Friars pray together at the All Province Assembly at St. Meinrad Archabbey. All photos by Fr. Frank Jasper, OFM
Amid the tranquil setting, rolling hills and sacred spaces of St. Meinrad Archabbey, friars gathered May 23-27 for the 2022 Provincial Chapter and All Province Assembly. Reports were read, discussions held and proposals passed, but it was also the opportunity for fraternity, community, prayer and socializing as the friars celebrated together and continue to look to the future with faith and hope. The opportunity to gather in person was especially meaningful for the friars since the 2020 Chapter was postponed due to travel and assembly restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
As president of the Chapter, Provincial Minister Mark Soehner called the Chapter to order on Monday and the friars gathered for Evening Prayer. John Barker, chair of the Planning Committee, then conducted the roll call of the members, along with introducing official observers and guests. Throughout the Chapter, sections of the Rule of St. Francis were read at various points until the entire Rule had been read. In addition, various friars gave witness talks, during which they reflected on times of transition in their own lives and the lessons learned from those experiences.
Pilgrimage as an opportunity
During his report to the Chapter on Tuesday morning, Mark focused on the theme of pilgrimage as the six U.S. Franciscan provinces draw closer to becoming one in October 2023. “Our Rule encourages us to let go of our expectations, our carefully plotted route, and to see the ‘different’ as an opportunity for growth in God,” Mark said. “The Rule purposely has us as vulnerable pilgrims, not knowing where our next meal will come from, working at manual labor when we can and caring for the lepers. The Rule encourages us to get used to a different interaction with God where we can totally depend on each other and God, who does provide.”
“We are on a pilgrimage, brothers,” he reminded the friars, noting that “this Chapter is an opportunity for us to engage more deeply – to listen to God and to listen to each other. Chapter is meant to share our hopes and vision for the new province, and a time to look at significant milestones that mark the distance our journey has taken us thus far.”
Those milestones include: regular meetings of the six provincials, their support staff and the R&R team to listen to suggestions, make decisions and move things forward; Caoimhim O Laieode’s work with the provinces as the Order’s Delegate General in the R&R process; working with advisors from Grant Thornton; the efforts of friars and lay coworkers who have been meeting frequently as working groups, ranging from Provincial Secretaries and treasures/CFOs to JPIC and Aging/Health & Wellness; plans to implement a formation program in under a single secretary of formation for all six provinces; a new system for managing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits that brings all provinces together; and support systems for day-to-day provincial operations so the Provincial Minster, Vicar and councilors can focus on friars and their common lives and mission.
“I started this reflection saying that we are pilgrims. Our pilgrimage will not end in October 2023 when we all become part of a new province. That moment in Kansas City of celebrating the Chapter of Union is important, but it is an important milestone, not the final destination,” Mark said. “Our final destination is the kingdom of God. By our profession as Friars Minor, we committed to that pilgrimage. And we committed ourselves to make that pilgrimage as brothers to each other, with all women and men of good faith and with all of creation. This is what we seek; this is what we want with all our hearts.”
Steps on the Journey
Tuesday’s agenda also featured a discussion of the Revitalization and Restructuring (R&R) process with Larry Ford, director of the Office of R & R, and Jack Clark Robinson, associate director, who provided the friars with an update on the move toward the creation of the new province and the steps that still need to be taken prior to the Chapter of Unification. Jack noted that the SJB friars have been part of the pilgrimage to a new province for some time, citing several examples of cooperation and collaboration: Fred Link’s work in the first interprovincial novitiate; Henry Beck’s ministry with the border project with three provinces in the El Paso area; and Charlie Smiech’s involvement with the Interprovincial Retreat Committee.
Larry expressed his gratitude to the friars saying, “We thank you for what you’ve already done to create renewal over the past three or four decades. Thank you for what you began and what has been entrusted to us. We stand on your shoulders and are grateful for what you’ve done for all of the provinces and for the people of God.”
A presentation by Greg Plata, regional vocation director, highlighted the structure of the national Vocation Office and strides made thus far. This includes ongoing discussions on how to promote Franciscan vocations nationally, as well as an effort to increase the use of a combination of digital outreach and personal accompaniment to reach out and support men in discernment.
Wednesday was a full day for the friars, beginning with a witness talk by John Boissy, who spoke about his experience as a young friar amid transition. “It’s been awesome to live with and get to know the guys from other provinces and their ministries,” he said. “They’ve inspired me in my own woodworking ministry and I feel a lot of creative hope for future possibilities.”
Led by Page Polk, the Chapter members then broke into small groups to reflect on their own experiences with transition, what they learned, how they have responded to fears or concerns about the unknown and how they felt God’s presence and guidance during change. The friars then reflected and shared on how these past experiences of change might influence the transition from being a member of St. John the Baptist Province to being part of a new province, considering such questions as: “What do you think the implications of this change are for you, as a Franciscan and a Christian?” “What do you think God may be calling forth from you?” and “What do you think you need to ask from God in order to make the transition?”
