Sunday, December 14, 2008

Franciscans in Advent: Weeks 3 & 4

We continue with our series of Advent reflections prepared by Friars Larry Gosselin and Tommy King. As mentioned in our previous blog, Fr. Larry is presently in residence at Ascension Parish in Portland, Oregon. Prior to this assignment, he spent many years working with Native American peoples in Arizona and New Mexico. Fr. Tommy King ministers along with our Brother Gerard Saunders in the Amazon region of Peru. Fr. Tommy has also worked as a missionary in Guatemala. I hope you will find these reflections helpful in your own Advent journey.—ct.

Third Sunday of Advent: “To Listen With Justice.”
Fr. Larry: Rejoicing awaits us here in this place where there is justice, for this joy is near in the hearts that long for Christ to be born in the womb of the world. “Rejoicing heartily, that the joy of my soul is in my God.” The prophet again heralds a voice in the desert, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” “Shake all the nations,” proclaims the prophet Haggai. The hope of justice, shows us One who hears our cry and whose gentle strength changes hearts. This Servant is sent to proclaim liberty and release for those bound in oppression. “’Rejoice in the Lord always’, again I say it, ‘rejoice’.” Open our hearts to rejoice so that we may listen with justice.

Fr. Tommy: Even among very sincere people of good will you often hear, “I saw a lot of very poor people when I was in Guatemala (or any other Third World country), but they were very happy.” Liberation theologian Leondardo Boff reminds us that those types of observations should never be any kind of justification of the horrible poverty that so much of the world’s population suffers (including in the North America and Europe) but a testimony to the profound integrity of so many poor people who can maintain a spirit of joy in spite of their daily struggles with poverty and oppression. I have only been in Peru five years, but nevertheless I have already seen too many children and young people who, to borrow Gustavo Gutierrez’s expression, “died before their time” because of inadequate health care.

I assure you that if the well-meaning but naïve tourist was with the parents of those children and young people in those moments, they would not see smiles but hear only weeping and the eternal question, “Why did God allow my child to die before me?” With that being said, I have often discussed with Gerard, my Franciscan brother who has worked in the Peruvian Amazon for fifteen years, the incredible resilience that poor people have in the face of terrible tragedies. We both know many parents in Peru who have tragically lost their children to curable diseases who do not harbor anger against God or other people for their loss. Their faith does not seem to weaken but only grows stronger as they are grateful to God for carrying them through the painful time. Most of them returned to work and the “normal” responsibilities of life the day after the funeral of their child. Just incredible!
The prophet Isaiah says to us today and Jesus repeats in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke that God offers “good news to the poor and heals the brokenhearted.” Gerard’s and my experience in Peru verify this message. But there is more to the message of the prophet: “Proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners! Announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God, to comfort all who mourn!”

To fulfill the prophetic vocation that we all have as baptized Christians, we are called to both work for the liberation of the poor and oppressed and also provide them comfort in their time of pain-- a difficult but central message of the Gospel. Like John the Baptist in today’s Gospel, this is how we “prepare the way of the Lord.” In faith we trust that, in the fullness time, God will bring about complete liberation for all people who suffer. However, we know we can’t just wait around for that to happen. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to continue the building up of God’s kingdom that he started. As we commit ourselves to this task, the grace of God also liberates us from the oppression of our own fears and doubts. In the Kingdom of God, not only are the poor blessed but also those who live in solidarity with the poor. This is indeed Good News.

Fourth Sunday of Advent: “To Remain with Hope”.
Fr. Larry: Today darkness covers the earth, in our northern hemisphere it is our darkest day of the year. It is into this darkness that we look to Christ. It is, as if on the earth, darkness has overshadowed light. Into the stillness of darkness we long for Christ to come with light. In this darkness give us a taste of hope that your birth is near. Help us build “a house made of dawn” that awakens in us that we are that shelter in whose arms all may find comfort. “The angel came and spoke, ‘The Lord be with you’.” Good News brought by Gabriel, given to Mary, meant for all. Come to us, be with us, remain with us. Inspire in us so that we may remain with hope.

Fr. Tommy: When I arrived in the parish in the Peruvian Amazon five years ago, only about twenty of the sixty-five villages in the parish had local chapels for the Catholic community. A couple of years ago, the parish received a grant from a foundation in the United States to build chapels in seven more villages where I felt there was good leadership in the local Catholic communities. Because the parish covers an area of about 3,400 square miles, I am only able to celebrate Eucharist frequently in three of the villages. I am only able to visit most of the other villages once every two years. However, many of the villages have animators, who are the local pastoral agents for the Catholic community and who lead the Sunday liturgy of the Word celebrations.
Since the whole chapel-building process was new to me, it was quite a learning experience. Many villages that wanted to build chapels had no active faith community. Their attitude was, “Build a church and they will come.” I emphasized that iglesia (church) is a community of the people of God. Templo most accurately describes the physical building where people of faith gather. I made it clear that a templo would only be built after iglesia already existed. Some folks had a hard time with my approach just like David has a little difficulty understanding the Lord in our first reading from Second Samuel. God has to clarify to David that the central issue is faith and not a physical building.

