Day Trip: St. Francis Inn, Philadelphia

The Inn is a Eucharistic community

Continuing with our objective to see and understand the many ministries that Holy Name Province has to offer, the postulants found ourselves in Philadelphia Saturday in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. Located in Kennsington, the St. Francis Inn is a soup kitchen that feeds between 200-450 people a meal, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

The story goes that three friars got together with the ambition of forming an outreach church in the area. One of them decided to fully immerse himself into the culture of the community, spending two weeks as a homeless man on the street. It was through this experience that he realized that the last thing this community needed was another priest preaching at them from the comfort of the pulpit; what they really needed was to see the Gospel in action, and to have their own basic needs met. Thus, the Inn. (Right after being told this story, the storyteller added that it wasn’t entirely true, but that it conveys a good message about being open to the needs of the community. I’m not sure what about the story is true or false, but oh well).

Part of the revelation that came from living on the street for two weeks (which either did or didn’t happen in real life) was that the basic needs of food and shelter were not the only things lacking on the streets of Philadelphia: these men and women living in poverty were deprived of the dignity and respect due to all humans. One of the ways that this is done is by serving each guest restaurant style: after being shown to a table by the maitre d’, the guest is waited on by a server who will bring the food to them. In doing it this way (as opposed to cafeteria style), the guest is treated with importance, allowed to relax, and most importantly, served by another, a situation that is quite opposite to their normal experiences.

Another revolutionary aspect of the Inn is that all of their full time workers live in Kennsington. Unlike many other service places where people feed the poor then go home to the suburbs, the staff here is truly able to call their guests “neighbor.” It may not seem like a big deal, but this act of solidarity goes a long way in spreading the Gospel through action rather than word.

Which brings me to the foundation of community: the Eucharist. Each morning, the friars, sisters, lay women, and daily volunteers begin with mass. No matter how great the need is, how much work needs to done, how rushed the day is, they take time to stop, relax and be fed by God. From this spiritual and physical gift, they are then sent forth to feed the hungry, physically and spiritually. Without this initial source and focus the community could not sustain itself.

I hope that you’ll check out their website and consider them when you give to the Church in time, talent and treasure. They have no salaried workers, so they are in constant need of volunteers as well as money to provide for the modest needs of their on-site friars, sisters, and lay-women. They also run an urban center, thrift shop, and medical clinic, provide guests with a mailing address, legal support, occasional bill payments, and home delivery, as well as coordinating a year-long internship site for young adults. As long as there is a need in the area, the Franciscan community will be there to provide. As they say, “There’s always room at the Inn!”

More pictures here.

What Can’t I Live Without?

What things do we refuse to let go?

One of the things that I continue to discern on my Franciscan journey is the idea of poverty. When I look to scripture, Jesus is very clear about what it takes to follow him: “Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor” (Lk 18:22, Mt 19:21, Mk 10:21). It’s no coincidence that this same story is found in each of the synoptic Gospels, nor is it a coincidence that Jesus talks about the poor more than any other subject. Which makes me wonder a few things: 1) Is the vow of poverty an extreme expression of faith in Christ by men and women in religious orders, or is it something to which ALL of his followers are called? 2) Do even men and women religious fall short of Jesus’ expectations when they own simple, practical things like books and cell phones? and 3) Does poverty have a universal standard of living or is it relational to the rest of the community?

Honestly, I have no concrete answers for any of these questions at the moment; I ask them simply to show what sorts of things I think about during the day, and what sorts of things I will be attempting to answer over the next few years. So far, here’s what I’ve come up with:

I was looking around my room the other day, wondering, “What can I live without?” I thought about some of my clothes, the Bowflex dumbbells, and a lot of, if not all of my books. I had no problem imagining life without them because I see them as gifts from God, borrowed and shared so to make my life easier or more pleasurable. If I ever find these things are not being used, I will not hesitate to share them with those with greater need. Good, right? In the case of the rich man talking to Jesus, giving up what he could live without was not the problem though: it was giving up what he found dearest to him, his wealth, that kept him from following Jesus. So I asked myself, “What can’t I live without?” Essentially, what could potentially get in my way of following Jesus? I realized that my Mac computer and my iPhone were items that I prized much higher than anything else, and found myself very reluctant to even imagine life without them.

In one sense, what I take from this passage is that there is a certain disposition we must have towards all that we own, always able to drop whatever we have for the sake of following Christ. When we find ourselves becoming too attached to a certain possession, we might want to consider letting go of it, at least temporarily, as a way to clear the way for following Jesus. In the case of the rich man, it wasn’t the fact that he was rich that was important, but rather that he valued his money more than Jesus. For me, if I want to keep my computer or my phone, I need to start approaching them like my other items: gifts from God that are meant to be borrowed and shared; used but not loved.

That being said, I think this interpretation alone can be a rationalization to ease the consciences of all of us that own more than we need by saying to ourselves, “Well if I were to see Jesus face-to-face today, I would give up my (unneeded possessions) in a heartbeat!” This sort of interpretation upholds the status quo, and doesn’t ask for any true change in us right now. It in effect waters down the message of the Gospel forgetting that this passage still has a literal message: those with ____ need to give to those without ____ in order to follow Jesus. It doesn’t matter how easily we could let go of some of our possessions if we don’t actually do it from time to time.

From this, I think we are all called to determine what we could live without and share it with those in need. Such is the essence of Christianity. Part of my discernment over the next few years will be determine what exactly I could live without, and then to do it. As I begin to go a bit farther and live a life of vowed poverty, I think I’ll need to ask myself a more difficult question: “What can’t I live without, and how am I going to find a way anyway?”

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: