First Day Trip: Camden

The first of many trips around the provinceAs a part of our Postulant experience, we’ll be traveling near and far to get to know the many ministries offered in Holy Name Province. Given that Camden, NJ is less than an hour from our house in Delaware, we took the opportunity on a slow Friday to visit the friars there and get to know what they do.

St. Anthony of Padua is a parish community consisting of a church, elementary school, and an HIV mission house called the Francis House. It is run by Fr. Jud Weiksnar, OFM, Fr. Hugh Macsherry, OFM, and Br. Karl Koenig, OFM. The congregation is primarily Spanish speaking, and located in an incredibly impoverished area of the state. As is the historical trend within the province, the friars took over this community some years ago after returning a healthy, affluent parish back to the diocese in order to seek out places with the most need.

In our time there today, we got a glimpse of the difficulties facing the poor of Camden, NJ, and a chance to see friars living in a wonderfully simple and loving lifestyle. There is a tendency at times to romanticize the poor for those of us who read about social justice and activism; but to see some of the dire living situations of actual human beings, there is nothing romantic about it. Through a real life struggle each and every day, it was great to see a few men willing to give of themselves so freely for the sake of the community.

Check out more pictures from this trip on my shutterfly page.

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Far From Routine

Flexibility is key for our schedule!

The first week of being a Postulant has demanded a great deal of flexibility in schedule: Sunday and Tuesday we started with morning prayer followed by mass away from the friary (though none of these events took place at the same time or location), while Monday and Wednesday both took place here at the “normal” time; class/meetings took place in the morning Monday, Wednesday and today, in the afternoon Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and in the evening Sunday and Tuesday; and yet on a day like today, we have a block between 11:00-5:15 with nothing to do.

Part of this is just the case of it being the first week and not wanting to overwhelm each of us with a strict schedule. We are more than grateful for that! The other part is simply the nature of the Postulant year: we’re being taught to be flexible. Though we may all like to have our neat and tidy schedules, there are exceptions to every plan, both foreseeable and unforeseeable.

The “plan” for each week consists of morning prayer, mass, breakfast, evening prayer, dinner, and night prayer almost every day. On Mondays and Fridays we will have Franciscan spirituality classes, Monday evenings will be for spanish classes, and Tuesdays, Wednesday, and Thursdays for ministry site visits. But as our schedules would indicate, there are as many exceptions with this routine as there are in the English language, and it is just as difficult for someone to remember them all. Some of the “planned exceptions” include: experts coming in to hold one to three day seminars on various topics, attending conferences in places like Cincinnati and Chicago in the middle of weeks, taking day trips around the province to familiarize ourselves with other friars, spending a week at both a Benedictine monastery and a Franciscan hermitage, and attending various one-day events, seminars, meetings, socials, and classes. Even still, we’re prepared for cancellations and additions on a daily basis.

In the end, as crazy as it sounds, it’s not a problem at all. Like I said in my earlier post A Rush To Slow Down, the purpose of this year is to form a spiritual and communal foundation that will allow each of us to live a Franciscan life and deal with all the craziness that comes with loving so freely as they do. It might be easy (or easier) to spend time with God in prayer and personal reflection when nothing is going on and there are countless free hours in the day; it is quite another to do so amidst crazy schedules, fatigue, tragedy, endless problems that need immediate action, and so on. God and self are the first two priorities cut when times get tough or we’re too busy. We must always remember though, even the night that Jesus was betrayed and arrested, he spent time in the garden praying (Mt 14:32-42); even though the expensive oil could have been sold to help the poor, Jesus tells his disciples to cherish their time with him (Jn 12:3-8). In a world that is far from routine, we must always find time for our source of strength, Christ, so that we may be a sign of His constant, unchanging love. That’s what I’m training for.

A Rush to Slow Down

My "sacred" space

Having completed 24 hours of the Postulancy, I have to say that I’m already exhausted. I imagine the majority of physical fatigue is due to the abrupt change to the sleep cycle, but there is certainly a rush of new information, experiences, relationships, and responsibilities that is not helping either. This is not to be misinterpreted though: I’m very happy so far! I’m pleased with my fellow Postulants, feel incredibly comfortable in my room and in this house, and am enjoying the new lifestyle so far (7:30 morning prayer may be a chore though…)

Rather than trying to recount everything that has happened, I’d like to focus on one concept that I imagine will be quite critical to this year’s formation: learning to slow down in the midst of being very busy. We already know that we will be traveling to New York City, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Bonaventure’s University throughout the year, while also being responsible for taking a spanish class at the community college, working three days a week at an internship site, and taking part in a number of seminars and workshops. There is no doubt that we will be very busy throughout the year. But ministry, we were told last night, was not the purpose of this first year.

Where we begin to be “formed” is in our emphasis on slowing down, and emphasizing our life of prayer and community. For starters, we were asked to approach our bedrooms as sacred space. They are to be kept simple, yet personal, and used exclusively for individual use; rather than using them for fellowship or general space, they should be an intimately private space to retreat, reflect, and recharge (this is not some catchy list they gave us, but just a coincidence that they were the three words I used to describe the space.) It is in conjunction with the communal time and regimented prayer life that we’re asked to slow down our lives, begin to listen more closely, and remove distractions. To aid in this task, each of us were given hardcover notebooks (not the cheap $1.00 spiral ones) as a reminder to journal our experiences, thoughts, concerns, etc. I hope to use this almost every day as a place for raw ideas and unfinished conclusions rather than “well” planned reflections such as these. There is something to be said about a stream of consciousness, writing without a filter and with no regard to organization or aesthetics.

All in all, I am overjoyed with my experience so far, and thankful for all the prayers and messages I’ve received so far. There is simply too much to report at the moment, so I hope you’ll check back soon for more updates!

(Two more pictures can be found here.)

The Formation Process

How easy is it for God to form us?

In order to become a Franciscan friar (or any religious), I must follow a process called formation. Formation, as the word implies, is about orienting oneself to God in a special way, allowing for changes and transformations to take place. This process lasts around six years, and though there are required steps that one must complete to move forward, the emphasis on forming a person is most important. It is not uncommon, then, for friars to repeat certain steps or to take a bit longer than others.  Such instances are not punishments or failures of faith; they are simply examples of how God works in each of us differently, and that there is not a one-size-fits-all “perfect” way to grow in faith.

Though each province has the freedom to determine the specifics of each step, there are 3 main sections of the formation process that all must complete, with an additional step for those wishing to be ordained as priests (look for a post on that topic shortly):

Pre-Novitiate, or Postulancy: This step is best described as a “Come and See” year, with emphasis on exposing first-year members to the life of the Franciscans. In a lot of ways it’s an orientation for a new job and in other ways it’s like a year long interview.  By taking on the life of the friars (without the formal commitment) the main goal of a postulant is to take in the experience of eating, working and praying in community, the knowledge gained from Franciscan spirituality classes, and the relationships built while traveling across the province, and decide if this is what God is calling us to do. If it is, and the formation leaders agree, then its on to the Novitiate.

Novitiate: It is as this point that the habit is received and members are considered brothers (and able to put o.f.m. after their name!) This year closely resembles a monastery, in which novices spend the majority of their time in or around the house in prayer, contemplation, community or work. To be honest, I know very little about this step, only that it is where a lot of the “forming” takes place.

Post-Novitiate: This step is where friars gain formal education to be able to articulate the nuances of our faith and prepare us for ministry positions. For many, this will be the completion of a Masters of Divinity (M.Div.), but it depends on the career in mind. During the summers, friars are assigned an internship site to gain more practical experience in ministry. It is also during this time that friars are “simply professed,” meaning that each make a one-year commitment to the three vows, renewed each year until the solemn profession, or life-long vows.

Diaconate: After graduation and solemn profession, those wishing to be ordained as priests spend a year as a deacon, giving homilies, presiding over weddings and funerals, and fine-tuning their pastoral skills. It’s important to note that ordination comes after solemn profession. In this way, all are considered brothers first and foremost, equal with one another. If some choose to seek ordination after that, it does not separate or elevate them above the rest in the order, it is merely a form of work like professor, doctor, or lawyer.

At this point, all I really know is the checklist. Postulancy, Novitiate, Seminary, Profession. But as I mentioned with the word “formation,” this process is not a checklist. It doesn’t account for the love, hardship, spiritual struggles, friendships, headaches, tears, and failures that I will inevitably face and, depending on how I respond to each, form me into a new person. It is a long road ahead, and I am very excited for what I do not know yet.

So… What am I doing, and WHY am I doing it?

Is this what you're picturing?

For a lot of you, I’m sure you’re wondering what the heck I’m doing with my life. You’ve heard that I’m joining the Franciscans, you’ve seen Robin Hood and so are familiar with Friar Tuck, and you’re trying to picture me in a medieval world. For those who understand what it means to be a friar in the modern world, you’re are probably wondering WHY I would want to live a life of austerity. Let me explain.

First of all, there are many different types of friars: Augustinians, Carmelites, Dominicans, and of course, Franciscans. A friar is simply a brother, or a member of one of these religious orders. A Franciscan friar follows the life and rule of St. Francis of Assisi: this means accepting a life of simplicity, brotherhood, others-centeredness, prayer, and love of creation. Formally called the Order of Friars Minor (o.f.m.), the Franciscans strive to be “lesser brothers,” people in solidarity with the poorest and weakest, working in the world by taking on the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience (or as it is sometimes referred to as “no money, no honey, and do what you’re told.”)

The friars are a very diverse bunch. Before entering the order, members of my province held jobs as DJ’s, photographers, translators, interior designers, corporate managers, and scholars; since entering, friars hold positions as priests, spiritual directors, retreat coordinators, professors, social workers, missionaries (while still DJ-ing, photographing, translating, designing, managing, and learning).  Franciscans are found working in and throughout world wherever there are people in need, often times in highly populated areas. Because of this, I find them to be more in touch with the world than any other religious or secular group.

So why is it that I found a need to wear a brown dress, live with a bunch of men, and earn less than minimum wage for the rest of my life? To put it simply, it was the best way that I found that I could follow God and do his work. The three vows, though it would seem like a limit to my freedom, actually make me more free: I don’t have to focus on a getting ahead in my career, caring for a family, or worrying about where I’ll go next. There is a freedom in letting go of some individualism, and focusing solely on how I can serve. What separated the Franciscans from other religious communities was St. Francis’ emphasis on brotherhood, love of creation, and radical poverty (even greater emphasis than other religious groups), and obviously the fact that St. Francis is by far the greatest saint ever. What put me over the edge was seeing and meeting the friars in action. It was one thing to like the ideals of an 800 year old saint, and another thing to like the individuals upholding them; in this case, I could definitely see this group of men as brothers.

To read more, I wrote an article for the Franciscan vocations newsletter last year explaining my discernment journey that can be found here.