National Vocation Office Hosts First Interprovincial Vocation Weekend Retreat in Florida
Five men at a significant stage in their discernment of Franciscan vocation had the opportunity to listen to God’s call in the voices of a group of friars during a weekend retreat last month highlighted by communal prayer, personal dialogue, inspiring talks, fraternal dinners, relaxed social gatherings, and some Franciscan ministerial immersion.
The discerners participated in an Interprovincial Vocation Weekend Retreat from Jan. 6-8 at St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg, Florida – the first of its kind hosted by the National Vocation Office, and the first of many planned for 2023 and well into the future of the new U.S. Franciscan province that will be established this October when unification of the US-6 provinces becomes official. Last month’s retreat will serve as a roadmap moving forward for implementation of strategies, planning, outreach and mission of the National Vocation Office.
Among the candidates at last month’s interprovincial retreat were a college senior who performs volunteer service in his home parish and college community; a former U.S. Marine drawn to the Franciscans by their brotherhood and service; a young man involved in higher education with an administrative position at a major university; a restaurant manager who is affiliated with a number of Franciscan communities across the country, and a licensed practical nurse who works at a specialized health care facility.
The interprovincial retreat, The “Gospel” Life: the Franciscan Vocation in the 21st Century, was intended to help the five men, including one who was unable to attend in person, reach their Franciscan vocation discernment goals. It offered a brimming schedule of talks and presentations by a team of national, regional and local vocation directors – and other friars, both active and retired – along with morning and evening prayer services, Mass, ministry immersion, and meals – including a barbecue cookout – with the friar fraternities at St. Anthony’s and Sacred Heart Church in nearby Tampa.
But the retreat was also meant for vocation directors to learn about the candidates, who rotated individually among the friars for comprehensive, honest and frank one-on-one interviews that covered a range of subjects – such as family, childhood, education and employment background; spiritual life and relationship with God; personal relationships; talents and skills; outreach service-related experiences, and the attraction to friar life and Franciscan vocation. The vocation directors will submit behavioral assessment forms – information derived from the personal interviews – and their recommendations on whether the men are ready for acceptance to the Franciscan postulancy program.
Conversation, Not Interrogation
John Hogan, OFM, who accepted the invitation from the National Vocation Office to serve as a Local Vocation Director (LVD) for the new U.S. province, said he approached the candidate interviews as a conversation, rather than as an interrogation.
“Instead of rapid-fire questions, I asked the men to share their experiences in the aspects of their life I was assigned to talk about with them – for example, what it was like growing up, prayer life, and relationships. Letting the conversation flow helped me get a better understanding of each candidate,” explained John, who served a combined 10 years as vocation director and pre-novitiate director for Holy Name Province.
“Coming from a vocation ministry background, I am happy to be part of the vision of the new National Vocation Office. These weekend retreats offer the experience of listening to discerning men and being amazed how gifted, talented, mature and deeply spiritual they are. Listening to them share their life and experiences is an important step in the discernment process because the next step is an application to join the postulancy program,” said John.
Among the other friars who participated at the first interprovincial discernment retreat were Basil Valente, OFM, National Vocation Director and Eastern Region Vocation Director; Gregory Plata, OFM, Central Region Vocation Director; Sebastian Sandoval, OFM, Western Region Vocation Director, and several LVDs, as well as resident friars of the St. Petersburg friary and the fraternity that pastorally at the Tampa parish.
“This was an opportunity to get to know this group of men who are seriously discerning a Franciscan vocation. It helped us to understand who they are, their backgrounds and history in a number of areas, and most significantly, why they want to become a Franciscan friar,” said Basil. “Friars are challenged to be unconventional ministers of sincere hospitality and welcome, whether we are working with migrants, or on university campuses, in parishes or with the poor, or even with discerners. If we aren’t extending our bonds of fraternal hospitality as much as possible – to the point of being invitational, loving and even unconventional – then we aren’t being good Franciscan hosts,” he added.
“I was impressed with the men who participated in the discernment weekend, and also the friars of St. Anthony Friary and Sacred Heart Parish. I am always in awe of the stories these discerners share about their own faith journey, as well as the friars sharing their spirit of welcome and vocation stories,” said Gregory, who was also impressed by the interview process involving the candidates and the thoroughness of the friars who spent the time getting to know them.
“The process was efficient and it helped us to see if there was a good fit between the discerners and Franciscan vocation. I had a deep appreciation for the friars’ enthusiasm in assisting Basil in executing a model that will be used throughout the country moving forward with the new U.S. province,” added Gregory.
Sebastian Sandoval, OFM, characterized the weekend retreat as an opportunity for candidates to get to know the friars on a deeper level, and for the friars to get better acquainted with the discerners. He was also encouraged by the team effort of the friars working in vocation ministry.
“I was impressed by the amount of collaboration from the various friars who participated in the weekend retreat. I believe it is always a good thing for a candidate to be assessed by a group of friars. Teamwork in vocation ministry helps get across to the friars that all of us are vocation directors, not just the friars with the titles,” said Sebastian, who has served in vocation ministry for Saint Barbara Province. “Vocation ministry gives friars an opportunity to give back to the province. I believe that the vocation model being put forth by the National Vocation Office will serve the new U.S. province well – involving friars from around the country as part of a vocation team, rather than rely just on the vocation director and regional directors.”
Training Workshops for LVDs
The National Vocation Office is also planning a series of regional training workshops this spring for the 72 friars who have volunteered to serve in vocation ministry for the new province as LVDs in the geographic areas where they are assigned in parish, education, outreach, and other ministries. These workshops will be laser-focused in providing LVDs with resources, information, preparation and guidance so that they would be able to host their own interprovincial retreats for serious discerners, as well as sponsor organic community gatherings that invite inquirers to their friaries for dinner, prayer, and ministry encounter opportunities.
“We are grateful to the friars across the country who have accepted the role of LVD. They are deeply committed and passionate about accompanying inquirers and candidates on their discernment journey. We will provide the training, know-how and resources to help them become familiar with the intricacies of vocation weekend retreats – for example, how to interview candidates and ascertain information about their spirituality, goals, and family history,” explained Basil, who noted that the training workshops will be held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Chicago, Illinois, and a yet-to-be-determined location on the East Coast.
The interprovincial retreat also served as a roadmap for the incoming Regional Directors and 72 LVDs, and for vocations in the new U.S. province. As the inaugural retreat with the participation of vocation directors from around the country, the National Vocation Office took away experiences and successes that will be used in the upcoming training workshops and in the new province’s foundational strategies and guiding principles for vocations and journeying with discerners.
At the vocation weekend retreat in St. Petersburg, candidates arrived by 5:15 p.m. on Jan. 6, joining Friday evening prayer with the resident friars of St. Anthony, followed with a greeting by Vincent Laviano, OFM, guardian of the friary.
“Your presence here gives us joy in knowing that St. Francis continues to inspire men to make the Gospel come alive for people to see and experience. You make us proud in knowing that you find us enough of an inspiration to want to dedicate your lives to the Franciscan way,” Vincent said in his welcoming remarks to the candidates.
“The friars living in retirement here at St. Anthony’s were involved in many ministries – they were college presidents, professors and administrators; hospital and military chaplains; spiritual directors and formation directors; pilgrimage guides, and provincials. They are living examples of the many ways to serve the Church and the Order as a friar. You can benefit from their experiences,” Vincent added.
A social gathering and Preparandium in the recreation room preceded dinner with the friar community and vocation directors. A post-supper gathering was highlighted by an introduction and welcome to the discernment weekend by Basil, Gregory, Sebastian, and LVDs that included John, Henry Fulmer, OFM, and Dan Kenna, OFM., the latter who also interviewed the candidates.
A Good Listener
“I enjoyed participating in the weekend discernment retreat because my presence, together with that of my brother friars, helped model to discerners who we are as a community and the life to which we are inviting them. These retreats provide guys with the chance to see us as we are and experience what it’s like to live a life in common with brothers,” said Dan. “The one-on-one interviews were a critical component of the weekend retreat. As a listener, it gave me a chance to hear about the backstories of the candidates. At this stage of the vocation process, it’s important to get an accurate assessment of a potential candidate. Is he open to change? Is he ready to benefit from and thrive in the formation program and the Franciscan life?”
During the post-dinner gathering, Paul Santoro, OFM, also an LVD, and Mario Di Lella, OFM, senior friar and former campus minister at Georgia Tech, provided authentic and inspiring presentations titled, My Franciscan Journey: A Spiritual Reflection.
“It’s a privilege to walk the discernment journey with men seeking to live the Gospel life,” said Paul, who has served in vocation for Holy Name Province as a Regional Vocation Director for nearly a decade, and who was a moderator for the sharing session on the first night of the interprovincial retreat.
“I am edified by the stories that the discerners shared about their love for the Church, the Gospel, and St. Francis. This ministry has afforded me the opportunity to share my own story – a constant reminder of my ongoing formation in the Order,” continued Paul, who, in his presentation, reflected on his discernment journey, which began in 1978, and the many rewarding ministries (education, addiction counseling, working with the homeless) along the way. “I also touched on the joys, and sometimes pains, of fraternal living – and the peaks and valleys of spiritual life. Vocation ministry is the work of all friars who, by their joyful living of the Gospel, attract others to our way of life. It is a true blessing.”
Can You Feel the Good News? (Francis did!)
Morning prayer with the candidates in the friary chapel on Saturday featured a passionate address about the connection between Gospel life and Franciscan vocation, delivered by Jeffery Jordan, OFM, an LVD who teaches theology at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.
“Words give a sense of what Gospel is really about. In Greek, Gospel simply means ‘good news.’ Think of that good news when Francis gathered the people of Greccio to celebrate Christmas, embodying that powerful idea that God became one of us in the Incarnation. Think of that feeling of good news when Francis embraced the leper, and composed Canticle of the Creatures,” said Jeffery.
“Beginning the Franciscan journey and continuing in discernment begins with this feeling of receiving the good news. In these times of uncertainty – and when you are asking, ‘God, what do you want of me?’ – think and feel the good news. That’s what inspired Francis – and 800 years later, we can connect to that feeling,” he continued.
Jeffery said Francis recognized that spirituality and God is not something that’s “out there” or “nearby,” but rather something we embody, feel, and express. “The Incarnation is rooted in this good news – that God has done something very radically different, becoming flesh and feeling the good news like you and Francis.
“When Francis experienced his brothers, in a very real sense he experienced God – and that’s how we understand the value of fraternity. We live the good news through the vows we profess. Rather than something that is taken away, the vows are a radical expression of openness to God, each other, and creation,” said Jeffery.
He went on to say that creation is a miracle rooted in love, and that the essence of God is an exchange of love that brings an urgency to show and express excitement and joy that becomes connected with the Franciscan way of life and understanding of God, each other, and fraternities.
Jeffery concluded his talk with these words: “As you discern God’s will and vocation, go back to the words of Francis when he was kneeling before the cross and discerning God’s will. It began for him with an experience of love and good news – and people recognized in Francis that the fullness of God can be seen in creation and everything around us. Think about how you felt the Good News.”
Late Saturday morning and early afternoon, sandwiched between lunch, the candidates met individually with the vocation directors prior to enjoying part of the afternoon in St. Petersburg and, later, a short drive to Tampa for the Vigil Mass at Sacred Heart Church – followed by Preparandium and dinner hosted by Henry, the friary guardian, Zachary Elliott, OFM, Steve Kluge, OFM, and Michael Jones, OFM, pastor of the parish.
“It’s always nice to see new faces – guys who are potential postulants – interested in our friar life. The fraternity here enjoys having a full house and the time spent with these men of high character over dinner and conversation, hearing their stories and why they are interested in Franciscan vocation,” said Henry. “It’s also nice to see Basil and the other friars in vocation ministry. Being down here in Florida, we don’t get to see our brothers very often unless they visit. The retreat was like a reunion, a chance to be with one another. Although we are different in many ways, the discerners see the camaraderie and how friars get along.”
