If it weren’t for a little thing called Fraternus, the Diocese of Nashville may not have gained two of its most vibrant young priests – Father Rhodes Bolster, chaplain of University Catholic in Nashville, and Father Luke Wilgenbusch, director of vocations – as they both agree that it’s their participation in the brotherhood that started them on their path of discernment.
“I would not be a priest without Fraternus because I wouldn’t have the prayer life that I have without it,” said Father Bolster. “I wouldn’t have the joy and zeal for the faith without Fraternus, and the brotherhood is just essential, especially as a young man.”
“It’s hard for me to imagine how I would be a priest today had I not been involved in Fraternus,” added Father Wilgenbusch. “It had a huge influence in that decision. There were a lot of factors that ultimately contributed to my becoming a priest, but my involvement with Fraternus, the friendships, the brotherhood, the formation I received there was the single, greatest factor toward my beginning the discernment process.”
Promoting faith, friendship, and brotherhood is what Fraternus has been doing amongst young men in fifth through 12th grade in the Diocese of Nashville since its inception in 2008 at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, now calling St. Edward Church its home.
The good work has continued over the years as four more chapters have begun – Our Lady of the Lake Church in Hendersonville in 2009, Church of the Nativity in Spring Hill in 2010, and St. Rose of Lima Church in Murfreesboro and St. Philip the Apostle Church in Franklin both in 2020.
They are just some of the current 32 chapters across 13 states.
“Fraternus started as mentoring young men in the Catholic faith, but it has evolved into Catholic men and young men in virtuous formation,” explained Danny Snyder, national sage for Fraternus and commander of the Our Lady of the Lake chapter. “We’re very aware of all the distractions that go on in the world, and how the young men are busy. Engaging the young man in sports and his activities, whatever they are, is great and very beneficial, but what we’re doing is we’re passing on the faith.
“We’re showing the young men the kind of faith that we’re called to through Mass, prayer, and the sacraments,” he added, noting that fathers are encouraged to get involved along with their sons. “We are there with the young men, being the living example. We’re not just urging them to go to confession. The young men see six men in line to go to confession themselves. That’s the example.”
Introduction to Fraternus
Both Fathers Wilgenbusch and Bolster were introduced to Fraternus the summer before their senior year at Father Ryan High School in 2010. Father Bolster was introduced to it by Jimmy Mitchell, a former seminarian of the diocese, who was responsible for bringing Fraternus to Nashville.
He noted how he remembered playing dodgeball at the Fleming Center his first Frat Night, which are the weekly meetings amongst the Fraternus members to engage in fun, teaching, discussions, and challenges. He said around 80 men and young men were there.
“It was really amazing to see other young men coming together in this brotherhood of the Lord,” Father Bolster said.
A few months later, he invited Father Wilgenbusch to join. His first meeting was at the summer HAWC (Honest, Accountable, Willing, and Chaste) groups, which often took place at a member’s house.
“There were a few things that really stand out,” Father Wilgenbusch said of his first experience with Fraternus, which at the time also included as a member Mark Simpson, who went on to become a priest and is now pastor of Mother Teresa Church in Nolensville. “One, it was fun. We played pool volleyball and had pizza.
“Then, from the faith side, it was the way that these young men and the captains were able to have serious intellectual conversation about the faith that really engaged me and challenged me, and I felt like I could really debate with them and that was exciting for me.
“The seriousness of the prayer life really inspired me as well,” he added. “I remember them talking about how people tend to say, ‘I wish I was closer to God’ but then don’t actually put it into practice, but these guys were serious about taking concrete steps, and that impressed me a lot.”
Father Wilgenbusch also learned more about the faith through that time, as Father Bolster recalled how the former reacted to the challenges presented by the captains. On Father Wilgenbusch’s first night, the group was challenged to commit to one hour of adoration.
“Luke said, ‘Hey, this was really fun, but I’m not going to do your challenge,’” Father Bolster explained. “The next week rolls around, Luke comes, we play pool volleyball and eat pizza again, and it’s a great evening together.
“Later, the captain asked how the challenge was and introduced the next week’s challenge. He said, ‘Luke I’m sure you’re not interested, but for the rest, let’s commit to a decade of the rosary a day,” he continued, noting how that brought out Father Wilgenbusch’s competitive nature. Father Wilgenbusch responded that they should pray a whole rosary every day. “The funny thing is, at the time, Luke didn’t know how to pray the rosary. He drove to work with a ‘How to Pray the Rosary’ pamphlet in one hand and a rosary in the other.
