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!

No comments: