Friday, May 20, 2011

Meet the (Almost) Ex-Novices

By tradition, the Franciscan novitiate, or training period for new members, is “a year and a day.” Although this year’s trial period for newcomers to the St. Barbara Province of the Franciscan friars (OFM) falls a few days short of the customary mark, it still marks a significant chunk of time for a man discerning a commitment to religious life.

This week, I stumbled upon our Province’s four novices while attending a meeting of our Definitorium (read: Board of Directors) at the San Damiano Retreat Center in Danville, California. The foursome were themselves attending a week-long meeting with their novice-confreres from other parts of the United States prior to their first profession of vows on June 24 at the St. Francis Retreat Center in San Juan Bautista, California. I took advantage of some break time to pull our brothers aside for a brief conversation about their novitiate year. They are a great group of men, and I’d like to introduce them to you, if I may:

Brother Mario Espitia, 29, hails from Los Angeles, California and is a trained social worker/counselor. Prior to his entry into the Order, Brother Mario worked in an East LA neighborhood program for children, teenagers, and their families. I asked him to reflect a bit about his time at our provincial novitiate at Old Mission San Miguel, California:

“When I started in novitiate, I expected to be bored and incarcerated all year. And instead, I feel like I’ve been freed. Liberated. Right now, I feel good. I’m happy. It’s not what I had expected in the beginning. When I entered the novitiate, I had a very unclear idea of what I was supposed to do at that point in my life. I was afraid of what it meant to be a Franciscan, a novice, and to have a commitment to the year. Now, I can’t say that the fears have left completely, but I am more aware of them. I have more trust in God, which I realized I didn’t have much in the beginning. More trust in the discernment process, and in the Franciscans.”

“For me, the lessons of the year were mostly family-related. I was struggling with resentments, anger... difficulties I had in growing up. I have been working on this and learning the Gospel way of life, the Rule (of the Order), and the words of St. Francis. I realized that if I am to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, I would have to let go, and to see the goodness of God even in the suffering, in the difficult moments of life. I used to believe that God was not present in the difficult moments in our family, that He was absent, but I learned that is not true. Now, I have come to be more compassionate with those who are struggling and feel alone. I feel more connected to the call to forgiveness and to love.”

Brother Mario reports that he has found the Franciscan lifestyle both demanding and rewarding. “Five times a week, we had Scripture reflection. It’s a challenging thing to do daily. It pushes you to go deeper and to try to think how your life is reflected in the Gospels. It was difficult for me at times because I don’t always want to accept my brokenness, shortcomings…. One of the high points for me was going to the Bay Area with my brother novices. We would go to the Saint Anthony Foundation in San Francisco to help out at the dining room once a month, serving food to the guests and interacting with them—sitting down and having lunch with them and talking with them. I didn’t wear my habit on those occasions. I didn’t want the guests to have any filters about what they wanted to talk about.... But when I finally told them I was a friar, they were surprised and grateful that I could have an open conversation with them, that I was non-judgmental and embracing of what they were. I could see myself in them and my own family—all that we went through—that might have led us to homelessness, substance abuse problems, and so on. We didn’t have that, but we could have. It helped me to grow in compassion and solidarity with the poor.”

After his first profession of vows on June 24, Brother Mario will be moving to the Bay Area to start studies at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley. He will also be preparing for his professional certification as a licensed clinical social worker. He does not have plans to prepare for ordination to the priesthood, “but I am open.”

Friar Juan Jose Jauregui, 30, is a native of Zacatecas, Mexico, but after arriving in the United States with his family, he lived in Hayward, California, and worked in a restaurant at the Oakland Airport. Brother Juan is a quiet, soft-spoken man. When he speaks in English, he does so slowly but also clearly and deliberately, and doesn’t waste his words:

“ We have a saying in Spanish: ‘La juventud no es un talento; es una condicion fisica, que tarde o temprano termina. Disfrutala.’/ ‘Youth is not a talent; it is a physical condition which will end sooner or later. Enjoy it!’” Right now, I feel glad. Glad and blessed from God. Because the novitiate was a very different and very beautiful experience in my life. It was different from my other years with the Franciscans in postulancy and at the House of Welcome (our former ESL house.—ed) This year, I took time for myself to reflect, to think, to enjoy everyday life and appreciate my faith a bit more…. The year was beautiful for me because I discovered that I have a good relationship with the Lord. There was no real “best” experience for me. I liked the whole year. I can’t tell you specifics.”

