Friday, April 16, 2010

April 16: V-Day

It has been a tradition in our Order that each year on April 16 – the day on which Francis made his profession into the hands of Pope Innocent III – we gather and renew our commitment to our way of life. The purpose of this renewal is to recall the origins of our Rule, to recall the devotion of Francis and his companions to follow the Holy Gospel, to recall our own fervor as we began this way of life, and resolve to commit ourselves again to these ideals.

From the Testament of St. Francis of Assisi (14-17)
“And after the Lord gave me brothers, no one showed me what I had to do, but the Most High ... revealed to me that I should live according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel. And I had this written down simply and in a few words and the Lord Pope confirmed it for me. And those who came to receive life gave whatever they had to the poor and were content with one tunic, patched inside and out, ... We desired nothing more.”

Friars Renewal:
All praise be yours, Most High, for all creation gives you glory. All praise be yours, O Lord, for all good things come from you. All praise be yours, Almighty One, for you call us to the life of the risen Christ. Today, we your sons, renew and re-dedicate ourselves to the call you have given us. We renew our commitment to the Rule of our father Francis, and we ask your help to continue to live the life of the Gospel with obedience to your Spirit and your Church, with poverty that imitates the life of your beloved Child Jesus and his holy mother, and with chastity that frees us to love you and your people with unmeasured love. All praise be you Most High! Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning is now and will be forever. Amen!

The Promise of Eternal Life:
“And whoever observes these things, let them be blessed in heaven with the blessings of the Most High Father, and on earth with the blessing of His Beloved Son with the Most Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, and all the powers of heaven and with all the saints.” {Testament. 40}

The truth is:
Today, Friday. I came home from the parish about 4. It had been a grueling week: way too many meetings, emergency calls, appointments with people struggling with overwhelming issues in their lives.... Celebrations: Fr. Jerry's anniversary as a priest (Fr. Jerry is a retired diocesan priest who helps out with Mass on our day off. A truly good and humble man)..... The School Mass for our parish school (the kids were full of life and just amazing)..... A man sitting in the chapel, sobbing, after Mass: his brother had just died. A dozen red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese appearing out of nowhere..... A couple in their 60s, walking hand in hand, like a couple of lovebirds-- stopping by to plan the details of their August wedding..... 78 emails waiting to be answered.... The Sunday homily to be started..... A mother and her son visiting the family graves.... An elderly Filipino couple who wanted Anointing of the Sick. And so on....

I hopped in the shower, planning to skip evening prayer and sleep through dinner as well. But something bugged me-- so I went to the friary chapel after all. Oh, Renewal of Vows! Wow! Already? What does it feel like after 16 years in this life style?

It feels like it's my life. My life, not someone else's. Not a dream, a fantasy, a daydream or a movie. Just my life. Getting up in the morning, praying with my brothers, doing my best during the day (with lots of disappointments and failures). A precious hour of 'radiation therapy' before the Blessed Sacrament. A nap after lunch. Relief at locking my office door and walking across the property to the Old Mission-- hey, it's really beautiful outside! Tired. And content. Still tired, but still... content. And grateful. So, let's keep going: The Lord gave me brothers. Siempre adelante!/ Always go forward!//

Monday, April 12, 2010

Men Religious: Image and Experience

Let the Great World Spin
Colum McCann
Random House Trade Paperbacks: New York, c.2009
US$15.00, 375pp.
ISBN: 978-0-8129-7399-0

Brooklyn: A Novel
Colm Tóibín
Scribner: New York, c. 2009
Hardbound, US$25.00., 262pp.
ISBN: 978-1439-138311-1

When it comes to religious life and/or priesthood, I’ve always been struck by the difference between image and experience. When I was growing up in the urban Midwest of the Fifties and Sixties, the dominant images of priests and priesthood available were those created and promoted by Hollywood. Wise, folksy, affable, but also appropriately tough and worldwise ‘don’t mess with me, I’m nobody’s fool’ kind of Irishmen, by and large. Pat O’Brien, Gene Kelly, Bing Crosby. Father Flanagan of Boys’ Town; Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s. If the cassock fits, wear it.

My own actual, lived experience was of men of a somewhat different cloth altogether. Monsignor Heinrich, pastor, had up to four (count ‘em!) full-time associates at any one time. He was a stern, aloof, and formal figure, who left no strong impression, endearing or otherwise. He simply ran the place, and ran it rather well. His associates, like Frs. Stetson, Sargent, Murphy, and Bank were somehow more visible, approachable, believable. Outside of church, they could be seen catching a smoke at the sacristy door, or in their T-shirts washing their cars on a Saturday morning, or chatting easily with families after Mass. Inside the sanctuary, however, they could sometimes be holy terrors--Fr. Sargent, the ex-Presbyterian, brought the spirit of John Calvin to much of his preaching. Parishioners basically took them as they were, though: liked them, respected them, and downplayed their failings. The cinematic Irishness of O’Brien & Company was charming and romantic. Our real, live parish priests were far less dramatic or compelling figures. But they were good, hardworking, and holy men, and over the long haul, that counted for more than charm and charisma.

Novelists McCann and Tóibín, both transplanted Irishmen who write about US culture, provide differing images of priests and male religious-- ones which merit some consideration and reflection. In Let the Great World Spin, one of the chief characters is Corrigan—Irish-born and bred and self-styled urban monk who, by the early 1970s, has graduated from the streets of Dublin to the howling madness of the South Bronx. In the spirit of the heady decade immediately following Vatican II, Corrigan parachutes right into the midst and messiness of inner city life. “What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday…. He consoled himself with the fact that in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of …light.” His parishioners are the neighborhood’s most fragile denizens: the elderly and the street prostitutes whom he befriends, and attempts—largely without success—to protect and defend.

By the time of his early exit from the novel’s pages, Corrigan has fallen in love—with a single mother from El Salvador, who works as a nurse’s aide and sometimes assists him in his ministerial endeavors. He has also become addicted to heroin: “He was shooting smack (his brother reports)…because he couldn’t stand the thought of others being left alone with the same terror.” In a fatal auto collision, he ultimately gives/ loses his life. During the remainder of the novel, his life and character— flaws as well as virtues-- are reconstructed through the memories of family, friends, and the destitute and the abandoned people he served.

One is left with a number of doubts about Corrigan. What is his real ‘religion’—his point of connection, his interpretive lens of spiritual meaning? To whom and to what is he connected beyond the immediate realm of his ministry-- his family? his religious brotherhood? the Church? Corrigan is a kind of kamikaze Christian— in the unsparing arc of his self-styled call to action, the fact of his demise is ultimately unsurprising, yet nonetheless compelling. He leaves behind a motley crew of suffering, struggling human beings who have been genuinely touched by his love. But has anyone, included himself, been transformed or redeemed through his sacrifice?

Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn: A Novel visits an earlier, kinder, gentler, quieter, safer New York. It is a slice of the Brooklyn of the early to mid-1950s, the waning days of the fraying Irish ghetto, with even a remnant of the immigrant boardinghouse. Tóibín’s cleric is the irreproachable Fr. Flood, who on one of his periodic visits home to Enniscourthy, County Cork, befriends Eilis, the novel’s main figure and protagonist. Fr. Flood sees that, left unsupported or encouraged, Eilis faces a doomed existence in the same pinched and provincial small-town life he himself escaped. He proffers himself as patron and protector, and assists Eilis in her literal and figurative passage to the new world. Fr. Flood is an honest broker: he knows the game and the players. Through a mixture of kindness and canniness, he is able to place and assist Eilis in her adjustment to a very new and different cultural reality. He arranges safe living quarters for her, work in a respectable department store, and the possibility of contacts with appropriate peers through a network of parish social activities. He is a mentor and literally, a ‘father’ figure, but he is at the same time somewhat detached in his dealings with Eilis. He takes pains not to shelter or smother her in the way her own family and culture have done. But the safety net of parish and family life are always assumed. Eilis may suffer, but she will not be devoured by her environment.

There you have it. Two good and decent men. Both deeply committed to the Church and to the care of souls. Fr. Flood is from central casting—or at least what’s left of it by the mid-Fifties. He could squeeze into the suited image of O’Brien, Kelly, and Crosby with few alterations. Corrigan is another bird altogether. He is cut astray, searching and uncertain both in his personal identity and institutional anchoring. Part of a generation of men (and women) who have broken out of a traditional network (or web?) or relationships and have not yet firmly fixed a new one to replace it. Corrigan is the more complex and compelling figure by far. His heroic struggles and ultimate, untimely death are lived and expressed the ambiguities of a world and culture split wide open by the Sixties. Neither Father Flood nor Eilis have any sense of the convulsive decade ahead of them.

Two images, two expressions, two experiences of men committed to the Lord and the Church through religious life and/or priesthood. What appeals to you in these characterizations? Which of the qualities in these characters would attract/distract you in your own search for identity and expression? What images and experience/s of your own do you have of priesthood a/o religious life? Do they help or hinder you in your personal journey in any particular way at all? Feel free to leave a comment….

Praise with Elation!

The Carnival cruise line Elation, that is. Hello, Everybody!
The Blog is Back. Some time in February, 2009, I made the decision to discontinue Friarside Chats. We Franciscans of the Province of St. Barbara had just held our biennial Chapter (i.e., congress) at the historic Old Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, California (about 40 minutes north of San Diego). We elected our new provincial administration, and then proceeded to reshuffle the deck in terms of ministerial assignments.

As a result of that process, I was elected as one of six definitors (consultors) to our new leadership team, which includes our recently elected Provincial Minister (Numero Uno), Father John Hardin, ofm, and our vicar-Provincial (Numero Dos) Father Ken Laverone, ofm. In July of last year, I left my job as vocations coordinator to become reincarinated (or rather, re-incardinated) as pastor of the parish at-- Mission San Luis Rey—the same venue as our Chapter meeting.

I was not alone in terms of reassignment. Of the more than 100 friars in active ministry in our province, nearly half of us were moved in the wake of our Chapter. It’s not that we weren’t doing our jobs. Rather, as an integral part of our vocation as ‘itinerants’ (pilgrims and strangers on this earth) we are asked to be open and available to the call of the Spirit and of our superiors at all times—the terms is “disponible” in the lingo of religious orders. When I first entered religious life 16 years ago, I thought that moving around like this on a regular basis would be easy and fun. Now, I find it more difficult—it’s really hard to leave the friendships and contacts one develops in a particular place. Every move brings its sadness and joy.

In this process of institutional musical chairs, everyone was to be in place by the time the record stopped on September 1. And it worked! With the exception of a few stragglers, everyone was in place, at least physically, in his new assignment by Labor Day. The psychological adjustment is ongoing and takes much longer, of course.

For my part, I shifted from a very focused, one-on-one and small-group oriented ministry to responsibilities as head of a leadership team for more than 5,000 families in a large, multi-cultural environment. We have a staff of 20, including 2 full-time friars, 12 lay ministers, and a five-man maintenance crew. The parish campus—about 12 acres in all—includes a ‘worship space’—the Junipero Serra Center (capacity 1200), and our parish Montessori school with 200 students. In addition, the parish hosts a wide variety of programs, ranging from our religious education program (800 students, K-12), to the Knights of Columbus, to ‘grupos de oracion/ intercesion’ and even that enduring mainstay of Catholic parish life: bingo! It’s compelling, often overwhelming, but I’m not complaining. Seven months into a rather steep learning curve, I am really enjoying this new ministry. The people—warm, welcoming, and faith-filled-- make it all worthwhile, believe me. And the local Franciscan fraternity—eight of us all together, along with four lay Covenant volunteer members—makes for stimulating community life, to say the very least.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I have come to realize even though I’m now working as a pastor, I’m still very interested in vocations work and will probably continue to help promote vocations one way or another for a long time to come. I am deeply convinced that the Franciscan movement, lay and religious, is still ‘alive and kicking’, and that there is a vital role for us in today’s Church and society. But we ain’t goin’ no place unless or until we can get the word out effectively

We have an excellent new vocations coordinator, Father Alberto Villafan, ofm, who works out of San Jose, California. I have known Fr. Alberto for more than 16 years—we are classmates and entered the Franciscans together as postulants in 1993. He is a good, hardworking, and dedicated man. I will be writing more about him in future blog entries. At any rate, Fr. Alberto has moved the Vocations Office to San Jose, California, and can be reached directly at 408/903-3422. Email:

For my part, of course, I’ve decided to restart this blog and see what happens. This particular stroke of genius (or was it sunstroke) hit me while on a post-Easter boat ride from San Diego to Baja California, Mexico. The ship, by the way, is the Carnival Line’s Elation. (!) I like that. (The trip was a 60th birthday present).

But now I will be writing from the perspective of my own ‘vocation within a vocation’-- my work and experience as a pastor and member of a large Franciscan community. It’s just one of a wide variety of working/living situations our Province supports and maintains. I hope something from my experience may help you in your own spiritual growth and discernment.

Feel free to contact me at any time and I will be happy to respond and/or forward inquiries to Fr. Alberto as it appears appropriate. Peace and all good!—Fr. Chuck Talley, ofm.