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.
CHICAGO – A group of solemnly professed friars, ranging in age from their early 30s to mid-80s, met here recently to discuss the General Secretariat for Missions and Evangelization’s document, Ite, Nuntiate…Guidelines for the New Forms of Life and Mission in the Order of Friars Minor.
Between April 6 -8, 2017, eleven friars from five US provinces spent time in contemplative prayer, discussed the document, reviewed the history of inserted communities since the Second Vatican Council, shared meals together, and dreamt of future possibilities. Friars from the other two US provinces expressed an interest in joining the discussions but were unable to do so due to scheduling conflicts.
Matt Tumulty OFM, of the St. Barbara Province, said, “The depth of the sharing exceeded all of our hopes and expectations. The Spirit’s power is very evident in this process of realignment and revitalization.“
Fifty years ago, Vatican II mandated that religious communities return to their biblical roots and founding charisms and to develop a greater measure of engagement with the modern world. In response, friars around the world began experimenting with different forms of fraternities. In France, some friars became worker-priests – these were priests who took up work in such places as car factories in order to experience the everyday life of the working class. With permission, friars joined the Taize community, living with non-Catholics. Some small fraternities were formed jointly with sisters and laypeople.
In the US, the first small fraternity was formed in1966 when three friars in Chicago lived with members of the Taize community. Bob Pawell OFM, of the Sacred Heart Province, spoke at the meeting here about his journey from Taize (1966-1971), to Beacon Street in Chicago (1971-1976), to the Tau Fraternity in New Orleans (1976-1990s), and finally to Holy Evangelist Friary back in Chicago where he now lives.
In a 1978 survey, Paul Lachance OFM, of the Quebec Province, and Alain Richard OFM, from France, counted 36 friars living in eight intentional OFM communities and one such community of Capuchin friars. Almost all lived in rented houses in urban areas. Most were located in poor or very poor neighborhoods.
In 1991, David Buer OFM, of the St. Barbara Province, and Alain Richard found the number of inserted fraternities in the US had risen to 25. The survey concluded that although some friars worked in traditional ministries such as parishes, schools, hospitals and retreat work, many participants were freed of traditional ministry demands in order to be able to respond to the “signs of the times” in creative ways.
By their nature, these small intentional fraternities were themselves itinerant, some existing only for a few years, others existing for 2 or 3 decades. For those who participated in them, however, the impact often was an enlivening of one’s Franciscan vocation, even after returning to a more traditional lifestyle and ministry.
Some of the longer lasting fraternities included the formation houses in Oakland and Berkeley; the East Boston community; the Las Vegas Fraternity; the Pleasant Street and Zacchaeus Fraternities in Cincinnati; and the fraternity attached to St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia.
Today, only a few small inserted communities remain in the US. These include Mt. Irenaus, near St. Bonaventure University in upstate N.Y.; Pleasant Street in Cincinnati; East St. Louis, Ill.; St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia; and the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C. In Sacramento, Calif., the friars recently pulled out of a parish but remain in the friary to ministry to the poor.
Ite Nuntiate is a reawakening of the renewal efforts in the order after Vatican II. During Giacomo Bini OFM’s term as minister general, friars from small inserted communities in Europe met annually. For 10 years, after his term as minister general and until he died, Giacomo lived in a fraternity he helped establish near Rome and was joined by numerous friars. Before his death in 2014, he wrote the concluding chapter of Ite Nuntiate. This fraternity continues to host periodic meetings of friars interested the in the new forms of Franciscan life described in Ite Nuntiate. A new international community was established last year in Turkey.
Ite Nuntiate listed seven characteristics of such communities of friars, to which Minister General Michael Perry OFM added an eighth. These characteristics are:
The primacy of prayer and of active listening to the Word
The promotion of deep, authentic fraternal relationships that will give clear witness to life in brotherhood.
A lifestyle characterized by moderation and simplicity, minority and witness.
Welcoming people and sharing lives with them – above all with the poor.
Ensuring that the evangelizing mission retains characteristics such as: openness to mission ‘inter gentes’; itinerancy; being present in unknown, difficult and risky locations; being close to those who are poor, suffering, and excluded; having a pioneering approach to new forms of evangelization; being involved in inserted fraternities.
Being in communion with the local church.
Having a willingness to actively collaborate with lay people and with other members of the Franciscan Family.
A commitment to the transversal values of Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation; and to working for the social transformation of the structures in society and the reconciliation and healing of the social and natural world.
During the meeting here, some time was also spent talking about future possibilities. David Buer OFM spoke of his provincial’s invitation to consider opening a new house this fall on the US side of the Arizona-Mexican border in order to bring a contemplative Franciscan presence to and offer humanitarian aid in the border region.
The friars set up an email mailing list to continue discussions about Ite Nuntiate. Any friar interested in participating in these discussions or wanting to learn more about the new forms of Franciscan life in the US are invited to join.