Brotherhood, Service to the Poor
For the candidates, the weekend retreat deepened their connection to friar life and their discernment of Franciscan vocation.
“The attraction for me is that so much of friar life comes out of the community. To be part of a fraternity at the weekend retreat provided a sense of what it might be like, not just in the short-term as a postulant, but down the road in how brotherhood and community are always evolving and continuing to be the central point of Franciscan life,” said “Charles,” a candidate who has been blessed with opportunities of Franciscan encounter with friars in ministerial and fraternal environments, and who finds fraternity, itinerancy, and simplicity of values the most appealing hallmarks of friar life.
“As much as I know in my heart that I want to go to postulancy and continue discernment from there, being around the friars reassures my decision. Praying and having meals with them gives me a small taste of what I love about the friars. It makes me double down on my call to the Franciscans,” said “Miguel,” a candidate who has met often with friars on the East Coast. “One of the things I loved about my service in the Marine Corps was the brotherhood. I thought it was unique to the military – brothers united in a common mission. I feel that again with the friars, being around men from all walks of life with different skills, but united under one mission to live the Gospel in the way of St. Francis toward Jesus.”
“Having the chance to talk with active and retired friars at the retreat, I got the sense that they pour out their love to everyone they encounter so that each person feels their worth,” said “Nick,” a candidate who has been in active dialogue with friars during his discernment journey. “The friars treat each other with such compassion, and at the same time they can share a laugh. The living experience with the friars – eating, praying, being with them and seeing them as they are – showed they are men with different personalities, but share the common Franciscan charism – the twofold approach of fraternal bond and outreach to the poor, with emphasis on every human being created in the image of God.”
One Day at a Time
George Camacho, OFM, who happened to be in St. Petersburg for a short vacation that coincided with the discernment weekend – and was the youngest friar to participate – said he shared an important piece of advice with the candidates: Take your discernment experience one day at a time.
“It’s important, of course, to collect data and information, and to ask questions. But learning about friar life also has to be experienced in order to achieve a more genuine discernment. I encouraged them to be transparent, honest, and prayerful throughout the process,” George said.
On Sunday morning, the discerners met in the friary chapel for prayer led by Basil, who afterwards met individually with each candidate before lunch and the conclusion of the weekend retreat.
“Having the opportunity to speak with Br. Basil brought to light the realness of the process – what it’s like to take the first step, things you’ll be letting go and things you don’t realize you’ll have to let go. My retreat at the friary in St. Petersburg provided a sobering joy to the process that I really enjoyed,” said “Charles,” who noted that some of the highlights of the weekend were the friars’ talks about their own vocation journeys and a bike ride at the crack of dawn with another friar.
Later this month, Basil, Gregory, Sebastian, LVDs – including Roger Lopez, OFM, who teaches religion at Roger Bacon High School in Cincinnati, Ohio – and National Vocation Office Manager Jorge Martins will be heading to Anaheim, California, for the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress (RECongress), the nation’s largest annual gathering of Roman Catholics sponsored by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Office of Religious Education.
They will staff the National Vocation Office’s information booth at the three-day conference (Feb. 24-26), which reportedly draws 50,000 attendees every year. The conference will be kicked off by Youth Day, a day-long event for high school students that will feature workshops, presentations and guest speakers, among them, Casey Cole, OFM, chaplain of Mount de Sales Academy in Macon, Georgia, where he also is a friar in residence at Holy Spirit Church.
“Coming together as one U.S. province offers great inspiration to me as a Franciscan and will hopefully remind all friars of our responsibility to promote vocations in all that we do,” said Casey, offering his thoughts about the new National Vocation Office’s participation and presence at the conference.
“For me, the greatest way we evangelize is through the fraternity, and so widening that fraternity speaks as loudly as anything we can say of who we are and what we’re about,” added Casey.
Is God calling you to be a Franciscan?