Friday, May 16, 2008

Brother Jeff is leaving... or is he?

Brother Jeff Shackleton, 45, has been with our community for seven years. Soon, he will need to decide either to renew his temporary vows or else leave our formation program. It’s an agonizing decision for any man who has entered religious life, but Jeff’s situation is illustrative of the ongoing nature of vocational discernment.

Discernment doesn’t stop at the front door of the friary. Trying to understand God’s will is a step by step, day by day process for each and all of us. And it’s a lifelong process, as well. Not a once and for all time commitment. We are human beings, not angels. We make our promises and, with the grace of God, we do our best to keep them. But only the saints among us have anything remotely like a perfect record.

I tell men who are in discernment with us and who decide to apply to our postulancy program: “Please relax. You are not making a decision for the rest of your life. You are making a decision for the next nine months—to enter into one of our houses and live with us in order to try on our way of life and see if it fits.” Sometimes I have to remind the solemnly professed friars of the same thing: “Look, Brothers, we are not considering men for solemn profession at this point. There are bound to be lots of quirks and rough spots in a person’s life, unless he has done a really good job of airbrushing his resume. We are looking to see if a man has the desire, the discipline, and the potential to try his vocation with us.”

At this point it may be instructive to repeat the drill. A man who may be considering a call to religious life contacts us, either in person, by letter or phone, or more increasingly, by email. Our Vocations Office responds, sends him a packet of information and a brief questionnaire. Once a man returns the questionnaire, we set up a “let’s get acquainted” meeting. Or we may invite him to one of our monthly prayer and discernment groups (Los Angeles, Oakland, Berkeley, Phoenix/Tucson, Portland). If he comes to a monthly meeting, we’ll give him a nice dinner, show him around the house, sit with him and the 3-5 other men who may be there as well, and, well, just talk. We make suggestions for things to read, people to see (like a local spiritual director), and things to do (volunteer lay ministry in a parish, social service, etc.) that may help. If a man seems reasonably serious, we will invite him to one of several retreats we offer during the course of the year. Then, usually after a period of anywhere from 6-18 months, he may decide to apply to postulancy—the first phase of our formal formation process.

See? It’s all step by step, poco à poco. That’s the way the Spirit works. Nice and easy. Set a good foundation in prayer, service, spiritual direction, community contact. One step leads naturally to another—gently, firmly, confidently. There should be no drama about this. Drama doesn’t do it. At any point, a man may opt out. That’s just fine. It is not the mark of a failed vocation—it’s a sign that, after having done his footwork, a man may have more clarity and peace about his vocation. And his vocation may not be with us. It is not time wasted; it’s time well spent.

As in the case of our brother Jeff, the discernment continues in a very distinctive way throughout the early years of Franciscan formation—through postulancy, novitiate, and what is called “temporary profession” or “postnovitiate formation.” At the conclusion of his second year with us—the novitiate—a man will make public vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience for a period of one year. Here, the process is more formally structured. Most often, a man lives with other men “in formation.” They have common experiences, meet for days of reflection and retreats together. Each man is evaluated periodically-- he meets with his director on a regular basis to discuss how he is growing in his life—as a human being, as a Christian, as a Franciscan. At the conclusion of each “year”, he may opt to renew his vows, re-up for another year. He may decide to leave. Or the community may ask him to leave. Most often, it’s a mutual decision— we try to let a man know where he stands with us. No trap doors.

Again, departing from formation is a decision, not a disgrace. I need to say that because some folks are still walking around with the idea in their heads that if they don’t ‘make it’ in religious life, they have failed as human beings. Often this attitude comes from the expectations we have of ourselves or the expectations of one’s family or community. Which ain’t necessarily the will of God in one’s life.

The third time is a charm. After a man has renewed his vows for three consecutive years (up to a maximum of nine years), he may apply for solemn (lifelong) profession. If he can’t decide after the maximum amount of time, he needs to leave. There is wisdom in this. A man who can’t or won’t make up his mind can drive himself and other people bonkers.

So what about men who are solemnly professed? Don’t some of them leave, too? Is it true that ‘forever’ isn’t ‘forever’ anymore? Well, let’s be honest and look around us. How many people vow to marriage and stay together their entire lifetime? We are part of society, too. Some people burn out. Some may face a midlife crisis. Others may fall in love. We are human beings. So people leave. Some for a while, only to return later on. Others for good.

