After More Than Two Years of COVID Postponements, ESC Vocation Directors Resume In-Person Conference in Arizona

After More Than Two Years of COVID Postponements, ESC Vocation Directors Resume In-Person Conference in Arizona

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.

Franciscans Call for Peace in Ukraine

Franciscans Call for Peace in Ukraine

The following statement from the provincial ministers of six provinces belonging to the Order of Friars Minor in the United States regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine was issued on Feb. 24.

We are horrified at the unfolding violence in Ukraine and the death and destruction unleashed on the people of Ukraine. Most often, it is the poor, weak, old, and young that pay the highest price in times of conflict. We mourn that a nonviolent resolution based in diplomacy could not be reached, and we applaud the efforts of the United States, Europe, and the United Nations in trying to achieve such a solution. Unfortunately, Russia’s actions have self-separated it from being a legitimate member of the family of nations on our globe. Such a tear in a family is always a cause for despair.

We affirm and share the feelings of our Holy Father Pope Francis in his address of Feb. 2, 2022, where he spoke with “pain in his heart” of the potential (now realized) for violent scenarios to occur with the invasion of Ukraine.

Now is the time for unceasing prayer and nonviolent responses at the international level. We call upon the government leaders of the U.S. to put aside partisan differences and find a common response to the conflict. The world must unite in a coordinated nonviolent effort to encourage Russia to cease its invasion and return to being a member of the world family of nations.

Finally, we accept Pope Francis’s call for Ash Wednesday, March 2, 2022, to be an international day of fasting and prayer for peace. We encourage all Franciscan ministries in which we serve also to take up the Holy Father’s call as they prepare for the beginning of Lent.

Our world is at a critical juncture of how we organize ourselves to respond to global crises of violence and existential destruction. The only sustainable path forward is rooted in nonviolence and places the needs of the poor and marginalized first. In the spirit of St. Francis, let us “begin again” and make this path by walking it.


Fr. David Gaa, OFM
Province of Saint Barbara
Fr. Thomas Nairn, OFM
Province of the Sacred Heart
Fr. James Gannon, OFM
Province of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Fr. Mark Soehner, OFM
Province of Saint John the Baptist
Fr. Kevin Mullen, OFM
Province of the Holy Name
Fr. Ronald Walters, OFM
Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe

For interview and photo requests, please contact Maria Hayes, communications manager, at 646-473-0265 or

Franciscan-hearted People Invited to Join Laudato Si’ Action Platform

Franciscan-hearted People Invited to Join Laudato Si’ Action Platform

The Laudato Si’ Action Platform, the Church-wide journey launched by the Vatican to bring the teaching from Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti to transform our world, is now open for registration.

The friars invite all interested people – be they ministries, organizations or families – to consider taking part in the platform, which will offer practical planning guides and resources for communities to use to discern and implement their response to Laudato Si’. The US-6 provincial ministers committed to joining the platform last year because they recognized that it will help the friars to live into the values and vision we profess for the new province emerging through the R & R process.

The Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation animators are offering their support to people who are registering for the Laudato Si Action Platform. The animators, with help from the US-6 communicators, have created a short video to assist you with the sign-up process. 

In the first question on the registration page, individual friaries are encouraged to enroll in the Religious Local Community category. Ministries are also invited to sign-up for the platform. Even though it might seem redundant to sign-up twice, the support services and community connections provided are tailored to different sectors of the Church so that each can play its part in accepting Pope Francis’ invitation to integral ecology and social friendship. Click here to begin the enrollment process.

If you require assistance in your journey with the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, please reach out to your provincial JPIC animator or email and your animator will respond. Thank you for your consideration to join the larger Church in this journey.

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