Tuesday, May 27, 2008

North x Northwest: A Retreat for Inquirers

Meet a few of our inquirers: Juan, Patrick, Scott, Zeno, and Joshua. They, along with Corey (not shown) were the participants in our Northwest Vocations Weekend, held just this past Memorial Day weekend (May 23-26) in the Portland/Salem area of Oregon.

Ranging in age from 22 to 37 and coming from a variety of backgrounds (construction worker, student, parish youth minister, public health worker, etc.), these men represent a fairly good cross-section of the kind of men inquiring into Franciscan life at this moment. What this particular group of also have in common is that most of them live in the Pacific Northwest. Others have a special interest in the ESL (English as a Second Language) program at our House of Welcome and Discernment in Portland. The photo above was taken in its small basement chapel, by the way.

The particular focus of this past weekend’s activities was to introduce inquirers to the friars of the Northwest-- their ministries, community life, and prayer. The province of Saint Barbara, by the way, encompasses an enormous geographical area—the entire west coast of the United States, as well as Arizona, Nevada, and a portion of the state of New Mexico. Consequently, each region has a very particular climate—social as well as geographical—that gives both color and nuance to Franciscan life.

With its great physical beauty, mild climate (rain notwithstanding), and unique history, the Pacific Northwest provides a special soil for the cultivation of Franciscan life and ministry. Local folks claim with some pride that it takes a particular kind of gumption and down to earth, independent spirit to thrive in this region. After all, the ancestors of many of the area’s inhabitants were pioneers who crossed the continent to reach the Northwest via the celebrated Lewis & Clark trail. That independent, self- starting instinct is surely reflected in the way the friars live and work up here.

Originally, the friars established parishes in both urban as well as rural areas settled by groups of Catholic immigrants (Irish, German, Dutch, Belgian) that incongruously dot an area otherwise known as the most unchurched part of the United States. Today, our physical presence has shrunk to a major concentration of more than a dozen friars in the Portland/ Salem area, as well as parish in Spokane, Washington.

Fewer in numbers, the friars, are no less brave of heart, as we learned on our three-day road trip through the area. Portland is home to our postulancy house (the Transfiguration Community), our House of Welcome and Discernment (HOWD) for aspirants who are studying English, and our parish, Ascension Catholic Church in the Mount Tabor area of the city’s southeast side.

DAY ONE. We were warmly greeted by our hosts at the House of Welcome—Brother Freddy Rodriguez, Father Larry Gosselin, and our student aspirant, Juan José. Their house in a residential cul de sac near the parish is lovingly referred to as the House of Commons, while up the hill about a mile away is the upper house of the community, aka the House of Lords. The ‘lords’ (Friars Jeff Macnab, Loren Kerkof, Didacus Clavel, Brian Flynn and Armando Lopez) put on a wonderful feast for our visitors as we moved easily into introductions and faith sharing.

DAY TWO. The second day of our Oregon odyssey, we jumped into the house van and drove to Francis Center to meet with friar/director Pat Evard. Father Pat showed us around the facility which provides emergency food and clothing for up to 400 clients each month. The House subsists entirely on volunteer labor and donations; no frills, but lots of Franciscan hospitality and joy. After lunch, we continued on to Salem, the state capital, about an hour from Portland. There we were met by Friar John Luat Nguyen, who lives and works at St. Joseph’s, a downtown parish and the largest faith community in the Portland archdiocese. John Luat helps with both Vietnamese and Anglo communities and does considerable outreach to residents of hospitals and nursing homes in the area. He greeted us with green tea and a plate of his own homemade egg rolls. “You have to pray and pray hard, all the time… no matter what you do,” he urged us.

After our stop in Salem, we paid a brief visit to the Benedictine abbey and seminary at Mount Angel, where our ESL students have participated in the school’s ESL program over the past seven years. Aspirants may spend up to three years developing their language skills and fluency before entering our postulancy program.

The final stop of the day was at St. Mary’s Parish in the little town of Shaw at the edge of the wonderful (“awesome”) Silver Falls State Park. “The Catholics settled here in Shaw,” friar/pastor Ben Innes explained, “while the Baptists set up shop in nearby Aumsville. Shaw was ‘wet’; Aumsville was ‘dry’. Consequently, Aumsville prospered while Shaw nearly went under!” Father Ben, long active in youth ministry in California, returned to Oregon to take care of his elderly mother, who later passed on. Ben has stayed to serve the people of the area and St. Mary’s—contrary to his story—has actually thrived. The 5:30 pm Saturday Mass we attended was packed to the gills. No matter that Father Ben had just been released from the hospital the day before, or that the music director didn’t show—the liturgy went on!—and both Ben and the community gave their blessing (literally) to us visitors.

DAY THREE. Blessings from the people of God were a feature of our Sunday liturgy as well at the newly remodeled sanctuary of Ascension parish back in Portland. Father Larry and I presided at the liturgy, and for me personally, it was a wonderful moment. Nine years ago, I arrived at Ascension as one very green deacon, was ordained in Portland, and ended up spending a total of four years in the parish. It was a graced time and great to see the parish family again. In the church basement after Mass, we lunched on the world’s largest (and spiciest) burritos prepared by members of the parish’s thriving Hispanic community. After a brief rest, we went to The Grotto—a Portland landmark staffed by members of the Servite community as an outdoor sanctuary cum garden open to the general public. Home again a few hours later, we sat with two additional friars—Frs. John de Paemelaere and Tom Frost. “John De” is the energizer bunny of the province—at 89 he is still going strong after a long career as a counselor for Oregon’s Department of Corrections in addition to teaching and parochial responsibilities. Fr. Tom, of Covered Wells, Arizona, was in town to help out with a retreat for lay (secular) Franciscans. Tom has spent nearly twenty-five years on the Tohono O’odham reservation near Tucson.

Our three postulants—Victor, Javier, and Eric—along with Brother Jeff Macnab completed the group. We sat, yakked, dove into several varieties of pizza (veggie, cheese, and everything on it). The discussion was free-flowing and broad. But Brother Jeff really nailed it with his very succinct reflection on the discernment process: “You know, “ he said, “it’s not about being a Franciscan or a Jesuit, or becoming a lay leader, or whatever. It is about searching for Christ. Where and how is God showing me that I must search for and encounter Christ in my life?” A long, thoughtful silence followed.

THE WRAP-UP. At our Monday morning wrap-up session, our inquirers had quite a bit to say. Here are a few representative comments:

--“ Even though I live in the area and have visited a lot of the friars, I was surprised at the amount of activity you Franciscans are involved in here in the Portland area.”

--“I didn’t realize how many friars up here are living on their own in parishes and in independent ministry. And they still have a connection to community, but it’s a different way of being community. It’s not always about living together in one house all the time.”

--“I used to think that if priests or brothers lived by themselves, it was because nobody could stand living with them. But now I see that the work has a lot to do with it, too, and that there are a variety of ways to live out the Franciscan lifestyle.”

--“I get the feeling there’s no pressure to conform or fit into a mold of some kind. It’s like you get to be yourself.”

--“I didn’t know how much work Franciscans can do outside of a parish. For myself, I want to be of use to the great society yet also feel connected to community.”

Rich observations and rich fruit for further discernment. The Franciscan experience in the Northwest is different. No big friaries—just small, homey communities with 3-6 men each. Or several men living independently but checking in with the greater fraternity. A certain independent outlook. And a love and closeness to nature that is part of the Franciscan spirit everywhere.

So. This is just one experience. One weekend retreat. One taste of our life. Stay tuned. There is more coming. And if you want to find out for yourself, well, heck, get in touch with me: cstalleyho@yahoo.com


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