Spiritual Boot Camp

Francis most likely prayed more than anything else throughout his life.

The friars have always been known for the great work they do. Through their direct assistance to the poor, world-renowned Franciscan scholarship, advocacy initiatives on the local and federal levels, thriving parishes and campus ministries, foreign missions, and rejuvenating contemplative centers, to name just a few, friars make a huge difference in the world.

For many, including myself at times, the Novitiate year ahead of me seems contrary to that notion of the friars. So let me get this straight. For an entire year, all you’re going to do is pray, study, clean and cook, and go on retreat? How can you justify not working for an entire year when there’s so much to be done in the world? Because our identity as Franciscans is so often linked to the work we do, the idea of not doing great work seems like a contradiction or a letdown of expectations. How is that Franciscan?

The truth is that being Franciscan has little to do with what one does, and everything to do with the way one lives. Francis did not set out to found an order with a particular task or expertise, no matter how useful it may be, he set out to live the Gospel as perfectly as he could, imitating Christ so as to grow closer to him. Sure, Francis swept and rebuilt churches, cleaned and fed lepers, and preached any chance he got. But for him, these were not ends in themselves as much as they were expressions of his commitment to a new life and identity, one that sought to be poor and humble, fraternal, and most of all, prayerful.

At first, I think it surprised me to find out how much Francis prayed. Given the fact that he observed each liturgical hour of the day, retreated to a cave at Mount La Verna, wrote his own Office of the Passion, and organized a Rule for Hermitages, there’s little chance that he did anything as much as he prayed. Seriously. Some friars even joke that Francis wouldn’t have earned a full month’s wage in his entire life because he was constantly running away to pray. Although this might be an exaggeration, there’s truth and inspiration in the way Francis lived: he was so in love with God and wished to always be closer to God than he was at any given moment.

This is the core of our life and charism. Prayer is our source of strength, inspiration, insight, wisdom, motivation, rejuvenation, and direction. Prayer is the very thing that makes effective ministry possible. Anyone can run a soup kitchen; teach at a university; hold a sign in front of the court house; be liked by parishioners and college students; go to a foreign country; offer quiet places. But without prayer, without a love for God and a desire to be closer to God as our starting point, what motivates us to engage in ministry at all? Altruism and a sense of the “greater good” only go so far. Prayer is at the core of any truly effective ministry.

Thus, the Novitiate year. Many have called it “Spiritual Boot Camp” and I have no reason to see it otherwise. The year will challenge and strengthen us spiritually so that we may lay a solid enough foundation for any experience we may face in life. One friar told me that it was a time in which he realized that Jesus alone was enough for him, that he needed nothing else in the whole world. This is the sort of foundation we as friars in training hope to lay.

Ultimately, yes, it’s going to be difficult to remove myself from the world and almost all forms of apostolic ministry for an entire year. There is a lot I could be doing that I will not be doing. But then I ask myself: How much more effectively could I show love to people if I, myself, understood the love God shows me? How much more effectively could I be the hands of God if I knew who God was and how God’s hands wished to be used? How much more effectively could I minister if prayer actually became the centerpiece of my life? It’s going to take nothing less that Spiritual Boot Camp to find out. I’m up for the challenge (and a challenge it will be!)

In Two Weeks

This formidable building will be home for almost a year.

In two weeks, the postulants of Holy Name Province will leave our home in Wilmington, DE. Packing up everything we own, we will say goodbye to the house we called home, the rooms we called “sacred space,” and the men we called brothers.

In two weeks, we will move into our new home in Burlington, WI. As in every step of our lives as Franciscans, we will adapt to our new surroundings and learn to call a new house “home,” create new sacred spaces, and learn to call new men brothers. We will adopt the routine of the house, and hopefully bring to it something new from our own experiences.

In two weeks, the postulant year will be over. It’s amazing to look back on the last 12 months and see all of the places we’ve been, the things we’ve learned, the ways we’ve grown, the relationships we’ve developed, and the trials we were put through. I summarized quite briefly my take on the year in “Postulancy: A Year of Discernment”, an article written for the Be A Franciscan newsletter. (Please pass on to anyone considering Franciscan life!)

In two weeks, we will be accepted into the novitiate, and begin a year of preparation for taking simple vows. Taken in steps (of which I only know what is written in this article), we will begin to remove ourselves from the world so as to grow in greater knowledge and contemplation of God, His Church, its servant Francis, and the Order he created. Eventually, we will be without credit cards, internet access, and cell phones, so as to be without as many distractions as possible.

And in two weeks, we will never again be just a class of five. Next year we will join 12 men from six other Franciscan provinces in what is called the Interprovincial Novitiate, and in each subsequent year of formation after that we will be with all the men in formation with Holy Name Province at our house of studies. The great thing about your class is that it can really shape you, but after the first year, it doesn’t have to.

