You may have seen the news release earlier last week saying that the US Franciscan provinces in the US had taken a step towards restructuring and wondered what this means for the Franciscan ministries, your favorite friar, or the friars in your parish. This week, we present what’s going on. If your question isn’t addressed, please feel free to add it in the comments section.
What is a “province”?
St. Francis of Assisi established our order to be a decentralized one. While we do have a minister general in Rome who is the successor to St. Francis, in fact most of the day-to-day decisions in the order are handled in the various provinces throughout the world.
St. Francis also took Jesus’s mandate that the “first shall be last and the last shall be first” to heart. Unlike some religious congregations which call their leaders superiors, in the Franciscans the leaders are called ministers and guardians. In the rule which all friars vow to live, Francis wrote that when dealing with their leaders ¨the brothers can speak and act as lords do with their servants. For that is the way it ought to be. The ministers should be servants of all the brothers.”
How many provinces are there?
There are over 100 OFM provinces throughout the world. In the US, there are seven provinces. You can read about them on our History page. Their headquarters are located across the US, in cities such as New York, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Oakland.
What is R+R, Revitalization and Restructuring?
While the number of religious is growing in Asia and Africa, it is dropping in Europe and the US. Structures which were established for a larger number of friars are now found to be not as efficiency with less men. The provincial ministers in the US are taking this opportunity to both create new excitement and energy in Franciscan life in the US, as well as modify the governing structures of the order here. This process of Revitalization and Restructuring is referred to by the shortcut “R+R.”
What was the recent announcement about?
The power to create provinces is reserved to the minister general and his councilors in Rome. The US provincials decided at their last meeting to ask the friars in their various provinces if they are interested in forming one US province. If the friars are in agreement, then the provincials will petition the minister general to restructure the US provinces. The minister general will appoint a delegate to meet with the US friars individually, as well as look at many of the friar ministries, and to then make a recommendation to the general council.
One US province, the Immaculate Conception Province, based in New York City, has already decided to not participate in the R+R process.
How long is this going to take?
Frankly, because of the various issues involved, it will take some years to effect the restructuring, if it happens. The best guess is that it may be completed by 2022 or 2023.
What’s going to happen to my parish/ministry/favorite friar?
Really, from most people’s perspective on the outside, not much will change. The same parishes will be staffed by the same friars. There will be some efficiencies internally in our organization, but also greater costs incurred by the greater distances to be traveled, for example, when the provincial minister visits the friars across the US.
For the friars themselves, there will be much richer variety of possible ministry opportunities available. A young man may want to serve in a California mission, or with migrants on the southern border, or in one of our colleges and universities, or in different parish settings, or with different language groups, or in direct service to the poor, or some mixture of these ministries during his life. No longer will he be restricted to those ministries available only in area the country served by his current province.
Is this a positive step?
Friars have been living in one of the existing provinces for many years. They were received and formed by their province. Their closest friar friends are usually within their province. We have shared stories — some true and some mythical. In leaving this behind, there will, of course, be some sadness and grieving. Friars worry if the traditions, struggles, and histories of their provinces will be respected and maintained in the new province.
At the same time, the richness of new ministry opportunities, as well as the large number of new collaborators and potential new friends brings an excitement. An integral part of the process is the revitalization of Franciscan life, and this also adds a feeling of excitement and hope.
Our founder, St. Francis of Assisi, realized that there is enthusiasm and energy when beginning a new project. St. Bonaventure tells us that St. Francis would tell the other friars: “Let us begin again, brothers, for up until now, we have done little or nothing.” One of Francis’s other biographers, Friar Thomas of Celano, tells us that Francis “did not consider that he had already attained his goal, but tireless in pursuit of holy newness, he constantly hoped to begin again.”
We hope and prayer that “beginning again” through the R+R process will bring us new enthusiasm, energy and faithfulness to our mission.
