Thursday, July 31, 2008

Friar Philippe Yates: From Cambridge to Canterbury via Assisi

Friar Philippe Yates ofm is Principal of the Franciscan International Study Centre in Canterbury, England, where he has taught since 1997. He is also currently a definitor and secretary for formation and studies in the English province of the Immaculate Conception. Philippe studied at the University of Cambridge, the Franciscan International Study Centre, the University of Kent, St. Paul University, Ottawa and the Pontifical University Antonianum, Rome. He is a published author on Franciscan history and canon law. He has also has been invited to lecture at the Franciscan Institute at St. Bonaventure University in New York, and is currently a member of the Commission for the Retrieval of the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition. His current research interests are in Franciscan law, modern Franciscan history and the mutual influence of Franciscan thought and English constitutional development.I spoke with Philippe recently at a conference we both attended in Colorado. He kindly agreed to share his own vocation story with us. -ct

When I was 13, I got a scholarship to an important private school in England. About the same time, my father died in a car crash in Saudi Arabia. It was all happening at a time (in my life) when I was just beginning to deal with such significant issues as what is really important. The evening we learned about my father’s death, I was helping my mother put the car away. She went inside – it was a starry night. And it just struck me that even though my father was dead, I still had a Father who was looking after me. I experienced an overwhelming sense of peace, that everything would be all right.

I also recall that I was sitting in chapel at school one Sunday and one of the Anglican priests, the chaplain, was talking about his own vocation. It flashed through my mind that maybe that’s what I should be doing with my life. And I thought: “No, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be a priest.” But it wouldn’t go away. When I was 17, I finished my schooling in England and helped at a St. Vincent DePaul Society summer camp for underprivileged kids from London. There was a wonderful chaplain there—Monsignor John Armitage. I remember I was talking with him, and we went for a walk around the lake. And I told him: “I think I might be called to be a priest, but I don’t want to be a secular priest. I don’t want a parish all by myself.” He said to me, “You know, it sounds very much like what you want is the Franciscans.” I thought, “Hmm. I’ve never heard of them, but it sounds interesting.” So I started looking out for books and pamphlets about community life. At school, I was in a privileged situation, surrounded by men who, materially speaking, had everything you could want. But I wanted to find a way of life to show that what was important was not position or power or prestige, but how one was in relationship with others and with God.

Then I came across the story about St. Francis meeting the sultan. My father had been in Saudi helping to build a road to Mecca. One of my friends at school was a Jordanian Muslim. Finding that Francis had the courage and insight to reach out to the sultan even when everyone else was fighting was very striking to me.

I read more, spent a year in France at school, and came back to England to do a degree in civil engineering. All the time I was still fighting the call. My second year at school, I was chair of the Fisher Society, a Catholic student group like the Newman Centre. At the end of that year I went to the chaplain of the group and said, “Look, can I have a word with you.” He never expected that I would be telling him about my interest in a religious vocation. So we had a long and rather difficult chat about what a vocation was, about why I thought God was calling me, about what I saw myself doing. And I was kind of afraid he would say to me, “Look, don’t be daft.” But actually he said, “You probably do have a vocation.” It was a bit of a bombshell to me.

By this time, I had read quite a bit, but I had never met a Franciscan. But through my reading I decided that the only branch of the Order I could join would be the OFMs. The reason why was because it was the branch that allowed great diversity—each member could express himself. They didn’t try to dragoon the friars into just one way of understanding Francis. It struck me was being profoundly in tune with the Spirit as I understood it.

The December before I was to finish my degree, I wrote to the vocations director and went to visit the friars on the feast of the Epiphany. Actually, I didn’t receive much encouragement from the vocation director. He said to me “Most of the friars in England don’t come from a private school background like you do. How are you going to fit in?” I thought I would be refused, but in reality he was making me think quite seriously about what I was taking on, about how I would survive in the friars. Then, at Easter, I did the psychological testing and then was received by the friars. I thought they would say, “Wait a year or two, “ but no, they said, “Come in September.” I told my family: there were some tears, but they were generally okay with my decision. So, within nine months of contacting the friars, I entered the novitiate.

My life in the Franciscans has not always been an easy process. There was a lot of adaptation and learning I had to go through. But in my heart, despite the tough times, there was always that still voice that spoke to me the night of my father’s death: “It’s all right, I’m with you and I’ll keep you safe.”

In terms of any advice I might offer to someone in discernment, I can say that one of the things I did when I was thinking about religious life was to go to a weekend retreat run by the Jesuits. There they taught me one of the techniques of the discernment of spirits. That what you need to do is to find that place where your spirit is most at peace. If your spirit is at peace, then, even if you have worries, then it’s still an indication by the Holy Spirit that you are being called. //

For more information about the Franciscan International Study Centre in Canterbury, England, visit their website:

1 comment:

Dark said...

Wonderful vocations postings. They are very helpful to those trying to discern a call!