From Italy, I’m writing this Frate Venerdì—Friar Friday. Since Sept. 24, I’ve been a “nomad,” wandering a bit around Italy, taking some days of vacation before beginning a weeklong pilgrimage with students from Ohio and Indiana. Today they arrived, and with them, I am now a pilgrim.
It’s a good time to begin a pilgrimage. Franciscans all over the world celebrated the Feast of St. Francis this past week, remembering his death (The “Transitus”) on Oct. 3, and his birth into heaven the next day.
I was fortunate enough to join the friars of St. Isidore’s College in Rome. Founded centuries ago by a famous Franciscan scholar, it has served as a center for learning for Franciscans from around the world. The community there celebrated a beautiful service commemorating Francis’ death—by candlelight in their ancient chapel. The next day, we marked the Feast of St. Francis with a morning Mass, and two celebratory meals (two, because we are friars, after all!)
The reflection for the feast day was given by Friar Bill Short OFM, a Franciscan scholar from California, now residing in Rome. Bill called our attention to two images—mosaics—which grace a courtyard at St. Isidore’s, just off the chapel. One is of the San Damiano Cross, the other is of Francis receiving the Stigmata.
I’d like to share with you my understanding of what Bill said, although he spoke in Italian, and I was translating for myself, and may have missed a lot of his nuances! Basically, though, he invited us to imagine ourselves standing between these two images.
One, the San Damiano Cross, recalls Christ’s instruction the young Francis of Assisi: “Rebuild my house, which as you see is falling into ruins.” Francis sprang into action after hearing this message. He sold cloth and a horse belonging to his father and used the money to begin rebuilding the little church of San Damiano, which was crumbling around him. Later, Francis would see a different understanding of “rebuild,” applying it to the Church—at least as he interpreted a mission to preach the Gospel.
The other image, the Stigmata, is how we picture Francis at the center of a deep interior life, so open to God that Francis receives, bodily, the wounds of Jesus crucified in his hands, feet, and side. Bill spoke of “suffering” as a way of seeing this image—but for me, it also depicts how Francis was enabled by God to let go of nearly everything, and allow God to fill him with love. Such a love encompasses suffering, as it did in the great gift of Jesus on the cross.
Bill suggested that we friars live in between two poles—a life of activity, of mission, and an interior life, which embraces suffering, and love. (I’m paraphrasing and interpreting here, for sure—I know he said a lot more!) These two poles are for me part of my lifelong journey as a friar. Sometimes, I’m more focused on action, my ministry, the mission of the Order, or of a parish, or my local friar-community. At other times, I am drawn to the interior life. It is frequently a tension, occasionally a conflict (usually from my point of view, not God’s!) and at its best, a balance.
Could you also experience these two poles in your life as a Franciscan, a Christian, a believer? Action and contemplation, mission and mysticism, doing and being—people of all beliefs seem to move between one and the other. And I think that’s a healthy rhythm. The holy people whom I admire—of various religions, belief systems and simply life-choices—seem to get it right. The rest of us struggle from time to time.
As we Franciscans conclude this week of feasting, and as I begin my pilgrim’s walk to Assisi, I wish you peace in your mission in life, and patience on the interior journey of suffering and of love!
It is almost unthinkable that we as a nation find ourselves in this same place again. As I saw the images of scores of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and others spewing hateful slogans and carrying torches in the streets of Charlottesville, it was an image that I had hoped was lost to history. It recalled the infamous Kristallnacht in 1938 when German Nazi’s ferociously removed Jewish people from their homes into concentration camps. It was reminiscent of pictures from at least 100 years ago of the KKK marching similarly throughout the South, including marching on our nation’s capital.
This is also a moment when it is crystal clear what people of faith are called to do. Some have called for dialogue saying that both sides should come together and discuss their differences in a civil manner. But, with all due respect to dialogue, this is not a time for dialogue. There are not two equally valid sides to this debate that dialogue will shed light on. Racism is a clear evil and we do not dialogue with evil. We don’t find a compromise with evil. To dialogue with evil is to validate its argument as worthy of consideration.
Instead, this is a moment that is calling forth the fullness and strength of our faith in Jesus Christ. We are all being called upon to stand up, to publicly renounce, to reject this resurgent sin once again. We are called to speak up and speak out in peaceful, prayerful, and non-violent ways. Martin Luther King Jr., famously and correctly said, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the one who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”
Our faith is based on a simple yet powerful notion – that all people are created by God and because of that possess an inherent dignity that cannot be taken away. Because of this we are all brothers and sisters in God’s great family and that is true if we are black or white, if we are rich or poor, if we are gay or straight, American or not, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or atheist. Nothing can change this or take it away. This is our faith. And we must stand up and be heard especially when anyone wants to offer an ideology that counters or denies this truth.
