May 19, 2015

"It is with awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. 
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of the kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously 
- no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption
Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
- as quoted in the daily homily in the English-language group today

Voting for General Minister
Results of the FIRST Straw Ballot

The FIRST of two straw ballots for the election of the General Minister was conducted today. Below are the results of the top 3 friars receiving votes:

  1. Friar Michael Perry, OFM (Sacred Heart, USA): 81 votes
  2. Friar Francesco Patton, OFM (Trent): 29 votes
  3. Friar Filemon Janka, OFM (Poland): 9 votes

There will be a second straw ballot tomorrow (Wednesday) before the day of election on Thursday.


Fidelity and  perseverance in our way of l ife
Exploring departures from the Order

DOMUS PACIS, ASSISI - While we often focus on the reality of fewer men seeking to join religious life than in decades past, another challenging issue that the Chapter delegates discussed on Tuesday was the question of those who join, but in the years following make the decision to leave our brotherhood for a variety of reasons, and if there's anything that we can learn or do about it.

In the presentation of the study of the Order called "Fidelity and Perseverance", the friars heard that since the year 2000, there are 3,152 fewer friars in the Order. The Order has gone from a total of 16,784 in 2000 to 13,632 today.

Friars present findings of the Commission on Fidelity & Perseverance

Of course, many of those departures were due to the natural passing of friars, but of particular concern for the Fidelity and Perseverance Commission are the large number of younger friars (ages 30-45 years) - those within 10-19 years of religious profession, or within 5-14 years of priestly ordination - who have departed from the Order. That number totals, 1,891 friars in the last 15 years.

Friar Valentino Menegatti, OFM, Secretary of the Office of Procurator General, presented the report.

While a concern across the Order, Friar Valentino also pointed out that the largest majority of these situations of departure are occurring in East and West Europe and Latin AmericaBy continent, big  in Europe and Latin America. He also pointed out that many of those departing have held positions of responsibility in the Order. 

The focus of the presentation, however, was extremely hopeful. It was not a moment to merely lament these departures, but rather an opportunity to look to the future and ask how the Order can react to this phenomenon both at the universal and the local level. 

Provincial Minister Primo Piscitello, OFM (IC) during the session.

They offered several key findings from their investigation that effect the issue of perseverance and departures among the young:
  1. Young people have a different approach to the past and the future. This affects their way of making decisions.
  2. There is a change today in the relationship of the young between the individual and institution.
  3. We need a more open approach to the normal crises of life. How do we prepare friars in initial formation to deal with the crises that are normal in life? How do they learn to remain with us through crisis and not depart when things are suddenly less than ideal?
  4. The data show that there are different cultural contexts which influence the way people leave the Order.
  5. We need a more integrated approached to initial and on-going formation: psychological self-knowledge and spiritual surrender to God.
  6. We need to further clarify our Franciscan identity in the social and cultural context of today. Sometimes our identity is more nostalgic than prophetic.
In terms of dealing with crisis, the findings found that young people today often don't bring their problem to a brother or their minister until they have already made the decision to leave the Order. At this point, there is usually nothing that can be done. This is an issue of a failure of accompaniment. We need to be asking what can we learn from these past situations to improve the way we handle them in the future. How can we teach our younger friars from, perhaps, the first day of formation, how to journey together through their struggles and trials, so that when crisis comes - as it always does in life - they turn to the fraternity immediately; so they learn how to stay in the midst of challenge, and not leave as a first and final option.

