New Community at the Castle

Mount Saint Alphonsus was built in 1907 as a seminary

Given the history and nature of religious orders in the United States, the majority of the communities spread across the country are either headquartered or have distinct roots in the northeast. Thus, one of the advantages of having our formation process in this area is that there are numerous groups of men and women at the same stage of formation as we are here in Wilmington, allowing for us to form a larger network of support and overall growth.

For example, this weekend we attended a workshop organized by the Religious Formation Conference (RFC) in Esophus, NY. About 20-30 men and women (ranging in experience from 2 days to 3 years in formation) spent the weekend learning about different prayers, discussing our experiences in small groups, practicing each prayer in private, and getting to know the groups and individuals represented on a personal level.

The workshop portion of the weekend, and by that I mean the organized activities, was a bit broad and lacked the depth that I was expecting (if I can be completely honest). The speaker was obviously experienced in each of these prayers, and had a lot to offer. The problem was that she tried to fit a lot of different types of prayers into a day and a half rather than focusing on just one prayer and giving it a lot of attention. Part of it is certainly the limitation of the group: because it is made up of a wide range of experience levels, and because each religious order has different expectations for their formation students, there needs to be a broader, one-size-fits-all atmosphere in order to include everyone.

This is not to say that I was disappointed in the experience; far from it! What was missing in the organized activities was more than made up in private conversations, fellowship at meals, new relationships, and my own personal broadening of “vocation.” In talking about our religious calls, our vocation processes, the struggles we were facing, and our visions for the future, I found myself taking part in the “catholic” aspect of our church: though unified in our call from God and mission to uphold the life of the Church, we went about expressing each of these in entirely different ways. I was fascinated beyond imagination to hear about the different spiritualities, how each group was coping with a changing world, the vision of the founder, and their day-to-day lives.

In hearing each of them speak, I was also more than reaffirmed of my own Franciscan spirituality, the order I am joining, the way we do things and the way we don’t do other things. There is certainly a reason why people join one group over another! As we go to these workshops throughout the year, I have no intention of switching groups or changing spiritualities; but I do hope that in building these relationships I may be able to enrich my faith with new ideas, as well as to enrich others’ with a Franciscan way of looking at something.

Given the title I chose for this post, I couldn’t close without saying a world about the retreat house. WOW! Just look at it. It’s enormous! It was built in 1907 by Redemptorist Congregation as a seminary for its aspiring priests. I’ve added my own pictures to the shutterfly page, and you can learn more about it’s history here. We’re going back in November, so look forward to pictures of the place surrounded by fall leaves!

Out and About

Feels great to be out of the house!

In case you were wondering, nine straight days of in-house workshops is not the norm for the postulant year (Nor is it the most thrilling thing in the world to be stuck in the same room for that long!) As they came to a close Tuesday, we begin to look ahead at the array of out-of-house activities coming our way in the coming days and weeks.

Yesterday began with a trip to the Office of the Diocese of Wilmington. This is much less important than it sounds. The building is only about a mile away, and we went there for an hour and a half safe environment seminar called “For the Sake of God’s Children.” Though it wasn’t the most interesting class I had ever taken, I was comforted by the ambitious steps the Church is taking to prevent all types of abuse. I would be surprised if there was a safer place in the country to send a child than the Catholic Church (all programs are based on the bishops’ 2002 charter).

With the rest of the day more or less free, we were able to stay out of the house by spending some time together at the community YMCA. One of the great things about this group of postulants is that all of us have a commitment to staying healthy and in shape, and we act as motivators and accountability partners to each other. If only some of the more “experienced” friars were a bit more health conscious…

Today after morning prayer we headed out to a picnic to meet the area Secular Franciscans (SFO). Due to the torrential rains and lightning, the “picnic” was moved indoors, but a great time nonetheless. It was refreshing to see such a vibrant expression of the life of St. Francis among these people, and to remind myself that no way of following him is any more “franciscan” than any other; whether one is married in the secular world or vowed in the religious, it’s still living a life influenced by St. Francis.

Which brings me to the next Franciscan community we’ll be visiting: after morning prayer tomorrow, we’ll be walking to a Capuchin Franciscan convent for mass with the sisters. As if entering a convent isn’t a big enough experience for the general public, it gets even more interesting with these sisters: the whole community of sisters is from Mexico, having immigrated here to live a monastic life in Delaware. As best we can, we plan on sharing mass with them on Friday mornings and Vespers on Sunday evenings, and I hope to learn a lot more about their unique journey. When I get to know them better I will be sure to post!

