Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Greetings from our Meetings!

Summertime! And the meeting's not easy.
Anyone who enters a religious community learns very quickly that meetings— from the level of the local house (or fraternity) to that of the entire Order internationally—are an essential part of our lifestyle. I don’t know what I was thinking when I joined the friars myself; I had no realistic idea of how things actually functioned organizationally. Somehow I just assumed that everyone pitched in and all the work got taken care of. Well, I quickly learned that it’s a bit more complicated and demanding than that.

We Franciscans are not especially bureaucratic, but we still have fundamental structures in place which are dictated by our Rule and Constitutions. Amazingly, these structures have helped to hold things together for nearly eight hundred years now, so we must be doing something right.

Initially, St. Francis would call for a meeting (or, the technical term, “chapter”) of friars in spring, at the time of Pentecost. These would be occasions in which the friars would discuss both the spiritual needs and aims of the Order as well as its practical necessities. One meeting / chapter in particular stands out in our history: the celebrated Chapter of Mats in May, 1221. At this particular meeting, the Order (which began with just a dozen men in 1209) had blossomed into an international community of more than 5,000 members! Friars camped out around the little church of Our Lady of the Angels—better known as the Portiuncula—and constructed little huts nearby. Hence the term “mats”. At this historic gathering, the friars approved the first Rule (called ‘non bullata’ because it did not receive the papal ‘bull’ or seal of approval. That had to wait until a revised version was approved in 1226). Also, the friars decided to send a missionary expedition to Germany for the first time.

Since the time of Francis and Clare, the term ‘chapter of mats’ has been used to describe a full range of meetings for the friars, held to foster fraternal bonds or to conduct business, or both. Last year, for example, the Order held an international “Chapter of Mats” in the Holy Land for more than 200 ‘young’ friars from around the world who have been solemnly professed for fewer than ten years.

Meetings are also held on regional, national and international levels. For example, I just attended a meeting in Colorado of friars who are involved in vocations and formation programs from around the English-speaking world. It gave us the chance to get to know each other better, to share our experiences and ideas, and to plan future collaborative endeavors together. It was hard work, but there was still time for a hike in the nearby Rockies!

Most of our gatherings are much more mundane, but nonetheless important to our life as a community. Local fraternities will gather, often on a monthly basis, for a house chapter to discuss everything from the spiritual life of the community to needed household repairs. We will also schedule a periodic day of recollection—a local gathering for prayer, Eucharist, and meditation. In our province, friars from each of our four regions will gather twice a year for several days of meeting. And on special occasions, such as our recent convocation on evangelization (Old Mission Santa Barbara, California, January 2008), friars will spend nearly a week together to pray, discuss, and just ‘be’ with each other.

The Franciscan ‘world’ is divided into more than 115 more or less geographical units, called “provinces.” Ours is the Province of St. Barbara, which covers six states in the Western United States as well as several far-flung mission commitments from Peru to Kazakhstan. Our official provincial gatherings (or ‘chapters’) takes place on every three years. Right now, we are planning for Chapter 2009, to be held at Old Mission San Luis Rey, California (January 4-9). The agenda will be crowded: we are voting for new provincial leadership, discussing the important issues of evangelization (and possible restructuring), the role of the laity in our shared ministries, the care of our elder friars, and even the hot-button issue of immigration. We expect that more than 150 friars will attend the week-long session, which will also mark the 800th anniversary of the Rule of St. Francis and include a special visit by our Minister General Jose Carballo, ofm. Meetings about this are taking place as I write!

So, you see, meetings are our life blood, even if they aren’t everybody’s cup of tea (pardon the wacky metaphor). Yes, they can be at turns tedious, frustrating, contentious, boring, and exhausting. But they can also be productive, rewarding and even fun at times.

Meetings are the arena where our best (and sometimes, even most lame) ideas get presented, discussed, and given more tangible form. When we gather like this, we always do so as brothers. And something good and special most always seems to happen when the brothers gather, no matter what. Ultimately, just as Francis and our earliest confreres, we come together trusting in the presence, light, and guidance of the Spirit in and through each other. Pax et bonum!//