Saturday, August 2, 2008

Feast of Our Lady of the Angels of the Portiuncula

Happy Feast of the Portiuncula!
On this day, members of the Franciscan family around the world honor the birthplace of the Order of Friars Minor (OFM), the penitential movement founded by our Seraphic Father, Francis of Assisi.
The term “Portiuncula” itself refers specifically to a small piece of land – hence, the “little portion” or “Porziuncula” in Italian— containing an abandoned chapel ceded to St. Francis himself by the Benedictine monks of Monte Subasio on this day in the year 1208. According to our history and tradition, Francis personally worked on the restoration of this tiny church (it measures just 22 by 13 feet) located 5 km. outside the city walls of Assisi. It was here on Palm Sunday, 1211, that Francis received St. Clare into religious life. It was here that during the lifetime of Francis, the General Chapters (or conferences) of the nascent Order were held, usually at Pentecost. And it was here, at the Little Portion, that Francis died at sunset on October 3, 1226. Since then, the site has been continuously maintained by the friars.

The Franciscans’ enduring affection for the Portiuncula as both a place and a significant part of the life of Francis himself is eloquently told in the words of Thomas of Celano, his official biographer:

“Francis, the servant of God,
was small in stature,
humble in attitude, and lesser by profession.
While living in the world
He chose a little portion of the world
For himself and his followers,
Since he could not serve Christ
Unless he had something of this world.
Since ancient times, prophetically,
This place was called, “the little Portion,”
Sine it was the lot ceded to those who wished to hold nothing of this world.
In this place
There was a church built for the Virgin Mother,
Who by her unique humility
Deserved, after her Son, to be the head of all the saints,
It is here the Order of the Lesser Ones
Had its beginning.
As their numbers increased,
There “a noble structure arose
Upon their solid foundation.”
The saint loved this place more than any other.
He commanded his brothers
To venerate it with special reverence.
He wanted it, like a mirror of the Order,
Always preserved in humility and highest poverty,
And therefore kept its ownership in the hands of others,
Keeping for himself and his brothers only the use of it.”
(Thomas Celano: The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, Chapter XII).

A later biographer of Francis, St. Bonaventure wrote in his Major Life of St. Francis:
“Francis had great devotion to the Queen of the world and when he saw that the church was deserted, he began to live there constantly in order to repair it. He heard that the Angels often visited it, so that it was called Saint Mary of the Angels, and he decided to stay there permanently out of reverence for the angels and love for the Mother of Christ.
“He loved this spot more than any other in the world. It was here he began his religious life in a very small way; it is here he came to a happy end. When he was dying, he commended this spot above all others to the friars, because it was most dear to the Blessed Virgin….”
“As he was living there by the church of Our Lady, Francis prayed to her who had conceived the Word, full of grace and truth, begging her insistently and with tears to become his advocate. Then he was granted the true spirit of the Gospel by the intercession of the Mother of mercy and he brought it to fruition. He embraced the Mother of Our Lord Jesus with indescribable love because, as he said, it was she who made the Lord of majesty our brother, and through her we found mercy. After Christ, he put all his trust in her and took her as his patroness for himself and his friars.”

Since the construction of the present-day Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels (1569-1679) the Portiuncula has been enclosed within the sanctuary of that magnificent Baroque edifice. Furthermore, over the centuries, both the façade and interior of the structure have been adorned with magnificent frescoes. Still, despite its surrounding architectural splendor, the Portiuncula retains something of its original spirit of its poverty and simplicity.
The Portiuncula continues to be revered as a pilgrimage destination for Catholic Christians to this day. And the tradition of the Pardon of Assisi (an indulgence, or remission of punishment due to sins) granted by Pope Pope Honorius III in 1216, has since been extended to Franciscan churches throughout the world on this date.