In the parish, some villages with beautiful chapels are “dying on the vine.” There is hardly any sense of communal faith and joy. Other villages just have a very small simple thatched roof chapel but are bubbling with a spirit of enthusiasm as they celebrate the presence of a loving God in their midst.
They have a clear sense of God’s promises that the prophet proclaims: “I will fix a place for my people and I will plant them so they may dwell in their place without further disturbance. . . The Lord reveals to you that he will establish a house for you.” Holy people know that grace comes from God and not from buildings or any other king of possession. Mary clearly understands this in the Gospel when she states, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord” and not her own virtues. Her humble faith and that of so many holy people I know become their “greatness.” God is clearly more interested in building more communities of humble faith than physical structures. Sacred space is a profound reality but we must remember that the sacredness of places like the Holy Land and Assisi started with the blessings of God and not building projects. Inspired by today’s readings, we pray for the grace of our loving and humble God to guide us in building humble communities of joyous faith. (TK)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Franciscans in Advent: Weeks 1 & 2

How is your Advent coming along? Are you taking time to take time? To slow down. To be still. To listen—patiently, expectantly—for the voice of God in your heart as you prepare for Christmas. Advent anticipates and articulates the deep longing and incipient joy of all Christians as we contemplate the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, as the “God made man among us” No wonder then, that Advent has a very special place in the hearts of Franciscans everywhere. The words of the liturgy express it so beautifully: “… we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus the Christ.”

Part of our job as friars is to minister— principally (and ideally) to anyone and everyone God places in our path. Usually, we tend to consider our ministry in terms of our institutional roles: as pastors in parishes; chaplains in hospitals and jails; as teachers and administrators of charitable organizations to help the powerless, the dispossessed, and the destitute. But we friars also need to minister to each other, at home, brother to brother, brothers among brothers. And to allow others to minister to us as well. This is a part of our life which so vital to our way of trying to live the Gospel of Jesus, but it is also one which is necessarily removed from public view Yet, in order to minister effectively in public, we must minister each other ‘at home.’ It’s something we work at and struggle with constantly; there is no single, perfect way to do it. So we are always trying different approaches to see what works best.

For example, this year our provincial JPIC (Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation) office circulated a little pamphlet with a series of Advent meditations written by friars for friars and others. Some brothers are using this material in their personal, individual prayer and meditation. But a group of us, representing three different houses in the San Francisco Bay Area, decided to get together and spend and entire ‘day of recollection’ to consider and discuss this material together. A dozen of us took off work, disconnected our cell phones and pagers, and gathered at San Damiano Retreat Center in Danville, California, to share and prepare for Advent together.

Friar Tommy King (above) is a missionary priest in the Peruvian Amazon. Friar Larry Goselin (below) currently lives and works at our parish—Ascension Catholic Church—in Portland, Oregon, and has worked for decades in Mexico and among Native Americans.
Don’t ask me how they did it, but somehow they managed to communicate and collaborate to produce this, the fruit of their own prayer and reflection, as a special gift to us, their brothers. We, in turn, offer it to you for your own Advent journey:

“We sometimes hear the command, “Hurry up and wait.” This paradoxical statement presents a hurried way that we can approach a time and place of “waiting”. Advent calls us to pause, listen, ponder, and to bring into ourselves a place that hungers to wait in a spirit of patience and joy. There are different attitudes that we can enter into as we are asked “to wait.” We can wait either with idle expectation or with an active attention. To be in an idle stance of expectation would be characterized by feelings of emptiness, discontentment, and restlessness, boredom, lacking desire or focus. In this attitude the one who waits is seen and felt as non-essential or unimportant. However, an active attitude in “waiting” could be characterized as an experienced that is filled with anticipation, calmness patience, listening, longing, excitement, and receptivity. In this place the one who “waits” is essential and important…

First Sunday of Advent : A Prayer
Lord, as the dawn waits for the morning light, we long for Your Life. Come, we pray send the light that will awaken hope and alertness in joy. A child is promised to us. May we be drawn at this beginning point, to the still point of creation, the One to be born in a manger, the promised heralded King. It is in His poverty that we have our strength, and it is His humility that we are lifted up. Free us from the darkness that hinders our vision, inspire us to watch with faith. (LG)

A Reflection
Joselito has been the parish boat driver for over twenty years. Navigating the Ucayali River is not easy and I admire the skill with which he controls our little aluminum craft and its thirty horsepower engine . We often make journeys together that are three hours or more to visit some of the distant villages of the parish and I completely trust in him. He is such a good driver, I am usually relaxed enough to read, pray, listen to my I-Pod or just doze a little. When the river rises in the winter, Joselito must constantly dodge pieces of trees that are floating all over. In the summer he has to constantly watch out for sand bars so as not to run aground. When we are hit with a hard tropical rain in our travels, Joselito skillfully revs up the engine and we speed through the raindrops that feel like bullets hitting your face so we can leave the storm behinds us a quick as possible. And all year around, Joselito seems to have X ray vision when he constantly avoids well- hidden fishing nets that could reek havoc on the propeller. As Joselito and I travel together, my mind often wonders but Joselito is constantly alert to make sure we arrive at our destination safely.

