Impressions of a First-Timer at the General Chapter
Reflection of Provincial Minister Jack Clark Robinson (OLG)
I was asked for my first impressions of a General Chapter, being a first-time participant. I hav
|Provincial Minister Jack Clark Robinson, OFM (OLG)
e 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