As Christians, I’d say that our “message” is pretty good: the eternal and all loving God, wanting to be one with all that God created, became human, experienced all that we experience, died and rose again forgiving all of our sins. It is a message of love, forgiveness, peace, mercy, and justice; it is one of eternity.
But as I’m sure you know, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that matters. In an amazing way, we humans are able to communicate so much more than the words we speak: our body language and tone shape our words, convey meaning, and often overshadow what we are actually saying. Even more importantly, who our listeners believe us to be (sometimes in terms like “good” or “bad”) can determine the message that is received, no matter the words. Even before we speak we have communicated something.
As Christians, sometimes we can communicate mixed messages. Our words say love, but our actions say hate; our words say forgiveness but our actions say retaliation; our words say peace but our actions say violence. Trust me when I say that the medium is the message. When the outside world looks at us Christians, they do not evaluate the clarity of our words, the thoughtfulness of our theology, or the logic of our philosophy; what is “heard” most clearly is the way that we live and how we treat others.
As friars, “official” members of the Church, we must be as conscious of this fact as anyone. We are given the opportunity to engage thousands of people each week as representatives of the Church, capable of being the inspiration to return to God or the final nail in one’s coffin that is religion and “all those hypocrites. Because of this, the friars of my province are meeting this week for what is called a Provincial Chapter, a meeting (instituted by Francis himself) of all the friars every three years for fraternal fellowship, prayerful retreat, and practical planning, such as elections. This year, our question is simply stated but difficultly answered: “Are we who we say that we are?”
The idea came from one of our lay leaders. She told us that the charism of the friars is a wonderful charism that the Church needs in this time: men who live simply in a fraternity of prayer and work, treading the world humbly in order to promote peace. We do not need a new statement of character, a vision of ministry, or structure of fraternity. What we needed, she suggested, was to simply be who we say we are, who people believe us to be. It was a call to integrity, a call to recapture what may have been lost and to recommit ourselves to it.
I think that it is a fantastic theme for the chapter because, frankly, we are different from many of the religious in the world and we need to own that. Many times in our history we have chosen to sacrifice aspects of our charism for the sake of more ministry. We took on more parishes because we could reach more people, but sacrificed our poverty and humility in the meantime, taking on great authority and even wealth; we decided to split up, preaching separately so to preach more, but sacrificed the opportunity to preach together from our fraternal life; we focused very intently on going out to preach the message to all corners of the earth, but sometimes we forgot to go back in to receive it in prayer.
For me, as a humble student friar finishing up my third year of formation, I think that there is so much more to the message than the words we speak and how often we get to speak them. The way we live is a more powerful message than any homily we could ever preach. It is my hope at this chapter, along with the thoughtful election of new leaders and adoption of new referenda, that we refocus our message on the medium. Let us recommit ourselves to a simple lifestyle and not be afraid to say no to the generosity of our parishioners that want to give us more than we need; let us recommit ourselves to fraternal life, one that does not simply sit around together doing nothing, but that is attentive to our brothers’ needs, works through the mess of living together, and shares that experience with the world; let us recommit ourselves to a life of prayer, making prayer as important of a priority in our fraternity as anything we do, unwilling to miss it or “do it later” because some ministerial need arises.
In my short time as a friar, I have learned that there is always something more to do: someone is in crisis, the Church needs money, the buildings need repair, and thousands of people are poorly catechized. We could work 24 hours a day and there would still be more to do. What’s different about us as Franciscans, I believe, is that we approach these problems from a life of simplicity in a fraternity of prayer and work, treading the world humbly in order to promote peace. It is our lifestyle that must be our primary focus. If it is not, and we choose to sacrifice any part of it for the sake of more ministry, I wonder what type of ministry we will be doing. Sure, we will be doing more, but where will we be drawing our inspiration and strength?
For me, it is not what we preach, but how we preach it. Our source of strength and identity is our fraternal life, and whether we recognize it or not, people notice. This as true for friars as it is for all Christians as it is for all people. People notice who we are, and that affects what they hear. If we are going to truly be good preachers of a message of love, forgiveness, peace, mercy, and justice, we must first focus on the medium: are we the people we say we are, people that practice what we preach?