By Stephen Mangione

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — A group of friars from US-6 provinces, and other ESC member provinces throughout the world, participated in a five-day retreat and fraternal gathering of the English-Speaking Conference of Vocation Directors earlier this month at the Franciscan Renewal Center. After holding their meetings virtually for more than 24 months, the May 2 to 6 conference was the first time since the start of the pandemic that the ESC vocation directors assembled in person. Three previous attempts at holding their annual meeting in person had been postponed due to COVID concerns.

The gathering at “The Casa” – as the Retreat Center is affectionately known from its origins as Casa de Paz y Bien when it was established by the Order of Friars Minor in 1951 – was twofold in purpose: to encourage, support and reinvigorate the friars in their global vocation work, and to brainstorm contemporary vocation strategies that bring about renewal and motivation to the witness of Friars Minor around the world.

9 friars wearing their brown habits stand in front of a stained glass window depicting the cosmos

(l.-r.) Sebastian, Orlando, Greg, Erasmo, Tom, Joachim, Thom, Carlos, and Basil in front of a stunning stained-glass window during a tour of the Conventual Chapel of Our Lady of the Angels.

Among the participants were Tom Nairn, OFM (Sacred Heart Province), Greg Plata, OFM (Assumption Blessed Virgin Mary Province), Erasmo Romero, OFM (Our Lady of Guadalupe Province), Sebastian Sandoval, OFM (St. Barbara Province), Thom Smith, OFM (Sacred Heart Province), and Basil Valente, OFM (Holy Name Province) – all representing the US-6 provinces – Carlos Ona, OFM, and Joachim Yoon, OFM, both from Holy Spirit Province in Alberta and Montreal, Canada, and Orlando Ruiz, OFM, of Immaculate Conception Province.  Although the majority of ESC vocation directors attended, the European members – including Lithuania, Ireland, England and Malta – were unable to participate due to COVID restrictions in their respective countries.

The group engaged in robust dialogue during a series of sessions on timely and topical issues, among them ESC membership, the role of the vocation leadership team, in-person vs. virtual meetings, recruitment strategies, and the challenges and blessings of vocation ministry during the pandemic. They also discussed the priorities and implications of recent reports issued by the National Religious Vocation Conference and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate as they pertain to vocation ministry during COVID and beyond.

During the business portion of the meeting, Orlando was unanimously elected to serve as vice president of the ESC vocation directors, succeeding Dan Gurnick, OFM, of Holy Spirit Province. The group, which expressed gratitude for Dan’s service and guidance, also ratified the other members of the leadership team who will continue in their roles, including Basil (president), Sebastian (secretary and treasurer), and Tom Nairn (provincial liaison).

In breakout-group discussions, a common theme was the effect of the pandemic on vocation recruitment and ministry, with the friars agreeing on the importance of in-person vocation director and candidate meetings, in addition to candidates participating in come-and-see visits to friaries.

“I appreciated the opportunity to finally be able to come together in person, and to enjoy each other’s company. I also enjoyed the exchange of ideas in support of each other and our ministries,” said Sebastian.

Added Greg, “It was a wonderful gathering, especially having not seen some of our brothers in almost two years.”

Four men examine documents as theysit around a table in a conference room.

(l.-r.) Greg, Thom, Erasmo, and Orlando at work during a small-group breakout session.

Erasmo echoed this sentiment, saying, “This was a joyous, in-person opportunity to check in with one another and to see how vocations could be promoted and encouraged around the world.”

Basil noted that while vocation ministers adapted their work to the pandemic – hosting virtual vocation retreats and meetings on Zoom – the group agreed it was time to resume in-person conferences, meetings and retreats because it is essential for candidates to have in-person encounters with friars and communities around the world as they discern the Franciscan way of life.

“It was delightful to be able to see my friar brothers after being apart so long. There is tremendous value being face-to-face, exchanging ideas and stories, and helping to enrich one another. It’s equally vital to candidates contemplating Franciscan life to have the opportunity to live, pray, share meals, and experience a slice of this life with friars in ministry,” he said.

A friar with a long beard wearing a brown habit stands in front of a retreat center.

