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.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Summer 2010: Friar Days at San Luis Rey

The invasion began peacefully enough. Precisely around dawn (Franciscan time) on Sunday, July 25, while some friars were still fast asleep in their beds and others were preparing for Mass, the vans rolled silently onto the grounds of the Old Mission. The new occupying forces--fourteen student friars in all—nine of them from our own Province of St. Barbara— quietly gathered their backpacks, laptops, and sleeping bags to set up summer camp. The Mission would never be the same again.

Welcome to unofficial Friar Days at Old Mission San Luis Rey, Oceanside, California. For almost a full month, Franciscan friars, secular Franciscans, parishioners, families and friends gathered at the historic (founded 1798) 50-acre site north of San Diego to celebrate and share our heritage and hopes through a number of classes, workshops, and special events.

First off, the student friars spent time in summer classes on Franciscan philosophy—Sister Mary Beth Ingham offered a course on Franciscan philosopher Duns Scotus. Our own Father Tom Herbst, home for the summer from the Franciscan International Study Centre in Canterbury, England, provided sessions in Church history and Franciscan spirituality to both friars and the general public. Interwoven into all of this were three separate retreats on Franciscan spirituality provided for leadership groups in the English-speaking, Spanish-speaking and Samoan communities, kicking off an18-month renewal project for the Parish family.

In the midst of all this scholarly and community activity, we celebrated a number of special public events as well. On Friday, August 13, our brother Sebastian David Sandoval-Ballestros was ordained to the transitional diaconate by Bishop Robert Brom, DD, of the Diocese of San Diego. Deacon Sebastian has since been assigned to the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, Arizona, to complete his training in preparation for eventual ordination to the priesthood.

The following morning, our Minister Provincial Father John Hardin, presided over the profession of solemn (lifetime) vows by Friars Louis Khoury and Christopher Best in the Old Mission Church. The Church was filled to capacity with family, friends, and more than forty Franciscan friars—a record attendance for us. Besides being a monumental occasion for our professing brothers, it also served as a poignant reminder to all of us friars of what we have pledged to the Lord and our brothers:

“… with firm faith and will, I vow to God the Father, Holy and Almighty, to live the whole time of my life in obedience, without anything of my own, and in chastity….”

“Therefore, with all my heart, I entrust myself to this brotherhood, that through the working of the Holy Spirit, the example of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, the intercession of our father Francis and all the saints, and with the help of my Brothers, I may in the service of God, the Church, and humankind seek the perfection of charity.”

With the words “therefore, with all my heart,” I can assure you that we friars felt a collective lump in our throats. The promises made by every newly professed friar both reaffirm and challenge the commitment of us all. It is in grace-filled moments like this one that we realize that, our individual wounds and flaws notwithstanding, there is something (or rather, Someone) who brings us together and calls us to our better, even best selves.

Completing the triduum of Franciscan festivities, on Sunday, August 15, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, friars and members of the parish family of Mission San Luis Rey gathered at Eucharist to bless and dedicate our new Franciscan/ San Damiano Cross. The nine-foot long object “written” icon-style on a ‘body’ of solid pine wood is an interpretation of the same Cross from which the corpus of Christ spoke to St. Francis of Assisi nearly 800 years ago, enjoining him to “rebuild my Church.” Our brother, Vincent Nguyen spent two full months as artist-in-residence at the Parish working on the figure.

Minister Provincial Father John Hardin presided at sequential unveilings of the Cross at both the principal English and Spanish-language celebrations. He also received the renewal of temporary (annual) vows from our nine student/ simply professed confreres. At the end of Mass, the Parish Knights of Columbus Council 3162 presented scholarship awards to three of our student friars: Joe Sury, Louis Khoury, and Ryan Thornton.

After a weekend of liturgical celebrations and ensuing fraternal partying, our student friars stayed on at San Luis Rey to help out with ‘voluntary’ manual labor on a variety of unglamorous jobs on the grounds. Many thanks to them for their hard work in the gardens and elsewhere.

I’ve been told that next summer, the student friars will be with us at OMSLR for an even longer period of time. We welcome another friendly invasion. These men bring along with them the contagious passion, energy, and excitement of both their youth and their 'young' vocations. This, in turn, helps to re-ignite the Franciscan spirit among us; we are really blessed.

--Many thanks to Secular Franciscan Tuan Cao and to Brother Eric Pilarczik for the photos provided in this entry.- ct