Joselito’s need to constantly be alert to fulfill his duty is a great metaphor for me to understand today’s Gospel. Jesus tells us, “Be watchful!” and “Be alert!”. He is not warning us to be on the lookout so we can avoid God’s wrath but guiding us on how be people who live deeply conscious of the Kingdom he is proclaiming. Because Joselito is watchful and alert when he navigates the Ucayali River, he is deeply aware of the reality all aspects nature around us and we travel peacefully. Likewise, when we seek One to be prayerfully alert to world that surrounds us, God offers us a vision of life so we can live in peace with other people and all of creation. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus makes it clear that God is always closer to us than we are to ourselves. The challenge for us is to be more and more alert and responsive to that loving presence through our personal prayer, community prayer and our relationships with our brothers and sisters in the human family and throughout all of creation as we seek to “navigate” our lives with the vision of God’s Kingdom . The Good News is that we are never alone because our “Heavenly Boat Driver” is always guiding us. (TK)

Second Sunday of Advent: A Prayer
The voice of the prophet sounds in the in the depths of life. The “cry of the poor” is heard in ancient voices throughout ages, today the voices are new. “Prepare the Way, a Highway for our God.” “Let the valleys be filled and the mountains lowered, smooth the rough ways. Comfort, give comfort and bring Good News to the poor. This is the cry of the prophet. May our voices be attuned to this voice of hope. May we be the hope that is Your promise to us, inspire us to listen with joy. (LG)

A Reflection
One of the most difficult aspects of my job is the pastoral care of people in the parish who constantly must deal with inadequate health care. In my political district, there is only one doctor for every ten thousand people, no X ray machine, very crude clinical labs and often a shortage of basic medicine. The painful reality is that this injustice not only exists throughout the Peruvian Amazon but it is a reality for our sisters and brothers all throughout the Third World. Ignacio Ellacuria, one of the Jesuits martyred in El Salvador in 1989, preferred to call the poor countries the “Crucified World” because Christ continues to suffer in the poor who must daily live under inhuman conditions. Sister Guadalupe, a Franciscan sister in the parish is a very compassionate nurse and is absolutely wonderful in caring for people of all ages and a great inspiration for me. She regularly visits the sick and the dying in their homes. Sister Guadalupe would not even have basic pain killers to offer injections to people who are dying. I am often confused and ask myself, “How do I offer comfort to people who must suffer so much injustice?”

Most certainly this type of injustice must constantly be denounced. Inspired by the example of John the Baptist and Jesus, we all are called to denounce injustice and proclaim the Good News of God’s Kingdom. We know that denouncing an injustice system and trying to change it to better serve the poor is a difficult and slow task. What do we do in the meantime not to lose hope? Isaiah invites us today to find comfort in God’s constant and faithful presence with us-“Here is your God!” Like a shepherd, God “carries us in his bosom.” It seems to me that, after doing all we can to change an injustice system, the only other thing we can do is comfort the poor and suffering with the assurance that God loves them and is deeply present to them. As pastoral ministers, our presence and care to them is to be “physical proof” of God’s loving compassion for them.
We see in today’s Gospel that John the Baptist “prepares the way of the Lord” by calling his listeners to conversion. For Ellacuria, central to our commitment to ongoing conversion means asking, “What shall I do to bring down the ‘crucified people’ from the cross?” As we try to respond to that call to conversion in our own lives, with the help of the Holy Spirit promised by the Baptist we renew our commitment to denounce injustice in the world and manifest God’s personal and loving presence by caring for the poor and suffering. (TK)

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Franciscan Hermitage? Welcome to St. Clare's in Sebastopol, California

What comes to your mind when you hear the words ‘hermit’ or ‘hermitage’?
A magnificent palace/museum of the same name built by Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg, Russia?....

A mountain aerie inhabited by a gnome-like holy man lost in deep meditation?....

Well, guess again. Welcome to the St. Clare Hermitage—a uniquely Franciscan place of prayer and rest… and yes, a bountiful measure of joy!

Envision, instead, a tiny, ‘postage stamp farm’: a nine-acre site just outside of the town of Sebastopol in exurban Sonoma County, about an hour by car north of San Francisco. A half-dozen rustic cottages on wooded meadowland, circling a small pond close by. Prepare for a warm and gracious welcome in the person of our Brother Mateo Guerrero, the resident friar at St. Clare’s. And get ready to sit one down immediately to a cup of freshly brewed coffee with an obligatory plate full of homemade brownies and oatmeal cookies.

Mateo smiles with good reason. He has seen more than a few miracles in the six years he has been at St. Clare’s: “Here I can choose how radically I want to live the Franciscan life,” he reveals, jumping into the heart of the hermitage experience. “It’s about learning to say ‘yes’ to what the poor have no choice about…. Here, we have no official support whatsoever. No allowance, no regular income. Just the neighbors. And friends. People just show up at the door with eggs, produce, flowers. People give. There is real power in being fragile, vulnerable, not having. It gives other people the chance to give. Yes, we may have to move one day. But then again, maybe not. We’ll just see what the Lord has in store and go along with that.”

Before we go on any further, though, let’s backtrack a bit. Yes, St. Clare’s is a real hermitage—but in a particularly Franciscan sense. And Brother Mateo is really a hermit -- also in that same particularly Franciscan sense. So, after nearly 800 years, what exactly does it mean to be a hermit in the “particularly Franciscan sense”? According to his earliest biographers, Francis himself always felt drawn to remote places…. “After he had renounced the world at the court of the Bishop of Assisi, he spent the next several years living as a hermit…. And when Francis and his eleven companions returned to the Spoleto valley from Rome after their Rule had been approved in 1209, they first discussed among themselves whether they should live strictly as hermits or live a mixed life of prayer for the salvation of souls.” (Omnibus, p. 71).

Eventually, Francis and his companions did select the ‘mixed life’ combining contemplation and active ministry, but our founder made provision for the expression of eremetical piety in the form of a special Rule for Hermitages. In brief, 3-4 friars were to live together for a limited period of time. They would divide themselves into “mothers” and “sons”/ “Marys and Marthas”, if you will. The “mothers” provided for the material needs of the “sons” and protected them from disruptions to their prayer. After a period of time, they would reverse roles. The main thrust of the eremitcal life among Franciscans then and now has been to provide a period of rest and spiritual renewal from the struggles of active ministry, rather than a long-term commitment dedicated to this one lifestyle.

Franciscan hermitages are relatively common in Europe today, and relatively rare in North America. Brother Mateo, initially joined by Friar Rob Young, began the first project in the Province of St. Barbara in 2003. It was an idea which had been percolating in Mateo’s mind and heart for decades, though, finally reaching fruition in the establishment of the St. Clare Hermitage. As Mateo himself explains:

“I entered the community at the age of 18, going on 10. After a period of time, I found myself in a spiritual rut and left on a ‘leave of absence’ for nearly 10 years. I realized my own ‘greenness’ and lack of worldly understanding. I led my life among the rich and the famous, working as a private cook. But all the money in the world can’t bring you happiness. Eventually, I felt the Lord calling me back.

“For me, (the contemplative life) for us Franciscans is tapping into who we really are. St. Francis spent much of his life in hermitages and look at how productive he was!.... (We need to take time to) rest with our Beloved, with Jesus. If you don’t have a personal encounter with Him, there is something wrong. You need to be alone with the Beloved…. (I believe) there’s something to be said about bringing out that fire in prayer…. It feeds us, gives us a reason to continue, and gives us inner strength. Saying ‘yes’ to Jesus, not from the mind, but from the heart."

After years of searching for a suitable property for a hermitage, Brother Mateo learned about the Sebastopol site. Originally a small family farm, the Vaughn Ranch, the nine-acre parcel was acquired by the St. Anthony Foundation in the early 1950s as a rehabilitation center for men. Up to 30 residents at one time were involved in the project, which initially included a small candlemaking concern and a projected Christmas tree farm. The land was unsuitable for cultivation, however, and lack of ready well water jinxed the endeavor. The Farm moved to a larger site several miles away and shifted its focus to dairy products. Meanwhile, a group of Dominican sisters moved into the small bungalows on the site and stayed for nearly thirty years, before Mateo ‘inherited’ the site six years ago.

Friars and others come for various periods of spiritual rest and renewal—anywhere from several days to several weeks. The air is fresh; the neighborhood astoundingly quiet; the night sky, often crowded with stars. And the food is incredible.... Each visitor contributes according to her/his means and inclinations; there is never a “charge’ for anything. In terms of maintenance and upkeep, a faithful group of local supporters, representing a variety of faith traditions—or none—have made the hermitage into their own labor of love. E

In terms of the rhythm of daily prayer, or ‘horarium’, St. Clare’s offers regular morning and afternoon recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours. There is Eucharist when a priest is available. Devotional prayer including the rosary and a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament also available. Everything is optional for guests, many of whom just need time to rest deeply in the Lord: . “The schedule serves us; we don’t serve the schedule. Of course, we need to be flexible and sensitive to people’s needs. But it should also ‘pinch’ a bit, be just a little uncomfortable to help one grow.” The response to the spiritual offerings of the hermitage has been gratifying, especially among lay friends: “People come to our 24-hour vigils at every hour of the night and day. You really see their devotion; the sacrifices they are willing to make.”

Brother Mateo’s dream is to maintain a stable, ongoing place of rest and welcome to all: “Hospitality goes such a long way toward healing, towards opening the door (of one’s heart) to Jesus.” This is immediately apparent in the small touches of welcome everywhere: flowers in the rooms; a jar jammed with homemade cookies; signature gourmet meals that Mateo—a master chef-- just ‘throws’ together—simple, healthful ingredients combined with a great deal of care.

Pressing financial burdens in these difficult times have made it necessary to put the property on the market recently. Consequently, the hermitage may have to find another home at some point, but Brother Mateo remains optimistic about future prospects. And at age 73 (he looks decades younger), he is still not afraid to dream boldly: “One has to accept this and let go. But we’ll keep going, no doubt about that. This way of life requires hope! We need to rekindle the flame, that first love of Jesus and Francis we have experienced….The hermitage will go on; contemplation is, after all, at the heart of our Franciscan life.” Amen, Brother!//

P.S.: Since posting this blog, we have received a number of requests about how to make donations or contact St. Clare Hermitage. You can reach: Br. Mateo Guerrero, ofm, St. Clare Hermitage, 6501 Orchard Station Road, Sebastopol, CA 95472. Tel. 707/792-5033. Note: Br. Mateo does NOT have email.... ct//

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

San Francisco: An Immersion Excursion

It's axiomatic. The only real way to meet the friars is to-- well-- meet the friars! That's exactly what Sam, Dirk, and Simon-- our guests the weekend of November 14-16-- did as part of their San Franciscan Bay Area Immersion Experience. The trio all arrived from southern California, both by air (Sam and Dirk) and Greyhound (Simon). They brought with them open and willing hearts as well as their own stories. Sam, originally from Indonesia, is an industrial engineer. Dirk, a native of Aachen, Germany, has worked in the LA area for more than ten years as a technician for theatre production work. And Simon works in human resources.