How does it feel when a friar leaves? It depends on who is leaving, but yes, it can hurt like hell, too. We open our hearts to each other, hope and trust that we will grow old/er together. That we will always have access to each other in the wonderful ways in which the roots of our lives have knitted (and tangled!) themselves together over time. And the ways in which we have come to endure, tolerate, accept, and then even delight in each other’s goofiness. Yep, it can hurt. And so it is with life. You don’t get any dispensation from pain in religious community.

So, Brother Jeff is up for renewal of vows. Whether he or any man decides to stay or leave, we pray that his decision be marked by that deep sense of inner peace which is a sure sign of the Spirit’s presence, protection, and care. And as a community, we are blessed by all the time and energy a man gives to our life and ministry together—whether it be a single day or an entire lifetime.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Over 40? What's age got to do with it?

"Help! I'm over 40! Would your community consider me for acceptance?" Well, it all depends. Our Province will consider candidates for formation between the ages of 21 and 40, without concern for age. For men between the ages of 40 and 45, we will consider candidates on a case by case basis. We would rarely consider a candidate past the age of 45.

How come? Can't God call someone at any age, from any circumstance of life to become a priest, brother, deacon, or lay leader? Isn't there a terrible shortage of clergy and religious anyhow? And besides, isn't "50" the "new 40"?

I don't disagree with these arguments. In fact, if anyone should favor them, it would be someone like myself. After all, I entered community myself at age 43, so I have a natural sympathy/ empathy for older discerners. That having been said, here is how things look from the perspective of most religious communities today:

The general thinking is that entry into religious life requires a major adjustment in one's way of thinking and relating to others. A younger man, it is argued, will have an easier time adjusting to both the novelty and the strains of living in community. An older man, especially one who as maintained a relatively independent lifestyle, may find community life especially stressful. An older candidate may be more used to his privacy. How will he adjust to the give and take of community living? He may find himself with men half his age as his confreres. How is he going to relate to them? A man who has had a job/career may be used to going to the ATM or using his credit card on the spur of the moment for dinner or entertainment. How will he handle living a radically simplified lifestyle in which he may not have absolute control over certain decisions?

Additionally, more is expected from an older candidate. What have been his life experiences? What has he learned from the ups and downs of life? A younger man, naturally, has had less life experience, is more open and receptive to formation in community. And so on.

Again, I don't know if I agree entirely with this line of reasoning. After all, who are we to put limits on God? I keep a folder of inquiries I have received from men over 45 years of age. I call it my "Eleventh Hour" file. It is quite a thick folder by now. A 'sign of the times', perhaps. Is the Lord trying to tell us something here?

Still, the present reality is this: most religious communities in the United States are reluctant to work with older candidates. Period. And it doesn't look like that will change anytime soon. (Just for the sake of comparison, some communities in other parts of the world hesitate to accept men over 25!)....

So. What's the older inquirer to do? There are a number of options. If a man is especially drawn to the Franciscan charism, he has the option of joining the Secular Franciscans-- the order for laypeople founded by St. Francis himself to enable people to live Gospel values in the circumstances of their daily lives with the support of other, likeminded women and men. There are Secular fraternities throughout the US and the world, part of a movement of lay spirituality involving more than one million laypeople throughout the world! (Consider that there are fewer than 15,000 friars and about 20,000 Poor Clare Franciscan women in the world)....

Secondly, a man can consider discerning for a diocesan vocation as priest or deacon, if community is not his primary concern.

Thirdly, he can contact some of the (very) few groups who will consider older candidates. I have put together the following list over the past few years. I hope it will be of some help. If you find any errors or have other ideas/suggestions, I would really appreciate your feedback. Email me at Thanks. Good luck! And God bless!

Religious Communities of Men which will consider older candidates:

Capuchin Franciscan Friars (OFM.Cap)
Our Lady of Angels Province
1345 Cortez Ave.
Burlingame, CA 94010
(650) 342-1489

The Salvatorians
Society of the Divine Savior
1735 N. Hi-Mount Blvd.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53208
(414) 258-1735-1720

The Benedictines
Monastery Of The Ascension
541 East–100 South
Jerome, ID 83338

Missionaries of the Holy Family
Vocations Director: Rev. Camillo Botello, MSF
104 Cas Hills Dr.
San Antonio, TX 78213
Tel: 888/484-9945

Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd
Brother Charles Schreiner, BGS
Villa Mathias
901 Brother Mathias Place
Albuquerque, NM 87102
Tel. 505-243-4238