Br. Robert Frazzetta, OFM
The interesting thing about a journey, especially a long one, is that one can be so changed along the way. What you expect and even sometimes hope to find often does not come close to what you actually encounter while moving from one juncture to the next. My journey with the Franciscans has been just that, a series of changes both inward and outward that have been powerful experiences of grace.
As a very idealistic 19-year-old, I followed my somewhat naïve instinct, thinking I’d add my voice to the worldwide chorus proclaiming change and a new order. The best way to do this, I thought, was to be part of a larger group advocating these same ideals. I had rubbed shoulders with Franciscans at peace rallies and knew that they were the ones.
So, I did it. I graduated from high school and entered the Order of Friars Minor. At the celebration of the Rite of Entrance, I made the bold proclamation that I sought to be a “singer of the Good News.” In my heart I believed that all I needed were my good intentions and my guitar!
And sing I did, in nursing homes and hospitals, on children’s playgrounds, and at liturgical celebrations.
After making my religious profession of vows, during an assignment in East Boston, Mass., I realized that my first walking stick for the journey had worn out. It was time to carve a new one.
The friars in that very fine community served and ministered according to the needs of the local inner-city neighborhood, and they led me to realize that my talents and gifts needed to be sharpened for better service. I therefore requested approval to study music more seriously and became a music teacher at a vibrant and exciting Catholic school.
These were very happy days. The dynamism of our community life in East Boston was kindled by the variety of serious as well as hilarious stories we shared around the dinner table and the deep prayer it drew us into when we gathered in the chapel. Because each of the friars worked in a different ministry, there was an enormous wealth of wisdom and experience brought home each day.
However, I came to learn that we did not live together because of our work. Our life together as friars was about the journey into a much deeper mystery. I never expected a life so full and genuine, and I hoped to stay there forever. But the journey had to continue.
After 20 remarkable years, the walking stick became worn down, and a new one needed to be carved. At this point in my life, the journey seemed to become more intense and brought me to a different level of movement — even into the unknown. It felt like a slowing down and a desire to enter into a more contemplative space similar to what moved St. Francis into the cave.
How different this was from my minstrel years in East Boston. How silent. