Monday, December 31, 2007

Blessings... and a Challenge for the New Year!

Peace and all good! And blessings for the New Year!
AND... a challenge as well. If you are looking to make a New Year's resolution, then here's a suggestion. Put more energy into your discernment process. The following article,"Discernment is a Verb", is a piece I've written for The Way of St. Francis magazine (Jan/Feb, 2008). I hope you will find its practical suggestions helpful in your own faith journey. Good luck and get going!-- Fr. Chuck

What should I do with my life? What is God asking of me? How can I be sure I’m not making a horrendous mistake?

My office phone will ring. A slight hesitation on the other end of the line, and then a quiet voices asks, “Is this the Franciscans?” “Well, yes, how can I help you?” “Well, I’m thinking of becoming one of you.” “Okaaaaay”. Then, we’re off and running.

I’m a vocations coordinator. My job is to help men (21-45, Roman Catholic, single) to know about the Franciscans and themselves, and whether or not God may be leading them to our religious community. During the course of a calendar year, I will personally speak to about 400 inquirers— just a little more than one a day. They may write or phone, or catch me after Mass. Increasingly these days, they’ll check out our website ( or our vocations blog ( and then dash off an email. In reality, though, only about one out of every hundred men who contact us will enter our community. So what about the other 99? Are they just chopped liver?

My work experience confirms my deep conviction that God is calling all of us. That everyone has a vocation—to know, love and serve God in this life and to be with God in the next-- as my childhood catechism put it so succinctly. Only a very few people will come to religious life, but the search is the same for us all. “How can I know what God is asking of me?” I don’t have the answers, but I can suggest a process that might help:

Pray. A lot. And on a regular basis. Make a daily appointment to spend time with God—and then keep it. Our Catholic tradition is a treasure trove of spirituality, so find a prayer style that suits you (lectio divina, centering prayer, etc.). And make Eucharist the center of your prayer week.

Shop around. I tell people. Look, the first thing you need to do is to look around. Pretend that you are planning an exotic vacation. Get as many ‘travel brochures’ as you can. Don’t worry about making a decision yet; just dream for once!

Share your secret. Preferably with someone you trust. The people who know us often know us a whole lot better than we suspect. They can give us very good feedback very fast. They know our personalities as well as many (but not all) of our talents, dreams, strengths and weaknesses. When I announced to my family that I wanted to become a Franciscan and a priest, I was shocked. Nobody even blinked. My sisters said, “Oh we knew that all along about you. But we didn’t say anything because we figured you needed to work that out for yourself.” Gee, thanks.

Get some help. Good help. We call this spiritual direction. Advice and accompaniment from someone (a priest, a religious sister or brother, a layperson) who has received specific training in this ministry. It is not a good idea to approach a busy pastor. Or someone who has no knowledge of ministry. The spiritual director will meet with you on a regular basis to listen deeply—very deeply—to what you have to say about yourself, your prayer life, your images and understanding of God, and so on. They won’t tell you what you should do. But they will tell you what you are saying about yourself. And what you keep saying consistently over time. Journaling is an important adjunct to this activity.

Get your hands dirty. If you’re thinking about working with the poor, for example, stop thinking about it. Get out there and work with them. So connect with an organization, preferably a church-based one, that needs volunteers and go for it.

Join a club. Only make sure you are an active member. Community is not for bystanders. Your parish is the perfect place to start.

Jump in! If you don’t put your body where you think your mind and heart ought to be, you’ll never know what God is asking or inviting you to do. Break down your decision into manageable parts… and then take that first step.

When we do these things-- gather information, share our secrets, find some help, get our hands dirty, and jump in-- we cannot fail to learn a great deal about who we are and how God may be calling us.

I repeat. Each of us has a vocation. We are all on a spiritual journey. But when we do the footwork, we cannot fail to grow spiritually and become more confident and secure in our decisions. So, if you haven’t done so already, turn your own discernment into a verb and see what unfolds.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas at Greccio

Pax et bonum! Peace and all good!
May the peace and love and joy of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you this Christmas and every day of your lives. We offer this little story about St. Francis at Greccio—from the Major Legend of St. Francis-- for your reflection and meditation. The tradition of the crèche (or crib) originates with St. Francis and is uniquely Franciscan contribution to the celebration of Christmas. Know that we, your Franciscan brothers, are keeping you in our prayers at this most sacred time as you continue to discern God’s will for you in your hearts and in your lives. Merry Christmas!

“It happened, three years prior to his death, that he (Francis) decided to celebrate at the town of Greccio the memory of the birth of the Child Jesus with the greatest possible solemnity, in order to arouse devotion. So that this would not be considered a type of novelty, he petitioned for and obtained permission from the Supreme Pontiff.
"He had a manger prepared, hay carried in and an ox and an ass led to the spot. The brethren are summoned, the people arrive, the forest amplifies with their cries, and that venerable night is rendered brilliant and solemn by a multitude of bright lights and by resonant and harmonious hymns of praise. The man of God stands before the manger, filled with piety, bathed in tears, and overcome with joy.
"A solemn Mass is celebrated over the manger, with Francis, a levite of Christ, chanting the holy Gospel. Then he preaches to the people standing around him about the birth of the poor King, whom, whenever he means to call him, he called in his tender love, the Babe from Bethlehem.
"A certain virtuous and truthful knight, Sir John of Greccio, who had abandoned worldly military activity out of love of Christ and had become an intimate friend of the man of God, claimed that he saw a beautiful little child asleep in that manger whom the blessed father Francis embraced in both of his arms and seemed to wake it from sleep.
"Not only does the holiness of the witness make credible the vision of the devout knight, but also the truth it expresses proves its validity and the subsequent miracles confirm it. For Francis's example, when considered by the world, is capable of arousing the hearts of those who are sluggish in the faith of Christ.
The hay from the crib was kept by the people and miraculously cured sick animals and drove away different kinds of pestilence. Thus God glorified his servant in every way and demonstrated the efficacy of his holy prayer by the evident signs of wonderful miracles.”

Some questions for reflection:
As I come to this year’s celebration of Christmas, where do I find the Christ Child in my life? ? How is Christ offering himself to me today? Is there anything that inhibits or impedes me from accepting Him? What do I have to give to Him? How can I best find Him in myself? How can I best minister to Him in my brothers and sisters, in our Church? In our world? Without taking on any extra, additional activity, how can I enter more deeply into the meaning of Christmas in my life? (Thanks to Friar Larry Dunphy, ofm).

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Fraternity in Motion?!

Che succede?!

As you can see, after almost 800 years, we're still kickin'--sometimes quite literally-- as this leader from the Italian comedy series, "Benedetti al Signore"/ "Praise the Lord!" would seem to indicate. (NOTE: These are real actors, not real friars!)

In Spring, 2004, Italy’s TV Channel 5 launched an hilarious new situation comedy with, believe it or not, two Franciscan ‘friars’ as its main protagonists. Benedetti al Signore/ Praise the Lord! features two improbable actors playing two improbable friars as they confront any number of issues affecting people in the world today. Fra Giaccomo (Ezio Greggio), portrays a newly-arrived novice, although he’s well over the age of 40. A man of the world with a lifetime of experience and a rather unclear past, he is quick to react and respond to situations. On the other hand, Fra Martino (Enzo Iacchetti), his relatively innocent and naïvesidekick and foil, is described as a “natural vocation” who has “always lived in the convent (friary)”.

As you can imagine, the story line takes off from there, with this fraternal odd couple (street smarts vs. heart of gold) get caught up in an ongoing web of misadventure and madcap mayhem. Its producers assure us that, in addition to its humorous aspects,though, the series also deals with a number of “typically real-life social and moral situations” confronted by people in contemporary Italian society.

I can’t vouch for that personally, since the series is not available in the United States. But the leader (above) certainly adds a little, um-- zest!-- to traditional stereotypes. It sure beats the old cookie jar/ Friar Tuck image, don't it.

What exactly does this have to do with vocational discernment? Everything! You don’t absolutely have to have a sense of humor to be a good friar-- but it certainly helps. A lot! Especially if you don't take yourself too seriously and can let the joy and warmth of our loving God shine through.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Why are these two friars smiling?

Because they’ve just been ordained as transitional deacons, that's why. On Friday evening, November 16, our brothers Raul Alejos and Martin Ibarra began their diaconate year at a liturgy presided by Bishop Gilberto Chavez, retired auxiliary bishop of San Diego, and in the presence of friars, family, friends and hundreds of well-wishing members of Mission San Luis Rey parish in Oceanside, California. Our provincial minister, Fr. Mel Jurisich, ofm, as well as the pastor, Fr. Peter Kirwin, ofm concelebrated at a Mass which featured musical accompaniment from the parish’s thriving multicultural community. And of course, a fantastic fiesta followed.

Deacon Raul, 39, (photo, left) is a native of Cerritos, San Luis Potosi, Mexico. Fellow deacon, Martin Ibarra, 37, (photo, left below) hails from the town of El Encino, Aguascalientes, Mexico. The journey which brought both of these men to test and ultimately realize their vocations in the Franciscan community is a separate story in and of itself. Suffice it to say, both arrived in the United States as immigrants, and struggled hard with the challenges of making a living, helping their families, and adjusting to a new culture while at the same time maintaining their faith and a deep sense of pride in their culture. These are passionate, yet patient and perservering men. “If you only knew their history!” one friar remarked to an inquiring parishioner. (I do know their history, as a matter of fact. Raul and I were classmates, entering postulancy together in 1993). Even after entering the Order, both he and Martin have had to labor for more than a decade to acquire English language skills, complete initial formation as friars, then finish college and theological studies, before reaching the stage of diaconate as part of the realization of their vocation.

“Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” With these words, Bishop Chavez presented both Martin and Raul with a copy of the Gospels to hold and venerate. In doing so, he charged them to immerse themselves into the ministry of proclaiming and preaching the Word which is so essential to the role of the deacon. In fulfilling these functions, our brothers will be following in the footsteps of our seraphic father, Francis of Assisi himself who himself, his official biographer Thomas of Celano informs us, was not a priest, but rather a permanent deacon (“dressed in the vestments of the Levites” (i.e., deacons -ed). Francis delegated to priest-friars those sacramental functions he could not fulfill himself.

Since Raul and Martin are transitional deacons, however, they will be assigned to parochial responsibilities for the coming twelve months as they prepare for priestly ordination. In the past, this transitional period has been regarded by many as a somewhat tedious, even annoying marking of time. But in our province today, deacons are assigned to a mentoring pastor who will work intensely with them as they integrate their theological education with hands on experience in parish life. The preparation really makes a difference.

Raul has been assigned to the parish at Mission San Luis Rey. Martin will be living and working at St. Elizabeth Parish in Oakland, California. Felicidades, hermanos! Congratulations, Brothers! In the words of Beato Junipero Serra, ofm: “Siempre adelante, nunca para atras!/ Always forward, never backward!” Or as Raul would say, “Just keep going.”

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

In November, We Remember

“The following confrere died on the 12th of February:
In 2006, Friar Edward Dunn. A native of Pennsylvania, he was invested in the habit on September 13, 1975, in Sacramento, California, professing his simple vows in 1976 and solemn vows on September 14, 1980, while stationed with the Las Vegas, Nevada community. Shortly afterwards he spent six months in Central and South America, studying comunidades de base. From that time on he immersed himself both in formation and missionary work, a truly apostolic friar who also had enormous influence in the area of social concerns. Wherever he was assigned he worked tirelessly for the poor and ceaselessly promoted justice for minorities. In 1997 he established an outreach community in San Diego and in 2003, became the assistant formation director of the missionary experience in Mexico. He also served two terms as a definitor of the Province. Due to prolonged illness he was last assigned to Mission San Luis Rey, where he died. 56 years old and 29 years professed. Buried in the friars’ vault. May his soul and the souls of all our departed brethren through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.”

Every day, in each of our friaries— either at community prayer or just before dinner—we read from our provincial necrology about the brother/s who died on that day. “Necrology” is a rather bloodless term, isn’t it, for what is not just the listing of our deceased brothers, but rather more like a short biography which is read aloud before the assembled community. It is a wonderful custom in the Franciscan tradition. It’s a way not only of praying for our deceased friars, but also of calling them to mind and including them in our living community.

Often, after the necrology is read, we’ll turn to an older friar and ask: “Did you know that friar? Or were there any stories about him told around the Province?” And quite often, someone will remember the person. Or some personal tale or else an historical nugget culled from their biography. Like the one about the friar who, in the late nineteenth century, was shot-- by an intruder? Or maybe another friar?—at one of the old missions. The plot thickens; no one knows for sure. Or, at least no one is talking.

But it’s not just about the lurid lore and old yarns. Reading about and praying with and for our deceased brethren is a poignant reminder to us of our roots and inheritance. And of our own vulnerability as well. Of the ways in which one lifetime upon another, one generation after the other has formed our uniquely Franciscan family history over the past eight centuries. In the case of our province, our communal memory stretches over a two hundred years (and under four separate national flags) in this part of North America.

Re-membering helps us to see how we are all of one cloth and kin.It makes us aware—acutely so. Not just of our ancestors in faith and community. But of brothers, whether well-known or unmet, who were called to Franciscan life just as we ourselves have been. Men who gave their hearts and souls to living the Gospel and sharing it with their brothers and others. In that living and sharing many of their lives have not been unlike our own, with their own admixture of struggle and doubt; confusion, fear, and loneliness. But also, warmth and joy, mirth and love.

In November, we remember. Brothers like Ed Dunn—a big loveable lug of an Irishman and an extraordinary brother. Warm and welcoming; full of life and wit and song and fun. Good, humanly holy and completely devoted to the poor and marginalized of Latin America. Loved and admired by his Franciscan confreres and many, many others as well. And-- also, a hopeless klutz behind the wheel of a car or at the command of almost any modern tool or invention (like the electric tea kettle he exploded in our Sacramento kitchen by placing it over a flame on the stove!)

May his soul and the souls of all our faithful departed brothers, through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Iggy's Back on the Rez: Please! No photos!

On his deathbed, St. Francis enjoined the friars to “begin again. For until now we have done nothing.” Our brother, Father Ignatius DeGroot, ofm, has done just that. After an absence of twenty-five years-- and a lifetime of pastoral experience—he’s begun again by returning to the Arizona desert to work among the Tohono O’odham people. His experience and insights are of value for anyone who is just beginning in religious life. Or who, like himself, is beginning again. Who is Fr. Iggy and how did he get to where he is today? Well, here, I’ll let him tell you himself. He writes:

I am 69 years old , born in 1938, in Noordwijkerhout, the Netherlands. When I was 13 years old I entered the minor seminary in Holland. I was fascinated by a neighbor who was ordained and sent as a missionary to Brazil. The following year, my parents immigrated to the United States, and so in 1952, I entered the minor seminary in Santa Barbara. I subsequently did all of my studies in this country.

My major assignments as a friar have included being a teacher of religion at St. Elizabeth's High School in Oakland, pastor at the parish of Our Lady of Guadelupe in Delano, and also at a parish by the same name in Guadalupe, Arizona. In addition, I worked on the Tohono O’odham reservation (1978-83), and then at St. Mary's Stockton, St. Elizabeth's Oakland, and St. Anthony's San Francisco. After spending a year and a half as director of our retreat house in Three Rivers, California, I traveled to Guatemala, where I worked for five years. Now I am back with the Tohono O’odham.

Iggy wrote more in an article for our in-house publication, WestFriars:

As most of you (friars) know, I lived on the Tohono O’odham reservation for five years from 1978 to 1983. Coming back to the reservation last February (2006) has been an interesting experience for me.

First of all, it was a good experience to return again to the Sonoran Desert with its open vistas, its rocky mountains, which we call “islands” in the desert, to recognize the ironwood, the palo verde, and the mezquite, trees that fill all the washes. It was a joy this spring to have them bloom and turn green. It has been good to see again the coyote, the roadrunner, the hawks, and to hear the morning doves as I wake up. To live in a place where the sunrise and sunset are free spectacles presented so often. Recently the desert storms also have made their appearance, with their towering clouds, sometimes dark and then brillant white when the sun plays on them. To feel their fury in the winds and slashing rain, to hide from the dust storms that often precede them, is a powerful experience. The desert is beautiful.

But recently also the less desirable aspects of the desert have made their appearance. First of all, the heat. We have had weeks with temperatures over 110 degrees. (I live in Chuichu, where it is hotter than the villages of Covered Wells or Topawa where other friars live.) And with the heat also come the insects. Each night my house is invaded by crickets and other bugs.

It has also been good to meet old friends, both among the people and the staff. It has been good to hear the same old songs that we’d sung before, and to my surprise to have the little of the language that I learned then, come back to me without effort. I did not have to learn the names and places of the villages. I almost naturally remembered the customs and ways of doing things among the people. I did not feel like a stranger, but rather someone who has come back home.

The third natural thing that I did was to compare the present situation on the reservation with the situation 25 years ago. On many levels, things have gotten worse rather than better. The reservation is made up of the small town of Sells, and some forty villages, varying in size. Because of better transportation and other reasons, the cohesion of the communities has deteriorated. Among the people, there is much less participation, less working together. Then there always was the problem of alcohol, but now there has been added the strong presence of drugs, and with both of them violence and suicide are also more present. The drugs have brought gangs to the reservation-- not to the extent that they are in the cities, but they are here.

When I mention to outsiders that the missions here can only survive with outside support, I have been asked about the Indian casinos and the money they produce. Yes the O’odham, as all the other tribes, have casinos. And the money coming from them has been used for many worthwhile projects. Two new high schools, a junior college, a museum and cultural center, preschools, elderly centers, recreation centers, district offices, new tribal buildings, a new police complex: all have been mostly financed through the casinos. But with all the services, the welfare syndrome is still very present. People expect to be taken care of, rather than doing things for themselves. Recently I saw a house that was stripped inside and being rebuilt. The owner complained that the tribal agency was working on it and had not done anything for many months. My reaction (not expressed) was: “Why don't you do it yourself?”

Another very notable change here is the overwhelming presence of the Border Patrol. They are everywhere. Having lived in Nazi-occupied Holland when a child, I feel as if I am living in a zone occupied by a military force that has invaded. The border patrol is probably necessary, but it feels very uncomfortable. Recently I was stopped. When I asked the agent why he stopped me, he informed me that he did not have to give a reason. He said that they have the power to stop and search anyone. I guess the Constitution no longer applies.

Then, in the area of church, things have certainly not gotten better. First of all, the participation and attendance is much less then 25 years ago. Chapels which were mostly full then are now half-full. Also, the leadership is not as strong. One of the great problems is that persons with both interest and leadership ability are involved in so many other things that they do not have time to dedicate to the church. Added to this is that the diocese has mandated that all persons involved in any position in the parish go through the abuse training and certification. There has been a real resistance to this, and as a consequence many villages no longer have regular First Communion and Confirmation preparation. Also the uneasy marriage of native culture and European Catholicism causes the people not to fully claim our Catholicism as their own. Added to this is that a number of evangelical churches have come on to the reservation. Before it was just the Catholics and Presbyterians.

My final observation is regarding living alone. I really miss having a community. Living alone here means cooking for yourself, cleaning for yourself, shopping for yourself. They are not my favorite things to do. Also it is a challenge to pray regularly by oneself and to maintain the amenities of civilized life. I often turn on the T.V. simply to have a human voice speaking to me. (He adds: In terms of hobbies, I have always been a handy man, fixing what needs to be fixed, especially carpentry. Growing flowers, hiking are a source of enjoyment. Lately, I have developed a special interest in the immigration situation, so I celebrate Mass at the Eloy Detention Center….. I try to stay balanced, to maintain the discipline of life with a regular schedule of eating sleeping, prayer, work and recreation. I find a great peace in nature, so I make it a point to be in nature as often as I can. I also have made a point to be faithful to community life and especially here on the reservation,I do need to be faithful to prayer. My ministry is not just work.
I also have found it good to let the spiritual dimension of my work be real for me.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

October 4: Feast of St. Francis of Assisi

From St. Francis of Assisi, Letter to the Faithful (1215)

Since I am the servant of all I am obliged to serve all and to carry out the fragrant words of my Lord, the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Word of the Father. I must also bring to your attention the words of the Holy Spirit which are spirit and life. Although all the world’s riches were his, Christ and his blessed mother chose poverty. He subjected his will to the will of his Father saying: Father, your will be done; not as I will but as you will. Now this was the will of his Father that his blessed Son, whom he gave us and who was born for us should offer himself by shedding his blood as a sacrifice and victim on the altar of the cross. This sacrifice was not for himself through whom all things were made, but for our sins thus leaving us an example that we should follow in his footsteps. He wants us all to be saved through him and to receive him with pure heart and sinless body. How happy and blessed are they who love the Lord and do what he says in the Gospel: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole soul, and your neighbor as yourself. Let us therefore love God and adore him with pure heart and soul since he says that he is especially seeking authentic worshippers who will worship the Father in spirit and truth. Let us sing his praises and pray day and night because we must pray always without losing heart.

We must also fast and abstain from vices and sins and from excess in food and drink, and be Catholics. We must visit churches frequently and show reverence to clerics not only for their own sake, even though they be sinners, but because of the office they hold and because of the ministry of the holy body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which they offer on the altar and which they receive and administer to others. Let all firmly believe that no one can be saved except through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Lord’s holy words which clerics proclaim and administer. Religious, however, who have renounced the world are obliged to do more and greater things while not neglecting these. We must love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. We are to observe the commandments and counsels of our Lord Jesus Christ. We must also deny ourselves and submit our bodies to the yoke of service and of holy obedience just as each one promised the Lord.

We are not to be wise and prudent according to the flesh, but rather simple and humble and pure.

We must never wish to lord it over others but must rather seek to be servants and subject to every human being for God’s sake. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon all who have done this and persevered till the end, and this spirit will make his dwelling place and above in them and they shall be children of their Father in heaven whose works they do, and they are the spouses, brothers and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I, friar Francis, your least servant, by the love that is God beg and implore all whom this letter may reach to receive these fragrant words of our Lord Jesus Christ with humility and love and to fulfill them in love and observe them to the letter. May the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit bless all who accept them with love and understand the m and persevere to the end in putting them into practice. Amen.

This reading is taken from the Office of Readings for the Liturgy of the Hours for the solemnity of Our Holy Father, Francis of Assisi, Deacon, Founder of the Three Orders. (Ed. Quaracchi, 1941). Artwork: Michael D. O'Brien

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

October 3: The Transitus of Saint Francis of Assisi

From: The Major Life of St. Francis by Brother Bonaventure

“When the hour of his passing was approaching, he had all the brothers staying in the place called to him and, comforting them about his death with words of consolation, he exhorted them to divine love with fatherly affection. He spoke at length about preserving poverty and patience and the faith of the holy Roman Church, placing the holy Gospel ahead of other observances.

"As all the brothers sat around him, he stretched his hand over them, crossing his arms in the form of a cross, for he always loved this sign. And he blessed all the brothers, both present and absent, in the name and power of the Crucified. Then he added: 'Goodbye, all my sons, in the fear of the Lord! Remain in Him always! Because a trial and tribulation is coming in the future, happy are thye who will persevere in those things they have begun. I am hurrying to God, to whose grace I entrust all of you.'

"When he finished this gentle admonition, the man most beloved of God ordered the Book of the Gospels brought to him and asked that the Gospel according to John be read to him from the place that begins: ‘Before the feast of Passover.’ He, as best he could, broke out in this psalm: ‘With my voice I cried to the Lord; With my voice I beseeched the Lord;’ and he finished it to the end. ‘The just,’ he said, ‘will await me until you have rewarded me.’” (Chap. XIV)

On the evening of October 3, 1226, Francis of Assisi died at the age of 44. After spending three days in the humble hut that his brothers had built as an infirmary, Francis had himself placed naked on the bare earth, and he died just as the friars were singing the verse of his "Canticle of the Creatures":

"Be praised, my Lord, for our sister Bodily Death, whom no living man can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Blessed are those whom she will find doing your holy will, for to them the second death will do no harm".

Each year, members of the Franciscan family around the world gather to remember the passing of Saint Francis: his transitus, into eternal life. This simple service of songs, readings, and prayers is a very poignant experience for all Franciscans. It is a time for all of us to remember our roots, to reflect upon our call, and to give thanks for the great gift of this extraordinary little poor man of Assisi (“Il Poverello”) , whose dream and struggle nearly 800 years ago to become a “living gospel” continue to inform and inspire people everywhere.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Franciscans on the Edge: Sister Ingrid J. Peterson speaks on heroic witnesses

Sister Ingrid Peterson knows her stuff. A Third Order Franciscan sister of Rochester, Minnesota, she is an internationally recognized scholar and has taught and written extensively in the area of Franciscan history and spirituality. She came to our parish of St. Francis of Assisi in Sacramento this past weekend to share some of the fruit of her lifelong reflection before an audience of more than 100 parishioners and guests.

When I heard the topic of her half-day workshop/seminar, I flinched just a little. Franciscans on the edge? The edge of what? Extinction? A nervous breakdown? What? I know we have our problems, but can things be that desperate? Turns out the ‘edge’ Sister Ingrid is referring to is that marginal space of culture, society, and even the Church itself that has been the real central focus of Franciscan contemplation and action for eight hundred years. Among the marginalized, the dispossessed, the despised, and the ignored is where we have always been at our best and frankly, it’s where we oughta be.

Peterson didn’t parade the usual suspects of Franciscan life (Francis, Clare, Anthony of Padua, etc). Instead, she spoke about Franciscan laypeople— Secular Franciscans/Third Order members mostly—who strove to find Christ and to ‘Spirit’ the edges of our world. In doing so, she opened up Franciscan hagiography to a whole new bunch of halos that haven't always been appreciated for their own special glow, including those of Brother Juniper, Elizabeth of Hungary, the married couple Luchesio and Buonadonna , Francis of Rome, and, closer to our own time, Matt Talbot and Carlo Carretto.

These have all been keepers of the Rule, to be sure, but more importantly, lovers of Jesus and the Gospel. “There are always rules coming out of the Church at various times,” Peterson quipped, “and we have to live between these rules.” She then proceeded to demonstrate the way that Franciscan women and men throughout the centuries have been able to thrive in and through the tensions of their own eras, both “on the edge” and “between the rules.”

Peterson systematically examined the biographies and legends of these holy people in order to dig deeper into the substratum of their real spiritual lives, and then in turn, to try to make these ‘lives of the saints’ accessible and relevant to ourselves. Elizabeth of Hungary, for example, when confronted by her husband about the bread she was sneaking to the poor, opened her food basket only to reveal a bouquet of roses instead. Angela of Foligno, while on pilgrimage to Assisi, received a deeply transforming experience of the love of God “in which she heard the Holy Spirit tell her how much she was loved.”

So why doesn’t that happen to us? “My bread never turned to roses,” someone once complained to Peterson. (We all nodded in silent agreement.) So, in the absence of roses, “How do I know what God wants of me?” Peterson asked. She emphasized that for most of us, our call does not arise through some extraordinary private revelation, but rather in the context of community and in the circumstances of our daily living. She then told us about Richard Rohr, the celebrated contemporary Franciscan writer and speaker. How Rohr had decided at one point to give up his successful preaching and writing ministry in order to become a missionary only to discover that God was not actually asking him to do so. “In this case, the call to be a missionary couldn’t be from God,” she explained, “because nobody else knew about it.” Reflecting more on the experience from that perspective himself, Rohr subsequently decided to stay put after all.

Peterson then spoke about her own vocation. “ How did I know I wanted to be a religious sister? I didn’t want to be one, actually. I went to public schools, and then in college—I was a college student, after all-- I saw the sisters and thought, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ But you know, it was just like the poem 'The Hound of Heaven'. Our God can be a real nag and in my case, just wouldn’t let go of me. Finally, I gave in and became a sister, and as they say (smiling) “I lived happily ever after.”

The real point of our Christian vocation, whether lay or religious, Sister Ingrid reflected, is to look to the example of Jesus and try to live it. “Jesus is the visible sign of the invisible God. Jesus teaches us that the way to God is through the Beatitudes. . . . The saints-- all the saints—have given their lives to follow Jesus in this way,” (no matter where it has led them). . . . And that’s what life at the edge is all about for all of us, isn’t it.

Some reflections questions, courtesy of Sister Ingrid J. Peterson:
What do you do for the love of God that others might consider foolish? What are some of the ways in which you feel called to bring peace instead of violence? In what ways has God broken into your life to set things right? Can you recall times in which service to others has brought you closer to God?

Some further reading by Ingrid J. Peterson:
Clare of Assisi: A Biographical Study
Praying with Clare of Assisi: Companions for the Journey (w/ Ramona Miller).

Friday, September 21, 2007

How to Talk Pretty Good Franciscan:Lesson 1

“Our new postulants will be joining local friars from the Ascension Friary on October 3 for the Feast of the Transitus of St. Francis. The local fraternity will host the event, with haustus and dinner following evening prayer.”

Hmm. Do you understand any of that? Sometimes we friars (there I go again) talk to ourselves entirely too much. Just like anyone else focused in a particular vocation (oops) or profession. We can get so intensely involved in our own world that we forget everyone else and just chirp along in our own lingo.

Well, here are a few terms to help you to understand the Franciscan dialect. This is not an exhaustive word list (or even alphabetically arranged), but it will give you a decent start. Stick with us and, little by little, you’ll be able to talk pretty good Franciscan, too. The descriptions and definitions are informal and meant only to give you a general idea of what the heck we’re talking about (we’re not always 100% sure ourselves).

Franciscan (noun). A person (male or female) who identifies with and follows Jesus Christ inspired by the example of St. Francis of Assisi (and don’t forget St. Clare of Assisi) as a member of a religious community or lay affiliate (e.g,, Secular Franciscans).

(noun) A male religious, either priest (ordained) or brother (not ordained), who is a formal member of a Franciscan community.

Friary (noun) A residence for a particular group of Franciscan men (friars). Also called a “fraternity” among ourselves (or should I say, “in house.”). In some places in Europe or Latin America, this residence is also called a “convent.” Confused? So am I.

OFM. Initials which stand for the Latin “Orden fratris minores” or “Order of Friars Minor” or (loosely translated, “The order of little brothers”). Placed after a person’s name, it indicates his membership in the order: e.g., Carlos Diaz, ofm.

Observant (OFM), Capuchin (Ofm cap) , Conventual, (Ofm conv) ,Third Order Regular (TOR) Terms applied to the four major groupings of Franciscan men in the world. Taken together, we are known as the Franciscan family. Their origins and historical development would require a separate blogsite, but suffice it to say that each and every group follows the Rule of St. Francis. And yes, even though each group is different, we are all fully Franciscan. Do people ever get us confused? You bet.

The Rule. Every religious community has a foundational document which describes its purpose, mission, and standards of conduct. The Rule of St. Francis was written in 1209, then revised and approved by Pope Honorius in 1223. That same Rule is observed by Franciscans today.

Vow A promise or commitment. Franciscans make public vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience as an indication of one’s total commitment to following the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Initial, or “simple” vows are made for a period of one year and are renewable annually. “Solemn” vows are made for life. In either case, the vows are made only after a period of careful study, prayer, and preparation.

A garment worn by a man or woman belonging to a particular religious community to signify his/her membership in that community. The habit worn today by Franciscan men in the OFM tradition represents a particular style of dress decreed by Pope Leo XIII in 1893. Consisting of a tunic, a capuche (or hood) and a rope cord with three knots in it (representing each of the three vows a friar makes), our habit is a visual reminder of the kind of clothing worn by working men in the 13th century, the time of St. Francis of Assisi. Sandals, by the way, are optional.

Inquirer/ Aspirant/ Candidate. An inquirer is someone who is interested in and , quite literally, wants to ask some questions about our way of life. Inquirers may read literature, attend retreats and ongoing discernment groups, etc, but don’t make any specific commitment to entering the community. Aspirants are folks who are a little further along in the process. An aspirant has indicated that he would like to learn more about our community and is more focused and serious in his process. Typically, he has become familiar with the Franciscan spirit and lifestyle and may even know a few friars personally. Furthermore, he may be a participant in one of our preparatory programs, such as the House of Welcome and Discernment. A candidate is a man who has made the decision to apply for formal acceptance into the first stage of entry into community life called postulancy (see below).

Postulancy/ postulant (noun). The postulancy is a formal period of initial entry into community life. A postulant is a man who, having made formal application for acceptance and been approved by our community, enters an initial program of studies and preparation for religious life. In our province, the postulancy consists of a nine-month period of residency at a specific house we have established in Portland, Oregon. Men learn to live together in a regular schedule (horarium) of activites which structure prayer, work, household chores, and recreation. This is a “hands on” experience of religious life. Face it, you can read every book in the world about it, but unless you actually try it yourself, you won’t really know if it is for you. More—much much more—on postulancy in upcoming blogs.

Province. A particular entity, usually defined geographically, comprising a specific group of friars living and working under the direction of an elected leader known as the provincial minister. The Province of St. Barbara, for example, includes the entire West Coast of the United States, as well as Arizona, Nevada, and part of New Mexico.

Okay, had enough for now? These terms will give you a head start in understanding the structure of religious life in general and Franciscan life in particular. Stay turned for a future installment where we’ll explore such terms as Transitus, haustus (above) , charism, guardian, and – one of my personal favorites-- syndic (not to be confused with “cynic.”).

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Father Tommy King ofm: Navigating a Missionary Vocation

August 23. The Feast of St. Rose of Lima-- an auspicious date for our interview. Here in Sacramento, Father Tommy King is at the tail end of his fourth annual visit from Tierra Blanca, Peru (population 4,500). During his month-long stay, he’s been able to spend time with friends, family, friars, and dentists. He leaves the day after tomorrow, so this is a good time to sit down and have a relaxed conversation. No mean feat when it concerns Tommy. At age 51, he is still a ball of energy, only part of which is fueled by caffeine. The rest is pure Tommy: alive, alert, full of Irish wit (his puns are deadly), and in a state of constant, cheerful commotion.

So I asked Tommy: "What does it take to be an effective missionary, especially a Franciscan missionary in Latin America?" He and Brother Gerard Saunders, for example, live and minister together in the Peruvian Amazon (an hour northeast of the capital city of Lima as the jet flies, but in reality, sometimes up to a week away via boat, bus, and prop plane). Tommy becomes uncharacteristically quiet when the question is posed: “Well, I guess it’s something in the heart that attracts you to working with another culture…. Plus, if (like myself) you’ve enjoyed a simple apartment, enjoy camping—being outdoors. The contact with nature that is so conducive to contemplative prayer…the tremendous freedom to love people who would normally be left out of the reach of God’s love. All that comes into play.”

In Tommy’s case, the call began as an attraction—“a churning”— he calls it, that he experienced while still in his twenties: “Before I became a (Franciscan) postulant, I was thinking about priesthood and language study.” This San Francisco Bay Area native—eighth in an Irish-German family of nine kids— soon found himself working among people from Latin America. He followed language studies in college with an intensive immersion experience in Spanish in Cuernevaca, Mexico. This, in turn, led him to dive into ministry as a Franciscan student friar and subsequently as an ordained priest ministering among Latinos in California. His present stint in Peru, where he has been stationed since 2003, is his second tour as a missionary. Previously, Tommy spent four years as a formation director of Franciscan students from our province and was based in El Mezquital, a marginal area of Guatemala City, Guatemala.

While Fr. Tommy mentions interest and passion as elements essential to a missionary vocation, there are other components which, though unnamed, are very much a part of his own story and life. Physical and spiritual stamina, for one thing. Fr. Tommy’s “parish” extends over an area of 3400 square miles, most of which is accessible only by motor boat (in this case, the Grenada, purchased with the help of American benefactors) or ferry. While Brother Gerard focuses his energies in teaching—he is principal of the high school in Tierra Blanca—Tommy spends much of his year visiting the 60-odd villages scattered throughout this part of the Apostolic Vicariate of Requeña, one of three such dioceses in Peru entrusted to the care of the Franciscan order. The present bishop, Monsignor Juan Oliver Climent ofm, is a native of Valencia, Spain, and has been in Peru just two years.

Fr. Tommy describes a typical experience in an email to family and friends: “In a wonderful fraternal gesture of support, (Fr) Ed Shea (a friar from the Sacred Heart province in the US Midwest) came... to help me with the last three weeks of the gira pastoral (pastoral visitation)… Because we often baptized in two villages each day, we are able to visit 23 villages in 21 days. We often registered the children and gave pre-Baptismal talks at 3 and 5 in the afternoon and then baptized… the following morning. We had lunch… then proceeded to another two villages in the afternoon to repeat the routine...."

Back home in Tierra Blanca, Fr. Tommy has time for some r&r and contact with community life. He and Brother Gerard have regular morning prayer and lunch together most days. Wednesday evenings are for social time, which sometimes includes the viewing of a dvd, thanks to the house generator. Most evenings—there is electricity from 7-9pm, there is Internet access at the school: “After years of empty promises, “ Tommy writes, “(Brother Gerard) finally got the Peruvian Ministry of Education to install a satellite dish in the local high school!” An inveterate soccer fan, Tommy is also an active member of the veteranos, one of two soccer teams in town for men over 50. Town and village fiestas—with processions, music, food, and dance—provide the indispensable accent of Latino exuberance and joy!

Although they live in a remote area, Tommy and Gerard are not isolated in their Franciscan identity. Tommy looks as the Mision franciscana in Tierra Blanca as an “umbrella”: Gerard helps in the parish, but is full-time in the school. Three Franciscan Sisters of the Nativity of Mary —all Peruvian natives— minster in the town. Sisters Gloria, Guadalupe, and Esther are busy with the medical diapensary, a vocational training center, religious education, and youth ministry. Collaboration with the laity is promoted through the training of animators throughout the parish, who are authorized to assist in faith formation and in the administration of the sacramento of baptism. “I am trying to give a sense of ministry broader than that of the priest, “Tommy stresses. He presently teaches four formation courses per year for animators from both the southern and northern regions of the parish. Training sessions are offered in Tierra Blanca over a three-day period. Happily, the Parish Center is able to accommodate upwards of 30 participants during that time.

So how does it feel working in such an intense and demanding environment? “I’m excited. As a friar, I’ve never done anything for more than four years. It feels great to have established some relationships. People trust me a bit more (now)…. I know their names and the names of their dogs, too!.... Gerard and I have a shared conviction that this is where we belong. We Franciscans do our best work among marginalized people…. My hope for the future would be that the Church would affirm the dignity of all people as sons and daughter of God. That people will...push for better schools, health centers, etc. This comes from a sense of faith and joy, not of burden.”

Any words of wisdom for men in discernment? “If this is your call, it’s a tremendous freedom to love people who would normally be left out of the reach of God’s love. The freedom of Franciscan celibacy allows you to go to those places. If you feel the draw, the churning, pray with it and see what surfaces.”

Fr. Tommy King welcomes contact with anyone who would like more information about the Franciscan presence in Tierra Blanca. You can reach him at:

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Vietnamese Marian Days in Carthage, Missouri (August 2-5, 2007)

“Mot, hai, ba”—“One, two, three”! “Cheeezzz”! As the shutter snaps, the row of rumpled Franciscans begins to stand at ease and breathe again. It’s been a hot and humid day in Carthage, Missouri at the 30th Annual Marian Day celebrations / Ngay Thành Mau XXX (August 2-5). Ninety-five in the shade and 90% humidity. Sweating and sweltering in our habits, we friars are trying to put a happy face on things. Liters of bottled water splashing down parched throats; hand fans waving furiously in the still heat. Here in the Ozarks we’re far from the California shore, but trying not to think of it. Besides, it’s worth it.

Since 1978, the Vietnamese Congregation of the Mother Coredemptrix (CMC) has sponsored this annual event which now draws upwards of 75,000 Vietnamese American Catholics from the South and Southeast for a four-day festival of faith and culture. The town of Carthage (population 12,000) swells with tents pitched throughout the congregation’s 28-acre campus and spilling over to the front and backyards of accommodating neighbors. This is the event of the year, a real Catholic Woodstock.

When the Marian Days first started in 1978, just three years after the fall of Saigon, fewer than 2,000 people attended. Townspeople in this Bible Belt region were initially hesitant to permit the event, not knowing quite what to expect. But after the organizers proved that they would be no trouble or nuisance, but on the contrary, a real boon to the area and it’s summer tourist economy, minds and hearts began to change. These days, everyone in southwest Missouri knows about Marian Days; visitors are universally accorded a gracious welcome. Local families and churches have joined forces to assist in accommodations and services in a truly ecumenical spirit.

We Franciscans came in full force this year—two of us (Brother Nghia Phan and myself) from California—and a half-dozen friars from our Midwestern province of the Sacred Heart, including friars Mike Fowler and Duc Phan. Father Hung Nguyen, the Capuchin Franciscan vocations director from Berkeley, made our entourage complete. We set up tables and manned tent booths offering vocations literature, holy cards, badges and smiles to everyone who passed by. The place was jammed with thousands of Vietnamese-American youth, to be sure. But most folks were more interested in checking out the food and music (and each other, of course!) than in asking about religious life.

No matter. We knew the score from past experience. This time we came, along with representatives of more than a dozen men and women’s religious congregations, to offer a ministry of presence and support. Many young people had never seen a sister or male religious before and were curious. Others just wanted someone to chat with about what was going on in their lives: (“How do I tell my mom I’m dating someone who’s not Vietnamese?” ….“I work in a nail salon in Flint, Michigan, and send all my money to my family in Vietnam. I feel so lost and depressed here sometimes What can I do?.”…. “At first I came here because my parents insisted. Now that I have a family of my own, I want my kids to know about their Vietnamese culture and be proud of their faith.”)

All of it—the food, the music, presentations, the liturgies, the splendid procession of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima through the neighborhood streets—was more than worth it. Marian Days was and is living proof of the vitality and durability of the Catholic faith among the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans. (Vietnamese now number about 1.5 million in the US. About one-third of them are Catholics).

When we weren’t talking with folks who strolled by in a steady stream, we took some time for fraternal check-in and fun among ourselves, catching up on each other’s lives and asking about the different brothers we knew from each other’s provinces. During meal breaks, we headed off to the cafeteria where the CMC (Chi Dong Dong Cong) brothers and an army of volunteers provided complimentary food (pho!) and beverages in air-conditioned comfort!

The culminating event of the four-day celebration of faith was the Saturday evening procession followed by fireworks and balloons and an outdoor Mass with an ocean of attentive and devout faces of all generations. Here one felt: yes, the Church is vibrant and strong. And the faith these people have brought with them, following decades of struggle, social displacement, and personal suffering is a true gift to the Catholic community in the United States and the world. //

Monday, August 13, 2007

Chapter of Mats: Meeting of Young Friars in the Holy Land July 1-8, 2007

Brothers,. I hope you've had a wonderful summer. I've been traveling for most of the past six weeks, and am now just settling in again. Most recently, I attended an international meeting of friars in the Holy Land. No one who has ever been there can ignore the compelling power of that experience. There were moments during our time together when the Chapter as an “official event” receded into the background and we simply traveled together as brothers—awestruck and awkward, vulnerable and profoundly moved, all of us—by the experience of being able, literally, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

We Franciscans (Order of Friars Minor) recently concluded our third international Chapter of Mats of the Young Friars Minor in the Holy Land. (July 1-8, 2007). More than 200 “young” friars representing nearly 50 countries around the world, gathered to pray, listen, and share as together we traversed its “geography of salvation”. The Chapter (another term for an “official meeting” ) was a rich, complex, and multi-faceted event: part international conference, part pilgrimage, part retreat, and part family reunion. Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem served not simply as arresting backdrops for our meetings, but as compelling sources of inspiration. Though quite safe ourselves, we were acutely aware of the fact that the Holy Land itself is still a divided land and landscape whose peoples have yet to achieve lasting peace.

Organized under the auspices of our General Curia (i.e., international leadership team) as part of the run-up for the 800th anniversary of our Order’s founding in 2009, the Chapter served as an authentic prism for the expression of fraternal aspirations and concerns in our time. FriarLuis Alberto Guzman and I represented the Province of St. Barbara. (While at age 57, I am not exactly chronologically young, I have been solemnly professed as a friar for just nine years. My brother Luis is a more credible example of Franciscan ‘youth’ at age 41!) We were welcomed by confreres Friars Garrett Edmunds and Leo Gonzales who are stationed in the Holy Land. According to our Rule, any friar may request to spend part of his life in ministry to the Holy Land. Presently, more than 300 men from around the world are present to offer hospitality to pilgrims in shrines throughout the Middle East.

The challenge of communicating effectively was evident from the outset, since sessions were conducted primarily in Italian. Nevertheless, some basic level of communication was established by simultaneous translation at the plenary sessions. Other times, we just improvised.

From the outset, our Minister General, Br. Jose Maria Carballo, invited a frank and open dialogue, and that is what by and large took place. As we assembled in Nazareth for three days of plenary sessions, friars were organized into small faith sharing groups. Each group was asked to select a secretary who, in turn, reported to the body as a whole. Opportunities to speak were also offered in ‘open mike’ sessions. Friars did not shrink from the task of naming the challenges facing us. Amazingly, most of the groups came up with virtually the same list of concerns:

The need for spiritual renewal. Friars called for a revitalized common prayer and for more regular faith sharing to be structured into our fraternal life.
Concern for the poor. Friars from emerging nations, in particular, were most passionate in expressing their concern that we not lose sight of our identification with the poor of the world. Similarly, brothers representing more affluent nations expressed their fear of our becoming too middle class and of losing our identity.
Aging fraternities. The decline of vocations was both felt and expressed by almost all of the friars. Younger brothers expressed their concern and frustration in this regard: Will I be the only one left? If I am the only young friar in the fraternity, how can I get support for my identity and work? How can the few younger ones best take care of the great number who are now elderly?
Collaboration and cooperation. Friars here were speaking about cooperative endeavors on an interprovincial and/or international level within the Order.
Multiculturalism. Not a few friars present represented minority groups within their own provincial entities. Brothers from provinces embracing vast geographical areas in Asia and Africa spoke about the difficulty of communicating with each other across political, linguistic, and cultural boundaries.
Formation. Brothers spoke of the “chasm” between the experience of initial formation and that of friars in solemn vows.
Laic versus cleric. Many brothers, especially from provinces where the difference in status and authority between ordained and nonordained friars is most persistent and pronounced, expressed concern for greater equality within the fraternity.

Issues percolated upward from the small groups, were addressed in summary reports given by group secretaries, then refined in successive dialogue sessions. In this regard, the Minister General and other members of the General Definitorium were present, responsive, and proactive. Friars met with confreres of their language group for morning prayer. Formal liturgies were arranged at each of the major venues. According to the norms of the Holy Land, we celebrated the Annunciation at Nazareth, the Nativity of Jesus at Bethlehem, and Easter at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem!

At the conclusion of the Chapter, friars worked together to craft a final statement which is to be further honed and sent to all of the houses in the Order. Finally, the Minister General provided his own “sense of the meeting” in his homily at Bethlehem, in which he reaffirmed our identity as “a contemplative fraternity with a mission” and recognized the historic dimension and implications of our meeting: “Our Chapter was above all a powerful time of encounter with ourselves and with the Lord, who continues to look upon us with love and to call us by name to follow Him more closely each day. . . . Our life is beautiful, very beautiful,” he added. “ Live your vocation joyfully…. We are, as men and Franciscans, the fruit of the limitless love of one person: Jesus. Keep a grateful memory of this gift; it will help you to keep it ‘young.’ …

Note: A complete record of the Chapter of Mats proceedings, including major homilies and presentations, can be found on the Curia’s website:

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Trust God and Jump! The Franciscan Mission to Kazakhstan

Friar David Gaa writes:
I came to the friars as an “older vocation” at age 32, after having completed the university and worked for some years. If anyone had told me when I was first discerning my vocation as a friar that one day I would end up living and working in Kazakhstan I would have laughed. It certainly wasn’t part of my plans for my life. I think it was while I was a novice in 1991 that the old Soviet Union fell apart and Kazakhstan became an independent country.

What do I do and how did I end up where I am? Well, the Franciscan Mission to Kazakhstan is part of the Order’s larger project known at the St. Francis Foundation for Russia and Kazakhstan. The Foundation, like all projects of the Order of this type, is international in make up, with brothers volunteering to serve coming from many different provinces. In all of Russia and Kazakhstan there are six friaries and about 25 friars. In Kazakhstan I live in a city called Taldikorgan (population 125,000) which is located in the upper northeast part of the country, not far from the Chinese border. There are three of us in the friary, two of whom are ordained priests.
But we Franciscan brothers do much more that just staff a parish. Our Franciscan life in Kazakhstan is really more of a life of quiet presence. This is what St. Francis told us to do in the first Rule of 1221-- just to go and live among others, and when we were able, to preach the Gospel. The reality is that we are quite restricted by the government in terms of what we can actually do for ministry. So we do what St. Francis suggested we do-- we just live and work among the people and witness to our faith by the way we live our lives. Most of our neighbors are Kazakh Muslims. There are also many Russians who are Orthodox Christians. The entire Catholic population is less than 1% of the total population of Kazakhstan, so you can see how small we are. The overall goals of the Foundation have been set by Rome: implantation of the Order, service to the existing Roman Catholic population, and dialogue with our Muslim and Orthodox brothers and sisters.

I ended up here in Kazakhstan because after my solemn vows I read in one of our Franciscan newsletters about the International projects of the Order directly under the Minister General in Rome. These projects are in Africa, Thailand, Turkey, Russia and Kazakhstan, and perhaps some other places that I have forgotten at the moment. At that time I was working as a parish priest in the Southwest of our province (Tucson, Arizona) when Rome was asking for volunteers for our project in Morocco. In my heart the international projects of the Order kind of struck a cord, and so with the blessing and permission of my local Minster Provincial of the St. Barbara Province, I applied. A letter came back from Rome asking if I would be available to work in Kazakhstan instead of Morocco. I wasn’t even sure where Kazakhstan was located, except somewhere in Central Asia! But I took that leap of faith and said “yes”, and have never really regretted my decision.

In my life as a friar I have tried to be open to the Holy Spirit working in my heart , so I agreed, with a little nervousness in my heart, to serve in Kazakhstan. I was somewhat apprehensive. Could I learn Russian? Would it be too cold?, What would the ministry be like? and so on…. It reminded me of when I was first looking at religious life. I was full of questions and had many reservations then, too. Could I live as a celibate friar? Would I be happy living with so many guys? When I took my vows, could I live them? But my life here in Kazakhstan has proven, like my life as a friar, that if God is calling, He will give you the grace to live the life. I have found great joy and fulfillment as a friar and I have found great joy and fulfillment living and working in Kazakhstan.

So I am starting year five here in Kazakhstan. I am still a member of the St. Barbara Province, but on loan to Rome to serve in the St. Francis Foundation. Currently we are trying to build a little church (see photo) since we currently celebrate Mass in a house. The “parish” is on the first floor and we friars live on the second floor. Thanks to generous support of my Franciscan brothers in the province and the generosity of others, our new church is becoming a reality. The grandmothers are overjoyed to be seeing an actual church building rise!

Please pray for the Franciscan Mission in Kazakhstan and may God Bless all of you discerning our way of life. Trust God-- and jump!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Walking the Walk Along The Migrant Trail

CT: What was the original impetus for the Migrant Trail Walk?
Friar Adrian Peelo (AP): I believe it started with a group of friends who decided to walk in solidarity with the migrants and who decided they would continue to walk until the issue was settled.
Friar David Buer (DB): That’s right. When the walls were put up along the border in urban areas, it created a "funnel effect" which has lead to deaths in the desert. It is estimated that last year (2006) alone, between 200-250 migrants died in the Tucson sector alone. A total of about 4000 have died along the entire border in the last ten years. And these are only the known deaths, where the bodies have been found.
CT: Who were the sponsors of this year’s event?
DB: This year’s event was supported by a wide range of groups, both faith-based and others, including Derechos Humanos, Humane Borders, No More Deaths, Phoenix, and Borderlinks. Faith-based groups included the Casa Maria Catholic Worker, Catholic Relief Services, and the Franciscans’ JPIC (Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation Office) for the Province of St. Barbara. The Mennonite Central Committee (West Coast Region) was also involved, as well as one wonderul Buddhist monk.
CT: A Buddhist monk?
Adrian Peelo (AP). Yes, his name is Arjahn Sarayut. He’s from Thailand and works in Tucson. He told us he came out of his own curiosity and because of his work with border issues. You know, it was quite extraordinary. I had come to help as a support person for the group. So as the friars were getting out of the car, I said, “ You know, wouldn’t it be great to have Buddhist monks in this?” Then, just as they went off, I looked out the window, and there was a Buddhist monk in his saffron robes was standing right there!” We started chatting and he ended up cooking several meals for the group himself and bringing food to the marchers. We were like a little community together. He had a Franciscan humility, a generosity about him. He wanted to help, to do as much as he could.
CT: Adrian, how did you get involved in the Trail Walk?
AP: You know, people on the margins, on the periphery of society are often so desperate/. They can be hurt or even killed—exploited so easily because they have so few resources to serve them. ….The receiving community needs to be more sensitive and welcoming to them.....I can’t help thinking of my own country’s history—of people fleeing Ireland during and after the Famine in the 19th century. People crossing the Atlantic, desperate for opportunities, Many of them traveled in the notorious coffin ships and never made it to America. So, for myself, I wanted to be there for others in my own lifetime. also wanted to be with the brothers, as part of the Franciscan witness. It was not a question of just hanging out; I felt a moral imperative.
CT: What about you, David? You walked for four days and helped out with the organizing committee.
DB: I remember back to 1979. I was in Chicago when Pope John Paul II was there. He told the half-million people gathered in Grant Park: “Your ancestors came here for a better life. Today, people coming from the South and the West for the same reasons.” That really affected me. Now that I live right at San Xavier, I realized—here we are giving people water, fresh clothes. (The migrants) are literally at our doorstep…. Also, my own background has been working with homeless people over the last 25 years. I've led six pilgrimage groups the 65 miles from Las Vegas to the Nevada Test Site, so I undertstood the importance of pilgrimage. When I got settled in Tucson, I got involved with human rights groups like No More Deaths and Samaritans.
CT: What did people do during the Walk?
DB: The walkers had their own daily routine: They usually got up at 5:00 AM, and were on their way by 6:00 am. It was higly disciplined. They had to take down tents, pack their gear and get it into trucks, grab a quick bite and a cup of coffee, all within an hour. Then they walked all morning until noon, stopping to camp at a prearranged site. Along the way, we had a water stop every evey 1.5 miles. And every 3 miles, there was a rest stop with snacks. The marchers averaged 10-12 miles per day.
AP: I can tell you from my experience marching last year. It’s a mixture of conversation, sharing, getting to know each other. You see, we were people of all sorts of backgrounds, in it together. There were also quiet times, as well. Times for silence, meditation, walking in a single file as well. It was very moving, very contemplative. The walk itself became a spiritual practice.
CT: How did you see your role as Franciscans?
AP: I tried to make the entire experience a spiritual practice. We talk about the preferential option for the poor (until) it is almost a cliché, but the Walk is a real testimony to that. It’s very much in keeping with our Franciscan tradition of being should to shoulder with people of different backgrounds, people of all kinds in a humble way. Here we were, inserted into the community, not looking for privileges or attention. Pitching our tents, queuing up, sharing the hardships with everyone else. It was eminently Franciscan. I reflected about St. Francis, when he moved out of the town of Assisi into the Portiuncula, near the leprosarium, beyond the safety of the city walls.
DB: I agree. It was a taste of the migrant experience. The temperatures were in the high 90s, there were rattlesnakes. Days without being able to take a shower. But the Walk itself was peaceful, nonviolent, and in solidarity with the immigrants. We Franciscans weren’t in charge, though sometimes called to say a prayer once in a while. It was definitely a ministry of presence.
CT: What did you learn from your experience?

DB: On the humility side-- even from the beginning in Sasabe-- people on the Mexcian side of the border hosted us with a delicious meal. Other groups of people lovingly provided our meals along the way, often bringing them to us in the desert wilderness. We carried three coffins to the border: representing the children, men, and women who had died crossing. At the border itself, a Native American man gave us his blessing as we entered the US.
AP: I learned the value of our being together. What unites us is our common humanity. Jesus blessed our humanity by becoming one of us. When we are united together in a common cause-- coming from different ethnic, religious backgrounds-- it begins to dawn on us what really unites us. The way we have all been created and blessed by God. We are connected to each others, responsible for each other.
CT: How this experience reinforce your own sense of vocation at Franciscans?
DB: The Franciscan presence and witness is a gift to the world. Often times the world responds positively when it sees that witness It has to do with a spirit of prayerfulness, peacefulness, and solidarity with the poor.
AP: Every time I got out of the car, people just came over to me to talk, to be blessed. I remember that at one place, the Serenity Baptist Church, the pastor called out to me: “Oh Brother!” And some of his flock came out to shake hands, I was very moved; I didn’t have to explain that I was a friar, or what that meant. It was humbling. This year I was in the background like David, but when I saw Luis and Martin all covered with dust and perspiration, I felt a huge sense of pride in the friars for giving this witnesss. It’s a wonderful way to preach the Gospel.
DB: Yes, it was great. The fraternal support of our brothers coming together, sharing this witness.
CT: Any words of encouragement to our inquirers and discerners?
Both: Come!
DB: We’ll be marching next Memorial Day weekend, too. Join us!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Pictures from an Ordination: Father Ed Sarrazin ofm

Take some time.
Listen to your heart.
What does your heart tell you?
What does God tell you when you pray and listen?
Are you willing to say ‘yes’ to what God is asking you?

(Tucson, June 16) “So what advice would you give to someone discerning a call to priesthood or religious life?”, I asked. It was just about 1:00 pm when I had the chance to sit with our brother Ed Sarrazin for a couple of minutes to chat. Friars, family and friends had already wolfed down a generous portions of chili, beans, potato salad, fruit salad, soft drinks and a big gooey sheet cake. The Wa:k Traditional Dancers from the Tohono O’odham nation had just finished their performance here in the wonderfully cool school cafeteria at Tucson’s historic Mission San Xavier del Bac. Everyone was about ready to mosey on home—slowly, slowly, slowly—in the ferocious desert heat.

Ed, now Father Ed, had been a priest for all of ninety minutes. Yet he seemed to have been born to the manner. Here, in the midst of all the hoopla of his own ordination, Ed himself was the picture of serenity. I was amazed. “I’m usually pretty calm in situations like this. But later on, when everyone’s gone home, I know I’ll start to crash.” Thank goodness for that! Ed was human, after all; just like the rest of us.

The truth, though, is that Ed is a pretty calm and patient man. Both our Provincial Minister, Father Mel Jurisich, and the ordaining bishop, Gerald Kicanas of the Diocese of Tucson, noted as much during the liturgy. In presenting Ed to the bishop for the rite of ordination, Father Mel spoke of Ed’s “sincerity…(and) kindness…. (his) calming presence” as a friar. He also spoke of these and other gifts Ed would bring to ministry, including his “ simplicity and humility…. his acceptance of people as they are… and his particular interest in the needs of the Native Peoples.”

So was this an ordination or a canonization? Bishop Kicanas was not to be outdone in his affirmation of Ed’s personhood and gifts: “I can just imagine why these two carved lions (in the sanctuary) are smiling today,” he began. “And I can just imagine why two other lions in the sanctuary (Father Mel and Vicar Provincial Father Tom West?) must be smiling as well.” The bishop went on to tell us some things about our brother that many of us, his Franciscan brothers, had never known ourselves:

“Ed was born to Irene Sarrazin in July, 1960,” the bishop started. “John F. Kennedy was running for president that year…. And the Pittsburgh Pirates (did the impossible and ) beat the New York Yankees!” A few years later, Ed with his French Belgian and French Canadian roots, headed off to public school and CCD (“Christian Combat Duty”) classes for religious instruction. Somewhere around Confirmation, Ed got the call and later spent a college year with the Benedictines in Shawnee, Oklahoma. But it didn’t take. A teacher later reminded him that St. Augustine had a circuitous journey in his vocation as well and urged Ed not to give up. A later stint with the Vincentian community in Perryville, Missouri didn’t work out as he had hoped, either. Still, Ed didn’t give up his search.

The bishop fast forwarded to Ed’s move, with his mother, to Oceanside, California, where he spent still more years in discernment-- thirteen years total, according to his own reckoning. Father Michel Gagnon, ofm, pastor at Old Mission San Luis Rey at the time, vividly recalls Ed’s journey with the friars:

“I remember Ed when he first came to us. He was selling shoes in the mall. He was shy-- bit of a wallflower. He came to me and told me he might like to be a Vincentian brother. So he started to work as a sacristan at the Mission and we discovered he had all kinds of organizational skills and talents we never knew about.

“After that he said he’d like to work with the Confirmation preparation class—about a dozen middle-school kids. So I told him: ‘Are you sure you want to do that? Those kids will eat you alive.’ ‘So what do I have to do?’, he asked me. I told him: ‘You have to lift up your head, stick our your chest, and show them that you have confidence in yourself. And if they give anything to you—you give it right back at them! And he did! Six months later, he had the kids eating out of his hand. He came to me and said: ‘I don’t want to be a Vincentian brother anymore. I want to be one of you guys, I want to be a Franciscan friar!” And by golly, he did!’

I asked Ed himself what was the final tipping point in his own decision to become a Franciscan. He was characteristically sanguine in his response: “Someone had given me a copy of the Constitutions and Rule of the Franciscan Order,” and as I was going through it, I thought: ‘This is the life I’m already living right now. So why not try it in community?’” Ed entered postulancy in Portland in 1999 and started his novitiate at Old Mission San Miguel, California, the following summer. By 2005, he had finished his theological studies at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, and was ready for a mission insertion experience in Baja California. As Bishop Kicanas reflects, “It was in Cabo San Lucas that Ed realized that he was (like St. Paul) an ambassador for Christ…. He saw the face of Christ in the people he served there.” Ed took that same sense of engagement to his Clinical Pastoral Experience (CPE) hospital training—and to his most recent assignment at Mission San Xavier del Bac in Tucson, accompanying the Tohono O’odham people.

At the conclusion of the Mass, Father Mel announced that Ed would remain at Mission San Xavier as his first priestly assignment. “And by the way, you have the 8:30 Mass tomorrow morning!” he chuckled. And the congregation roared.

Ed Sarrazin’s path toward religious life and priestly ordination has been, by his own description, a circuitous one. Yet all along the way, it is clear that this very down to earth man has followed his heart and committed himself to the same quietly disciplined way he now urges upon others: Take some time. Listen to your heart. What does your heart tell you? What does God tell you when you pray and listen? Are you willing to say ‘yes’ to what God is asking you?" …. Well? How about it?//

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Peter Phan on Multiculturalism: Consulting Confucius (and Francis) Amid The Confusion

In a trio of lectures offered June 5-6 at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California, Georgetown University professor and author Peter Phan provided a much needed Asian Catholic perspective on the Church and its ministry in a multicultural society. The Vietnamese-born Phan spoke to more than a score of friars from throughout the St. Barbara Province—students, pastoral ministers, and academicians alike —about the opportunities and challenges facing the Church in the age of globalization. In doing so, he suggested both strategies and skills essential to ministering effectively in the emerging multicultural context. Strategies and skills, by the way, which are totally consistent with the Franciscan vision. The two-day event was sponsored by the St. Barbara Province Multicultural Council and hosted by the Multicultural Institute (, headed by Rigoberto Caloca-Rivas ofm.

