What is a Confraternity?
The word ‘Confraternity’ comes from the Latin for ‘brotherhood.’ In Italian, they are known as a confraternita or congrega. In English, they are often called congregations, sodalities, pious unions or societies.
Confraternities are special self-governing spiritual organizations within the Catholic Church. Some have existed since ancient times, some from the Middle Ages, with renewed interest at the time of the Counter-Reformation, with the Council of Trent. Often, but not always, they are connected to religious orders such as Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, etc. Sometimes they are created to accomplish a specific corporal such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society taking care of poor people. Sometimes they are created to promote a special spiritual work of mercy or devotion, such as the Association of the Miraculous Medal. Throughout Church history, these confraternities have done many diverse works throughout the world to build up the Church and the Kingdom of God.
Every confraternity has its own rules and membership requirements. Often a sacramental such as a habit, scapular, medal or cincture (cord) is worn as a sign of membership and receives a special blessing when someone joins a confraternity.
Confraternities often have their own special feast days which align with their particular spirituality, which are used as special celebrations to bring their membership together, to highlight their specific religious devotions and to share the confraternity’s work with the local community.
Confraternities have membership meetings on a regular basis to conduct the business of the organization and they are bound to help the poor, sick and the needy when necessary but particularly to help members and their families when they are ill, in trouble, and dying. When a member of a confraternity dies, the living members are bound to pray for them forever in succeeding generations, because a confraternity is a family – not just on earth, but in Heaven, too.
Europe an ancient tradition of confraternities and they are remembered as leading in good works with hospitals, orphanages and homes for the poor, in times of trial, war, plague, famine and desolation. They are also remembered especially for propagating special devotions to Jesus, Mary and the Saints, running pilgrimages, processions and shrines.
When Italians emigrated to the New World in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, they brought the confraternity tradition with them. In America, these confraternities became known as società di mutuo soccorso which in English means mutual aid societies. Members were often from the same town or region from Italy, and they would gather to celebrate the patron saint from their hometown or home region. Members would pay monthly dues, and like insurance the dues were used to help sick members to pay medical bills or as unemployment checks, to cover funeral expenses and to help widows and orphans.
The Congregazione Maria Santissima del Sacro Monte di Novi Velia-Salerno of Jersey City, New Jersey, is such a confraternity founded on November 1, 1951. Its Certificate of Incorporation at the time stated:
“The purposes for which this corporation is formed are: a) To Celebrate the yearly feast in commemoration of the appearance of the Blessed Mother on Sacred Mountain in Di Novi Velia, in the Province of Salerno in Italy. b) To promote brotherhood, good-will and friendship among the members of the Italian race. c) To furnish to its members sick and death benefits as the occasion rises of requires. d) To perform such other acts as may be necessary in the performance of the purposes hereinabove set forth.”
The Articles of Incorporation and By-Laws (essentially the rules of the confraternity) provided a more spiritual summary:
“The purpose of this society is to maintain the faith toward and devotion to our Protectress by celebrating Her Feast every year by attendance at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and by other devotions, such as Triduums and Novenas in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Charitable contributions by its members shall be made according to individual means, keeping in mind the need of any member who might request aid.”