Bro. Ron Fratzke, SVD took vows as a Divine Word Missionary Brother 38 years ago. Originally from Jesup, Iowa, he moved 60 miles east to Epworth to in 1980 to study at Divine Word College. For the past 21 years, Bro. Ron has been working in Thailand. He recently shared some reflections about his life as a Divine Word Missionary Brother.
When Bro. Ron first started considering religious life, he was interested in becoming a diocesan priest. In fact, when he entered Divine Word College Seminary, he didn’t even know what a religious brother was. It wasn’t until he met Divine Word Missionary Brothers at the school that he really started to understand the difference between a priest and a brother. As witnessed the examples of the brothers at the college, Bro. Ron says he realized just how appealing that vocation was to him because of the variety of ministries involved. “I saw that as something new that I would really like to pursue,” he said.
“I think brothers and brotherhood candidates need to have a real openness to follow what God is asking of us and what our superiors are asking us to do,” he said. “We may have our own idea of what we want to do, but in the end, that may change and we need to be open to that. We need to be open to the Spirit.”
After deciding to change his course and pursue life as a religious brother, the young seminarian had to share the news.
“My family really wasn't very happy with that, because my mother especially had dreamed about me being a diocesan priest,” he said. “My aunt was very supportive of me becoming a brother, and that was because she had experience with brothers who taught at a local Catholic school. She understood what a brother was, whereas my mother had never met a brother. In time, she became much more accepting.”
From 1991 to 2002, Bro. Ron worked in Australia. When he arrived, there were only two SVD Brothers in Australia, and the provincial was hoping to revitalize the brother vocation there. At one point, the numbers increased to 12 men in formation, but the numbers have dipped drastically again since then. For two of the years that Bro. Ron was in Australia, he served as the formation director for clerical students.
Serving in a foreign country is a common aspect of missionary work but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.
“It's the most challenging thing to do to work directly with confreres from other cultures, because we don't always have the same understanding or the same feeling for something but I always try to be attentive and really put myself in their position and see things from their perspective,” he said.
After serving in Australia, Bro. Ron was relocated to Thailand where he joined two SVD confreres. Bro. Damien Lunders, SVD looked after the HIV/AIDS awareness and outreach center. Today, he’s in his 80s and still dedicated to this important work. Bro. Ron said 20 years ago, people in Thailand often rejected family members who were positive for HIV and left them with nowhere to live. Over time and through careful education, that stigma has decreased significantly. Today, the center primarily works with children who are unable to stay with their families because of financial or other reasons.
Meanwhile, Bro. Ron worked in education with Bro. James Wilkins, SVD until his fellow educator died about 10 years ago. At first, Bro. Ron taught English at a public high school that served about 1,500 students. After 15 years, the number of students at the school reached 4,000 and the average class size swelled to more than 50 students.
Bro. Ron accepted a new position as the head of the English department at a different public school that had a total enrollment of just 130 students. The new pace was much different and more enjoyable. “In all the years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve never had any discipline problems, never had to yell at a student or anything like that,” he said. “It’s really been a very rewarding experience.”
Looking back, Bro. Ron said his favorite part of being a missionary brother is having independence and flexibility within his vocation. Unlike priests who are tied to pastoral responsibilities and Mass schedules, brothers often have more control over their time. “I think we have a much more flexible lifestyle, and that attracts me,” he said.
Even though religious brothers have a wide scope of specialties they can pursue, from education to medicine and technology, Bro. Ron pointed out that they still need to serve where their congregation needs them.
“I think a religious brother needs to be open to all kinds of people and environments and situations and always willing to listen to what others are saying to us in terms of where we are needed,” he said. “There's got to be an openness to the will of God, and also commitment to prayer and to discernment. For myself, I never envisioned that I would be in Australia or in Thailand, but I tried to be open to where the Spirit was leading me.”