Phan laid the groundwork for his audience by providing an historical and contemporary overview of the Asian Catholic experience in the United States. “You’ve come a long way, baby!,” he quipped, quoting a Virginia Slims cigarette ad from the early 1970s and proffered it as a mock motto of the Asian experience in America. “To understand US Asian Catholics, one must first know something about the history of Catholicism in Asia itself,” he continued, stressing that for the first five hundred years of its existence, the Christian community had its epicenter not in Rome, but rather in Baghdad, demonstrating the Church’s deep roots in the Asian continent. Primary among the gifts that Asians have brought to the US church and society today, Phan stressed, is a strong sense of community identity. Simplicity of life and a sense of frugality, he suggested, are other attributes which offer a counterpoise to American society’s rampant consumerism. In addition, a longstanding tradition of nonviolence held in many Asian communities brings with it attendant values of harmony and reconciliation—values of particular salience to the American situation.

Asian Catholics in particular, Phan noted, offer a new narrative, “a new way of understanding what it means to be fully human,” to the American context. The role of the laity in initiating ministry to the immigrant community, the contributions of religious women and laypeople, the preservation of language, customs, and rituals such as the veneration of ancestors all speak of an Asian way of “being” Church.

A tiny, yet strategic minority on both continents, Asian Catholics nevertheless are bearers of a vital tradition of Christian witness, Phan observed. The Asian Church is a church of martyrs; the sense of dying for one’s faith is an integral part of both its historical and even contemporary experience. Significantly, both laypeople and women religious have been instrumental in the establishment of religious education programs in both their home and immigrant communities. By virtue of being a minority imbedded among peoples of a variety of faith traditions, Asian Catholics understand that inter-religious dialogue is not primarily about talk, rather is descriptive of an entire way of life.

Both at the onset and throughout his lectures, Phan was quick to emphasize that the Asian Catholic experience is one in which ecclesiology has emerged from spirituality and not the reverse. It is an experience rich in possibilities for ministry in a multicultural setting. In his second talk, Phan emphasized that church leaders need to readjust their vision and strategies in order to respond to the emerging reality of global culture. In this new world, “the passport you hold in your hand says nothing about who you are.” One’s identity is no longer determined or limited by traditional geographic or ethnic boundaries. Consequently, the minister must become adept at “border crossing”— and at dismantling the unjust “fences” erected in society that deny full participation to all.

“Jesus is the border crosser par excellence,” Phan emphasized. The Incarnation, the Word of God made Flesh, is the consummate act of border crossing as “God steps out of God’s self and enters into the ‘otherness’ (of human experience.” Throughout his ministry Jesus crossed borders repeatedly: He was an itinerant, himself, wandering through and throughout country and countryside. He spoke to women, touched the ritually impure, engaged foreigners, outsiders, political enemies, and collaborators alike. His death outside the city gates of Jerusalem, followed by his Resurrection redefines the very status of border as barrier or fence to that of a marker of a new frontier.

“As multicultural ministers,” Phan continued, “we have to cross borders all the time.” Consequently, one needs to embrace new expressions of spirituality in order serve others effectively. The minister needs to understand the importance of developing a ministry of presence—“to know how to be present to others as they are, not as I expect them to be.” The minister must be prepared to engage in meaningful dialogue with others, not from a position of power but rather from the stance of giving witness. Adopting a stance of self-emptying or kenosis, the minister acknowledges that s/he “comes as a guest to the other and (is prepared to) respect and follow the rules of the new environment.” Not coincidentally, this list of “new’ ministerial virtues resonates with the lived experience of Asian Catholics.

In his final lecture, Phan challenged his audience to learn from the Asian experience “not as a set of techniques or strategies… but ultimately as a way of life.” The Asian context is one marked by chronic and persistent material poverty in spite of the vaunted material blessings of globalization. It is also marked by a richness of cultural diversity and religious expression. Interest and concern focus not on the intramural, structural issues that often preoccupy Catholics in the West, but rather on the “reign of God as the center around everything the Church does.” By the year 2050, Phan predicted, both the vast majority of the world’s population as well as the vast majority of the world’s Christians will be living in the Third World. It is a context, he asserted, in which the Penecostal movement as will be the principal source of growth in the Christian community at the expense of mainline, historical churches. At the same time, multiple religious membership will become normative for many people. This changing reality calls us to be a church in dialogue with the world rather than simply proclaiming to it.//

Monday, June 4, 2007

The Vietnamese Connection

“Mot, hai, ba!... One, two, three!” Why are these Franciscan friars smiling? They’ve all been participants in this year’s Vietnamese Vocations Day Retreat hosted by the Vietnamese Del LaSalle Christian Brothers and sisters in San Jose, California on June 2. Nearly 100 young people as well as religious representing a dozen men and women’s congregations met on the campus of the LaSalle community for a day of prayer, workshops, and speakers—plus wonderful Vietnamese food and outrageous ice-breaking activities. San Jose, along with Orange County further south, functions as an important epicenter of California’s vibrant and burgeoning Vietnamese Catholic community.

Our own St. Barbara Province has been blessed with a number of vocations from the Vietnamese community, including Friars Nghia Phan and Vincent Nguyen, who participated in the weekend event. In addition, Friars Chuck Talley and Rufino Zaragoza were on hand to lend their support. In the day’s activity we were joined by our Capuchin Franciscan confreres Fr. Hung Nguyen and Brother Hai Ho who maintained a separate information table for their community.

During the day-long event, Brother Vincent, 37, shared his vocation story with the group. He spoke of his own struggles and doubts and occasional attempts to run away from his vocation. “But what really hit me,” he shared, “was when Pope John Paul II announced the beginning of the Jubilee Year in 2000. When he quoted Jesus saying that he was sent to preach the good news to the poor, I thought: 'This is what I am supposed to do with my life.' It really woke me up. After that, I thought, okay, I will look for different communities. And when I saw the Franciscans, I said ‘I want to wear that habit!.’”

A native of Saigon, Brother Vincent emigrated to the United States with his family in 1994 and settled in California’s Orange County. Like many of our Vietnamese brothers, both Vincent and his family were dislocated by the war in their homeland. His father was imprisoned for several years as a political prisoner, and the family suffered both economic privation and social ostracism. Vincent reflects that his family’s faith, as well as daily prayer together, sustained them in their difficult moments.

Brother Nghia Phan, 32, was born in the village of Ban Me Thuat, in Vietnam’s central highlands. Along with his parents and ten siblings, he came to the United States in 1993 and entered the friars after completing basic ESL/ English as a Second Language studies. Nghia made his solemn profession in 2005 and is presently pursuing studies at Holy Names University in Oakland, with a major in philosophy. His hope—“God willing”—is to be ordained a priest. His family is devoutly Catholic and has been supportive of his vocation. One of his sisters, Huyen, now Sister Dolores, is a Poor Clare in the Aptos, California community.

A warm, open, and engaging brother, Nghia does not waste words: “I found the friars sympathetic, easy to contact. They are good around people and people like to come to us.” His advice to young people: “Come and find out who are are. Don’t be afraid. We are friendly and welcoming.” In regard to his own culture and spirituality, Nghia says, “ As a province, we really work to understand and respect other cultures. We are multi-cultural and try to make everyone feel at home with us.”

Both Nghia and Vincent live at the St. Elizabeth Friary in Oakland while pursuing their studies. In addition, they are both active with the Vietnamese community at nearby St. Anthony Parish. Nghia helps with First Communion preparation classes, while Vincent works with the Confirmation group.

In addition to Nghia and Vincent, representation from the Vietnamese community in our includes Friars Tran Nguyen, Hoang Trinh, John Luat Nguyen, and Stephen Tan Nguyen – all serving as priests who are involved in parish ministry in multicultural settings.The St. Barbara Province welcomes inquirers and candidates from any and all cultures, and we have been blessed with friars whose roots reflect the rich cultural diversity of the western United States. In addition to our Vietnamese brothers, our province includes friars of Asian background with roots in the Philippines, Japan, and China.

Multiculturalism stresses the equal value of each person’s home culture and seeks to honor and respect that significant dimension in every friar’s life. It is not enough for us that our brothers come to us from a diversity of backgrounds, however. For our part, we are working to learn more about our brothers’ home cultures and to provide ways to celebrate that richness in our Franciscan life.

For several years now, friars from the St. Barbara Province along with others have been traveling on pilgrimage to Vietnam. Led by our own Brother Rufino Zaragoza, these pilgrimages have served to open our eyes to the beauty, richness, and depth of Vietnmaese culture. They have also helped us to appreciate more deeply the tremendous witness to our Catholic faith offered by our sisters and brothers in Vietnam. You can find out more about these annual trips at

A gifted composer and musician, Brother Rufino Zaragoza is internationally regarded for his pioneer work in multicultural ministry. In recent years his efforts have focused on ministry to the Vietnamese Catholic community in both Vietnam and in the United States. Working extensively through Oregon Catholic Press, Rufino has published a number of cds featuring contemporary liturgical music inspired by traditional Vietnamese sources. Recent recordings include: Chong Ngai/ Choose Christ (2007), Tim Khat Khao/Longing Heart (2004) and Chung Loi Tan Tung/ United in Faith & Song (2001). Look for his work at or contact Brother Rufino directly at
. Inquirers can contact Brother Vincent directly at Nghia can be reached at