A different approach to the past and the future.  Again, one of the key findings was that young people today have grown up in a very different world; one more clearly defined by things like war, terrorism, and climate change and so they have a very different relationship to the past and the future, leading them increasingly to value only the present moment. This is a challenge for a way of life that based on fidelity and life-long perseverance.  Again, some key points in this regard:
  1. Young people are less rooted in the past and the importance of memory is substituted by the availability of digital media.
  2. In the culture of the youth today, in an every changing world the individual has to remain flexible and projects for the future have to remain reversible, hence, a lack of permanency.
  3. The future has become, for them, increasingly uncertain (climate change, terrorism, etc.) and their view of it is more pessimistic.
  4. Therefore, the only safe place seems to be the present. It is all that you can count on.
  5. They engage in a decision making that happens in the moment. There are no decisions in regard to the future. They judge and decide here in the present - without regard to the past or the future.
  6. Finality is not a condition from which he thinks and cannot withdraw. So, if circumstances change, then fidelity can change. So, a friar comes because the situations at the time are suited to their needs, that doesn't mean that they have made a decision for their life or that they won't change if the circumstances change. They are committed for life - right now. 
  7. They see religious life as a space to express an identity already formed and not a space to have an identity formed by religious life. 
The commission also offered some suggestions on how to react to the situation. "How does this become an opportunity for us?"
  1. Be sensitive to crisis before it is too big. Deal with it now while it can be dealt with constructively.
  2. How are our formation programs part of the crisis? Can help foster a mentality that teaches challenge and crisis belong to life and then develop skills for dealing with moments of crisis so that they can respond constructively to these moments?
  3. Learning the value of staying through crisis rather than running from it - learning to see that moments of crisis are graced moments for growth; graced moments to allow oneself to be accompanied by another; that being in crisis can help us to experience God's fidelity towards us.
The presentation concluded with a quote from the Apostolic Exhortation of St. Pope John Paul II, Vita Consecrata (#70):

"At such times, the sensitive closeness of the Superior is most essential. Great comfort can also come from the valuable help of a brother or sister, whose concerned and caring presence can lead to a rediscovery of the meaning of the covenant which God originally established, and which he has no intention of breaking. The person undergoing such a trial will then accept purification and hardship as essential to the following of Christ Crucified. The trial itself will appear as a providential means of being formed by the Father's hands, and as a struggle which is not only  psychological,  carried out by the 'I' in relation to itself and its weaknesses, but also  religious,  touched each day by the presence of God and the power of the Cross!"

Following the presentation, the Chapter delegates then met in their language groups to discuss what they had heard.


The afternoon session began with the completion of the reports from the Conference Presidents. Presenting their reports were representatives from CONFRES (the Spanish-Portuguese Conference), ConoSur (which represents Argentine, Chile and Paraguy), South Asia, Oceania and Australia, and the English Speaking Conference. ESC President Hugh McKenna, OFM (Province of Ireland) offered the report of the ESC.
Conference President Hugh McKenna, OFM (Ireland) making the President's Report

Conference President Hugh McKenna, OFM (Ireland) making the President's Report

Following these reports, the Chapter conducted the First Straw Ballot for General Minister (results above). The day ended with a service of Vespers to offer thanksgiving for the service of the outgoing General Administration.

Two of the Members of the ESC thanked during Vespers tonight: General Defiinitor Francis Walter, OFM (IC), and General Secretary Aidan McGrath, OFM (Ireland)

Impressions of a First-Timer at the General Chapter
Reflection of Provincial Minister Jack Clark Robinson (OLG)

Provincial Minister Jack Clark Robinson, OFM (OLG)
I was asked for my first impressions of a General Chapter, being a first-time participant. I have three primary impressions from our first week here in Assisi: 

1) Chapters Take on a LIfe of their Own 

I have heard friars repeat many times at numerous Provincial Chapters that "Chapters take on a life of their own." In a subtle way, the saying gets at the fact that a gathering of friars in Chapter is a body and not an event, as Aidan McGrath reminded us more than once in the English-language discussion group (one of two) to which I belong. A Chapter is a living body, conceived, born, growing and then dying, no matter how much it may be planned, or even plotted, beforehand. Like any living organism, a Chapter can change course and lift up unexpected issues and people to highlight them, when everyone thought that others would be more "important." For me, and I imagine for at least some others in the English Speaking Conference, the first example of that phenomenon this week was the election of John Puodziunas as a Chapter Moderator. 

