Thursday, January 29, 2009

A New 'Chapter' in Our History

"Siempre adelante! Nunca para atras!" ("Always go forward! Never turn back!") These word of Blessed/ Beato Junipero Serra, ofm, presidente of the historic California Missions founded during the Spanish Empire in the West, served as inspirational bookends for our recent Chapter 2009 (January 4-9, 2009). Old Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, California, served as an effective inspirational backdrop to our week-long meetings and festivities. And, oh, what a week it was!

In fewer than five days, the 160-plus Franciscan friars of the Province of St. Barbara had to make their way through a daunting list of decisions, projects, and activities. First off, we received a summary report from our Visitator General, Father Peter Williams, whose job it has been to visit each of our fraternities and interview and evaluate the work and community life of each and all of our friars. Secondly, we had the task of bidding farewell to our current Minister Provincial, Father Mel Jurisich, and then electing new leadership for the next six-year period. The new leadership team includes a new provincial minister (Fr. John Hardin)and his assistant/ vicar provincial, Fr. Ken Laverone. In additon, the solemnly professed friars also voted on the membership of the provincial's group of councillors, or Definitorium-- six friars who will assist in the decision-making functions of the Province over the next three years.

Father Mel, in his farewell address, encapsulate the efforts of his six-year term of service under the rubric of "transparency": “'Transparency'", he said, "has become a key word of this administration. This movement of open communication has involved more than just a transfer of information We (firars) are speaking more openly and honestly with each other. This open approach has brought about some significant changes. First, we are moving more and more from a vertical relationship to a horizontal one which is more in keeping with Francis’ vision. Instead of running to the Provincial with every issue in fraternal life and ministry, friars are engaging one another as true brothers. Secondly, this transparency has deepened our communal ownership of the Province. And thirdly, this ownership has brought about more accountability and responsibility on the part of the friars. At the heart of all of this transparency is trust. Because we have a heightened trust of one another, we are more tolerant of our differences. We see it as a generative circle: transparency leads to trust which engenders respect which encourages transparency. We believe that the friars will not settle for less in the future."

Following Fr. Mel's presentation, friars heard from the top five candidates nominated for the position of provincial minister. The friars' choice was Father John Hardin, 53, who is presently head of the St. Anthony Foundation in San Francisco, one of the largest nonprofit organizations in the western United States providing direct services to the poor. In addition to his deep and abiding concern for the marginalized people of our society, Father John brings excellent organizational skills and a business acumen almost unheard of in our province-- he holds an MBA from Notre Dame University. Second in 'commnand' is our new vicar-provincial minister, Father Ken Laverone. A sixth-generation native California, Father Ken hails from the town of San Juan Bautista, south of San Francisco, and worked as a diocesan priest and pastor for 25 years before joining the friars. He also holds a degree in canon law. We will be well-served by both of our confreres.

The third go-round of elections was for the six positions on our Definitorium. Definitors act as advisors to the administration, but keep their day jobs. They confer for a solid week every other month and handle oversight of both routine administration and the extraordinary business of the province. This year, the friars selected men representing a variety of personal backgrounds and geographical regions: Franklin Fong, Oscar Mendez, Joe Schwab, Mike Doherty, Robert Rodrigues, and myself. Wish us luck and keep us in prayer!

The rest of the business of the Chapter was 'business.' Our province holds 'open' chapters (vs. 'delegate' chapters), which means that all solemnly professed friars are expected to be present and participate. We discussed and voted on several proposals which, on the whole, will shape the direction of our commitments and focus for the next term: a retirement policy for our senior friars; a long-range strategy for financial planning; evangelization and Our Plan for Gospel Living (i.e., our fraternal life and ministry), and immigration (both on the societal level and within the context of our own province.). Because the friars had been able to vet and discuss much of this material over the 18-month preparation period that proceeds Chapter, we were able (miraculously, some would say), to come to an overall agreement on principles rather easily. Work of this nature belies months and years of study and preparation on the part of many of our friars.

If the Chapter was only about 'business', the friars would rise up in rebellion. For us, it is above all, the opportunity for the brothers to come together. To reconnect and rekindle friendships. To pray together, enjoy meals and recreational time together. To renew our sense of common bonds and shared purpose. During much of the year, friars are most often absorbed in their ministries and local communities. This is a real homecoming in more ways than one.

The midpoint as well as the high point of the week's procceedings and festivities was the visit of our Minister General, Fray Jose Rodriguez-Carballo, who flew directly from Rome along with one of our former provincial ministers, Fr. Finian McGinn, who serves on the international Curia for the Order. Fr. Jose's visit coincides with the celebration internationally of the 800th Anniversary of the Rule of St. Francis (1209-2009). Following his address to the gathered friars and guests, we participated in a dialog with our lay collaborators-- the women and men who work as partners and active participants in our ministries. Mass in the Old Mission Church came next, with the renewal of vows by all of the friars present. For many, it was a deeply moving experience-- not only to share in this historic occasion, but to stand side by side with our confreres as we publicly recommit ourselves to the way of Gospel life inspired by our beloved Poverello, St. Francis of Assisi.

Needless to say, all were invited to a wonderful banquet following the liturgy-- and then proceeded to a special, multi-media revue, "I Conoscenti" ("We knew him") presented by a cast from the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. This event was the second of two cultural offerings during the week. Earlier on, friars as well as professional musicians representing the richness of the cultural diversity of both our fraternity and of the beautiful communities we are privileged to serve, provided an inspirational evening of song, poetry and prayer in our multi-culturual concert.

The Chapter event is over. But the Chapter itself is much more than an intense week of gathering and decision-making. It is, actually, just the culminating moment in our ongoing process of personal and communal conversion, conversation, and renewal. The work goes on and on and on. Siempre adelante! Nunca para atras!//