We know that this evil is not limited to our own shores as we have watched yet another terror attack, this time in Barcelona. Our prayers are with all of those who have been killed or injured through these acts of evil. And we pray for all of those who have the courage to stand up in the face of evil to denounce it, to reject it to call it out and to work so that our world may be a better, more loving, kind, and united place.
Love’s voice must be louder than hate’s. Kindness must overwhelm prejudice. Concern for all must silence racism. Let us be the people who join the great chorus and speak love into our world, the love that wipes out the darkness of evil and sin.
In two weeks, I’ll be leaving the U.S. for seven weeks of travel to Italy, Israel, and Jordan, with airport stopovers in Frankfurt and Munich, Germany. This long trip will conclude the busiest year of my life in international travel (I was in Pakistan and Italy early this year, and spent long hours in airport terminals in Dubai, Abu Dabi, Frankfurt, and London.) With air travel as it is today—whether you’re flying overseas or domestically—things can be unpredictable. On a recent round of travel, I was delayed in terminals by two airplanes with mechanical problems—on the ground, fortunately! Maybe that’s why none of the other friars want to fly with me!
As I prepare to depart for this trip, I recall a comparison the late Franciscan pilgrim guide Friar Roch Niemier OFM made between a pilgrim and a nomad. He used the two terms as metaphors for living as a Christian, at the of a pilgrimage in Italy 15 years ago,
A pilgrim, Friar Roch said, is someone who “goes to places that are holy [where] sacred characters [like Jesus or Saint Francis] stopped there in the past.” A pilgrim usually has a guide, who cares for the needs of the pilgrims, gets them safely to and from the holy places, and helps them get in touch with the stories of the holy men and women who were there.
In the next seven weeks, I will be such a guide for two groups—high school students from the US, and adults journeying to the Holy Land. Together, we will visit holy places in Rome, Assisi, and the Holy Land. These pilgrims will be in my care. I will try my best to tell the stories and lead them in prayer. As always, I trust that God will be at work in all of us as we travel together.
But being an actual pilgrim in the Holy Land or to other shrines may be a privilege something one has the chance to do once or twice in life. The rest of the time, Roch suggested, we are nomads. He described a nomad as one “who goes to unknown places for holiness, places that yet need to be made holy in the present or the future. The nomad has no guide, other than God.”
Roch concluded his reflection to us (who were pilgrims at that moment) with the injunction: “Be nomads! There’s so much work to be done to have the Kingdom of God come about….So much to be done!”
I am conscious that over the next seven weeks I will be a pilgrim guide, and I’ll also be something of a nomad before and after my pilgrimages. I have a couple of weeks off to visit in Italy, seeing friars, and my family there, as well as working in Jerusalem, researching stories for our magazine, The Holy Land Review. As a “nomad,” I’m certain that I will meet people along the way who will reveal the Kingdom to me, if I am attentive. Perhaps I will do the same for them.
I said above that being a pilgrim to those special sacred places is a rare privilege. But truly, our lives are made up of many small “pilgrimages” to the places sacred to us in our lives—our homes, our parishes, the circle of our families; there, we tell our own “sacred stories” and God speaks to us through them.
The rest of the time, we are “nomads” in the sense that Roch described. We’re “on our own” in the world, traveling to places which are not yet holy, where we can help the Kingdom of God to take root and flourish. It might be your college campus, work place—or even an airport terminal!
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.
Do you want to be happy? I would be willing to bet that most, if not, all of us would say a resounding yes to that question. Of course, we want to be happy. We all, I’m sure, work very hard to find happiness. We try to be at peace within our families and with others. We work hard so that we can put a roof over our heads, pay the bills, and hopefully have a few nice things. Yes, we want to be happy.
But, what if I asked you if you wanted to be joyful? You might say that is the same thing, and of course, there is some overlap. But while happiness concerns itself with a lot of external things that bring us comfort, joy is rooted much deeper in our hearts. We can be happy after a nice meal, or when we buy a new car. We can be happy spending some time with friends we haven’t seen in a long time or going out to a movie or a baseball game. But, these are all ultimately superficial, merely on the surface, and the happiness that they bring into our lives is temporary and passing.
Joy, on the other hand, is a state of being and it runs deep. As the children’s song reminds us, “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart! Where?” The song reminds us that the joy that is deep in our hearts is the result of the love of Jesus. This is the kind of joy that can direct and transform our lives.
St. Francis certainly seems to have embodied this joy. How often we think of St. Francis as the joyful Troubadour of Christ, or the joyful “fool” for Christ. He said, “Pray to God, that by His mercy He may grant you the joy of His salvation. Try to be joyful always around me and others, because it is not fitting that a servant of God appear before his brother or others with a sad and glum face.” (Assisi Compilation, p. 230).
