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.

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.

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.

“Into the Woods”

How do we approach the unknown?

As a part of our orientation to each other, the life of a friar, and living in community, we spent the afternoon watching a broadway musical called Into the Woods, and spent the evening in conversation about its many themes. For those who are unfamiliar with the story, it is quite interesting: staring Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (from Jack and the Beanstalk), a wicked witch, Repunzel, and a peasant bread maker, the musical attempts to meld together an assortment of fairy tales based on their common messages. Though we may find such stories a bit silly or juvenile, some of humanity’s deepest truths can be found within them.

Stepping out of the comfort zone “into the woods” causes great changes in us. In the play, each character is forced to leave their comfortable setting and travel to the dark woods in order to fulfill some desire. At first, there are episodes of fear, excitement, mourning, and confusion as each enter an unknown, uncontrollable place. A few of the characters were unchanged and unaffected by the woods because they refused to accept the reality of the situation. The majority, however, left the woods entirely different characters; taken out of their usual setting, they were forced to face their own failings and to cooperate with strangers for the sake of survival. We find this very same concept throughout the Bible: when people are forced into the wilderness, to the unknown, they are found face to face with God. It is only in that uncontrollably setting that we are able to let go of distractions and find truth in such a beautiful way.

There is an interconnectedness about all human interaction making it impossible for any individual to be isolated or unaffected by others. Similar to the movie Crash, (my all-time favorite, go see it if you haven’t already) there is no main protagonist nor is there a central plot in which all of the characters take part. Rather, each character pursues his or her own self interests, meeting other characters doing the same thing. The realization here is that we, like the characters, are not the protagonist of every story. Every human being in the world has been developed by unique set of experiences, forming a truly individual “story” in which they are the main character. When people interact, we see not one linear set of events developing an understandable plot, complete with the “good” characters and the “bad” characters, but rather a complex web of events in which we play different roles to different people, critically altering the plot of each individual’s life. Two things can be learned from this: 1) Our actions, no matter how small to us, may have profound effect on another person’s story, and 2) we do not enter the scene from the same place and so we will not experience it in the same way. When we approach communal life, or any social setting, in this way, we are more likely to try to understand our neighbor better and treat everyone we meet as brother and sister.

Our desires will never end if they are not focused correctly. The play opens with each character singing about their deepest wishes. Statements begin with, “If only I had ____…” or “I would trade anything for ____,” varying from a child, to wealth, to beauty. Each character believes that this ONE this, just this one, will bring them happiness. To the surprise of all, at the end of Act One each character actually obtains their deepest wish and they end by singing about living “happily ever after.” Unsurprisingly, Act Two begins just as the first did: each character is no longer satisfied by their fulfilled wish, and now wishes for something else, to which they will now seek. How incredibly true is this?! (And talk about the anti-Disney!) This idea of happily ever after, and happiness based on a status, possession, or companion is ultimately fleeting. It can never last forever, and we end up right back where we started. As St. Augustine puts it, “Our souls are restless until they rest in you.” Until we start seeking the right things, we will never be fully satisfied.

This was the first deep conversation among the postulants, and I enjoyed it very much. Each person offered a different perspective on the play, and we tackled some tough issues. I’m excited for more of these discussions and know that this is a great group of guys to challenge me.

New Photos Page

As you’ll now notice, there is an additional tab on the top right-hand corner of the page called “Photos.” This was the easiest way (thought not terribly efficient) to visually share my experience with everyone. I’ll post new photos periodically after traveling or attending certain events, and will usually mention it in a post so you’ll know when to check it out. Right now, all I have is my room.

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.)

Transitioning to a New Life

I'm ready to accept a new way of life

On the eve of making the trip up to Wilmington and starting my journey into the Franciscan order, I find myself finally grasping the reality of my situation. I’ve known for a while now that I would be entering on this day, but for some reason my life has felt a bit surreal since graduation; while always knowing where I was going, it was just a blur of events and experiences since then. The gravity of the situation did not begin to set in until I started packing, and I imagine will not fully sink in until I have settled in my new home: this is a transition in my life unlike any other til now. In a lot of ways, what I’m doing next is not just the “next step” in my life; it is the acceptance of a new life. Here are a few changes that I’ve been thinking about:

This is not college. Given my age and recent experience at a University, packing a small number of belongings, moving in with people I don’t know, sharing a bathroom, taking classes, and having very little purchasing power comes with a false sense of familiarity. What I will be doing now, though resembling what I did six months ago, is a fundamentally different situation, and requires a fundamentally different approach.

I am not “mature” anymore. For an adolescent or young-adult, being called mature is a great compliment. It means that an individual makes rational choices, relates well with a variety of people, and understands one’s place in development. Essentially, being “mature” means grasping things that are not expected of one’s age. This, I feel, will be where another fundamental change occurs. Though I obviously cannot magically obtain years of life experience and all of the sudden act like an “adult” (whatever that means), the expectation is that “mature” will be the status quo rather than the exception.

My role in evangelization will change. What I mean by this is that I will be perceived differently based on my social status. Sharing my story of struggling with faith and deciding to accept a religious vocation is heard by a group of college students one way when it comes from a peer who plays sports, goes to parties, and is a part of their primary friend group, and a different way when it comes from a first year postulant that does religious things all day, even though it’s the same story. It’s kind of like an adult complimenting a child: if it’s someone else’s child, the adult comes across as unbiased and credible; when it’s their own child, it’s less interesting because any compliment is to be expected. Entering the order is accepting a status are being part of the institution, relinquishing the ability to share from the perspective of an outsider.

There is no doubt that I will encounter many more transitions, and I hope that you will all share in my journey as I face each one. We’re leaving North Carolina at 7 tomorrow, hoping to arrive in the middle of the afternoon. Thanks for all the prayers! Look for a lot of updates in the next few days!

