Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Meeting our Mentors: The ExMinProvs

ExMinProvs? By way of introduction and explanation, the Franciscan universe is organized into approximately 117 mostly geographical entities called ‘provinces.’ The work and life of each province is directed by an elected Minister Provincial in consultation with a group of advisors, or ‘definitors’ who assist him. Former ministers provincial are sometimes referred to affectionately by the moniker "ExMinProvs."

I am myself a definitor in my province and serve as part of a six-member consultative team elected to assist our provincial minister, Fr. John Hardin (Numero Uno) and his vicar, Fr. Ken Laverone (Numero 2). Six times a year, we gather for 4-5 days at one of our retreat houses to consider the business of the province and make plans, recommendations and decisions. Basically, it’s like doing jury duty. We sit sequestered for long stretches of time, reviewing in detail an array of complex issues (financial, legal, personnel, etc.,) and hold consultative votes on specific agenda items. Discretion goes with the territory; all of our discussions are confidential. The process is thorough and generally effective; it can also be bone- tiring and soul-wearying. By the end of most sessions, we're ready to take the very next plane home.

Often our meetings are predictable and routine, but our most recent Definitorium session (August 29- Sep 2) was a welcome exception. For one entire morning, we suspended our working agenda to listen to presentations by a panel comprised of all five of our past ministers provincial-- hence, the term “Ex-Min-Provs”. For several hours, these extraordinary men mentored us collectively and spoke about the challenges and opportunities they encountered and experienced during their terms of leadership. In doing so, they provided not just an historical reflection on their time in office, but more importantly, valuable insight into the meaning of leadership over time in the Franciscan context.

So meet the five ExMinProvs. Their shared experience of leadership spans the past forty years of life in the Church and the Order. Several of them were trained by men whose experience of Franciscan life, in turn, reaches as far back as 1950:

Father John Vaughn: Minister Provincial 1976-9; Minister General of the Franciscan Order (OFM), 1979-1991). His initial six-year term was cut short by his election as Minister General of the Franciscan Order (OFM), a post Fr. John held in Rome for a total of twelve years. A prudent, soft-spoken man, he is respected for his ability to listen deeply to others and to serve as a conciliatory voice in discussions of ‘hot button’ issues affecting the Order and the Church. He has brought a heightened sense of international awareness to our province and the Order.

Father Louis (Louie) Vitale: Minister Provincial (1979-1988). Louie moved up from to the position of MP with the election of John Vaughn. A former US Air Force pilot, after completing a doctorate in sociology at UCLA, he went on to become a prominent figure in peace and justice work nationally. In recent years, he has been arrested and jailed on multiple occasions for acts of civil disobedience at places such as the Nevada Desert Test site (for atomic weapons research) and Fort Benning, Georgia (site of the controversial School of the Americas).

Father Joseph (Joe) Chinnici. MP (1988-1997) With a Ph.D. in history from Oxford University, Fr. Joe presently works as a professor and academic dean at the Franciscan School of Theology, Berkeley, CA. In all of his work, he has consistently stressed the necessity of reclaiming and renewing our Franciscan history and intellectual vision. During his tenure as Minister Provincial, he responded to the gravity of the issue of clerical sexual abuse with transparency and compassion.

Father Finian McGinn: MP (1997-2003). An accomplished linguist, Fr. Finian holds a Ph.D. from Fresno State University and worked with the Hmong immigrants in California’s Central Valley. As Minister Provincial, he brought a keen sense of awareness of our increasingly multicultural Order and society.

Father Melvin (Mel) Jurisich: MP (2003-2009). Also an educator, Fr. Mel served as Provincial Secretary for more than two decades prior to his election as Provincial. His by-word has been ‘transparency’—a willingness to share accurate and meaningful information with friars and the public at every level.

These men have been the heavy hitters of our Province. Individually and collectively, they have risen to positions of leadership during times of intense turmoil and growing polarization in both the Church and society. Each has succeeded in a significant way in maintaining a ‘center of gravity’ in our community life and service in the midst of this upheaval. As a province, we have been blessed; we appear to have received the ‘right’ leader at exactly the moment when we needed him most. These are all capable men who have been able to discern the ‘prevailing passion’ of the time and to channel that energy into the fulfillment of the deeper goals of our Franciscan vision.