Just as our guest/inquirers shared parts of their faith journey and life experience with us, we Franciscans tried for our part to share our own stories as well, through our ministries and community life. The San Francisco Bay Area, with its tremendous diversity and wealth of resources, is the perfect place for an inquirer to jump in and explore Franciscan life up close. And that's just what we invited our guests to do.

The quick pace of the three-day weekend event provided our visitors with the chance to get a good overview of the Franciscan presence in the Bay Area and most significantly in the city of St. Francis itself. Our first stop was historic Dolores Mission, founded in 1776 and a poignant reminder that the histories of both the Franciscans and the city of San Francisco are closely intertwined. Next stop on the Grand Tour was a visit with our brother, Fr. Richard Purcell at the Aurora Dawn/ Marty's Place foundation in the city's Mission district. Richard, whose brother Marty died of AIDS, founded this hospice for homeless men with HIV/AIDS and has served as its resident director since its inception. Over the past two decades, hundreds of men have spent the last weeks and days of their lives at Marty's Place. Without exception, they have experienced respect, acceptance and loving care.

As our host, Richard received us with that same warm welcome and gracious hospitality. At the time of our visit, he was in his element and regaled us with wonderful stories about his life and work both at Aurora Dawn and earlier on among the Native American people of the Southwest. "They taught me everything," he told us, "Before I met the Indians, I didn't have a spirituality. They gave me my own and it has anchored my life." Richard held us spellbound and in stitches with his devilish humor, charm, and wisdom. We had to tear ourselves away after two hours. For his part, he was just getting warmed up.

Our other visits over the weekend followed a similar rhythm, juxtaposing the experience of formal institutions with encounters with real live people. Friday night, we had a great dinner as guests of the friars at St. Boniface in San Francisco's hardscrabble Tenderloin neighborhood. The next day, all four of us pitched in next door at the St. Anthony Dining Room. Joined by several dozen other volunteers, we helped to serve a hot, nutritious lunch to the nearly 2800 guests who queued in line from 10 to 2. For all of us, it was an extraordinary encounter, difficult to describe. Hope, despair, friendship, holiness. Interwoven with the shocking reality of deep poverty, disease, and homelessness just a few blocks from the one of the world's great upscale shopping districts-- Union Square and the San Francisco Centre close by.

We had little time to digest or process the intensity of our experience at St. Anthony's. Next stop: the East Bay, with brief calls at St. Elizabeth parish and friary in Oakland's primarily Latino Fruitvale neighborhood, followed by visits in turn to the new Oakland Cathedral of Christ the Light, then on to our Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley. At St. E's, we were greeted by the guardian, Fr. Ponchie Vasquez and several student friars. With more than a dozen friars, St. E's is the largest house in our province. The adjacent church is a magnet for Hispanic Catholics from throughout the East Bay.

The relative homeiness of St. E's gave way to the sophisticated elegance of the new cathedral, whose overall simplicity, nevertheless, clearly resonates with the Franciscan spirit. On to Berkeley's Holy Hill, north of the University campus, we were able to check out FST, our school of theology, which includes among its faculty some of the most respected names in Franciscan studies: Kenan Osborne, Joe Chinnici, Michael Guinan, and Bill Short among others. We also did a walk-through of nearby buildings which belong to the Graduate Theological Union, an ecumenical consortium of which FST is an integral part.

After pausing to savor the sunset from Holy Hill, we drove down to the Berkeley flatlands to our Brother Giles fraternity, where friars Adrian Peelo and Luis-Alberto Guzman had prepared a wonderful dinner of chicken and pasta casserole, with salad and not just one, but several outrageously sweet desserts. Armies move on their stomachs, but we friars are perfectly willing to sit still a good while to enjoy our dinner, which is exactly what we did on this occasion. Again, several student friars and other guests joined in.

Sunday morning there was just enough time for a quick breakfast before a wonderful Gospel Mass back at St. Boniface. Friar Vince Hughes presided over the liturgy, while the gospel choir had even the most timid souls among us up, clapping our hands and stamping our feet in praise and thanksgiving. That's what it's all about! After Mass, the four of us regrouped for a check in and wrap up session before lunch and departure.

This Immersion Weekend is not your typical retreat experience. In fact, it's not a retreat at all. But it really is an intense and fast-paced immersion into our life as we actually experience it, not as some sugary showcase that reveals nothing about who we really are: practicing human beings like everyone else. Our guests took it all in stride-- the magnificance of a Saturday sunset over the Golden Gate bridge right along with unscheduled delays, detours, and distractions: Fr. Jorge took sick so I had to jump in to take the Friday noon Mass.... A 4:30 am fire alarm in the neighborhood had everyone in the house up (not me, I slept through it all, thank you very much).... We caught friars as we could-- and they were frequently on the run to and from work, classes, funerals, and youth group meetings..... All of that mixed in with food, friendship, fun, punctuated by some periods of prayer and reflection. Welcome to us. Come and join us yourself on our next immersion experience. In the meantime, may the Lord give you peace!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

We're Getting Ready to Enter a New Chapter

Loving God,
Send us Your Spirit of courage
- that we might consult not our fears, but our hopes and dreams;
- -that we think not about our frustrations but about our unfulfilled potential;
- and that we concern ourselves not with what we tried and failed,
- but with what is still possible for us to do.
- Siempre adelante!/ Always forward, never look back!

For more than a year now, we friars of the Province of St. Barbara have been reciting this prayer in preparation for our upcoming Chapter 2009 (January 4-9) at Old Mission San Luis Rey, Oceanside, California. It is an adaptation of a prayer written by Blessed John XXIII in preparation for what was to become the transforming event known to the world as the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II. It certainly conveys something of both our own experience and hope as a community.

Earlier this year (see: August 19, 2008) I wrote a blog entry entitled “Greetings from our meetings”—a description of how we friars organize ourselves and do business. Our ‘chapter’— (I know, the word sounds like a section of a book. And in a way, it is. A section of the book of our Franciscan life)—is certainly a deliberative gathering. But it is much more than that for us. It is really more in the nature of a week-long liturgy. A prayer and way of praying that reminds us that we are not so much leading (although, face it, we’re human, and like to think we’re in charge of everything) as being led. By that Spirit of Courage we invoke in our prayer. I've been working with a group of friars in our Chapter Steering Committee to help put things together for our January meeting. We've still got a ways to go, but here's a little sneak preview of what we'll be doing.

When we Franciscans gather to chapter (both noun and verb) this coming January, we will need to make some very important decisions together that will affect our lives for the next three years and beyond. (below, left, Minister Provincial Mel Jurisich, ofm, with Fr. John dePaemelaere, ofm):

Elections. Guess what, we have elections, too. But unlike the presidential contest we’ve just undergone, it’s not a matter of an intense campaign. We will select our new Provincial Minister as well as his six counselors, called ‘definitors’. Names are surfaced through several straw ballots conducted by mail among solemnly professed friars. A shortlist of those most highly ranked is sent to our Curia in Rome for approval. At Chapter, we listen to and pray with our brothers, and then vote by secret paper ballot.

Visitation. (Above, Fr. Peter Williams, ofm) Every six years, each Franciscan province throughout the world is required to undergo a thorough review of its life conducted by an appointed Visitator General. His unenviable (and I do mean ‘unenviable’) task is to visit every single friar in every single friary at every single ministry in our province before making a final report with recommendations about how to improve and enhance the quality of our Franciscan life. This time, our visitator is Fr. Peter Williams, ofm, a member of the English province who has worked as a missionary in Africa over the past 25 years. By the time we get to Chapter, Fr. Peter will have spent no less than five months at his task.

Proposals. The Chapter provides a way for friars to inform and direct our leadership by naming specific priorities for our fraternal life and ministry. Issues tend to percolate upward and outward. Ideas may originate with an individual or small group of friars; they may come from one of our organized councils; or they may emerge from our Definitorium. At any rate, they set the tone and direction of our leadership for the next three-year cycle.

This Chapter, four major issues/ proposals have emerged for the friars to consider:

 The care of our senior friars (a policy on retirement. (Below, Fr. Warren Rause, ofm):

 Evangelization & Our Way of Gospel Life: focus on how we minister and live together, especially as we face institutional downsizing because of shrinking numbers and the aging of our community overall; (below, Friar James Lockman, ofm):

 Long-Range Financial Planning: an effort to recognize our financial needs and to develop a program for raising funds to assist our senior friars and those who are in studies and/or formation; (below, Fr. Ken Laverone, ofm):

 Immigration: a movement to address this tremendously important and controversial issue as it affects the people to whom we minister as well as our own fraternal life. (below, Fr. Rigoberto Caloca-Rivas, ofm):

The icing on the cake for this particular Chapter is that is coincides with the celebration of the 800th anniversary of the (first) Rule of St. Francis in 1206. As part of that celebration, our Minister General, Fr. José Rodríguez Carballo, ofm, will be flying in from Rome to address our gathering.

In addition, we will be dedicating an entire day of our proceedings to acknowledge the gifts and contributions of the laypeople with whom we collaborate in our ministries. More than 40 laypeople are expected to be in attendance, along with nearly 200 friars.

So that’s what we do at Chapter. But it’s not all we do. Not by a long shot. Our communal prayer life flows in and out of the proceedings, with almost 20 separate liturgies throughout the week.

Also, we will be having two special cultural events—a multi-cultural concert involving musicians and performing artists representing some of the communities we serve. A second performance event, “I Conoscenti” involves a multi-media ensemble interpretation of the life of St. Francis through the perspective of the ‘conoscenti’—the people who knew him.

That’s our Chapter. Not just an event, but a process which has been ongoing now for nearly 18 months. The actual week at Old Mission San Luis Rey will represent the culmination of our works, dreams, and most certainly, prayers.

For someone interested in our way of life, this is just a little peek at a way of life of an institution which has succeeded—amazingly!—not just in surviving, but in renewing and being renewed by the Spirit for 800 years.

Siempre adelante!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Friarside Feedback

Many thanks to all of our readers for your feedback and encouragement. Here are a few recent comments. Feel free to contact us by pushing the 'comments' button at the bottom of this or any entry. You can also email us at: We would especially appreciate any suggestions or ideas for themes you would like to see explored in future blog entries. Peace and all good! -- Fr. Chuck

Congratulations...on reaching 10,000 hits! Your blog is an inspiration to me.
--Philip C.
San Francisco, CA

I first became familiar with the Friarside Chats through Fr. Chuck. He travels with his camera in hand; prepared to capture his next story as inspiration strikes. If you spend anytime with him, you are bound to have your picture taken. The Friarside Chats capture both the spirit of St. Francis and of his modern day followers. As I read each posting, I am reminded to recall and reflect on my own daily experiences, through the eyes of faith.

