This weekend I was offered a tremendous opportunity. While Washington, D.C. was recording its coldest temperature in over 100 years and amassing over 6.5 inches of snow, I was asked to travel to sunny Florida to bask in he spring-like weather. For what? Who cares! I was going to say yes to anything! Luckily for me it was for a great event: a vocation discernment retreat for new candidates.
Taking place at our retirement home in St. Petersburg, some, including myself, had some reservations with the concept. Is this really the image we want to use to introduce men to the order? Are a bunch of old guys really the best sell for a group of excited candidates?
Turns out it was the perfect place to be. These men, both young and old, could not have been more impressive, and the rapport they shared could not have been better. The weekend was an unforgettable experience of bridging the future and “past” of the Order, mutually inspiring each other with new life. The accomplishments of the retirees grounded the candidates’ idealism and the energy of the new men brought life and joy to an otherwise quiet house.
The weekend started Friday night with us doing what we do best: eating and socializing. To my great enjoyment, the candidates and retired friars had no problem hitting it off. The new men were eager to hear about the friars and the friars were overjoyed at the opportunity to entertain visitors. Following dinner, the group was formally introduced as we prayed Evening Prayer together.
The first session was led by Paul Santoro, OFM, and myself, and was entitled, “What does it mean to be a friar today?” All we could say is that there is simply no blueprint for who and what a friar should be. Even though there are specific aspects of our charism that guide us (prayer, fraternity, minority, and mission) and we spent some time sharing our experience of each, the fact of the matter is that there is no “correct” way to live them out. “it’s what you bring to this life that makes it what it is.” As the other friars began to chime in with their own diverse experiences, hopes, and visions, we found ourselves building a beautiful mosaic right before our eyes; though varied and seemingly fragmented as individuals, together we made something coherent and full of tremendous meaning.
The following morning built upon this diversity with a discussion about the mission of the friars led by two very different men: Jerome Massimino, OFM, and Kevin Mackin, OFM. While Jerome had spent most of his life in pastoral settings, staffing parishes and campus ministries, Kevin spent most of his life in academia, teaching and administrating at a high level. In almost no way did their ministries overlap; the people they served, the tasks they carried out, and the problems they faced were completely different. And yet, both men are Franciscan through and through. The juxtaposition of their lives was a wonderful witness to see.
The final talk of the weekend came after lunch Saturday and could probably have been named (and I kid you not) “Dying with Dignity as a Friar.” Given by Francis Souci, OFM, the man instrumental in building and running a skilled nursing facility for aged and infirm friars for more than 20 years, it was a powerful talk about how we are fraternity until the end. Refusing to call it “the infirmary,” he insisted that it be called and treated like any other friar, a place where men could pray and socialize with one another, affording them the dignity at the end of their lives that they had given so many others throughout their life of ministry. One might not expect a talk such as this on a discernment retreat, but I can’t tell you how important a similar experience was for me when I was discerning, to know that I would be loved and cared for even in my old age.
And really, I think that was the surprise “sell” of the weekend. Obviously, I think it was great for someone like myself to be there, to be able to field their questions from the perspective of someone currently going through the process; and it was obviously great to have the head vocation director and regional guys in full-time ministry to share from their more seasoned life with the friars. But those sorts of things are to be expected and are commonplace at our retreats. What was different about this one was being around our highly decorated brothers. These men are the ones who blazed the trail before us, made the path open for the rest of us to follow. And this did not go unnoticed by our candidates, men who are trying to find their own path to walk in this life. I know that I was touched and inspired by their life and witness.
All in all, I leave Florida elated and surprised by the happenings of the weekend. What I witnessed was life-giving. There are men before me that made my life in this Order possible, and there are men, truly fantastic men, that appear to be coming after me. Again, I find myself so affirmed in this life, and overjoyed that others feel the same way. The path of a friar is laid out before us, old and true, but there are always new ways to walk it.