These two weeks are going to fly by. I hope I’m ready for what’s on the other side of them.

Better to be Right or Together?

This is a simplified version of only the “First Order” branch of the Franciscan family tree.

When I tell people that I’m becoming a Franciscan friar, I have to be clear as to which type of Franciscans I mean. “Oh, like the friars at Steubenville University?” No, those are TORs. “Is that the order Benedict Groeschel started?” Nope, that’s the Franciscan Friars of Renewal. “Are you going to be on EWTN?” That’s a different group of Franciscans than mine. “Oh that’s wonderful, tell Fr. Such’n’such I said hi!” I’m not sure who that is. Maybe he’s in a different province. “Do you run Saint Anthony Press?” Sadly no, that’s Saint John the Baptist province.

These examples are endless.

The truth is, the Franciscan family is as vast as it is splintered. As of last year, my Order, the Order of Friars Minor (the one in the middle) had 14,057 friars worldwide; in the “First Order” alone, there were also 10,771 Capuchins and 4,307 Conventuals.  If you add that to the number of Second and Third Order Franciscan sisters and brothers worldwide, you’re looking at maybe 100,000 people that follow some form of the life of Saint Francis of Assisi.

But why so many groups? Why is our history filled with so many controversial reforms and divisions?

What I learned in “Survey of Franciscan History” (the course the postulants took at Saint Bonaventure University, taught by Dominic Monti, OFM) is that Francis promoted two very strong and very competing values in his life and writings.

The first of these is the freedom of the individual friar to follow his own conscience through the inspiration of God.  Francis famously said, “I have done what is mine; may Christ teach you what is yours!” There is a rugged individualism in the spirit of the Franciscans that promotes a tremendous diversity in character, prayer life, ministry, and governance. After Francis’ own example, there is a constant need for Franciscans to upset the status quo, to go against conventional wisdom of society or even an authoritative mandate, so as to be true to self.

What’s ironic about this is that Francis also put a tremendous amount of emphasis on the submission of one’s own will so as to preserve community. Throughout the Rule that Francis wrote, he demands that his followers be obedient always, not going against the wishes of the Church or Order, so as to avoid scandal and division.

Even without any knowledge of Franciscan history, I’m sure you can see a problem with this. What happens when, as is the case with every reform group, the friars no longer believe that the majority is staying true to the will of Francis? Is a friar compelled to compromise for the sake of unity, or be relentless for the sake of authenticity? When it came to issues over a friars ability to use money, the right to own property and accept donations, run parishes, and the proper attire (yes, they argued over shoes), there existed this problem. Both sides made legitimate arguments based on Francis’ Rule, and the consequences seemed inevitable: the Order split.

While I don’t see any significant schisms occurring within the Order any time soon, this is a dilemma that I will have to face (and have faced already) throughout my life as a friar. What happens when it’s time to buy a new car, appliance, piece of furniture, or whatever it may be, and I have a different perception of the vow of poverty than others in my house? What happens when a group of friars doesn’t want to wear their habits on a particular occasion, but I do? What happens when a community prays more or less often than I would like, or in a different way?

In each of these cases, there is an important question I have to ask myself: Is it better to be “right” or to be together? Sure, I could follow my own conscience, be a rebel, and live how I see fit no matter how my brothers react. There are times when this will be needed and I hope to have the courage to do so. But there will also be times when being “right” isn’t worth the consequence of being alone. Sometimes the best thing to do will be to submit my will to others for the sake of the whole. In these cases, I hope that I have the humility and “others-centeredness” to maintain a healthy fraternity.

So, is it better to be “right” or together? Such a question is nothing more than a false dichotomy. Neither are worthwhile ends in themselves because they sacrifice a critical Franciscan value for the sake of the other. It is only in striving for both, keeping contrary values in healthy tension, that I wish to live out my Franciscan life.

Looking Forward to Our New Community

As I mentioned five weeks ago, the purpose of this summer experience at Saint Bonaventure University was twofold: 1) gain a more formalized and academic understanding of Francis, and 2) begin to create a brotherhood with the men with which we’ll be living next year.  So far, the latter has been the highlight, and honestly, a bit of a surprise.

Prior to this summer, the postulants from all seven provinces met three times for a workshop and community time.  The purpose, just as this summer, was to tie in something academic with fraternity opportunities so as to better prepare us for the novitiate.  Though I did not mention it in my previous posts, these were not the greatest experience for me, and I left each one with a bit more anxiety about next year. I have to live with them? I liked a lot of the guys individually, but the group as a whole was exhausting, and I had no idea how I was going to do this summer, let alone all of next year.

In these five weeks together so far, my fears have been completely unfounded, and my perspective on next year has changed dramatically for the better.

