Editor’s Note: Stephen Mangione has been covering the ministry and initiatives of the National Vocation Office as the U.S. Franciscan provinces move toward becoming one in October. This first article of a three-part series focuses on the first-ever Interprovincial Weekend Retreat, held in January. Look for part two in mid-March.
Five men at a significant stage in their discernment of Franciscan vocation had the opportunity to listen to God’s call in the voices of a group of friars during the first-ever Interprovincial Vocation Weekend Retreat from Jan. 6-8 at St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg, Fla., hosted by the National Vocation Office. It was the first of many planned for 2023, and will serve as a roadmap moving forward for the new U.S. Franciscan province in the implementation of vocation strategies, planning, outreach and mission.
Titled “The Gospel Life: the Franciscan Vocation in the 21st Century,” the retreat was intended to help the men, including one who was unable to attend in person, reach their Franciscan vocation discernment goals. It offered a brimming schedule of talks and presentations by a team of national, regional and local vocation directors—and other friars, both active and retired—along with morning and evening prayer services, Mass, ministry immersion and meals—including a barbecue cookout—with the friar fraternities at St. Anthony’s and Sacred Heart Church in nearby Tampa.
The retreat was also meant for vocation directors to learn about the candidates, who rotated among the friars for comprehensive, honest, one-on-one interviews on a range subjects: family, childhood, education and employment background; spiritual life and relationship with God; personal relationships; talents and skills; outreach service-related experiences; and the attraction to friar life and Franciscan vocation. The vocation directors will submit behavioral assessment forms derived from the interviews, along with recommendations for acceptance into the postulancy program.
Among the friars who participated in the retreat were Basil Valente, OFM, national vocation director and eastern region vocation director; Gregory Plata, OFM, central region vocation director; Sebastian Sandoval, OFM, western region vocation director, and several LVDs (local vocation directors), as well as resident friars of the St. Petersburg friary and the fraternity that serves pastorally at the Tampa parish.
“This was an opportunity to get to know this group of men who are seriously discerning a Franciscan vocation. It helped us to understand who they are, their backgrounds and history in a number of areas, and most significantly, why they want to become a Franciscan friar,” said Basil.
Retreatants arrived just in time for Friday evening prayer with the resident friars of St. Anthony, followed with a greeting by Vincent Laviano, OFM, guardian of the friary.
“Your presence here gives us joy in knowing that St. Francis continues to inspire men to make the Gospel come alive for people to see and experience. You make us proud in knowing that you find us enough of an inspiration to want to dedicate your lives to the Franciscan way,” Vincent said in his welcoming remarks. “The friars living in retirement here at St. Anthony’s were involved in many ministries: college presidents, professors and administrators; hospital and military chaplains; spiritual directors and formation directors; pilgrimage guides; and provincials. They are living examples of the many ways to serve the Church and the Order as a friar. You can benefit from their experiences.”
During the post-dinner gathering on Friday, Paul Santoro, OFM, an LVD, and Mario Di Lella, OFM, senior friar and former campus minister at Georgia Tech, provided authentic and inspiring presentations titled “My Franciscan Journey: A Spiritual Reflection.” “It’s a privilege to walk the discernment journey with men seeking to live the Gospel life,” said Paul, who has served as a Holy Name Province regional vocation director for nearly a decade, and who was a moderator at the retreat’s sharing session.
“I am edified by the stories that the discerners shared about their love for the Church, the Gospel and St. Francis. This ministry has afforded me the opportunity to share my own story—a constant reminder of my ongoing formation in the Order,” continued Paul, who reflected on his discernment journey and ministries in education, addiction counseling and working with the homeless. “I also touched on the joys, and sometimes pains, of fraternal living—and the peaks and valleys of spiritual life. Vocation ministry is the work of all friars who, by their joyful living of the Gospel, attract others to our way of life. It is a true blessing.”
Morning prayer with the candidates in the friary chapel on Saturday featured a passionate address about the connection between Gospel life and Franciscan vocation, delivered by Jeffery Jordan, OFM, an LVD who teaches theology at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. “Words give a sense of what Gospel is really about. In Greek, Gospel simply means ‘good news.’ Think of that good news when Francis gathered the people of Greccio to celebrate Christmas, embodying that powerful idea that God became one of us in the Incarnation. Think of that feeling of good news when Francis embraced the leper and composed Canticle of the Creatures,” said Jeffery.
Jeffery said Francis recognized that spirituality and God is not something that’s “out there” or “nearby,” but rather something we embody, feel and express. “The Incarnation is rooted in this good news—that God has done something very radically different, becoming flesh and feeling the good news like you and Francis.”
“When Francis experienced his brothers, in a very real sense he experienced God, and that’s how we understand the value of fraternity. We live the good news through the vows we profess. Rather than something that is taken away, the vows are a radical expression of openness to God, each other and creation,” said Jeffery.
Jeffery concluded: “As you discern God’s will and vocation, go back to the words of Francis when he was kneeling before the cross and discerning God’s will. It began for him with an experience of love and good news—and people recognized in Francis that the fullness of God can be seen in creation and everything around us. Think about how you felt the good news.”
Late Saturday morning and early afternoon, the candidates met individually with the vocation directors prior to enjoying part of the afternoon in St. Petersburg and, later, a short drive to Tampa for the Vigil Mass at Sacred Heart Church and dinner with the friars. For the candidates, the weekend retreat deepened their connection to friar life and their discernment of Franciscan vocation.
“The attraction for me is that so much of friar life comes out of the community. To be part of a fraternity at the weekend retreat provided a sense of what it might be like, not just in the short-term as a postulant, but down the road in how brotherhood and community are always evolving and continuing to be the central point of Franciscan life,” said “Charles,” a candidate who finds fraternity, itinerancy and simplicity of values the most appealing hallmarks of friar life.
As much as I know in my heart that I want to go to postulancy and continue discernment from there, being around the friars reassures my decision. Praying and having meals with them gives me a small taste of what I love about the friars. It makes me double down on my call to the Franciscans,” said “Miguel,” a candidate who has met often with friars on the East Coast. “One of the things I loved about my service in the Marine Corps was the brotherhood. I thought it was unique to the military—brothers united in a common mission. I feel that again with the friars, being around men from all walks of life with different skills, but united under one mission to live the Gospel in the way of St. Francis toward Jesus.”
“Having the chance to talk with active and retired friars at the retreat, I got the sense that they pour out their love to everyone they encounter so that each person feels their worth,” said “Nick,” a candidate who has been in active dialogue with friars during his discernment journey. “The friars treat each other with such compassion and, at the same time, they can share a laugh. The living experience with the friars—eating, praying, being with them and seeing them as they are—showed they are men with different personalities, but share the common Franciscan charism of fraternal bond and outreach to the poor.”
On Sunday morning, the discerners met in the friary chapel for prayer led by Basil, who afterwards met individually with each candidate before lunch and the conclusion of the retreat.
Is God calling you to be a Franciscan? Visit BeAFranciscan.org.