Monday, September 1, 2008

From the Apache Nation to the Franciscan Friars: Welcome to Postulancy, Phillip Polk!

Today, September 1, is Labor Day in the United States-- the unofficial end of summer and, in many areas, the official start of the school year. For the Franciscan friars of the St. Barbara Province, it is traditionally the first day of our postulancy program in Portland, Oregon. Every fall, men who have successfully passed through the hurdles of preliminary discernment and application begin their experience in community living. It is a big day and a big step for each of these men. And for the community as well.

This year, four men will enter our postulancy, the House of the Transfiguration, directed by Brother Robert Rodrigues, with assistance provided by Fr. John dePaemalaere. The four—Mike Minton, Jose Antonio Merida, Ryan Thornton, and Phillip Polk—come from a variety of backgrounds and life experience. I made it a point to visit one of our them—Phillip Polk— at his home on the day before he was to leave for Portland.

Phillip, aged 26, is a Native American and member of the San Carlos Apache Nation in southeastern Arizona. The Apache people have lived in this region for more than a millennium. Following incorporation into what is now the United States in the nineteenth century, a number of Apache bands were gathered into a 1.8 million acre reservation about a two-hour drive from either Phoenix or Tucson. The Franciscans have been present in San Carlos since 1918. Fr. Gino Piccoli, ofm, is pastor, and a group of religious sisters representing several different communities staff the parish school. The people have tremendous faith and hope, yet they struggle with all the problems of any urban setting: poverty, crime, drugs, and domestic violence.

I was privileged to be present for Phillip’s sendoff as family and friends gathered for Eucharist at St. Charles Parish on Sunday morning (August 31). Fr. Gino Piccoli, announced to the congregation that 18 young people from San Carlos were leaving the reservation this fall for school and job training programs in other parts of Arizona (Thatcher, Globe, Tucson, Tempe) and the United States (Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Colorado). There are insufficient opportunities for higher education or technical training on the reservation.

The tribe’s medicine man, Hart Preston, was present to impart the community’s blessing with traditional eagle feathers and sage smoke upon each of the young people or their family representatives. It was a moment mixed with hope and pride, as well as some sadness as young people leave both family and tribe—at least temporarily-- to further their career goals.

Phillip Polk was one of the eighteen young people so honored by the community. It was a special moment for his Apache family and for ourselves, his new, additional family of Franciscan friars. Phillip is a poised, thoughtful, and focused young man: “I am attracted to the Franciscans,” he reports, “because of the combination of traditional (American Indian) values I was taught as a kid and the values of the Order. I’ve seen how the Franciscans live with these values and try to live what they preach. I know they have their troubles, too, but they have a support system, a feeling of family that I like.” Phillip knows firsthand about family support: he has been the primary caregivers for his grandparents, Sadie and Clark “Spike” Kniffin, both in their late 80s. Both his grandparents, as well as his mom, Tina, and brother and sister Jeffrey and Cedar, were on hand for the celebration, as were many other family members and friends.

Although the Franciscans have been active among the Native peoples for nearly a century, Phillip is the first Apache man to enter our community’s formation program.

Yes, such occasions are a time of quiet pride for all of us, but we also try to keep the celebration low-key at the same time. Like every entering postulant, Phillip is coming to the Franciscans to try out, to prove his vocation. It is not a celebration of his temporary or solemn profession. That part comes much later. We try to be very careful not to burden our new brothers with unreasonable expectations in the early stages of their adaptation (or “formation”) to religious life. The nine-month postulancy program is a time of continuing discernment, part of an ongoing process. Contrary to some people’s perceptions, leaving during or after postulancy is not a sign of a failed vocation. In many cases, it is the sign of a successful discernment, an indication that both the candidate and the community have decided that continuing would not be a good ‘fit’ for either party.

Taking a cue from the day’s Gospel (Matthew 16), Father Gino talked about the need for each of us to take up our cross and follow Jesus, regardless of the career/ vocational path we have taken. In my comments before blessing Phillip, I tried to stress that the cross we take up is also a sign of love and, eventually, a sign of victory. Phillip then took six small San Damiano (Franciscan) crosses to give to family and friends as a sign of his affection and concern.

We welcome Phillip and all of our new postulant-brothers. And we congratulate as well all of the young people from San Carlos who have had to overcome so many challenges in order to realize their dreams. We keep them all in prayer as we celebrate their faith, passion and courage!//

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