Dan Crawford

    You have to admit, though, for the Times it was better than we’ve come to expect.

  • Julia

    Having lots of relatives who are and were nuns, sisters, priests and lay brothers in a variety of orders, there seems to be some misunderstandings about the religious life.

    There are sisters who do physical work and others who are teachers, nurses, administrators and college presidents.
    The ones doing physical work may not have the personality or the academic ability. Their work is not serving the educated ones; their work is also essential to the mission of their group. My high school had sisters who worked in the kitchen, others who primarily cleaned, and yet others were the teachers and more visible to us students.

    Many of my priest relatives were Benedictines in Kansas where not all teachers and professors were priests; many were lay brothers. The same at the boys’ high school my brothers attended in Illinois. Some lay brothers worked behind the scene and others were teachers who had not felt the call to priesthood. A few teachers were priests. However, being a priest requires some academic and social abilities; so it would be a waste of talent and out-going personality to have them doing mostly physical work. One beloved teacher we knew well was a brother who went on to be a priest in his 40s.

    It isn’t as common today, but historically there were pious but illiterate young men and women who wanted to join the religious life – they were often taken in as part of the community. It’s very likely that social class had something to do with it since they usually entered in the teen years with little educational background. But for sure there were and are other lay brothers who have felt no call to the priesthood. In cloistered communities, everybody does physical labor whether educated, ordained or not ordained.

    I wonder if these brothers felt they had been mistreated. Maybe that was just how the observers thought the brothers should have felt – doing physical labor and not being priests. Or perhaps it’s been exaggerated to juice up the article.

  • mattk

    I like seeing details of a persons religion in stories about religious people. But I don’t think it is absolutely necessary to detail the beliefs these brothers held regarding Jesus and Mary. I think the vast majority of people know Roman Catholic Friars belive the dogma of the Roman church. Now, if they were Morman missionaries, or Jain mystics, or Raelian sex coaches, I think a reporter should go into some detail about their beliefs. But not Franciscan friars.

  • Jon in the Nati

    I think the vast majority of people know Roman Catholic Friars belive the dogma of the Roman church.

    Golly, you’d think so, wouldn’t you? After all, I’d imagine the “rush of the Allegheny [...] or the back-and-forth of the birdsong in the surrounding trees” is not what motivates a person to the religious life.

    Now, if they were Morman [sic] missionaries [...] I think a reporter should go into some detail about their beliefs.

    Do Mormon missionaries not also believe in the dogma of their own church?

  • daisy

    You are being silly. At 92 these two dear friars weren’t babbling about their decision to join religous life every day. Being friars, they’re entire lives were a testament to their love of God. They spoke with their quiet service and with their habits.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Indeed, lay brothers were an innovation of the Cistercian movement, as they sought to include illiterate men in their life, which involved several hours per day of reading from Psalters. I’ve known men who were Cistercian (Trappist) and Benedictine lay brothers before the reforms of the 60s and 70s did away with the distinctions. Some were no more happy about that than others were about being “second-class citizens”.

    It was a sweet article about sweet men and their generally peaceful lives. I could have done without a couple of points of speculation and ever-so-mild snark, but maybe that’s just me.

  • Maureen

    Brother Guy Consolmagno, of the Jesuits, would beg to disagree that being a lay brother means you’re not educated enough to become a priest. :) (He was a Ph.D and astronomy professor before joining the Jesuits. He just doesn’t feel called to study theology and philosophy and all that stuff, or to become a priest. God wants him to be a brother, and so he is.)

  • mattk

    Jon in the Nati, Yes, Mormon missionaries believe the Dogma of their own church, but few outside the LDS do. That was the point I was trying to make. I’ve only been in a Roman Catholic church twice in my life but I know what they teach. I think most Americans know what they teach. That is the only reason I wrote that it isn’t necessary for the reporter to go into a lot about what the Friars believe. I certainly don’t think it is wrong for a reporter to include the details. I just thought that in this case it wasn’t very necessary.

  • albion

    Julia said: It isn’t as common today, but historically there were pious but illiterate young men and women who wanted to join the religious life – they were often taken in as part of the community. It’s very likely that social class had something to do with it since they usually entered in the teen years with little educational background.

    I used to be a regular visitor at a Benedictine monastery in rural Spain. The very jocular guest master told me the story about how in the “old days” (probably 40s-60s) he would ride around to the neighbouring villages on a motorcycle once a year to recruit among the poor farm boys who had no hope of inheritance or of an education and decent job in secular society. I also met one of those “boys” on the bus on my first visit. He was about 70, and after having spent a few years as a novice, said he had decided that he would rather be married, and left. Yet he spoke very fondly of his experience.