Discerning the Priesthood Pt. 2

Am I called to stand in for Jesus as priest?

Whenever I discern a difficult decision, I often think of Moses. When asked by God to go to Egypt, Moses challenges God by saying that they won’t believe him and that he’s not an eloquent speaker. What God is asking of him is outside of his own capabilities, and in opposition to his personal happiness. What does he do? He goes, and God provides for him.

One night I was reflecting with some friends about powerful experiences we had had in our lives. Two came to my mind. The first was in high school performing a skit called “Pushups for Salvation.” I sat in the middle of the 150 people on the retreat as doughnuts were offered to each person individually. If they accepted, I did two pushups; if they declined, I did two pushups. The point was to give a visual representation of Jesus’ pain and sacrifice for everyone, whether or not it was accepted. It was definitely painful (300 pushups in about 20 minutes) and somewhat embarrassing to be watched in such a vulnerable position.

The other story took place during adoration last fall. Without making a connection to the first story, I decided to take a different approach than most: I wanted to share in Jesus’ suffering on the cross by kneeling until the conclusion of the prayer (which usually lasted an hour). In the more than TWO hours that it lasted, I was faced with temptations such as “Why are you doing this,” “You just want to get noticed,” “This isn’t accomplishing anything,” and “You can’t do this,” along with a few more personal doubts. I expected share in Jesus’ physical pain, but never expected to share in his emotional pain as well (or even stopped to think that he experienced any, I guess). What a powerful experience that was.

It was only after telling these two stories out loud that I ever made the connection: I have had my most meaningful experiences taking on the role of Christ, particularly sharing in his suffering. The following day, I was in an adoration praying and listening for some clarity when I looked over and saw a bible, and “Luke 22” popped into my head. Skeptical of course, I dismissed it, thinking, “The mind generates random bits of information all the time, looking at the bible would trigger things like this for everyone. I can think of 100 passages off the top of my head.” To my surprise, as a religion major, I was left completely blank for 5-10 seconds. Nothing. Not another book of the bible came to my head. Still skeptical, I opened the bible to see what Luke 22 was, “just out of curiosity,” to find that it was the beginning of the Lord’s Passion, where he consecrates the first eucharist and begins his suffering.

What do I make of this? I’m not entirely sure. It’s more than a coincidence that my closest experiences of the divine have been of the same nature, and that this nature is taking on the role of Christ, standing in his place. When I think about the role of the priest, I think of just that: a stand in for Christ, both in sign and reality. Is that what I’m called to be? At this point, I feel like Moses: “There are better people out there; this isn’t a calling, it’s a coincidence; how can someone of such little faith take on the role of JESUS?” As he was, I’m held back by my own fears and shortcomings, but am open to listening to God’s call.

Given all that I’ve said in both posts, I find myself leaning towards ordination. There is no doubt that this will be a common topic on this blog, and I thank you for your prayers as I continue to discern.

Discerning the Priesthood Pt. 1

Can I imagine this?

As promised, I wanted to explain my journey of discernment related to the priesthood and to let everyone know where I stand now. When I started to discern religious life, there were two questions I had to answer: 1) Am I called to be a Franciscan? and 2) Am I called to be a priest? (Without wasting a lot of time in the technical side, I do want to make it clear that not all Franciscans are priests, and that all Franciscans are supposed to be viewed as equal brothers whether they are ordained or not.) Clearly, I have answered question number one with a loud and clear yes; when it comes to question number two, there are still some big questions I have that leave me hesitant and still searching for an answer.

Though it would seem like an oversimplification of the matter, an interesting question that I have been advised to ponder is this: “Do you like doing things that priests do?” The only way that this question can be answered is by imagining oneself in that position, and wondering how it would feel. Every time I’m at mass, confession, or any of the other sacraments, I ask myself that question: “Can I imagine myself doing that, and would I like it?”

In a typical on-the-fence response, I have to say that I would and I wouldn’t. I love the eucharist and find it to be the most beautiful Christian experience possible, but I’m not sure if I want to be the one doing it. I have no problem speaking in front of people, and I have enjoyed my roles as altar server and such, but there is a big difference between setting the table and actually breaking the bread.

Confession on the other hand is something that I would find great joy in as a priest. I’ve often found myself in many counseling or mediating roles over the years, and cherish deeply the conversations I’ve had with those willing to open up and trust me in such a way. I can think of few greater things than aiding someone in their journey from separation to communion, and find it to be a wonderful privilege of being a stand-in for Christ.

The great thing about the friars is that I don’t have to choose between being a priest and other things such as a professor or administrator of parish education (two professions that I am very interested in pursuing). As long as a priest does priestly things, i.e. the sacraments, he can take on other roles and professions. Though this is a great freedom as to allow greater versatility, there is a danger in this freedom, and requires this question: “Do I want to take on all the responsibilities and obligations of a priest to keep up the life of the Church, no matter what is required of my other professions, or do I want to be a priest because of the added authority and status within the Church, only to use it whenever it is convenient?”

The reason that this is post is labeled “Pt. 1” is because there is another factor in this discernment process: What God is calling me to do? What I want to do is all well and good, but ultimately, the discernment process is not about what I want (though I would hope God would motivate me with joy as well, not just obligation). Check back in a few days for Pt. 2 where I’ll share a few of my experiences determining the will of God.

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.

Welcome!

I must say that I never envisioned myself as the author of a blog. Had another friend not already self-proclaimed herself the “reluctant blogger” I would be all over that tagline. But as I realized, it is quite an effective way to keep myself accountably while keeping many people involved in my life. I hope that you’ll check out my “Why Blog?” page to learn a bit more about it! Check back soon, or subscribe to get updates (found on the side of the screen) so that you can follow me from the beginning!