After mass it’s off to Philadelphia to meet other members of the province. Since we have friars in Wilmington, Philadelphia, and Camden, the “Lower Delaware community” likes to get together every few months for dinner and fellowship. Because the friars have such busy schedules, it’s nice to stop every once in a while and keep in touch with the larger community of brothers in the area.

When dinner is over, it’s off to our next, and final stop for the weekend: Mount Saint Alphonsus in Esopus, NY. Go ahead, click on the link. Is that not an incredible looking place?? Located just north of Pokeepsie, NY, this castle of a building used to be a high school and college seminary. With the declining numbers of seminarians, they’ve adapted the place for retreats and workshops over the years, and is a beautiful place to get away. Like everything we do as postulants, we’re not entirely sure what we’re doing at this workshop, but we know that there will be other young men and women in formation there as well, and that we’ll be talking about prayer. Besides the drive, I’m really looking forward to it. We’ll be back Sunday evening, and as if I even had to say it, look forward to a post and some pictures soon after that! Thanks for reading, and I really appreciate all of your comments and prayers!

 

First Workshop: “Proclaiming the Word”

The Word of God must be "proclaimed"

“Faith grows when it is well expressed in celebration. Good celebrations foster and nourish faith. Poor celebrations may weaken and destroy faith” (Music in Catholic Worship: 6; 1983). Nothing could be more applicable to many Catholics! When the priest artfully connects the lessons into an engaging homily and the music is familiar yet inspiring, the congregation leaves the church with a rejuvenated faith and a great joy; when the homily is difficult to follow, and the music is just coordinated noise, the congregation leaves thinking, “I didn’t get anything out of Mass today.”

Often, though, we forget to focus attention on one of the most important aspects of the mass: the proclamation of God’s word in the readings. The Second Vatican council asserted that, “He [Christ] is present in his word since it is he himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in Church” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7). Think about that for a second. Because Jesus is the “Word made flesh,” when we listen to the readings at mass, we are not merely hearing stories or learning about God, we are in the true presence of our Lord.

Which brings me to the point of our workshop this week: what does it mean to, and more importantly, how do we, “proclaim” the word? When we think about what we’re really doing, bringing the real presence of Jesus to the congregation, it’s an incredibly important ministry to take up and it requires a lot more work than simply dressing nice and reading clearly! Here’s what Gary Maciag, OFM, has been teaching us this week:

Prepare, prepare, prepare. One of the things has been stressed this week is that preparing takes much more than just a glance at the reading before mass. Besides being audible and clear (kind of assumed, if you ask me), the lector has to offer an intelligent reading of the text. Without knowing the context in which the author was writing, the original audience, the genre, and ultimately the purpose of the text, the lector is not proclaiming, they are simply reading. Just as a teacher having no understanding of the material reads directly from the textbook, the Word is not captured by the congregation when the lector doesn’t know what they are proclaiming.

Let your own understanding of the text speak. Often we here statements like, “I’m letting the Holy Spirit work through me,” or “I’m trying to be an empty vessel for God to use.” There is certainly some truth in this, but it needs revision. God doesn’t want a neutral, hallowed vacuum of a soul to work through. We have been given unique gifts, and thus are able to experience God in a number of different spiritualities: Let this come out! Just as two different actors can play the same role, allowing their subtle emphases to develop the character in different ways, so too should the lector. The purpose is of course to let the Word of God speak through us, but let is speak through your specific understanding of him. A bland, unbiased reading doesn’t let the Word speak: it hides it, and frankly, bores the congregation. A dramatic, over-the-top monologue suffocates the Word because the reader draws all attention to him or herself, and the church is turned into a theatre. A good lector will take this ministry very seriously, and find that perfect balance.

To say that the week has been a great bundle of joy would be a stretch: part of preparation is practicing over and over, humbly accepting relentless critique in order to obtain an ideal. But that’s okay. The difference between a good reader and a bad reader makes a big difference; proclaiming the word of God is a critical part of the life of a celebration. Important things like this are certainly worth suffering a bit for.