In our own time, the Portiuncula has achieved a contemporary cachet by serving as the site for the annual World Day of Prayer in Assisi inaugurated by the late Pope John Paul II on October 27, 1986. In the presence of representatives of the world’s major religious traditions present, the Holy Father paid tribute to the example and challenge of Francis and Clare in the persistent search for world peace—a peace which continues to both attract and elude us:

“What we have done today at Assisi, praying and witnessing to our commitment to peace, we must continue to do every day of our life. For what we have done today’s is vital for the world. If the world is going to continue, and men and women are to survive in it, the world cannot do without prayer.
‘This is the permanent lesson of Assisi: it is the lesson of Saint Francis who embodied an attractive ideal for us; it is the lesson of Saint Clare, his first follower. It is an ideal composed of meekness, humility, a deep sense of God and a commitment to serve all. Saint Francis was a man of peace.
‘We recall that he abandoned the military career he had followed for a while in his youth, and discovered the value of poverty, the value of a simple and austere life, in imitation of Jesus Christ whom he intended to serve. Saint Clare was the woman, par excellence, of prayer. Her union with God in prayer sustained Francis and his followers, as it sustains us today. Francis and Clare are examples of peace: with God, with oneself, with all men and women in this world. May this holy man and this holy woman inspire all people today to have the same strength of character and love of God and neighbour to continue on the path we must walk together.’

As a final note, today is also the ‘feast day’ of the City of Los Angeles, California, whose official name is “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciúncula or The Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the Little Portion.” In fact, the official seal of the City of Los Angeles is encircled by the seven decades of the “Franciscan Crown” or rosary! In addition, the foundation of the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, contains a stone from the Portiuncula presented by the friars of Assisi to the people of Los Angeles in 1997.

As we honor Our Lady of the Angels, may we find inspiration for our own growth and development in the Gospel way of life that Saint Francis embraced and lived so completely:

Salutation Of The Blessed Virgin
by Saint Francis of Assisi
Hail Holy Lady most holy Queen,
Mary Mother of God.
Chosen by the Father in heaven
 consecrated by Him.
 With His most beloved Son and
Holy Spirit Comforter,
On you descended and still remains
 fullness of grace
 and every good.
Hail His palace and His robe, 
Mary Mother of God. 
Hail His handmaid lowly and pure, 
Loving servant of the Lord.
 Hail holy virtues given by God
 to all the faithful in the world,
So that we may no longer be faithless, but may become the
servants of the Lord. - AMEN

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Friar Philippe Yates: From Cambridge to Canterbury via Assisi

Friar Philippe Yates ofm is Principal of the Franciscan International Study Centre in Canterbury, England, where he has taught since 1997. He is also currently a definitor and secretary for formation and studies in the English province of the Immaculate Conception. Philippe studied at the University of Cambridge, the Franciscan International Study Centre, the University of Kent, St. Paul University, Ottawa and the Pontifical University Antonianum, Rome. He is a published author on Franciscan history and canon law. He has also has been invited to lecture at the Franciscan Institute at St. Bonaventure University in New York, and is currently a member of the Commission for the Retrieval of the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition. His current research interests are in Franciscan law, modern Franciscan history and the mutual influence of Franciscan thought and English constitutional development.I spoke with Philippe recently at a conference we both attended in Colorado. He kindly agreed to share his own vocation story with us. -ct

When I was 13, I got a scholarship to an important private school in England. About the same time, my father died in a car crash in Saudi Arabia. It was all happening at a time (in my life) when I was just beginning to deal with such significant issues as what is really important. The evening we learned about my father’s death, I was helping my mother put the car away. She went inside – it was a starry night. And it just struck me that even though my father was dead, I still had a Father who was looking after me. I experienced an overwhelming sense of peace, that everything would be all right.

I also recall that I was sitting in chapel at school one Sunday and one of the Anglican priests, the chaplain, was talking about his own vocation. It flashed through my mind that maybe that’s what I should be doing with my life. And I thought: “No, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be a priest.” But it wouldn’t go away. When I was 17, I finished my schooling in England and helped at a St. Vincent DePaul Society summer camp for underprivileged kids from London. There was a wonderful chaplain there—Monsignor John Armitage. I remember I was talking with him, and we went for a walk around the lake. And I told him: “I think I might be called to be a priest, but I don’t want to be a secular priest. I don’t want a parish all by myself.” He said to me, “You know, it sounds very much like what you want is the Franciscans.” I thought, “Hmm. I’ve never heard of them, but it sounds interesting.” So I started looking out for books and pamphlets about community life. At school, I was in a privileged situation, surrounded by men who, materially speaking, had everything you could want. But I wanted to find a way of life to show that what was important was not position or power or prestige, but how one was in relationship with others and with God.