The Chapter chooses three friars, one for each of the official languages of the Order (Italian, Spanish and English) to serve as Moderator, the presiding officer, at our plenary sessions. As the Moderators take a day at a time in turn to preside, the Minister General, who is the actual President of the Chapter, does not have to always do so. Last year, each Conference in the Order was asked to nominate a Moderator. The ESC nominated Richard Stanley Grech, the Minister Provincial from Malta, who is fluent in both English and Italian, as well as his native Maltese. But then last Monday, several other Conferences nominated John Puodziunas, Minister Provincial of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Province in Wisconsin. John had been at the last Plenary Council of the Order in Poland as the President of the ESC, and he has served on various committees or commissions at the General level of the Order. But does not speak Italian or Spanish, but only English, of the official languages, though he is also fluent in Lithuanian, the mother tongue of his immigrant parents. So while John figured into the discussions of the ESC for a Moderator-nominee, we nominated Richard, largely because of language. But a Chapter takes on a life of its own. 

Each of the friars nominated to serve as Moderator - there were three English-langauge (Richard Stanley Grech, John Puodziunas and a Polish friar); about four or five Spanish and three or four Italian-language nominees - was introduced to the Chapter before the vote. Among the Spanish-language candidates, it was a close race, but in both the Italian and English language votation, there were friars selected overwhelmingly over the other nominees. John received almost two-thirds of the votes cast for an English-speaking Moderator. He told us later that he thought that the result was due to the fact that he had the best (and most) hair of any of the candidates, but I think that it was because a Chapter takes on a life of its own. Given that we see this phenomenon in our Provincial chapters of three or four days duration, I am looking forward to seeing how it will play out as General Chapter deliberations proceed over four weeks! 

2) Bigger and Smaller than Any Previous Chapter For Me 

Prior to coming to the General Chapter, the largest Chapter of which I have been a member was the first Provincial Chapter of Our Lady of Guadalupe Province in 1985. Every member of the Province was a member of that Chapter, which in those days of ex-officio and elected representative delegates to Provincial Chapters was by special dispensation. There were about one hundred friars present at that Chapter in 1985. But apart from a couple of lay secretaries and other support staff that was it. So we totaled probably one hundred and five or six people who came together for that Chapter. 

Here in Assisi, we have 127 voting members of the Chapter and probably another forty friars who are helping us, doing everything from recording the deliberations, to interpreting and translating, to serving as experts or consultants, to making sure that the kitchen at Domus Pacis knows how many will be here for lunch. It is a BIG logistical undertaking! Bill Short of Saint Barbara Province, serving as the secretary of the Chapter, which in this case means "chief operating officer," and his staff are doing a great job. Sure, according to the colored dots on my name tag, I don't speak English and a few other glitches have crept into the works, but all in all, things are running incredibly smooth in what has to be described as a global operation. 

There are friars present from over 50 countries. The friar sitting next to me in the meeting hall is from Brazil. Next to him is a friar from Vietnam and next to him a friar from Korea and next to him a friar from Papua New Guinea. In front of me is a friar from Croatia. You get the idea. But the Chapter is not only big in numbers and in the scope of its global representation of the friars, it is big in the life of the Church itself. 

His Eminence Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa, Archbishop Emeritus of Santiago de Chile, one of the closest advisors to Pope Francis as a member of the Council of Eight Cardinal Advisers, arrived last Sunday to be with us at the Chapter as the personal representative of His Holiness. He attends liturgies, ceremonies and social events. He has attended every plenary session, sitting with us on the floor, not up in front of us on a dais. Usually he wears a simple black cassock and the same plastic name tag that the rest of us are wearing. He stands in buffet line with us for meals and talks happily with any of us who walk up to say hello over a cappuccino during one of our coffee breaks. He has made only a couple of comments during our discussions, but those comments have been very to the point and reassuring of how we are intimately connected and important to the whole Church. His presence has at the same time been very humbling and a reminder that we are about something very big in our Chapter. 

But even as the Chapter is big and a big deal, it is in another sense so far smaller than any Provincial Chapter I have ever attended, The work of the Chapter, by necessity, takes place mostly in language groups. Discussion requires that we be able to talk with one another and the easiest way to facilitate that discussion at a meeting such as this Chapter is to gather people together who speak a common language. We have ten groups here for English, Spanish, Italian, French, Polish, Croatian and Portuguese. If you counted, that is "only" seven languages, but to keep the size of the groups manageable and facilitate discussion, English, Spanish and Italian all have two groups. So in my English 1 group, there are about twenty friars, who have come to Chapter from places as diverse as India, Lithuania, Canada, the Philippines and New Mexico. For me personally, the Chapter consists for the most part of this group and two other small groups: the ESC and the preayer/recreation gathering. 