Page continued the session by asking the friars for their ideas about how to celebrate the ending of SJB Province and its legacy. A lively discussion ensued and numerous ideas surfaced, such as a slide show of different locations and ministries throughout the history of the province; marking the occasion with a broader celebration including Secular Franciscans, the Poor Clares and sponsored ministries; and a ritual that might consist of burying an image or statue of St. John the Baptist or creating a time capsule.
Formation and fraternity
On Wednesday afternoon, John Barker, Bill Farris and Roger Lopez met with current local fraternal leaders and those with the potential for such leadership for ongoing formation and the chance to reflect on fraternal leadership, drawing on the Order’s Handbook for Guardians. Participants were asked to name specific characteristics of either past or present fraternities that contributed to their sense of being part of an evangelical family. Roger also noted that beginning in July, a monthly speaker series will be offered via Zoom over the next year for fraternal leaders to hear presentations on a variety of topics, discuss challenges and best practices. There are three topics, in particular, that the Council has deemed necessary: building fraternal trust, creating a good house Chapter and day of recollection and financial stewardship and responsibility.
“These three are especially important to our vowed life,” Roger said. “More and more, the Order is calling us to revitalize, so we really want look at the role of the guardian and the animation of fraternity. It’s at the friaries that we engage with Christ, where the Gospel is renewed within us, where we support and encourage one another.”
Following the formation and discussion, John presented each of the three proposals included on the Chapter agenda and a fourth proposal brought forth during the time of Chapter by Robert Seay. Proposal 4, along with the other three, passed during voting on Friday morning. It reads:” As Franciscans, we are to take immediate Gospel action to confront and condemn the sin of racism. We can eradicate racial injustice through appropriate and ongoing conversion, both internal and external, personal and institutional. The Chapter resolves: *That at house Chapters or at the request of the Provincial, each friary will regularly reflect on the issue of racism and include an action in the Friary Fraternal Life Plan. *Since racism is a systemic issue, be it resolved that the Provincial Council will provide helpful resources, such as speakers, literature, film, etc., to aid the friars in their education.”
Praise and thanksgiving
In addition to the themes of pilgrimage, fraternity and faithfully embracing change that ran throughout the Chapter, there was also an air of celebration as the jubilarians from 2020, 2021 and 2022 were honored. Friars with jubilees 60 years or above were recognized at Morning or Evening Prayer during the week. Mark Soehner presided at the joyful Mass of Thanksgiving on Wednesday afternoon, with Murray Bodo as the homilist.
“Just coming in here and especially now standing up here, I feel all this goodness coming at me. It’s like a radiance. I just want to tell you how radiant and beautiful you are,” Murray said to the jubilarians, describing the stories of their ministries as “extraordinary.”
Murray offered the following words of encouragement to his brother friars as they look to the future: “We still have God’s spirit and the Gospel message we serve is big, and we have big Franciscan hearts to carry on praising and thanking God and serving him together with brothers with great humility. May God bless us all.”
The celebration continued at a festive dinner following Mass. Video portraits of the 25 and 50-year jubilarians compiled by Chris Cahill were featured, and stories penned by Fred Link were read by members of Council. Their words highlighted the many gifts that each of the jubilarians has brought to their ministries over the years, their Franciscan spirit, deep faith, compassion, humility and joy. Tim Lamb, celebrating 25 years as a friar, was not present because of the need for someone to remain behind in Jamaica to ensure God’s people there were provided for. He was noted for his “graciousness in responding to the invitations of both the province and the order.” Ed Skutka, celebrating a double anniversary of 50 years of vowed life and 50 years of service at St. Francis Retreat House, was described by fellow jubilarian Mark Ligett as a “walking parable of simplicity and joy.” Those same sentiments apply to all the jubilarians, whose faith, devotion and years of services are an example to all as we strive to live God’s call for us.
Blessings and education
During Morning Prayer on Thursday, John Barker was missioned to serve the people in the Diocese of Montego Bay, Jamaica. Vince Delorenzo, director of the Franciscan Mission Office, expressed John’s request in the presence of the other friars, then Mark Soehner accepted the request and presented John with the Mission Cross. With their hands extended, his fellow friars prayed over John, asking for God’s blessings.
Thursday’s schedule also included a presentation titled “Ethical Boundaries in Adult to Adult Contact” by Dr. James Coupe, who serves as the clinical director at the Saint John Vianney Center where he oversees the evaluation and treatment programs. His talk was presented as part of the province’s ongoing education regarding efforts to protect children and young adults. The presentation was open to all friars of the US-6 provinces and was live-streamed for those from SJB who were unable to attend Chapter. At the conclusion of the talk, Mike Chowning, special delegate for Child Protection, Manuel Viera and Art Espelage discussed some ideas about the issue from the Canon Law perspective.
Larry Ford and Jack Clark Robinson were back on the agenda Thursday afternoon to lead a discussion about the location of the headquarters for the new province, the “hub” governance structure and to listen to ideas and general feedback from the friars to take by to the US-6 working groups.
Their work completed, the Chapter members and guests celebrated Mass on Friday morning. John thanked those responsible for the Chapter, and Mark declared it closed. After gathering for a final meal together, all departed for home, inspired by St. Francis and each other, filled with the Holy Spirit and optimism about the pilgrimage they are on together.