Thursday, May 1, 2008

What Sixth Graders Know and Want to Know about the Franciscans

With fear and trepidation I slogged across the playground. Like a prisoner leaving the yard for the Big House. I had been invited to give a vocations talk to the sixth grade at our parish school. I work with adults, all day long. What do I know about twelve year-old people? After all, I calculated, I’m not one but at least two whole generations older than they are. What could I possibly say to them? What are sixth graders like these days, anyhow?

“Well,” started Mrs. Powers, the principal, greeting me at the door and reading my thoughts at the same time, “they’re a lot like what eighth graders used to be like. They’re good kids, and they have a lot of information, but they’re not quite sure how to put it all together.” That makes two of us, I thought to myself. “Another thing which is very important for them, that they really need to learn is respect. Respect for themselves, respect for each other.”

Armed with these insights and woefully overprepared in terms of props and the amount of material I had planned to present, I stepped hesitantly into the classroom just before the students entered. Their teacher, Mrs. Stites, and I cut strips of paper for the students’ written queries and distributed them among the desktops. A totally unnecessary action; these kids were ready and eager to talk.

“Okay, you go to St. Francis of Assisi school, right? So what do you know about St. Francis and the Franciscans?” I was taken aback. These kids knew a lot—about both. They knew all about St. Francis and the animals, but they also knew that he had been rich and became poor voluntarily to help other people. And they knew a lot about the friars. They knew us by name—all five of us here at our Sacramento parish. Even me, the Fantom Friar, who is almost never home. They knew that we lived together, they knew that we worked for the Church and they understood about our habits and the cords signifying the vows we take.

What they didn’t know they were not at all shy about asking: How much money do you get paid? (Very little). Do you get to keep it? (No, we pool our salaries, pay our bills, get a small allowance, and send most of what’s left to our main office to help the friars who can’t work: seniors and students). Do you any get free time? (Yes, one day a week. Not two, just one.). Can you own your own cd player? (yeah) tv? (not usually) car? (the community owns it, we get to drive it) books? (no problem). Do you have to cook for each other? (Yes, and mostly it’s good, but sometimes it’s awful. Depends on who is cooking).

Have you ever seen the Pope? (Yes, I’ve seen two of them. It was impressive.). Do you have any hobbies? (Well, I cycle, swim and hike when I can)…. Can you have pets? (Generally no. But you can have pictures of them). No pets?! Isn’t St. Francis the patron saint of animals? (Yes, but can you imagine living in a house with seventeen friars with their seventeen cats/dogs? I can’t; it would drive me crazy)…. Do you have another job, too—like working at McDonalds? (Not yet, but we may have to someday if things ever tank for us financially)…. Is your robe hot? (In summer, yes. Then I wear shorts and a t-shirt underneath)…. How old were you when you thought about becoming a priest? (I was six when I first thought about it, then I stopped altogether when I was 18 and started thinking about it real hard again when I was 30). Six years old?! (yep. That’s the truth).

“So. Tell me. Have any of you guys ever thought about becoming a Franciscan (priest, brother, sister)?” I was surprised. About seven hands (out of 30) flew into the air. “How come?” Because it would be cool (okay). Why else? Because you can help people. O.K.! They were also wise: “I would want to make the decision until I was about 20. Because you can’t get married and besides I would like to know more about life first.” (good thinking)

I started to summarize as the class came to an end. “All right, everyone. Remember. God loves you. (Right). God has a plan for each of us (Right again). And that plan is for us to be happy in our lives, not miserable, right? A couple of the philosophers got moving on this one: If God wants us to be happy, why did God make homeless people? Are any homeless people happy?

Food for thought. The wheels, I could see, were turning. Good topic for a future visit. These kids were great. They have dreams. They realize the hard work and sacrifice it takes to achieve those dreams. And they value and respect people who try to give their lives in service to others. “We really like the Franciscans because you’re so cooool!” one kid volunteered. Who was I to argue? Despite my occasional misgivings, I have to admit it, it’s true. Franciscans are cool. Because Francis was cool. And Jesus is always cool.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Speaking of Russia: Mikhail Gorbachev's Assisi Experience

Has the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev embraced the Christian faith? A flurry of excitement and speculation in the international media attended his recent surprise visit to Assisi on March 19. According to the UK Telegraph reporter Malcom Moore, Mr. Gorbachev was accompanied by his daughter Irina and passed unnoticed through crowds of pilgrims at the Basilica of St. Francis. He is said to have spent a half-hour on his knees in silence at the tomb of St. Francis. ( news/2008/03/19/wgorbachev119.xml - 50k),

Christian or not, Mr. Gorbachev was frank in his admiration for "Il Poverello," the "little poor man of Assisi" as Francis was referred to affectionately during his own lifetime. "It was through St Francis that I arrived at the Church, so it was important that I came to visit his tomb," Mr Gorbachev remarked at the time, “I feel very emotional to be here at such an important place not only for the Catholic faith, but for all humanity.” Gorbachev is also reported to have requested literature about St. Francis to familiarize himself further with the saint’s life and ministry. Father Miroslavo Anuskevic, a Lithuanian friar at the Basilica of St Francis, helped guide the former Soviet leader through the site. Now 77 years old, Mr. Gorbachev served as General Secretary of the CPSU, from 1985 until the collapse of the Soviet Union and his subsequent resignation in 1991. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

Apparently, this is the first time Mr. Gorbachev has made any kind of public statement about his personal connection to the faith, although he has been called a "crypto Christian" in the past for expressing views sympathetic to Christian values. Both his parents as well as those of his late wife Raisa were believers. The parents of Raisa are reputed to have been killed during the Stalinist era for possessing religious icons. Gorbachev himself was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church as a youth, though through much of his career, he espoused the official atheist Party line. During the "glasnost" era, however, he once referred to himself as a kind of ‘pantheist’. “Nature is my god,” he once responded to a journalist when asked about his spiritual beliefs. In contrast, the current Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, openly professes the Orthodox faith.

Following his Assisi sojourn, however, Gorbachev apparently squelched any speculation that he might have embraced Christianity at this point in his life.. Returning from Italy, he told the Russian news agency Interfax that "over the last few days some media have been disseminating fantasies—I can't use any other word—about my secret Catholicism, [...] To sum up and avoid any misunderstandings, let me say that I have been and remain an atheist." (

In response to Gorbachev’s denials, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox patriarch Alexei II subsequently told the Russian media: "In Italy, he (Gorbachev) spoke in emotional terms, rather than in terms of faith. He is still on his way to Christianity. If he arrives, we will welcome him."

Wherever he may be on his personal faith journey, it is clear that Mr. Gorbachev, like so many people of good will throughout the centuries and across cultures, has been touched by the inspiring example of "Il Poverello."