“He did that every day, kept coming back to Fraternus, kept praying the rosary, and now he’s a priest.”
Forming Faithful Men
Although priesthood was the path for Father Bolster and Father Wilgenbusch after joining Fraternus, and they still participate as chaplains to this day, the point of it all is to simply form faithful young men no matter what their vocation, be it the priesthood, married life, or the single life, Snyder said.
Part of that is through the encouragement of fathers to join their sons on the journey, be it the weekly Frat nights, HAWC group sessions, or summer excursions as they encourage the continued development of faith.
“We want men who know how to raise their families and lead their families in faith to be that starting example for the young men,” Snyder said.
“Just as our world has questions about what it means to be a man, along with that is what it means to be a father,” added Father Wilgenbusch. “There are a lot of young men who don’t know how to know and love and talk to their fathers, and there are a lot of fathers that don’t know how to best be a father to their sons. So living in this environment with Fraternus, really without being explicit or intentional about it, brings a lot of healing and strength to the father and son relationship.”
It’s impactful to a young man to see their father living out the faith, too, Father Bolster added.
“When a child sees their dad on their knees, that impacts them in a way that is very unique, and so to have fathers leading their sons in a ministry, it shows the young men that this is not just something for kids,” he said. “This is not just something that you do for a time, and you graduate, but it’s the fathers saying, ‘I’m seeking to be a disciple of the Lord like you are. I may be failing, but I’m trying.’ It’s also a great impetus for the dads to grow in their own faith.”
Extending the Reach
As the current chapters continue to thrive, Snyder said, there is still room for the ministry to expand to more parishes. It all begins with a supporting pastor, such as Father Austin Gilstrap, pastor of Our Lady of the Lake.
“There are several aspects of Fraternus that have incredible value to Our Lady of the Lake. Their emphasis on fatherhood and virtue has been incredibly meaningful to several young men that have not had that example at home. They also are incredibly helpful in showing not just how to be virtuous but also the witness of virtue in their own life,” Father Gilstrap said. “The young men see that from the older men, and the older men sometimes see that in the younger men. That growth of virtue has been extremely valuable to watch over the years that Fraternus has been active in the parish.
“There is an organic formation that isn’t contrived but also is not inaccessible to a man coming to Fraternus that perhaps hasn’t had much catechesis. He may just be showing up to go on one of the camping trips, but what he discovers is a great love of our Lord through the brotherhood and fraternity, and growth of virtue that is witnessed to him by all the captains and all of the men around him,” he continued. “He feels a real support network immediately as he enters into one of those Frat nights. I am very happy that Fraternus is at Our Lady of the Lake, and I love that the parish supports the organization as well as we do.”
After gaining the support of a pastor, chapters need to fill several officer positions, including a committed commander, a communications officer, a finance officer, a frat night officer, an excursion officer, one HAWC leader for ninth graders and up who want to delve ever deeper in the faith, an outreach officer, and one knighting officer.
“Through several years we’ve developed a program that helps you operate the brotherhood,” Snyder noted. “You don’t have to come up with the structure, just the people who are committed to making it happen.”
Two new efforts are currently under way to further extend the opportunity for more young men as Sacred Heart Church in Lawrenceburg and Overbrook Catholic School work to start their own chapter.
Sacred Heart is currently on track for a fall startup, Snyder said.
“I’ve been working with Fraternus in various parishes in my years as a seminarian and priest and its spiritual benefits have proven successful in all of those places,” said Father Andrew Forsythe, pastor of Sacred Heart in Lawrenceburg. “For us, we want to explore what that can do for our community as well.”
Stephanie Greenfield, a parishioner of St. Henry, has been part of the Call to Action for Overbrook Catholic.
“When I learned that the Dominican campus was open to re-establishing a Fraternus chapter on the west side of Nashville, I was excited about this opportunity to serve so many families in that area, including my own,” said Greenfield, whose children have all attended Overbrook Catholic. “I believe there is a great need to serve boys and their fathers in West Nashville.
“After learning of the philosophy and methodology of Fraternus, along with the impact it has in forming young men, it is something I am praying will be available to both my boys (ages 9 and 14), and so many others in the area,” she continued.
“Fraternus has a proven history of successfully mentoring boys and creating a fellowship where they learn the virtues needed to be formed into men of faith and action within their communities,” Greenfield concluded. “I appreciate how they cultivate a brotherhood, giving boys and their fathers the opportunity to walk alongside one another and challenge them to grow in the image of Christ amongst our culture and all the while having fun.”
For more information about Fraternus and starting a chapter, visit fratnernus.net or email Snyder at email@example.com.