So, what pearls of real wisdom were we able to gather? The ExMinProvs laid out for us the tremendous re/evolution of structures and issues that have emerged over the past forty years in the Order, the Catholic Church, and in society as a whole: the impact of Vatican II; the movement to a less hierarchical, more consultative style of leadership and participation; collaboration with the laity, and the adaptation of decision-making processes and structures to deal with increasingly complex issues. They organized their comments into five general categories of discussion: governance; dreams and their realization/ frustration; self-care; challenges, and the distinctiveness of the Province of St. Barbara

“We discovered that feeding the poor was not enough,” reflected Fr. John Vaughn. “We needed to change structures.” By the end of Vatican II, friars were leaving a quasi-monastic environment in order to serve people more directly. Friars were now intensely involved in hospital work, in parishes, and among immigrant farmworkers—especially in California’s Central valley. The shift in ministries was contemporaneous with rapid changes in the structure of religious life. As exMinProv Joe Chinnici noted, “In the period 1961-72, approximately 110 friars left the Province (out of a total of about 400).” Those who remained, reflected Mel Jurisich, had to deal with the serious issues of “ the loss of fraternal life, loneliness, and (the need) to rely upon (one’s) inner resources. We became more individualized in order to survive.” There was a hardening of attitudes on social issues and lifestyle choices (“I’m poorer than thou”) and a sense of increasing isolation.”

Institutionally, friars had to deal with a steady stream of complex issues— both intramural and societal-- that their predecessors had been spared: participation in the Social Security system (friars had not participated in the system until about 1970 because of an expressed desire to maintain strict observance of the vow of poverty), sexual abuse, health care for the elderly, possible bankruptcy. “We needed to see the bigger picture beyond ourselves, “ Father Mel observed. “And to understand that it takes time to move people forward together.” In the matter of Social Security, for example, it took friars nearly 12 years to agree to enroll in the government program. Addressing the ramifications of the sexual abuse cases has consumed much of the energy of leadership from 1993 to the present. Realignment, or ‘right-sizing’ of ministerial commitments has been a matter of discussion for more than a decade now.

All five ExMinProvs concurred that in today’s Church and world, crisis management is normative. In each of their administrations, “circumstances shaped one’s ability to lead as each generation faced new issues”, as Chinnici observed. Rather than being consumed by crisis, though, he suggested that future leaders learn “to shape the agenda given to him/ them so as to turn it towards the good and further the deeper goals of the (Franciscan) vision.” In practical terms, he suggested, this requires that the leader “discover the prevailing passion-- internationality, justice, Franciscan vision, culture, transparency, and so on.” Any given issue needs to be subsumed into the larger whole in order to “enable persons to… move forward.”

Remarkably, given the enormity of the tasks each and all of these men have had to undertake, none of them voiced any bitterness or resentment. Each appears to have developed the capacity to ‘lean into’ an issue rather than be overwhelmed by it. To seek help and advice, as Louie put it “from people who know a heck of a lot more than I do.” And to keep before them ‘the greater vision of life’ that Chinnici has articulated: “the dignity of the person, the need to create fraternity in mission, the decentering (sic) of politicization of issues towards something greater which we hold in common, (and) the inclusion of all in sorting out the tensions.”

The leadership of the Franciscan province of St. Barbara, like that of many other religious communities in the Catholic Church today, continues to struggle with the need to deal with the world one has inherited, to muddle through the messiness and complexity of daily life, and to face squarely both one’s own shortcomings as well as the reality of the unforeseen consequences of one’s decisions. The problems won’t go away, but they can and must be addressed in terms of the greater vision: “We’re not corporate CEO’s,” concluded our present Provincial Minister John Hardin, “ nor should we act like them. We Franciscans have our own culture and way of looking at the world.” It is the trust in that Spirit-led ‘way of looking at the world’ which continues to feed our dreams and guide both ex-, present, and future provincial ministers.

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