Our new Francis, Pope Francis, similarly regularly reminds us that as followers of Jesus, we are all called to be joyful people. For example, in one of his homilies, he said, “A Christian is a man or a woman of joy. Jesus teaches us this, the Church teaches us this. Joy is a gift from God. It fills us from within. It is like an anointing of the Spirit. The Christian sings with joy, and walks with joy, and carries this joy.”
The Pope said, “Joy always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved by God.” And, there is the heart of the matter – our personal certainty that we are infinitely loved by God. This is the birthplace of our joy. The personal certainty that takes root in the very depths of our hearts – certainty, that we are loved by God.
And we can be certain because we hear it in the First Letter of John, “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that God loved us first.” My friends, let that sink in – God loved us first and best – and the certainty of that love is what gives birth to our joy. You are loved by God; you are God’s beloved. Nothing can change that or take it away. Even our greatest sin cannot take away the love that God has for us. God loves us – and that is the source of our joy!
And here is another difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is focused mainly on ourselves. Our joy cannot be contained – is must be focused on others; shared with the world.
Let us walk with joy, sing with joy, carry that joy everywhere!
If you are a regular reader of the #FriarFriday posts, you know that there is a quartet of friars who take turns writing these short articles about Franciscan life. What you may not know is that three of these friar-authors—Jim, Michael, and Tom—all are on the move this summer to new assignments. It’s part of Franciscan life. Periodically, each of us pulls up our roots in a place and travels to a different region (or perhaps a different friary within a city) and takes up a new job.
This mobility is central to Franciscan life. People often ask us if we are monks. Our answer is, no, we’re not monks. We are friars, a word which simply means brothers. But there is more to the distinction between a monk and a friar. In the 13th century, a new form of religious life for men began to appear, with the founding of the mendicant orders. Of these, the Franciscans and the Dominicans are perhaps the best known. (I’ll define that term in a moment!)
Previously, religious orders of men were gathered into the monastic orders—the most important of these was the Benedictine Order. The members were monks, living in a monastery, to which they took a vow of stability. This vow meant that a monk remained attached to a particular monastery for life. He lived his life in a self-contained way there. (Occasionally a monk could be sent to make a new foundation, a new monastery; or be sent on a special assignment by his abbot-superior or the Pope; some monks might venture outside the monastery to do some service, but in general, monks stayed put!)
When St. Francis gathered men about him to live the Gospel life, he wrote a simple way of life. His brothers were to live poorly, without possessions. They lived in huts made by their own hands or slept under the stars. They worked or begged for their food. The Latin word mendicare, “to beg,” gave rise to the word mendicants to describe these itinerant religious. They went where God led them, to work, give witness, and sometimes preach (if permitted by the Church).
The itinerant quality of Franciscan life has survived since the 13th century. It’s true that the Order took on monastic qualities at various points in its history—with large friaries, which even here in the U.S. were called “monasteries” (like the place I live in Washington, DC, the “Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America”).But that description was not really accurate. Monks live in
But that description was not really accurate. Monks live in monasteries and are bound to a particular one. Friars live in “friaries” and can be transferred from place to place. By virtue of our vow of obedience, we are sometimes asked by our ministers—the friars who direct the life of the community—to take on a new assignment. These days, such a request is usually accompanied by dialogue. A friar can also ask for a change, for various reasons.Friars commit themselves to be open to reasonable requests, made for the good the Order or the Church. No friar can be commanded against his conscience or the Rule of the Order. But in most cases “obedience” needn’t be invoked. That vow means we remain open to what the Order and the Church needs.
Friars commit themselves to be open to reasonable requests, made for the good the Order or the Church. No friar can be commanded against his conscience or the Rule of the Order. But in most cases, obedience needn’t be invoked. That vow means we remain open to what the Order and the Church needs.
An active spiritual life includes prayer and ongoing discernment. “Where is God calling me at this time in life?” We dialogue regularly with our leadership and share the answer to that question! Honest prayer and self-evaluation must include the possibility of a request by the community for a change in ministry or residence.
Once in a while, someone will tell a friar—“Well, how can you really get involved in a ministry when you might be changed some day? Can you really care about the people here, if you know you will be moved in the future?”
I think I can speak for most friars I know: We don’t think that way! When God calls—through the discernment process and God’s will expressed through our leadership—we try to embrace the assignment totally. Our mobility doesn’t influence our commitment here and now. Personally, I have a spiritual connection to every place I’ve worked and to the Church communities with whom I’ve ministered. I learned from the People of God in each place I’ve lived and worked as a friar. I carry the memories on the road with me.
It’s likely that you’ll be hearing from Friars Jim, Michael and Tom about their new assignments and ministries in future columns. I’m staying put at the moment, having received an “obedience letter” recently from my provincial minister renewing my current ministry to the Franciscan mission on behalf of the Holy Land. But as a friar, “the world is my cloister,” and I am at home wherever the Gospel is to be preached. So someday, I, too may be “on the move.” That’s the mission and life of a mendicant!