The Ministers Provincial of the English Speaking Conference gather twice a year, and since my election as Minister Provincial last June, I have attended two of these gatherings. We meet for a week at a time, so I have had time to get to know the friars among us whom I did not know before. (I already knew about half of these Ministers.) Naturally, here at Chapter, I have gravitated in my conversations, in sitting at table and standing around the session break snack table to these friars. One surprise of the Chapter has been the addition of Michael Jennrich, the Vicar Provincial of Sacred Heart Province in St. Louis, Missouri to our ESC group. Due to health issues, William Spencer, the Minister Provincial of Sacred Heart Province, is unable to be with us, and we miss him. But Michael and I have been friends since we were in the seminary together, so his presence as part of the ESC is an unexpected pleasure for me. The ESC is another part of what makes the Chapter "small," even though we try to open it up a bit. Tom Washburn, the ESC Executive Director is here doing a fine job of making sure that we have the supplies for prayer in the morning and recreation in the evening! Both of those events expand our small group a bit with others, including some from Austria, Germany and Pakistan, who pray with us and share drinks and a story or joke with us when the work day is done. 

So my impression is that the General Chapter is both the largest and smallest Chapter that I have ever attended. I must add that the "smallness" of Chapter, not being able to easily pray and share with everyone here, due to language barriers, as I could at Provincial chapters, is something that I find less than ideal. I am amazed at how many do make an effort to talk with my in English, and I stumble along in some broken Spanish with others, but the ill effects of the Tower of Babel sill seem to divide even the friars way too much. 

3) Friars are Friars 

My third impression is that even here, friars are friars, the same the world over! When it comes to matters of practical care and love for one another, most of the time, we still step right in and do what we can. Three brief examples come to mind. 

Jeffrey Scheeler, the Minister Provincial of St. John the Baptist Province, arrived in Rome last Saturday afternoon, but his luggage did not arrive until six days later. In the meantime, one local friar stepped in to loan him a habit to wear. Benedek Dobszay, the Minister Provincial of Hungary had driven to the General Chapter and among his things had an extra charger that Jeff could use for his cell phone, which also served as his alarm clock, so he was very quick to offer it to Jeffrey. And Jeffrey was a supper good sport about it all, even though he probably even grew a little tired of people asking him day after day if his luggage had arrived without noticing that they had only seen him in one shirt the entire time we had been here! 

Primo Piscitello, the Minister Provincial of Immaculate Conception Province in New York has seen many years of ministry and has trouble spending a lot of time on his feet. (I would never say he is an "old friar," though he often refers to himself as an "old f--t"!) For the opening ceremony of the General Chapter, he was in a wheel chair as we went from where we are staying at Domus Pacis into the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in a long and elaborate procession. As the two younger friars who usually take turns in helping him out were busy taking pictures of this important event, Primo was sort of abandoned in his wheelchair. Kevin Mullen, the Minister Provincial of Holy Name Province in New York noticed Primo's predicament and stepped in to push Primo everyplace that he needed to be. 

Finally, because I had failed to bring my prayer book when we went to the Church of San Damiano for evening prayer on Thursday, I was no doubt looking even more confused than usual when I happened to sit down by Julio Bunader of Argentina, the Vicar General of the Order. Julio immediately sized up the situation and with a big smile made sure that I could look on his prayer book with him through the entire service. That sort of reaching out with care and love to the brothers simply seems to be a part of who friars are no matter where or what we are doing. It is really nice to realize that some things don't change at a General Chapter!

Jack Clark Robinson, OFM
Provincial Minister, Our Lady of Guadalupe Province

There are no ordinary people: We are all immortals
VIDEO: Homily of Fr. Caoimhin O'Laoide, OFM (Ireland)

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