Then I came across the story about St. Francis meeting the sultan. My father had been in Saudi helping to build a road to Mecca. One of my friends at school was a Jordanian Muslim. Finding that Francis had the courage and insight to reach out to the sultan even when everyone else was fighting was very striking to me.

I read more, spent a year in France at school, and came back to England to do a degree in civil engineering. All the time I was still fighting the call. My second year at school, I was chair of the Fisher Society, a Catholic student group like the Newman Centre. At the end of that year I went to the chaplain of the group and said, “Look, can I have a word with you.” He never expected that I would be telling him about my interest in a religious vocation. So we had a long and rather difficult chat about what a vocation was, about why I thought God was calling me, about what I saw myself doing. And I was kind of afraid he would say to me, “Look, don’t be daft.” But actually he said, “You probably do have a vocation.” It was a bit of a bombshell to me.

By this time, I had read quite a bit, but I had never met a Franciscan. But through my reading I decided that the only branch of the Order I could join would be the OFMs. The reason why was because it was the branch that allowed great diversity—each member could express himself. They didn’t try to dragoon the friars into just one way of understanding Francis. It struck me was being profoundly in tune with the Spirit as I understood it.

The December before I was to finish my degree, I wrote to the vocations director and went to visit the friars on the feast of the Epiphany. Actually, I didn’t receive much encouragement from the vocation director. He said to me “Most of the friars in England don’t come from a private school background like you do. How are you going to fit in?” I thought I would be refused, but in reality he was making me think quite seriously about what I was taking on, about how I would survive in the friars. Then, at Easter, I did the psychological testing and then was received by the friars. I thought they would say, “Wait a year or two, “ but no, they said, “Come in September.” I told my family: there were some tears, but they were generally okay with my decision. So, within nine months of contacting the friars, I entered the novitiate.

My life in the Franciscans has not always been an easy process. There was a lot of adaptation and learning I had to go through. But in my heart, despite the tough times, there was always that still voice that spoke to me the night of my father’s death: “It’s all right, I’m with you and I’ll keep you safe.”

In terms of any advice I might offer to someone in discernment, I can say that one of the things I did when I was thinking about religious life was to go to a weekend retreat run by the Jesuits. There they taught me one of the techniques of the discernment of spirits. That what you need to do is to find that place where your spirit is most at peace. If your spirit is at peace, then, even if you have worries, then it’s still an indication by the Holy Spirit that you are being called. //

For more information about the Franciscan International Study Centre in Canterbury, England, visit their website:

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ilia's Odyssey: A Vocation Story

Meet Sister Ilia Delio: teacher (chair and professor, Department of Spirituality Studies, Washington Theological Union), author of a number of books on Franciscan themes, and internationally recognized Bonaventure scholar. In addition, she is Director of the Franciscan Center at the WTU. I had the chance to meet with Sister Ilia recently at a Franciscan gathering in Colorado, where she agreed to share her own vocation story:

Ever since I was little, I knew I wanted to be a sister, but I didn’t want anyone to know. It was my ‘secret vocation.’ I attended Catholic schools in my hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, and I very much admired the sisters who taught there. After high school , I wanted to join Maryknoll and be a missionary, but I got a definitive ‘no” from my parents. They wanted me to finish my studies first. When I started out in college, I would go to Mass every day, but towards the end, I went through a questioning period about my faith and became more critical about the Church…. But, still, I felt like Jonah in the whale. God was constantly pursuing me.

Then, one day while I was in grad school, I came across an article on Thomas Merton in Time magazine. I was completely mesmerized and immediately went out and got a copy of his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain. It was the beginning of the articulation of what I had been feeling and living for so many years. Like Merton, I wanted to renounce everything for God. So I (found out) about a newly-founded group of Discalced Carmelites in Pennsylvania. When I met them, I was attracted to them. Their lifestyle seemed so different from anything I had experienced in ‘the world.’ So I started communicating with them while I was finishing up my doctorate work (in pharmacology). I discerned with them for a year-and-a-half, then entered postulancy.