Bradley, a member of St. Barbara Province who shared his formation experiences during a presentation to the group of ESC vocation friars, takes a break outside the Franciscan Renewal Center. 

“The entire exercise was inspiring and exuberant, from sharing vocation stories, to praying in the chapel, and planning for the future. It was a very important strategic meeting for us as vocation directors. We left the conference encouraged and re-energized to work collectively in our regions of the country and world, converting these strategies into tactical realizations,” added Basil.

The sessions and meetings were peppered with inspiring presentations by friars who shared personal reflections and formation experiences. Bradley Tuel, OFM, and James Seiffert, OFM, both from St. Barbara Province, spoke about the blessings, challenges and joys of formation and vocation, while also offering insight on how vocation ministry could move forward post-COVID.

One of the most intriguing elements to emerge from their presentations was the importance of recruiting and promoting vocations to mid-aged and older candidates as vigorously as ESC vocation ministers support younger candidates. Bradley accepted the leadership team’s invitation to collaborate with vocation directors and other friars from ESC provinces to develop online tools and strategies for local, national and international vocation efforts.

It became apparent in the group’s follow-up discussion that new and creative approaches to vocation ministry should be explored. Friars from Holy Name Province recently put a new approach into practice. Calling themselves the Bleacher Brothers, Casey Cole, OFM, and Roberto “Tito” Serrano, OFM – both regional vocation directors who very effectively utilize blogs and other social media platforms – on May 19 kicked off an 11-week, 17,000-mile road trip, during which they will visit all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums, wearing their Franciscan habit to all the games and evangelizing at the ballparks, as well as at local area parishes where they will deliver talks on their own vocation experiences.

Two friars in their 30s who are wearing their brown habits stand in front of a pickup truck.

Bleacher Bros Casey (left) and Tito (right) plan to visit all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums on an evangelization tour that spans the United States and Canada. (Photo courtesy of Casey)

Other guest participants and presenters at the five-day conference included Norbert Zwickl, director of liturgy and music at the Franciscan Renewal Center, and Vincent Nguyen, OFM, the Center’s vice rector and guardian. Norbert provided a tour of the campus and a historical perspective about the Conventual Chapel of Our Lady of the Angels and its striking stained-glass windows, which showcase a beautiful artistic representation of Francis’ Canticle of Brother Sun enveloped by Scottsdale’s Camelback Mountain.

The retreat also offered occasion for fraternity, including traditional communal prayer services, group Mass with the local Franciscan community of St. Barbara Province, tours of the Province’s St. Mary’s Basilica (the oldest Catholic parish and church in downtown Phoenix), sightseeing in the desert town of Sedona that included nature’s spectacular red-hued landscapes and stunning rock formations, and the Tlaquepaque Arts Village, and religious excursion to Sedona Verde Valley to the Chapel of the Holy Cross and to Amitabha Stupa and Peace Park – one of the oldest forms of outdoor sacred architecture for prayer and meditation, considered to be the living presence of the Buddha.

“It was fraternally fun and inspirational,” said Orlando, who announced at the conference that Immaculate Conception Province would be delighted to host next year’s meeting of ESC vocation directors in Toronto, Canada.

A crucifix depicting Jesus hanging from the branches of a tree in front of a large window

The crucifix in the Chapel of the Holy Cross.

Basil said the event was motivating, prayerful and energizing, thanks to fraternal dialogue and creative thinking, and to the inspiration of Saints Francis and Clare. “We harnessed some cutting-edge ideas to help move us into a future of Franciscan vocational recruitment internationally,” said Basil. “May God continue to bless each of us in our ministry and especially those men who continue to discern our Franciscan way of life.”

The friars began the conference by celebrating Mass with their brothers of St. Barbara Province and the local worshipping community of Scottsdale. The retreat ended with a celebratory supper hosted by St. Barbara Province at a restaurant in downtown Scottsdale. The participants expressed their gratitude to the host province St. Barbara, to its friar community and lay staff, and to the Franciscan community at St. Mary’s Basilica, for their warm hospitality and generous welcome to all ESC friars.

If God is calling you, or someone you know, to be a Franciscan, visit if you are in the United States or the website of your local province if you are outside the U.S.

– Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to Holy Name Province’s newsletter.

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