Friday, June 20, 2008

Happy Summer Vocation!

Dear Friends,
Peace and all good! I will be away on vacation until July 7 and will resume blog entries again after that date. In the meantime, I hope you will find this short reflection piece helpful. It first appeared in The Way of St. Francis magazine, a wonderful little bimonthly published by the Franciscan Friars, Province of St. Barbara. Check it out on our website: Or consider subscribing (only $15/yr for six issues and an excellent resource for information on Franciscan life and spirituality!): for subscription information. Happy Summer Vocation (and the rest of the year as well)!--Fr. Chuck

Discernment is a Verb

What should I do with my life? What is God asking of me? How can I be sure I’m not making a horrendous mistake?

My office phone will ring. A slight hesitation on the other end of the line, and then a quiet voices asks, “Is this the Franciscans?” “Well, yes, how can I help you?” “Well, I’m thinking of becoming one of you.” “Okaaaaay”. Then, we’re off and running.

I’m a vocations coordinator. My job is to help men (21-45, Roman Catholic, single) to know about the Franciscans and themselves, and whether or not God may be leading them to our religious community. During the course of a calendar year, I will personally speak to about 400 inquirers— just a little more than one a day. They may write or phone, or catch me after Mass. Increasingly these days, they’ll check out our website ( or our vocations blog ( and then dash off an email. In reality, though, only about one out of every hundred men who contact us will enter our community. So what about the other 99? Are they just chopped liver?

My work experience confirms my deep conviction that God is calling all of us. That everyone has a vocation—to know, love and serve God in this life and to be with God in the next-- as my childhood catechism put it so succinctly. Only a very few people will come to religious life, but the search is the same for us all. “How can I know what God is asking of me?” I don’t have the answers, but I can suggest a process that might help:

Pray. A lot. And on a regular basis. Make a daily appointment to spend time with God—and then keep it. Our Catholic tradition is a treasure trove of spirituality, so find a prayer style that suits you (lectio divina, centering prayer, etc.). And make Eucharist the center of your prayer week.

Shop around. I tell people. Look, the first thing you need to do is to look around. Pretend that you are planning an exotic vacation. Get as many ‘travel brochures’ as you can. Don’t worry about making a decision yet; just dream for once!

Share your secret. Preferably with someone you trust. The people who know us often know us a whole lot better than we suspect. They can give us very good feedback very fast. They know our personalities as well as many (but not all) of our talents, dreams, strengths and weaknesses. When I announced to my family that I wanted to become a Franciscan and a priest, I was shocked. Nobody even blinked. My sisters said, “Oh we knew that all along about you. But we didn’t say anything because we figured you needed to work that out for yourself.” Gee, thanks.

Get some help. Good help. We call this spiritual direction. Advice and accompaniment from someone (a priest, a religious sister or brother, a layperson) who has received specific training in this ministry. It is not a good idea to approach a busy pastor. Or someone who has no knowledge of ministry. The spiritual director will meet with you on a regular basis to listen deeply—very deeply—to what you have to say about yourself, your prayer life, your images and understanding of God, and so on. They won’t tell you what you should do. But they will tell you what you are saying about yourself. And what you keep saying consistently over time. Journaling is an important adjunct to this activity.

Get your hands dirty. If you’re thinking about working with the poor, for example, stop thinking about it. Get out there and work with them. So connect with an organization, preferably a church-based one, that needs volunteers and go for it.

Join a club. Only make sure you are an active member. Community is not for bystanders. Your parish is the perfect place to start.

Jump in! If you don’t put your body where you think your mind and heart ought to be, you’ll never know what God is asking or inviting you to do. Break down your decision into manageable parts… and then take that first step.

When we do these things-- gather information, share our secrets, find some help, get our hands dirty, and jump in-- we cannot fail to learn a great deal about who we are and how God may be calling us.

I repeat. Each of us has a vocation. We are all on a spiritual journey. But when we do the footwork, we cannot fail to grow spiritually and become more confident and secure in our decisions. So, if you haven’t done so already, turn your own discernment into a verb and see what unfolds.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Chapter & Verse

First, the Chapter.
The term “chapter”, with regard to religious communities, usually refers to a kind of formal meeting on either a local, regional, or even international level. It also refers to the actual physical space where men and women religious take care of the business of the community. Monasteries, both today as well as in medieval times, typically included a separate room or structure called a “chapter house” for this purpose.

The Rule of the Friars Minor (1209, rev1223) makes mention of and provision for the general Chapter event referred to as the “Chapter of Pentecost”, which was, typically, to be held every three years. Here, the assembled friars traditionally attended to such practicalities as the election of leadership and the commissioning of brothers to various ministries. Historically, there has even been provision for public admonition and correction of errant confreres—hence, the term “chapter of faults”, which in time became incorporated into the weekly practice of local communities (although, thankfully, not at present).

One particularly significant chapter held in Assisi during the lifetime of St. Francis himself was the celebrated “Chapter of Mats” (1219), attended by nearly 5,000 friars housed mostly in makeshift wattle huts (and, most likely mats as well) for the occasion. Today, chapters are held on the level of the local fraternity (“house chapters”), the province (‘provincial chapter’) and internationally for the entire Orsder ("General Chapter"). In addition, even in our own times friars may decide to convene a special “chapter of mats”, which typically will focus on the quality of our spiritual and fraternal life.

We Franciscan friars of the Province of Saint Barbara will be holding our own triennial meeting soon. Chapter 2009, as we call it, will be held at Old Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, California (January 4-9). This will be for us a very special event, since it will also mark the 800th anniversary of the Rule of St. Francis, approved by Pope Innocent III. And as part of our celebration, the Minister General of the Franciscan Order (OFM), Friar José Rodríguez Carballo ofm, will be in attendance. So will our own Fr. John Vaughn, former provincial minister and ex-Minister General of the Order himself.

The Chapter is a big deal for us friars, especially as we prepare to elect our provincial leadership. Our present provincial minister, Fr. Mel Jurisich, will be stepping down after his six-year term, so we will be selecting his successor as well as a new vicar (or ‘vice’) provincial and a group of six consulters known as "definitors". Their selection is no small matter for us. The provincial minister and his administration set the tone and leadership style for the province. While it would be unseemly for friars to jockey openly for position, there is a certain amount of discrete buzz about prospective candidates. And we hold a number of straw ballots in advance to get an idea of the leading contenders.

Since the early 1990’s, the friars of our province have held what is known as an ‘open’ chapter. This is an innovation in the wake of the reforms of Vatican II which provides for the presence and participation of all solemnly professed friars, each of whom has both a voice and a vote in the proceedings.

So what’s on the menu for Chapter 2009 besides the elections? For one thing, we will be receiving an important report from our Visitor General—a friar from outside our province approved by our Minister General in Rome. The Visitor has the responsibility of visiting every friar and friary in the province in advance of the chapter to assess the state of our spiritual health and well-being. He gives his evaluation to each fraternity (or house) as he visits throughout the province. At the conclusion of his tour (which typically can take up to six months!), he reports to the Chapter about the state of the province at large. And his report carries a lot of weight—we are bound to consider his conclusions and recommendations. In other words, if we need to get our act together about something, he’ll certainly let us know.

In addition to the report by the Visitor General (this time it will be Friar Peter Williams, from the UK) and elections, we will consider a number of items pertinent to our common life. So far, Chapter 2009 will consider such matters as the care of our senior friars, our Plan for Gospel living (with recommendations for ministry and fraternal life), our commitment to greater collaboration with the laity, the need for long-range financial planning, and the complex issue of US immigration policy and its impact on our community.

It’s a lot of stuff to deal with, and various committees are working now to refine proposals and vet them thoroughly before the Chapter event. Just this week, for example, a number of our Latino friars have been meeting to consider the particular needs for Hispanic friars and ministries at their annual “convocatorio hispano.” (see photo above)

The Chapter, of course, can never be a purely business meeting. Of necessity, it is grounded in the experience our common prayer life and ministry. Liturgies throughout the week—morning and evening prayer, Eucharist, a service for the Commemoration of our deceased brothers, etc.—all serve to remind us that our lives are under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There is also important time for 'fraternizing', and some special concerts are being prepared as part of the celebrations for our 8th centenary.

Now for the verse.
The theme for Chapter 2009 – “Siempre adelante (nunca para atras)/ “Always go forward, never turn back”—is inspired directly by Beato / Blessed Juniper Serra, ofm (1713-1784), founder of the first Franciscan missions in California. It certainly reflects our attitude and spirit. Even after 800 years of ministry, we can’t afford to sit on our laurels. Siempre adelante!