WAPPINGERS FALLS, N.Y. – The OFM provincial ministers of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Most Holy Name of Jesus, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Sacred Heart, Saint Barbara and Saint John the Baptist provinces gathered with their provincial councils at Mount Alvernia Retreat Center here from Aug. 21-25, 2017, to further the discernment of renewal and revitalization of the life and ministry of their friars.
On Aug. 23, 2017, they voted unanimously to place before their provinces for a vote at extraordinary chapters in May 2018 a resolution that the General Minister and General Council of the Order of Friars Minor approve a formal process to reconfigure their six existing provinces into one new province.
I went on a wonderful, beautiful vacation this summer. Why, then, was I so uncomfortable?
It has been two years now since my mother died. This summer, my dad invited the whole family on an Alaskan cruise. My four brothers, their wives, and all ten grandchildren were invited on a week’s cruise through the “inner passage” from Vancouver to Seward, Alaska, near Anchorage.
We set sail on a ship with 2,500 other vacationers and around 900 crewmembers.
We traveled up along Canada’s western coast and then made various stops in Alaska. We hiked through incredibly lush forests; some of us flew down the world’s longest zip line.
We saw the dramatic “calving” icebergs from the Hubbard glacier.
At the end of the cruise, most of us spent another three days in a wilderness camp, doing hikes and kayaking. We flew to Katmai National Park by seaplane to see the largest concentration of bears in North America.
Why, then, did a constant feeling of discomfort accompany me on such a dramatic journey?
First of all, it certainly wasn’t because of my family. We’re spread out across the country now, and it was great seeing everyone together. My nieces and nephews are in colleges, or have graduated and have interesting jobs.
It wasn’t the location. Alaska has a wild and beautiful country. I very much enjoyed being on a ship. There is something primordial about being at sea.
My brothers and sisters-in-law work hard and enjoyed the opportunity take a break. The service on the cruise ship was exceptional. There always seemed to be a crew person nearby with a towel, food, drinks or cleaning something.
In retrospect, that service was the basis of my discomfort. I was uncomfortable having 900 servants – most of them from the developing world – at my beck and call. Franciscans have a vocation to be amongst the poor, not to have the poor bring them drinks.
I was also conscious of the fact that the guests of our soup kitchen in Philadelphia don’t have the opportunity to take Alaskan cruises. Most are much too busy struggling with poverty, addiction and/or mental illness.
At the end of the Alaska trip, I came to the realization that being a Franciscan is something I am. It is not something from which I can take a vacation.
The distinctive external symbol of Franciscans friars is the iconic brown habit – the tunic, hood and white cord with three knots. When someone sees someone in the habit, they know immediately that that person is a Franciscan friar.
St. Francis of Assisi’s habit.
After the Second Vatican Council, many orders and congregations – particularly the women’s ones – modified or abandoned their habits. The religious who continued with a traditional habit were generally seen as more conservative and against the reforms of the council. The more liberal religious minimized or dropped the use of a habit to more closely identify with secular people.
When I joined the friars twenty years ago, the habit stilled played that role. If one saw a friar wearing his habit – particularly a habit with a Franciscan Crown (rosary) attached to his cord – they could be pretty certain that the friar was a conservative one. The more liberal friars rarely wore their habits and even attended formal events in coat and tie. I even know one friar who no longer owns a habit!
After the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, many left religious life. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were as many as 1,100 friars in my province. When I entered as a postulant close to the end of the last century, there were almost 500; today there are 291 of us.
All the Friars shall wear coarse garments, and they may mend them with sacking and other pieces of cloth, with the blessings of God.
Since I entered the order, I have heard an almost constant refrain from the older friars about how we’re shrinking, how we’re getting older, how we have to close parishes as the numbers fall.
But, for me and the men who have entered during the last 30 years, this has always been our reality. Provinces shrink. Some parishes are closed and some new ministries open. We see nothing different now than that we have always experienced and ask the older friars to think of our shared experience in a new way.