Part of this is due to the change in atmosphere.  Rather than being a short week of travelling, all seventeen of us have settled in and are able to feel comfortable in our routines.  There’s enough free time that we’re able to balance community time with personal time, something that was impossible at a four-day workshop.  The other part of this is that we’ve begun to see ourselves as one unit, not seven units together in the same place.  These factors, with the start of novitiate fast approaching, have made us more able and more open to building fraternity with one another, and the result has been fantastic.

On a personal level, I’ve loved the opportunity to just hang out with some of the guys and do fun things.  During the day I spend time at the gym either working out or playing racquetball with a few guys, and at night we watch movies, play pool, or just stay up late telling stories and laughing with one another. (We do work occasionally too.)

Because of this, friend groups are definitely developing.  The larger group allows people to branch out of their own provinces and connect with people of more similar age, language, hobby, and background.  Unlike in years past, we’re not discouraged from developing personal friendships; whereas before it was thought that such relationships would inevitably lead to exclusivity and the weakening of community, the nuanced approach seeks to develop intimate relationships between individuals so as to incorporate them back into a healthy community.  Developing these relationships has been the best part for me so far, as I’ve really enjoyed the chance to get to know a few of the guys a little more each day.

Always in the back of my mind, however, is finding a way to be inclusive with my time, and to see each one as brother.  It’s somewhat inevitable, given the age disparity and existence of three native languages, that there will be distinct friend groups.  That’s okay.  It’s even okay if I’m not “friends” with everyone.  That’s community life.  What’s not okay is being exclusive to the point of cutting off members from the community.  We don’t have to spend all our time together, nor do we even have to like each other all that much, but we need to learn how to respect each other, cooperate, live together, and view each other as brothers, called by Christ to the same vocation.  This sounds really nice, and it was very easy to write, but this will no doubt be the toughest part of community life, next year and every year.

All in all, I have to say that I’m excited for the novitiate to start.  The anxiety I once had has all but washed away, and I look forward to living with this group of men on a more permanent basis three weeks from now.  Though I know that the year will by no means be easy, nor will the community life be a walk in the park, I think that I’ve grown close enough to a number of them to know that it’s going to be a fruitful one for sure.

A Call to Sacramental Ministry

As I’ve mentioned before, my discernment process has always been separated into two questions: 1) Do I feel called to be a Franciscan (or more appropriate now, what does it mean to be a Franciscan?) and 2) Do I feel called to sacramental ministry as a priest? Though they’re not mutually exclusive questions, discerning each question apart from one another helped me to focus on the significance of each question, and to accept the answer to each whenever I was ready to hear it.

Back at the end of March, I was apparently ready to hear an answer: I feel called to sacramental ministry, and wish to pursue ordination to the priesthood.

It’s hard to say what changed in me from one day to the next, from being unsure to being sure of a call.  For a very long time, I think I implicitly accepted that I would be ordained, always imagining myself in twenty years as having that aspect of my identity, but I never actually accepted the decision to be ordained in the first place.  In my mind, there was enough drawing me in that direction that I always saw it as an inevitability, but never an aspect of my life in the here and now.

That being said, there were clearly two triggers that turned my implicit decision into an explicit one.  The first was our habit fitting.  Trying on habits for the first time and looking at myself in the mirror had more of an effect on me than I thought it would.  I knew that it was little more than “dress up” for practical purposes, but there was still a gravity to it that is hard to explain.  Seeing myself in the habit and getting a sense of what it felt like to wear one marked a strong distinction in me between being a postulant, one who is inquiring and trying out the life, and a friar who has fully accepted the life.  It sounds weird, and is in a sense artificial given how similar our day-to-day lives are to professed friars, but that experience made everything seem much more real than it had been.  The “future” seemed much closer than before.

The following day, I was reading a book about the mass, the eucharist, and the role of the priest. In it, I came to this line:

In this oratio, the priest speaks with the I of the Lord– “This is my body,” “This is my blood.” He knows that he is not now speaking from his own resources but in virtue of the Sacrament that he has received, he has become the voice of someone else who is now speaking and acting.

I can’t say that this was a new revelation to me (I actually mentioned a similar sentiment back in August).  The idea of taking on the role of Jesus had always been both an inspiration and a deterrent for me in my discernment.  Nevertheless, these words struck a chord with me, helping me to develop a slightly more nuanced understanding of the role.  Whereas before I thought of “taking on the role of Jesus” in the sense that I had to live up to his magnitude and holiness, I now realized that it had much more to do with my willingness to let Jesus live through me and animate me in such a way to do his will.  I realized that I need not overwhelming merit or tangible holiness so as to be “holier than thou,” I need humility, openness, and a sense of servitude for all.  When I read this passage, I realized that, not only could I be called to sacramental ministry, I was called to it, and that I wanted very deeply to allow Jesus to work through me in that capacity.