When I entered the Carmelites, I told my academic colleagues that I was going on a long trip, that I would be in Europe for about three months, but … the reality was that I was in Carmel. Finally, though, I was forced to tell people. I had received a postdoctorate position at John Hopkins University in the neuropathology department. I wrote to the department chair just before I was to start work. They called my former colleagues at Rutgers asking if I had had a nervous breakdown! I had never revealed to anyone that I was even a religious person.

In my years at the monastery, I learned a lot about prayer. When we weren’t working in the garden or the bakery, we were praying—up to six hours a day. During that time, I developed in my relationship with God. But I found it difficult being cloistered, with a grill separating us from visitors. You couldn’t even go out and have a beer with friends! …. Seriously, though, I couldn’t reconcile my understanding of the Incarnation with a lifestyle that was so cut off from the world. There were no magazines or newspapers—just a total spiritualizing of religious life.

Finally, after three years (I was 28 at the time), I asked to take a year’s leave of absence from the community and arranged to live in a convent of German Franciscan sisters (the Franciscan Servants of the Holy Child Jesus)while I worked at Rutgers University. When I met the sisters, at first I thought: “Oh, they’re nice women. They get to drive cars and even go to parties occasionally. I had no inkling or desire to be a Franciscan, though. I thought that these women were just like the Carmelites, but with a more joyous spirit, so I decided to join them. I still had to wear the habit and follow a strict horarium getting up at 4 every morning…. (At one point) my superior called me in and said, “We’d like to send you to studies in spirituality.” I thought that it sounded rather fluffy; I wanted to do an MA in theology instead. So we agreed that I would go to Fordham University—while I was still a second-year novice.

At Fordham, I lived with the Ursuline sisters. When I arrived in my full habit I’m sure they must have been thinking: “What’s wrong with her? She’s young, but in that habit she looks like something out of a museum. “ And I was asking myself: “Are they really religious?” But when we began to live together, I realized that they were quite wonderful women and I love them dearly. I stayed with them for five years, until I finished my comprehensive exams. My community asked me to become vocations director, but I needed time for my dissertation. They told me I had three months to do it, so I went off to live with the Allegheny Franciscan sisters while I finished my work. I ended up staying for a year. The sisters were so supportive and they made it possible for me to get things done.

I did my doctoral work on St. Bonaventure’s Christ’s Mysticism—the mysticism of the historical event. When I finished, my community said that I could either find a teaching job or work in their nursing home. I found a position at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and lived with yet another community—the Sisters of St. Joseph of Hartford. Shortly afterwards, someone told me about an opening at the Washington (DC) Theological Union. Friar Dominic Monti invited me for an interview and offered me a position in Franciscan studies. My area was in Patristics, but through my work with Bonaventure, I made my way back to Sts. Francis and Clare. The decision to move to WTU was really a graced moment—it is a very good school, very communal, and with a nice group of students.

During all this time I had remained with my Franciscan congregation, but about two years ago, I felt the inspiration to start a new community myself with the approval and support of my congregation. Another sister and myself moved to D.C. and have since been working and praying for the future of Franciscan life. We believe in the richness of religious life and feel that Franciscan life has much to offer to the church and world today. Like the seeds of a plant, new life takes time and patience, and care.

In terms of any advice I would be able to offer a young person in discernment, I would urge her/him to take some time with a good spiritual director. Take the time to focus on the way that God is calling you in your life. Then, visit different types of groups to see if there is a good fit between your personality and spirituality and theirs. See how communities live out their calling. And be attentive to what your own spirit is all about. Then, finally, at some point, you just have to take the step, go forward, and try it.

I live in great hope and optimism. I am fairly future-oriented, looking forward to making more new discoveries in Franciscan life, and living with a greater sense of thankfulness. I am a dreamer and always will be. I dream that this way of life—religious life— will bring love to the loveless, make God alive in this world, and help to transform it.

Books by Ilia Delio:
Franciscan Prayer. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2004.

The Humility of God: a Franciscan Perspective. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005.

Clare of Assisi: A Heart Full of Love. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2007.
Delio, Ilia, Warner, Keith and Pamela Woods.
Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2008.
Christ in Evolution. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2008.
Ten Evenings with God. Liguori, MO.: Liguouri Press, 2008.