Friday, July 18, 2008

Friar Gino Piccoli: Working On the Rez without Reservations

“Before we leave,” Father Gino announces, “let’s end the Mass with a Native American blessing. Would that be okay?” Parishioners at the 5:15 Saturday Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Sacramento nod in eager agreement. In the course of the hour-long liturgy, Friar Gino Piccoli—visiting from the San Carlos (Arizona) Apache reservation-- has clearly won them over with his warmth and sincerity:

“Good. Let’s stand and turn to the East—the rising Sun, the sign of God’s faithfulness everyday. Remember, God doesn’t forget us in the night….. Now, to the South: Sister Rain. We depend upon God for Water. Without it, we are dead… Now, the West: Bother Sun goes to bed every night. Causes us to think of our elders, how they and we are preparing for our eternal bed… Finally, let’s turn to the North. Do we have any ice in our hearts? People we have not forgiven? Are we holding any grudges? Let’s let go of all of that before we leave church….”

The following day, I had the chance to chat with Father Gino a bit: “That was a beautiful blessing you gave us, Brother,” I asked. “How do you think Native American spirituality and the Franciscan spirit 'fit'?” “The more I find out about it, “ he answers, “the more it seems that the two are interchangeable. Take the blessing of the four directions. God is all around me. Apache spirituality is so Franciscan since it doesn't see God 'up there' in the heavens...nor 'over there' at a holy place (e.g.,Fatima, Assisi). Rather, God means to envelope you 24 hours a day. So as longa s you remain the middle--surrounded at all times by the presence of the Divine--as symbolized by turning in a circle when we say 'Amen!', God will always be present...Churches, shrines, Sacraments are beautiful--but will not make God more present than the God who wants to be around you at all times."

Father Gino knows what he’s talking about. At age 68, the Chicago native speaks with the frankness of an urban Midwesterner. Physically, he is solidly built, compact, down to earth as well. Gino has been living and working on the San Carlos Apache reservation outside of Phoenix for eleven years now. He knows something of both the beauty of Native American people, their culture, and their spirituality as well as the sometimes brutal harshness of life on the rez.

“Unfortunately, the Indian spirituality is no longer on the reservation in a very clear way,” he continues. “The kids don’t have it; the adults who are drinking don’t have it; and the people who do have it don’t share it much. For myself, after eleven years, I feel like I am just beginning to know the people. And you learn by trial and error here. There are no books; nobody who is an ombudsman for you—nobody who will take you aside and say, “Look Father, we don’t do things here that way.”

“For example, you need to understand the importance of ‘blood’ (relationship). It is said that the Apaches sometimes don’t like to volunteer for things because that would mean that you are putting yourself forward too much. Or if you ask people to do something, they will rarely say ‘no’ but then they may not show up, which is okay, because it allows them to save face. But if it’s about blood relationship —if the whole family or clan decides to get involved-- there’s absolutely no problem. At a bazaar, for example, if we have a booth with fry bread, then 6-8 relatives will all show up to help. It’s no problem at all. It takes a long time for an outsider to ‘get ‘ something like that.”

In addition to being a dedicated pastor, Gino is an accomplished artist—his works grace several of our parishes and friaries—but he would be the first to downplay the fact: “I’ve never been a fine artist; I only do artwork that has a purpose. For me, it’s about community, about involving people. It’s how I get to know them. I don’t have my habit on, for example. We work together side by side and everybody gets dirty.” At the same time, he is quite upfront about the limits of this kind of approach on the reservation.

The Franciscan friars have been in the US Southwest for more than four hundred years now. The presence of men from the St. Barbara Province on the San Carlos reservation dates from around 1918. For the most part, many of these ‘home missionary’ friars have lived alone in the villages, coming together periodically for prayer and community. Gino is part of that tradition; he uses his day off to connect with Friar Eddie Fronske, who has been working among another branch of the Nation—the White River Apaches-- for more than two decades. “ We’ll meet at a restaurant in Globe, have a meal, and just sit for two or three hours talking. What is especially good about it (the fraternal connection) for us is that unless you’ve been there, you don’t really understand. With Eddie I don’t have to explain myself. He knows exactly what I’ve been experiencing and what I feel.” Mutual fraternal support is crucial to the life and work of the friars in this context.

