Just as the universal Church remembers and makes present the reality of Jesus with major celebrations throughout the year (Christmas, Easter), Franciscans come together each October 3rd and 4th to remember how Francis of Assisi lived and died as a spirit-filled imitator of our savior. For Franciscans, it is a time of prayerful reflection, joyful celebration, and life-giving fraternity. While each of the four feasts I’ve been a part of since entering the Order have had their own special character, none of them were as complete and vocation-affirming as this weekend.
Transitus: The Death of Francis
Each year, the Feast of St. Francis begins with a vigil service remembering the final moments of Francis’ life. The ceremony varies depending on time and place, but it usually consists of a retelling of the night Francis died, the reading of a passage from the Gospel of John, and the singing of psalm 142. Sometimes it is a short, somber experience with lots of time for reflection, other times it is an elaborate, well-choreographed production. In our case, Transitus was a sight and sound to behold, a wonderful example of the latter. The music was wonderful, the preaching was inspiring, and the candlelight procession from the church to the replica Portiuncula (the place Francis died) was very touching.
For me, though, no matter how well planned and executed the ceremony itself was, it was inconsequential compared to the amazing turnout by Franciscans far and wide. With as many as four hundred people present, the family was all there. Observants. Capuchins. Conventuals. Poor Clares. Secular Franciscans. Third Order brothers and sisters communities. Lay volunteers. Everywhere you looked there was a different shade and style of habit, tau crosses of different sizes and colors. Visibly we made present the reality of our charism: diverse and far-reaching, present throughout the whole world. For this reason, one of my favorite parts of the whole ceremony was the intercessions: nine people from nine different communities and language groups each spoke one prayer (Spanish, English, Chinese, Lau, Thai, Tagalog, French, Creole, and Korean to be exact.) What a wonderful expression for sure!
The friars should work
When one thinks of the original Franciscan charism, there are a number of things that come immediately to mind: fraternity, manual labor, care for creation, and begging on the street for food and clothing. This year, we decided three out of four wasn’t bad! Instead of kicking back with a drink and relaxing all day, seven of the friars grabbed a pickaxe and shovel and, following the example set by St. Camillus Church a few weeks ago, set out to care for their local environment. What did our grounds need, we thought? Well, with four oak trees dying in the last few years and Climate Change challenging indigenous species, we decided that we needed more local trees! Nineteen of them to be exact. Coming together as a fraternity, working with our hands in the way that Francis would have, we were able to diversify the plant population in the area, hopefully promoting greater pollination and plant life for years to come. Talk about a perfect Franciscan activity!
(The only thing that could make the day any more Franciscans is if we could have been able to beat the Dominicans in something, you know, for “old time’s sake.” But… alas… how would we ever pull something like that off? I mean, it’s not like there was a softball game at the Dominican house of studies yesterday between the Dominicans and diocesan seminarians, and the diocesan guys invited me to play. And naturally, even if that did happen, as a humble “lesser brother” I would never be anything but a good sport in friendly competition, even if, say, we beat the inferior Order of “friars” 6-3 on their own field. But… alas…)
Thanksgiving: Eucharist, Dinner, and Fraternity New and Old
The pinnacle of the day, however, came in the evening. Beginning with mass, the “source and summit” of our life and something very dear to Francis’ heart, it was easily my best experience of Eucharist in this house. Unlike our daily gatherings that have about 1/2 of the community and have sporadic singing, yesterday’s mass was full and on fire. As a way to make the day more special, we invited the director of music from the parish to play the piano for us. Wow. Not only were there 7-8 more voices than normal, she played so powerfully that the whole chapel just came alive! Oh praise him, Alleluia! To sing truly is to pray twice, and we sung better than we ever have.
After the high of breaking bread together at the Lord’s table, we entered the dining room to break some more bread (and meat, and green beans, and cake.) Decorated all day by three of our brothers, the room was gorgeous: table cloths, burlap, rocks, moss, fine dinnerware. Talk about a feast. While I’m not exactly one for formal dinners or elaborate occasions, one could hardly overlook the tremendous work that the brothers had put into making the meal more than just another meal in the house. The food was delicious, the wine was plentiful, and our conversations lasted well over an hour, all of us laughing hysterically with one another. There are few times in the year when the brothers are all able to commit themselves to one another, and I must say, it is a joyous occasion.
But, wait, there’s more! After dinner was cleaned up and put away, the recreation committee in the house had a surprise planned. Walking into the living room we found the projector set up and the chairs aligned. What could it be, you ask? How about a homemade video of the friars in formation from the 1950s. What a throwback. What a weird experience, I must say. Men that are now old or deceased were alive before our eyes, teenagers with youth and spirit, playing baseball, jumping in the lake, and performing plays. There was an odd sense of solidarity with these men for something so obvious: they were once young and ready to take on the world, just like us. And for the past 60 years, they have. The video was short and without sound, but nice nonetheless.
Little did we know that it was just the opening attraction: as a final treat, one of the formators found a vocation video from 1995 for us to enjoy (that is, laugh at.) Man. Not only was the style, hair, and technology a throwback, but friars we now know quite well were really young back then! To see guys now in their 40s and 50s when they were back in formation; to see our formators in different and sometimes funny roles; to see those running the province today back when they had their first assignments and filled with their original energy for the life was an amazing experience to share with our fraternity today. Trust me when I say that we laughed at our brothers quite a bit. It’s tough to see some of our guys with a lot less weight and lot more hair and not chuckle. But also trust me when I say that we looked on with great admiration and humility for the things that they have done before us and lives that they have lived much longer than we have. I took much joy in my brothers in these videos, and felt a great sense of awe about the brotherhood in general. While we were creating a new brotherhood ourselves in that moment, it is and forever will be only possible because of the many men that have come before us.
All in all, I can’t think of a better way to spend the feast of St. Francis. We prayed, we celebrated, we worked, and we laughed like friars do. I honestly don’t know how someone could spend a day like that with us and not sell all that they have to be a part of it. This Franciscan life of following Jesus truly is the pearl of great price, and this weekend truly was an unmistakable affirmation of my place in it. Peace and good to all.