 

Meet My Classmates

From left to right, Sergio, Dennis, Edgardo, Ramon, and Me

One of the great things about the formation process is that no one has to do it alone. As I move on from place to place, going from Postulancy to Novitiate to Post-Novitiate, the group of guys that entered at the same time as I did will do the same. There is a sense of comfort in this sort of community, and some friars describe the relationship they have with their classmates as an intimate bond.

On the other hand, there is only one year, the Postulant year, that I will be with only my classmates: the Novitiate year is inter-provincial (all of the second year students in the country come together for the year), and the Post-Novitiate takes place at Holy Name college where all students years 3-7 living together, including a large number of foreign friars wishing to study in America. Essentially, one’s immediate classmates can be a great source of strength and comfort throughout the process, but if you don’t get along with them it’s not the end of the world.

That being said, I think I lucked out with mine. Starting with the largest class in 5-6 years, each of these guys come with a true desire to be a follower of Francis, and offer a uniquely different perspective on life.

Sergio was born and raised in the New York/New Jersey area, but his parents were from Naples, Italy. He joined the Navy after high school and spent 5 years working on a Destroyer ship. After a long journey of faith, he found himself studying, then teaching philosophy, eventually connecting with the friars while getting his M.Div. from Union Theological Seminary in NYC.

Dennis is a Rhode Island native and thought about religious life at a young age. As he explored alternative options for his life in college, he became very passionate about Chemistry, and received both a Bachelors and Masters in the field. His earlier life interest in religious life didn’t go away, and as a chemistry professor over the last few years he felt called once more.

Edgardo grew up in Costa Rico, and is a native Spanish speaker. Over the years, he has studied French and English in foreign countries, began a life with the Franciscans in Mexico, taught philosophy and Catechetics at home in Costa Rico, and at one point was on a track to become a diocesan priest there. He comes to our Province because of it’s diversity in ministry.

Rounding out our world tour of Postulants, Ramon spent most of his life in the Philippines, having come to New York only 5 years ago. Since that time, he’s gotten a higher education degree in teaching and taught high school English in New York City where he was the creator and advisor of a student magazine about social justice. As you can see in the picture, he likes photography as well, which is a plus.

I feel very blessed to have a group of guys such as this, and believe that they will all have a profound effect on my faith journey.

A Glimpse of the “Finish Line”

Holy Name Province’s mother church

Originally, interested men could show up at the door of a franciscan house, be admitted by any friar, given a habit, and sent out into the world as a follower of Francis, all in the same day. Talk about on-the-job training! With friaries accepting men immature in both faith and action, the pope at the time required Francis to organize a probationary year before new members could be fully admitted into the order, and gave only the provincial (essentially the president) the authority to accept any new members. Today, we witnessed that process as Dan Horan, OFM, and Steve DeWitt, OFM, took solemn vows and were fully accepted into the Order of Friars Minor. It was a beautiful ceremony (and due to the hurricane, a bit more intimate than expected), and a joyous occasion for these two friars who entered the order more than six years ago.

It’s hard to imagine that six years ago, these two men were in my position, postulants, young and new to the order, attending some other friars’ solemn profession. It’s kind of cool that one of the first things we do is attend this ceremony because it gives us a glimpse of the “finish line,” so to speak. Obviously one’s solemn profession is by no means the end of the story or the “happily ever after” moment, but it is certainly the moment that all of us in the formation process are looking and working towards; the purpose of our formation is to prepare ourselves for a consecrated life, and that life “officially” begins at one’s profession.

The ceremony took place at the mother church of the province, the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Middle Manhattan. Home to one of the most beautiful chapels I’ve ever been to (don’t take my word for it, check out the pictures), it is one of two “service churches” in the province: the fifteen or so friars run nine daily masses every day (to accomodate the busy lives of New Yorkers), a morning breadline for the poor that has run since 1930, a counseling center, and a ministry list too long to mention. Because it is the province’s headquarters, it is host to many bishops, mayors and other elected officials, friars from around the world, and many other high profile people. Because of this, the friary is a bit nicer than one would expect for a Franciscan church, but the friars there would assure you that they own no more or less than any other group of friars, they are merely borrowing and maintaing the gifts given to them by the community they serve; it just turns out that the community in Manhattan is very different from the community in Camden, and their material space is a reflection of that.

Also, Dan has a very popular blog and podcast (just what you need, something else to check) that you should check out: datinggod.org.