I have noticed that the younger friars wear the habit frequently: to class, to ministry, at home, and while out shopping, etc. Initially, this took me by surprise because I saw it through the liberal/conservative lens that was common in the 20th Century.
After talking with many of these young friars, I now see that they don’t have this lens. Most of the men who resisted the reforms of the Second Vatican Council have now passed on. The men entering today don’t know that wearing the habit was at one time indicated how one felt about the council. They see it as a under-used symbol of religious life.
Just as I kiddingly tell the older guys to stop moaning about the diminishing numbers, I realize now that I have to start to see the habit in a new way. I have to see it now as a public sign of consecrated life – a sign that, sadly, has largely disappeared from life in the United States.
A couple of weeks ago, I was able to visit the country of Cuba as part of a delegation of eight US friars on a mission trip. We spent a week with the Franciscans friars in that country and were able to visit the city of Havana and the towns of Remedios and Trinidad.
In Havana, we stayed in the Franciscan friary located in the Santuario Nacional San Antonio de Padua and heard from the friars the history of the Franciscans in Cuba. Franciscans friars first came to the New World on Columbus’s second voyage and were thereafter engaged throughout the Spanish colonies. Between 1580 and 1591, a large missionary college was built in Havana for the education of Franciscan missionaries. The Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis is now a concert hall in downtown Havana.
Santuario Nacional San Antonio de Padua
In 1887, six Basque friars came to Cuba to reestablish the order. By 1953, there were 105 friars, both Basque and Cuban, working in Cuba. Today, there are sadly only three friars left: two elderly Basque friars and one Cuban friar.
I’m not sure what I expected to find in Cuba after hearing for years tales of repression and political prisoners. What I discovered was a vibrant and engaged people full of curiosity and questions. There is a deep spirituality and yearning in the Cuban soul. The “Apostle of Cuban Indepence” (from Spain), José Martí, was a poet!
After the Cuba revolution in 1959, the Cuban government actively suppressed all churches. After the visits of Popes John Paul II (1998), Benedict (2011) and Francis (2015), the state gave increasing concessions to the church. Cubans are now fully free to attend church, and believers can now attend university and be party members.
The Cuban friars told us that they are now able to leave their church doors open and that people come out of curiosity and many stay to begin the process of learning about the Catholic faith. It is really a ripe time for growth and renewal of the church in Cuba.
In addition to our time in Havana, we visited two towns in the countryside. The friars had a church in Remedios, but had to give it up due to declining numbers. In this town, we visited two families. One had been large landowners and spoke of their pain at losing much of their land after the revolution. In spite of it all, though, regardless of persecution, they remained loyal to their faith.
In their house, we filed silently into the darkened bedroom of the matriarch of the family, who lay in bed dying of bone cancer. She cried tears of joy when she learned that nine Franciscan friars came to pray with her. We prayed with her and blessed her for her upcoming journey to the Lord.
Parents speaking with their son for the first time in nine months.
We also met with a poor family who had no land. They had a carefully maintained small house. The couple has only two adult children: a son and a daughter. A number of months ago, their son left for Perú, hoping to make his way up to the United States.
As part of the increasingly good relations between the US and Cuba, the US has changed its immigration policy for Cubans. Those making their way to the US are no longer automatically granted a green card.
Unfortunately, this couple’s son had left for Lima before the change in the policy and was now stuck there. He couldn’t continue to the US nor did he have funds to return to Cuba. The couple had not heard from their son for nine months.
The Cuban friar who accompanied us had a cell phone and the son’s cell phone number. He was able to complete a call to the son so that he could speak with his parents. We felt privileged to be able to witness such a touching moment.
At the end of our mission trip, I couldn’t but help to be impressed by the friendliness and openness of the Cubans we met. I was also struck by the opportunities now available for a rebirth of Catholic presence on the island. Let us hope and pray that the new policies of the Cuban government continue and that we are able to take advantage of this opportunity.