800 Years: Proud Heritage and Challenge of Renewal

John Anglin, OFM Features

As Franciscans around the world commemorate the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Order, John Anglin, OFM, of the Province’s Franciscan Ministry of the Word, says it is an exciting time to be a friar, especially to carry forward what our predecessors gave us.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A few weeks ago, while preaching a mission in Cape Coral, Fla., a woman stopped me and said, “Wow, you are almost 800 years old.” She had read an article in her diocesan newspaper about the Chapter of Mats held recently in Assisi, and asked several questions about the Order. She asked if I knew several friars that she knew. I did not because they were Conventual Franciscans. I did my best to explain the distinction to her.

This conversation got me reflecting on what this anniversary means to me. It sums up both the positives and negatives of our history and the challenges that lie before us.

This woman’s enthusiasm for our 800th anniversary expressed the love that people have had for the friars for 800 years. It was obvious that several Conventuals had played an important role in her life and that their warmth and compassion touched her.

As I go around preaching missions, more than 330 in the past 21 years, in both English and Spanish, I continually hear stories of how friars from all branches of the Order, as well as Franciscan sisters, have touched people’s lives. We are perceived as good preachers and teachers, and as down-to-earth and compassionate people.

I experienced similar comments from people all over the world when I served as a confessor at St. John Lateran in Rome during the Jubilee of the year 2000. As our late brother Maurice Brick, OFM, once said, “Everybody loves the friars.” That quote reminds us that we are the recipients of a proud heritage of ministry, and though the Order is divided into several branches, both old and new, we all benefit from this heritage.

The same woman’s confusion over different branches of the Order is a reminder of some of the negatives of our history. I just finished reading Francis and His Brothers, a brief history of the Order, written by Dominic Monti, OFM. Two things struck me. One is that right from the beginning, we have struggled to find common agreement on how to live the charism of Francis. This is not entirely bad. After all, we are a brotherhood, a family, not just an organization or corporation.

Families have feuds and disagreements from time to time, and sometimes family members have to separate and go in different directions to have peace and stability in their lives. At the same time, we need to heal our wounds and reflect on what has sent us in different directions.

Our recent Chapter of Mats was, I am sure, a celebration of brotherhood and unity. I believe that, as we move into the future in both the Church and the Order, hanging on to differences from the past will hold us back from giving witness in a world that is so torn and divided.

The other point that struck me in reading Dominic’s book was that right from the beginning, even in the midst of inner conflict and struggle amongst themselves, the friars were known for their popular preaching, which along with service to the poor, is the oldest Franciscan ministry. As a member of the Ministry of the Word in our Province, I am honored and privileged to be part of that tradition, as are all of our friars who preach in both word and action.

I will close by citing Francis’ final words to his brothers: “I have done what was mine to do, may Christ teach you yours.” These words to me are an affirmation of the uniqueness of each one of us. So, is it any wonder that at times we disagree? At the same time, they tell us that what we have in common is not some rubber-stamp mold, or the need to imitate Francis or anyone else, but simply the desire to discern what the Lord wants from each one of us, and to support one another in carrying that out.

I want to add a final note. While this reflection has focused on the friars, this anniversary is for the whole Franciscan movement: friars, Poor Clares, religious sisters and brothers of the Third Order and Secular Franciscans.

It is great to be 800 years old. Our challenge is to carry forward what our predecessors gave us into a challenging and exciting future.

— Fr. John lives at St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg, Fla.