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 Th├ánh 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: www.ofm.org.