Scott S.
Hood River, Oregon

I have been prompted to read Friarside chats for three reasons (I know, how Trinitatarian). The first is that the blog is written well, and that always helps. The second reason is that it helps me to deepn my own faith journey. And the final reason, is that it helps me keep appraised of the what is happening with my Franciscan siblings!

Jeff D.
Oakland, CA

I have been enjoying your Friarside Chats and have been meaning to thank you. I just finished reading what is on your page and it is wonderful! I especially like the sermon by Dr. Williams. Peace and all good to you,
Sacramento CA

Splendid job on your web site. In a time when religious vocations are being highlighted/ Friarside chats offers a non-threatening opportunity for exploration of the Franciscan community. Your topics are always interesting and offer knowledge on the Franciscan spirituality. I check the column weekly. Our son is currently a novice and we are able to learn so much about the order by checking in with you site. May many be called by seeing what you have to offer.
--Dan B.
Chino Hills, CA

I remembered to log onto your blog and WOW! … Your blog (what an unattractive word, huh?) is beautiful. Love the pictures and the verses.
Malibu, CA

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome: The Franciscan Connection

Sunday, November 9, Roman Catholics celebrate a very special solemnity: the dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. Actually, for Franciscans, this historical commemoration holds special significance in our history and tradition.

The Lateran, as it is referred to affectionately, is one of four major churches or basilicas in the city of Rome. It is the pope’s church as Bishop of Rome, while St. Peter’s Basilica is the pope’s see as leader of the universal Church. In addition, St. John Lateran is one of the oldest Christian churches in Rome, having been given to the Christian community by the Emperor Constantine in the year 313 CE. The Lateran has been pillaged, destroyed, and rebuilt several times throughout its long history. Yet, it has not only endured, but perdured through the centuries.

The Franciscan connection is quite direct and poignant. Sometime in the year 1209, Francis, along with his motley crew of initial followers, had traveled to Rome to petition Pope Innocent III for approval of his Rule-- i.e., permission to establish a new religious order. Innocent III was not just any church leader, by the way. He was probably the most powerful ruler, secular or religious, in all of medieval Europe. Francis, in contrast, was both an eccentric and somewhat marginal figure initially.

While Francis was in Rome awaiting the pope's decision, Innocent III had a strange experience. As St. Bonaventure recounts in his biography, The Major Life of St. Francis “He (Pope Innocent III) saw in a dream,... the Lateran basilica almost ready to fall down. A little poor man, small and scorned, was propping it up with his own back bent so that it would not fall. ‘I’m sure,’ (Innocent) said, ’he (Francis) is the one who will hold up Christ’s Church by what he does and what he teaches.’ Because of this, filled with exceptional devotion, he bowed to the request (of Francis) in everything and always loved Christ’s servant with special love. Then he granted what was asked and promised even more. He approved the rule, gave them a mandate to preach penance, and had small tonsures given to all the lay brothers, who were accompanying the servant of God, so that they could freely preach the word of God.” ( Chapter 3).

In front of the Basilica, a contemporary statue of St. Francis, arms outstretched stands poised and ready for action. If the viewer stands directly behind the sculpture, he/she will notice that the figure of Francis appears to ‘hold’ the basilica in his hands. Elsewhere, in the Basilica of St. Franics in city of Assisi itself, , a series of extraordinary frescoes recounting scenes from the life of St. Francis include a panel depicting of “The Dream of Innocent III”, have adorned its walls since the 14th century.

It is not simply out of a sense of "family pride", sentimentality, or nostalgia that the Franciscans have cherished this account for the past eight hundred years. Rather, it is the heart of this story—our call to bear witness to the Gospel by our lives and example—that continues to challenge and inspire us even today. Especially today.

The ‘church’ which Francis was called to rebuild was not the Lateran or the little chapel of San Damiano or any other physical structure, of course. The ‘church’ was and is the People of God who emerge in every time and place to proclaim and even reclaim, where necessary, the Good News of Jesus Christ. We continue to try-- in spite of and sometimes, even in the midst of our own struggles and doubts—to be true to that founding spirit and to do our very small part.

So, we continue to join with Francis and Clare in the simple prayer which defines our hope and mission:

“We adore You, Most Holy Lord Jesus Christ
Here and in all Your churches throughout the world.
And we bless You, because by your Holy Cross,
You have redeemed the world.”//

Thursday, November 6, 2008

We're at 10,000! This calls for a celebration!

Dear Friends,

Thanks so much for your support of Friarsidechats!
Since May, 2008, we've logged about 10,000 "hits" (i.e., visits) to our site. This calls for a little celebration, don't you think?
We will send a FREE gift (!) to the next 10 people who send us an email now that we've reached the 10,000 mark!

Just write to us at:
with your name, both email and mailing address, and a short statement of what induced you to read the blog. Feel free to suggest any topics or themes we might consider in future blog entries.++

Okay? We'll print the reviews and your first name, and city, but nothing else.

Thanks again!
Fr. Chuck Talley, ofm

++P.S.:Another option is to press the 'comments' button at the bottom of this blog and provide the same info.

T is for Tau

Since the time of St. Francis and St. Clare in the 13th century, the distinctive emblem of the “tau” has served as a trademark of Franciscan identity. It is said that Francis used the “tau” (rhymes with “how”) in his writings, employing it as his own personal signature. Tradition also has it that he had the ‘‘‘tau’’’ painted on the walls and doors of the places where he stayed. If so, it is our earliest documentation of Franciscan graffiti, but hardly the last. What is the “tau” exactly, and what is its significance in Franciscan life and identity today?

I’m so glad you asked! First of all the “tau” is exactly what it looks like, the letter ‘T’—the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet ,which could be simultaneously written: /\ X + T. The most frequent reference used by Christians is from the prophet Ezekiel: ” Then he called to the man dressed in linen with the writer's case at his waist, saying to him: Pass through the city (through Jerusalem) and mark an X ( i.e., ‘‘‘tau’’’-ed) on the foreheads of those who moan and groan over all the abominations that are practiced within it.” .-- Ezekiel (9:4, New American Bible translation)

In early Christian tradition, the stylized ‘‘tau’’ cross came to represent the means by which Christ reversed the disobedience of the old Adam and became our Savior as the “New Adam.” Origen wrote in the third century: “The shape of the letter ‘tau’ presented a resemblance to the figure of the Cross and that therein was contained a prophesy of the sign which is made by Christians upon their foreheads, for all the faithful make this sign in commencing any undertaking and especially at the beginning of prayer or of reading of Holy Scripture.” (Note, below, the Tau cross on Tory Island, Ireland, dating from the sixth century):

The use of the “tau” scarcely originated with Francis, then, but he certainly succeeded in popularizing the emblem as the unofficial logo of the movement which bears his name. Some writers indicate that Francis may have had contact with a religious community called the Anthonians/ Antonians, known for their work with lepers. They wore a great “tau” painted on their habits. It would not require a great stretch of the imagination, then, to infer that Francis may have appropriated the symbol as an indication of his own commitment to serve lepers and other marginalized people in his time.

At the Fourth Lateran Council, on November 11, 1215, Pope Innocent made reference to the ‘‘tau’’ and quoted the above-cited verse in reference to the profaning of the Holy Places by the Saracens. It is widely accepted that St. Francis was present at the Council and that he heard the words of Pope Innocent III when he said, "The ‘‘tau’’ has exactly the same form as the Cross on which our Lord was crucified on Calvary, and only those will be marked with this sign and will obtain mercy who have mortified their flesh and conformed their life to that of the Crucified Savior. “

St. Bonaventure said, "This ‘‘tau’’ symbol had all the veneration and all the devotion of the saint: he spoke of it often in order to recommend it, and he traced it on himself before beginning each of his actions." Thomas of Celano, another early Franciscan biographer wrote that, "Francis preferred the ‘‘tau’’ above all other symbols: he utilized it as his only signature for his letters, and he painted the image of it on the walls of all the places in which he stayed."
In the famous blessing of Brother Leo, Francis wrote on parchment, "May the Lord bless you and keep you! May the Lord show His face to you and be merciful to you! May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace! God bless you Brother Leo!" Francis sketched a head (of Brother Leo) and then drew the ‘‘tau’’ over this portrait.

Indeed, the habit worn by Franciscan men is itself in the form of the ‘‘tau’’ cross, a sign of lifelong penance and conversion of heart. As St. Bonaventure further wrote: "For even while he [Francis] lived among men,
he imitated angelic purity
so that he was held up as an example
for those who would be perfect followers of Christ.
We are led to hold this firmly and devoutly
because of his ministry
to call men to weep and mourn,
to shave their heads, and to put on sackcloth,
and to mark with a ‘‘tau’’
the foreheads of men who moan and grieve,
signing them with the cross of penance
and clothing them with his habit,
which is in the form of a cross". -- St. Bonaventure, The Life of St. Francis.

That was then and this is now. Today, the ‘‘‘tau’’’ is a common sight at Franciscan gatherings. It is often worn as a simple wooden cross around the neck, attached with a string cord that not infrequently has three knots on it: one for each of the three vows to poverty, chastity, and obedience taken by all Franciscans.

Most frequently, the ‘‘tau’’ would be worn by friars (when not in their formal habit), and on a daily basis by many Franciscan sisters, as well as by the nearly one million Franciscan women and men who belong to the lay movement known as the ‘secular’ Franciscans. In fact, since Vatican II, a modified version of the ‘‘tau’’, including what is known as ‘the conformity’—the crossed and outstretched arms of Francis and Christ—has served as the official habit of the secular Franciscan order (SFO’s) around the world.

Of course, since we don’t check id’s on this score, the ‘‘tau’’ is also worn by a great number of people who have a particular devotion to and admiration for the Gospel life as inspired by Francis and Clare of Assisi.
Personally, I am of the opinion that one can never have too many friends or too many ‘‘tau’s”, either, for that matter. Often when I travel ‘incognito’, which is to say, not wearing my habit, people will ask me about the ‘‘tau’’. And if they seem sincere in their interest, then, well, I’ll just give ‘em the one I’m wearing. Not to worry; I’ve got a stash of them at home.
The ‘‘tau’’. A simple and beautiful sign. And a reminder of a commitment which is meant to be equally simple and beautiful: to follow Christ and to serve others with an open and joyful heart. //