Despite the challenges of the pastoral situation, there are also wonderful blessings that come with living and working on the reservation. Most recently, one of the young men from the Apache nation, Phillip Polk, has been accepted into our postulancy program—a cause for great celebration and joy for both the Franciscans and the people of San Carlos.

How does the future look to Father Gino? Will he continue to work on the rez? “I came here because I was sent here, “ Gino shares. “But it’s the Gospel that has kept me here. Over time I’ve learned to feel helpless with people—looking for the right thing to do to make a difference and rarely finding it. But you just have to keep faithful on the path where there is often very little immediate reward. If I started over again, I wouldn’t live in the rectory. I’d get an old trailer and bring it on the property. Live more like the people here live.”

“Even with the struggles, though, being on the rez has been a blessing. It has brought me back to my dreams about what we friars should be and be about. I would like to continue (my ministry here). I would like to die here if I could. Living and working with the poor, with no status, no security. The lifestyle represents so much for me what I would like to be and become as a friar."

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

BROTHERS FOR OTHERS: A Franciscan Discernment Retreat

WANTED: Dead or Alive!
(Well, preferably alive)

Every Franciscan has a double vocation: to be a brother for others in community and to minister to the People of God, whether as a lay brother or as a priest. Come and learn more about the rewards of being a Franciscan Friar—a real brother for others. If you’re a single Catholic man 21-40 considering religious life, we’d like to talk with you!

A Franciscan discernment retreat

AUGUST 15-16-17

916/443-2714; 503/757-2984
EMAIL: cstalleyho@


St. Bonaventure (1218-1274)

Okay, here’s a quick Jeopardy quiz for you. If the “answer” is “St. Bonaventure”, which of these 'questions' is correct:

--Who was the thirteenth century Franciscan saint whose writings served as the inspiration for the doctoral studies of our present Pope Benedict XVI?

--What early Franciscan figure is said to have actually received his name from Francis of Assisi himself?

--What medieval Franciscan scholar has left generations of theology students stunned, frustrated and sometimes utterly confused by the density of his thought and frequently inaccessible language?

Right. You’ve got it. All three questions are correct. Meet Bonaventure of Bagnoregio! Today celebrate the feast of this, one of the leading intellectual figures of the Franciscan movement, a foremost proponent of its mystical tradition—and most significantly, perhaps, a man deeply devoted to Christ. It is said that Bonaventure was one of the first scholars to give the spiritual movement inaugurated by St. Francis of Assisi a solid theological and psychological basis: “His spiritual teaching, like his whole system of thought, centers about Christ. In him the tender affective love of Francis for the humanity of Christ -- a stress on love and the part played by will rather than on knowledge and the part played by intellect. He did not hesitate to teach that an idiot might love God as well as the most learned divine. For him the Incarnation and Redemption are the crowning glory of God's work, the supreme purpose of all creation and therefore, necessarily, the focus of all spiritual life. The practical goal of spiritual endeavor for all, according to his teaching, is contemplative prayer directed at union with the divine.” (ref:

Born in Tuscany in 1218 and baptized “Giovanni”, it is said that he received the name ‘Bonaventure’ from St. Francis himself. At the request of the infant’s mother, Francis prayed for little Giovanni who was seriously ill. At the child’s healing, he purportedly exclaimed, “Oh buena ventura!—Oh, what good fortune!” (Whether true or not, it's a lovely tale).

As a student at the University of Paris, the young Bonaventure was deeply influenced by the teachings of the English scholar and don, Alexander of Hales. He eventually followed his professor into the Franciscan order and completed his studies, laying the foundations of the Franciscan school of philosophy and theology. During this time, Bonaventure was a contemporary and colleague of the celebrated Dominican friar, St. Thomas Aquinas. Both men were active in the defense of the new mendicant orders’ vision and presence at the University.

