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:

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