“At first I thought there would be more solitude, more quiet time. And that it would be a very academic thing. There were definitely a lot of challenges. For me, one of the biggest challenges was learning more English. Sometimes I had some difficulties to communicate with others only in English.”

“After novitiate, I plan to go back to English classes again to improve my English and take some regular classes, too, at Laney Community College in Oakland. I feel called to be a brother (instead of an ordained priest), but I don’t really know right now exactly what I will do. I’m having like a disagreement with myself right now about exactly what career I will follow. I would like to be a nurse assistant or a caregiver of some kind because I like to help sick people.”

“When I think of my Franciscan life, I feel blessed. And proud of myself and my family. Because finally I am reaching one of my goals that I was feeling since I was a child. I am especially proud of my family because they taught me my faith, especially my mom, my dad, and one of my grandmothers.”

Brother Scott Slattum, 36, is a native of Salem, Oregon. Prior to his entry into the Franciscan community, he worked as a parish youth minister and director of religious education. In addition, he was active in education and prevention programs for youth affected by alcohol, tobacco, and drug addiction.

As Brother Scott tells it, “I didn’t really come in to the novitiate with expectations. I think I came in pretty much open; I was sort of looking forward to it. I had been very active, very busy in ministry, so I thought it would be great to step back and re-root myself in prayer. I was in a very busy ministry.”

“The year has been excellent. It has been pure gift. At the beginning of our year, our novice master, Brother Regan, asked us to write down our greatest fears. I put down ‘fear of rejection, of not being loveable’. (During the year), I discovered that I am definitely loved and loveable. I found freedom. And I found it in fraternity; it was a turning point for me when John, one of my fellow novices, left. . . . It was painful, but also a very growing moment. I wanted to talk him out of leaving, but I realized that this life is one in which I cannot claim ownership over other people’s love for me, or my love for them.”

“ I was also coming into novitiate with a fear of conflict. Living in community, in close quarters, not having any down time for your brothers, you can’t avoid it. But something happens along the way where you learn to sit with those uncomfortable feelings. Recently, of my brothers and I were struggling with something. We sat down and talked it over. I acknowledged my part and he did his, and then we went forward. The encounter wasn’t anything traumatic; it was sort of “Oh, this is actually nice.”

“Next, I will be moving to St. Elizabeth Parish in Oakland, California after taking some philosophy classes this summer with other student friars at Mission San Luis Rey. In terms of studies, they (our formation directors) are still working on that. I would like to remain a brother. I just feel called to be a brother to others, to walk with people, to journey with them as an equal. One of the things I would like to do is work with alcohol, tobacco, and drug prevention in a community setting.”

Brother Sam Nasada, 33, was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, and worked as an industrial engineer in the Los Angeles area before entering the Franciscans. As far as his novitiate year is concerned, he reports that:

“What I feel right now, toward the end of the year, is that it’s been a long year with a lot of growth. At first, at the beginning of our time together, I didn’t have a lot of expectations, so I came to the novitiate to continue whatever the next process would be in Franciscan life. Maybe I was hoping-- after hearing from previous novices-- to deepen my spirituality, my prayer life. People told me that’s what they experienced most.”

“Now, after a year: it worked! It was probably the biggest growth in me: to become contemplative. It woke up this side in me; something I never thought I would be comfortable with before, since I am not joining a monastic order. To be in silence, to focus on my interior prayer, to be comfortable in that and to enjoy it. It was something gradual. Knowing that having that kind of prayer is soothing, peaceful. Not just the official, or formal prayer time, but throughout the day. And this is the other surprise—it is the contemplative experience I get from working outside in the vineyard, even playing with the cat. All these things. To be really in the moment, to enjoy creation and to be contemplative through and with creation.”

“What’s next? I’ll have come vacation time, summer school, summer camp. After that, definitely philosophy studies. I will be moving to the Bay Area... I am attracted to the priesthood. It has been difficult sometimes (to think about becoming a priest), maybe because most people around me are not looking to ordination. . . . I think I need some more role models… people who have the same desire toward ordination as I do.”