When I tell people that I’m becoming a Franciscan friar, I have to be clear as to which type of Franciscans I mean. “Oh, like the friars at Steubenville University?” No, those are TORs. “Is that the order Benedict Groeschel started?” Nope, that’s the Franciscan Friars of Renewal. “Are you going to be on EWTN?” That’s a different group of Franciscans than mine. “Oh that’s wonderful, tell Fr. Such’n’such I said hi!” I’m not sure who that is. Maybe he’s in a different province. “Do you run Saint Anthony Press?” Sadly no, that’s Saint John the Baptist province.
These examples are endless.
The truth is, the Franciscan family is as vast as it is splintered. As of last year, my Order, the Order of Friars Minor (the one in the middle) had 14,057 friars worldwide; in the “First Order” alone, there were also 10,771 Capuchins and 4,307 Conventuals. If you add that to the number of Second and Third Order Franciscan sisters and brothers worldwide, you’re looking at maybe 100,000 people that follow some form of the life of Saint Francis of Assisi.
But why so many groups? Why is our history filled with so many controversial reforms and divisions?
What I learned in “Survey of Franciscan History” (the course the postulants took at Saint Bonaventure University, taught by Dominic Monti, OFM) is that Francis promoted two very strong and very competing values in his life and writings.
The first of these is the freedom of the individual friar to follow his own conscience through the inspiration of God. Francis famously said, “I have done what is mine; may Christ teach you what is yours!” There is a rugged individualism in the spirit of the Franciscans that promotes a tremendous diversity in character, prayer life, ministry, and governance. After Francis’ own example, there is a constant need for Franciscans to upset the status quo, to go against conventional wisdom of society or even an authoritative mandate, so as to be true to self.
What’s ironic about this is that Francis also put a tremendous amount of emphasis on the submission of one’s own will so as to preserve community. Throughout the Rule that Francis wrote, he demands that his followers be obedient always, not going against the wishes of the Church or Order, so as to avoid scandal and division.
Even without any knowledge of Franciscan history, I’m sure you can see a problem with this. What happens when, as is the case with every reform group, the friars no longer believe that the majority is staying true to the will of Francis? Is a friar compelled to compromise for the sake of unity, or be relentless for the sake of authenticity? When it came to issues over a friars ability to use money, the right to own property and accept donations, run parishes, and the proper attire (yes, they argued over shoes), there existed this problem. Both sides made legitimate arguments based on Francis’ Rule, and the consequences seemed inevitable: the Order split.
While I don’t see any significant schisms occurring within the Order any time soon, this is a dilemma that I will have to face (and have faced already) throughout my life as a friar. What happens when it’s time to buy a new car, appliance, piece of furniture, or whatever it may be, and I have a different perception of the vow of poverty than others in my house? What happens when a group of friars doesn’t want to wear their habits on a particular occasion, but I do? What happens when a community prays more or less often than I would like, or in a different way?
In each of these cases, there is an important question I have to ask myself: Is it better to be “right” or to be together? Sure, I could follow my own conscience, be a rebel, and live how I see fit no matter how my brothers react. There are times when this will be needed and I hope to have the courage to do so. But there will also be times when being “right” isn’t worth the consequence of being alone. Sometimes the best thing to do will be to submit my will to others for the sake of the whole. In these cases, I hope that I have the humility and “others-centeredness” to maintain a healthy fraternity.
So, is it better to be “right” or together? Such a question is nothing more than a false dichotomy. Neither are worthwhile ends in themselves because they sacrifice a critical Franciscan value for the sake of the other. It is only in striving for both, keeping contrary values in healthy tension, that I wish to live out my Franciscan life.