A diverse gathering

They came from far off San Diego and from nearby Brooklyn.  They hailed from four nations, three language groups, and two rites of the Catholic Church.  Individually, they represented six of the seven O.F.M. provinces in the United States.  Collectively, they typified the rich ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity of American friars solemnly professed under ten years (aka SPUTY).

On May 20, 2015, Jerome Wolbert (Assumption), Erick Lopez (Holy Name), Orlando Ruiz (Immaculate Conception), Erasmo Romero (Our Lady of Guadalupe), Roger Lopez (St. John the Baptist) and Philip Polk (St. Barbara) met with Franciscan Interprovincial Team members Page Polk, Richard McManus and Bill Beaudin in New York City.  (Thinh Tran of Sacred Heart Province was unable to make the meeting due to a scheduling conflict.) The younger friars shared their convictions about Franciscan life and their hopes for its future in the United States. The gathering took place at Serra House, FIT’s headquarters in the former curia of the Immaculate Conception Province.

A full schedule

The day-long meeting consisted of introductions, an overview of the renewal and restructuring process currently underway, several listening sessions, time for personal reflection and a group exercise.  The day began with morning prayer, included the celebration of the Eucharist for the feast of St. Bernardine of Siena, and concluded with a festive dinner.

Brotherhood a priority

Fraternity figured prominently in the conversation about what the younger friars value most about Franciscan life.  “Being a part of a worldwide family” is how one friar described what he treasures in his Franciscan experience.  “Praying together, laughing together, working together to serve the most vulnerable—that’s Franciscan life at its best,” another friar said.  A third commented:  “The diversity of friars working side-by-side is attractive to young people.”  Others spoke appreciatively of the support and encouragement they received from their brothers during difficult times in their lives, and the grace of looking passed the gruff exterior of a friary curmudgeon to befriend the man behind the mask.  The SPUTY friars agreed that our fraternity is the great gift we have to offer one another and the Church.

Shared dreams, some fears

What are your hopes for the future of Franciscan life in the United States? the younger friars were asked.  Again, fraternity took center stage.  “Fraternities of equals, healed and liberated from past, who want to live, work, play and pray together—that’s my dream,” one participant declared.  Others look forward to “revitalized fraternities based on core Franciscan values out of which ministry happens;”  “fraternities more centered on Jesus and the gospel;”  “fraternities of brothers who are holy without power, holy without being in a higher caste, holy by being with the people of God and not above them.”

And their fears?  Becoming fewer in number did not seem to trouble these friars who never knew what it was to live in provinces whose membership ballooned in the post-war vocation boom.  Their fear is not that things have changed or will change, but that they won’t change enough.  “Don’t continue business as usual,” one friar told the team.  “Create new provinces not through mergers but by cutting across current provincial lines,” another friar suggested.  A third friar struck a chord with his peers when he said, “We don’t want to fulfill the dreams of the older friars, but to pursue our own dreams,” while a fourth issued a challenge to all of his brothers in the U.S.:  “This is an incredible opportunity to revisit how we do things. Let’s create something new.”

On the way

During the afternoon session, an evocative image emerged for the work of renewal and restructuring that lies ahead.  It was the image of pilgrimage.  Some of the participants had seen the movie “The Way” which, for those who have not, is the story of one man’s transformation en route to Santiago de Compostela. “The person who begins the pilgrimage isn’t the same person who completes it,” one of the younger friars commented, “and what happens along the way cannot be predicted in advance.”  The pilgrimage idea proved to be both illuminating and illustrative of any genuinely Franciscan process of revitalization and reorganization.  It bespeaks itinerancy, conversion and uncertainty.  It requires faith, courage and detachment.  On a pilgrimage, the renewal happens as the journey unfolds, although its exact contours cannot be predicted in advance.  But a pilgrimage also has a structure.  There is a route, there is a sense of direction and there are set stops along the way.  It is a planned trip whose outcome cannot be foretold and whose transfiguring power cannot be underestimated.

One thing is for certain.  The pilgrimage of itinerant brothers  envisioned by the younger friars who gathered in New York City on May 20 begins with a willingness to step across the threshold of the familiar and to move into the unknown.  After their meeting in Manhattan, it appears that at least six of our brothers are ready to take that first step.

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Jim McIntosh

Director, US Franciscans Communications at US Franciscans
A former missionary to Perú and Bolivia, I am now working half-time at a parish in New Jersey and half-time as webmaster for US Franciscans.
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