In 1257, at the age of 35, Bonaventure was elected as minister general of the entire Franciscan Order, a position he almost until his death sixteen years later. The internal situation of the Order at the time was tenuous; the Spirituales or zealots for the literal observance of the Rule were at odds with the Relaxati who sought a less rigorous interpretation. By dint of patience and perserverance, Bonaventure was able to negotiate some kind of modus vivendi between the two movements. For his tact and diligence he was aptly dubbed the 'Second Founder' of the Order. And at the Franciscans’ general chapter (formal corporal gathering) at Narbonne in 1260 he presented the Order with its first constitutions. He also organized the studies of clerics in the Order and encouraged the highly successful apostolate of popular preaching associated with the best of the medieval friars.

Much to his chagrin, Bonaventure was named first a bishop and later, in 1273, a cardinal . According to legend, when the papal legates arrived with the symbolic “red hat” for him, they found him washing the dishes. He asked them to hang the hat on the branch of a tree until he had finished. The last months of his life Bonaventure worked on the Council of Lyons—an effort aimed at achieving rapprochement between Latin and Eastern churches. He died unexpectedly at the Council on July 14th, 1274. Bonaventure was canonized in 1482 , and in 1588 named a doctor of the universal Church.

In the midst of a lifetime filled with demanding administrative responsibilities, Bonaventure nevertheless managed to write extensively on Franciscan history and spirituality, as well as more general treatises on philosophy, theology and scripture. Among them Commentary on the Franciscan Rule, his biography of St. Francis and the celebrated Itinerarium mentis in Deum (The Soul’s Journey into God) stand out as exemplary scholarly works. For a more in-depth introduction to St. Bonaventure’s philosophical work, see:
For many young scholars and others, access to Bonaventure’s work has proved, initially at least, a burdensome task. As a contemporary interpreter of Bonaventure, Ilia Delio notes,”his language, rich with symbolism and the numerical patterning of his ideas, all make for difficult reading to the untrained eye. The complex medieval thought patterns that characterize Bonaventure’s writings can be either intimidating and, or frustrating, and the question is often asked, ‘what is he really saying?’”

That having been said, Delio and other contemporary Franciscan scholars, including Timothy Johnson, Charles Carpenter, and others have done a yeoman’s service in making the world of Bonaventure’s thought and prayer more “user-friendly” and accessible to the modern reader and scholar. (See, especially, Simply Bonaventure, The Humility of God, and Franciscan Prayer—all by Ilia Delio—as well as Bonaventure: Mystic of God’s Word, by Timothy Johnson.
As Delio explains, “the pattern of Bonaventure’s thought is ‘circular’—we come from God, we exist in relation to God and we are to return to God.’ (SB, p.13) . And elsewhere: “He viewed Christ less as a remedy for sin and more as the goal and center of the universe. Christ came, he said, to complete the univese as well as to save us from sin.” (Humility, p.11).
This is all just a tiny taste of a man celebrated as much for his personal holiness as for his intellectual rigor and accomplishment. Bonaventure’s writings, Delio reminds us, “reveal a fertile mind, a passionate heart, a generous spirit and a consuming passion for truth.”

The life and work of St. Bonaventure have helped to spark a contemporary revival in Franciscan thought and continue to enrich our heart-centered intellectual tradition. In the United States, St. Bonaventure University in New York state (, has served an important role in preserving that tradition since its founding in 1858. And the University’s Franciscan Institute functions as “the preeminent center in North America of teaching, research and publication on the history, spirituality and intellectual life of the Franciscan movement.” (/ Both the University and the Francisan Institute are closely affiliated with the Holy Name Province of our Order: .
Whether one’s interests are primarily intellectual or not (and most friars, quite frankly, are more pastorally focused), we recognize with a certain amount of pride this intellectual giant in our tradition who was also an exemplar of deep faith, compassion, and humility.

Bonaventure on St. Francis of Assisi: "His attitude towards creation was simple and direct, as simple as the gaze of a dove; as he considered the universe, in his pure, spiritual vision, he referred every created thing to the Creator of all. He saw God in everything, and loved and praised him in all creation. By God's generosity and goodness, he possessed God in everything and everything in God. The realization that everything comes from the same source made him call all created things -- no matter how insignificant -- his brothers and sisters, because they had the same origins as he. --Minor Life of St. Francis