The provincial ministers and members of the six provincial councils of the Franciscan Provinces of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Holy Name, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Sacred Heart, Saint Barbara and St. John the Baptist – over 40 friars in all – met at Mt. Alvernia Retreat in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., Aug. 21-25, 2017. They continued their work planning the revitalization and restructuring of their six provinces. This work has been on-going since they met as a group for the first time in Milwaukee, Wisc. in 2012.
Last year at a similar meeting in Techny, Ill., the provincial councils decided to prepare, with the help of friar experts, a document entitled “Making Fraternity our Mission” to examine how to pursue the revitalization of their fraternal life and mission. Besides leading extensive discussion of that paper throughout their provinces, the provincial ministers asked several existing groups of friars and lay cooperators engaged in the same administrative and internal ministries of the provinces, such as communicators, vocation and formation directors, and JPIC animation to come together to explore how to take a national approach to their work.
Among the groups reporting to the friars were their provincial treasurers and chief financial officers, who concluded that each of the provinces is individually financially stable, while also having the funds to support any collective action they wish to take. They also explored demographic and actuarial information which showed all of the Provinces facing the same critical challenges with regard to the aging of their membership over the next five to twenty years.
After careful consideration, the six provincial ministers, in the midst of prayer and ritual on Wednesday morning, voted unanimously to place before simultaneous chapters of their six provinces late next May a resolution requesting that the minister general and his definitorium restructure their fraternal governance so as to create one new province from the six provinces engaged in this process.
Friar Kevin Mullen OFM, of Holy Name Province, said, “One new province provides us with the opportunity to have a vital fraternal experience. With regard to mission, one new province allows us to take the core values of Franciscan life and implement them in a unified way, and with regard to the Church and the Kingdom, to make us more responsible to the promptings of the Spirit in the world and in the Church.”
Friar David Gaa OFM, of Saint Barbara Province, stated, “True revitalization requires a critical mass of younger brothers which one new province will make possible.”
Friar Tom Nairn OFM, of Sacred Heart Province, explained how listening to members of other provinces and the quality of the input on the first day of the Wappingers Falls meeting led several members of his provincial council to change their minds to favor one new province rather than two.
Friar James Gannon OFM, of Assumption BVM Province, added that voting for one new province acknowledges what is already happening as, “Our initial formation programs are united and that lines us up to move this way.”
Friar Mark Soehner OFM, of St. John the Baptist Province, remarked, “One new province will increase opportunities for strong guardians and dynamic communities, broaden our perspective as a national group, and finally we do this because God is inviting us to become more of a ‘joyful band of missionary disciples,’ as Pope Francis has invited all Christians to be.”
Finally, Friar Jack Clark Robinson OFM, of Our Lady of Guadalupe Province, said, “As John David Vaughn (first-elected U.S. minister general) once said to me, ‘Friars do not exist to serve structures. Franciscan structures – such as they are – exist to support Franciscan life and ministry. It is time for the least structure to serve the most friars.”
The day after the vote, friars were still talking about the power of the voting and attendant prayer ritual which concluded with friars, most often of different provinces, blessing and fraternally embracing one another, after praying, “Lord, You have given us the gift of Your call to Franciscan life, to Franciscan community and to Franciscan ministry. This day, You have called us to a great work as brothers. So we ask Your help to strengthen one another, that our work may be a good work, that it may truly be Your work.”
The friars were encouraged to pursue on-going renewal by taking time for prayer and reflection by Friar Michael A. Perry OFM, the minister general of the Order of Friars Minor who came from Rome in order to be a part of the meeting. Friar Caoimhin O’Laoide OFM, the English-speaking general definitor of the order spent the entire week with the friars and reflected powerfully for them at Thursday celebration of the Eucharist.
The minister general led a morning of recollection Thursday after the vote. He shared his joy and excitement at seeing the leadership teams of the six provinces coming together. “Your work is important for the future of the world-wide order as a demonstration of our ability to build bridges and cross boundaries in a world which seems too often divided,” he said.
Later Friar Michael went through the mechanics of the process which will follow the votes at the provincial chapters next May. As he outlined it, that process will include the appointment of an official delegate of the minister general, who will conduct at least two visitations of the friars and those with whom they work in various ways. Those visitations will result in reports to be considered by the general definitorium. After consideration of those reports, the minister general and general definitorium will name an initial administration and set the time for the formal establishment of the new province, probably no earlier than the fall of 2022.
One of the next steps to advance the conversation will be a national survey of every friar in the six provinces regarding what they see as necessary to move the process forward. Before the vote of the six provinces next May, the provincial ministers will also invite their friars to attend one of two large regional gatherings of friars, as well as numerous other face-to-face gatherings of smaller groups, to participate in numerous local discussions of the proposal with materials prepared for use across the country. They will also make use of videos, YouTube, Facebook and other social media, to include friars who are unable to attend.
The 900 friars of the six provinces will also have various possibilities to discuss the revitalization of their life and ministries in smaller groups. These small groups will talk about our internal life, but also about ways to go to the peripheries and margins where friars are not currently engaged. The leadership of the six provinces left Wappingers Falls with a clear, agreed-upon plan of action for the next nine months.
After the vote in May, the ministers are already looking forward to gathering next summer to continue what everyone gathered in Wappingers Falls this year found to be an exciting and life-giving fresh start to Franciscan life in the United States.
As one friar reflected, “Ignatius Brady (a very distinguished late Franciscan scholar) once said that ‘Every novice must refound the Franciscan Order in his own heart.’ What we are doing now is our own refounding of the Order all over again in our time and place, but with lots of years of experience and lots of brothers to help us!”
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