In his Rule of Life, approved by the pope in 1223, St. Francis of Assisi instructs those who are “ministers and custodians” of the friars “to assemble in whatever place the general minister may have designated. Let them do this once in every three years, or at other longer and shorter intervals.” (The Later Rule, Chapter VIII).
These meetings, or “chapters,” of the friars have been a part of Franciscan life since the very beginning. In the normal course of the life of the International Order, and of a local province or custody (a smaller regional group), the chapter meets every three years. Each group determines whether delegates or all the friars (depending on the group’s size and local custom), will make up the chapter membership.
The most important business of a chapter is to elect new leadership—a “provincial” or “custodial” minister, a “vicar” (second-in-charge), and “councilors” to serve as advisers. But the chapter also addresses “big issues” facing the community on each level. How best to live together? How to carry on the Gospel mission? What structures can best govern the fraternity? The chapter is also a time for friars to be together in fraternity, enjoying one another’s company in prayer and socializing.
All of this explanation is by way of setting up what was, for me, a most unusual experience: How did I come to take part in three chapters?
For my own Province of St. John the Baptist, in the U.S., it was an election year. Our provincial minister had completed nine years of service in that job, and was ready to hand over his responsibilities to another brother! Our friars were to meet in chapter at St. Meinrad Archabbey, in southern Indiana, in May. But by the time May rolled around, I had already participated in another chapter—on the other side of the world!
Last summer, I was chosen by our general minister in Rome, Friar Michael Perry OFM, to serve as a “general visitor” to the friars of the Custody of St. John the Baptist, in Pakistan. It is the custom among us to have an outsider—a friar of another region and group—to conduct a fraternal “visitation” when there is an election of the main leader—the “minister of the province (or custody). Before this, each friar there gets a chance to meet individually and share with the “visitor” about his life and ministry. The general visitor also learns how the friars in that part of the world carry out their mission and live Franciscan life. Each friar is free to voice personal needs, and—if need be—complaints, in a “safe setting.”
When the chapter meets, the visitor presides and oversees the elections. This practice ensures objectivity and fairness in elections. But more importantly, it connects the friars with the larger Franciscan Order. The visitor’s report to the chapter offers suggestions for change and growth, as well as affirmation, to the friars.
My job as “general visitor” took place in two parts: the month of January and two weeks in April. My task was relatively easy: the friars in Pakistan are a small group—32 friars in solemn vows, and 17 student friars in formation. In April, we celebrated the chapter—a week filled with prayer, discussions, sharing of meals and much fraternity—all in the 100-degree heat of Karachi, Pakistan!
The friars spoke of how they must live Franciscan life as part of a minority religion in a Muslim society. Their faith and that of the people they serve was a great witness to me. It was a privilege meet them and to share their lives.
After my return to the U.S. in April, I traveled to Indiana for my own provincial chapter at St. Meinrad’s. It was good to see many of my brothers. Our chapter was larger: We had 95 friars attending. Our “general visitor,” who came from Ireland, gave a report and conducted elections, as I had in Pakistan. We also had some big issues to discuss—our future life here in the U.S., and important social justice issues which we will seek to promote in the coming three.
When our chapter ended, I had but one night’s rest before flying to New Mexico to take part in my third chapter of the year! This time, I had been “hired” to serve as recording secretary for the Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose friars work primarily in New Mexico and Arizona.
Much was similar, with elections and deliberations—but the issues were unique to friars who minister with Native Americans and Spanish-speaking Catholics. The setting, too, was different. It took place in the beautiful “land of enchantment” near towering mountains and wide deserts and big sky.
Back home now, I am glad the “year of three chapters” is over for me! But it has been a great grace. I had the rare privilege of taking part in three gatherings which showed me how Franciscans are the same, no matter where we meet. We love to celebrate our Gospel lives, share stories, pray wholeheartedly for God’s guidance, and face the future with hope. Our languages may vary; our issues differ; but we hearken back to the same Rule in which St. Francis wrote: “Wherever the brothers may be and meet one another, let them show that they are members of the same family” (The Later Rule, Chapter VI).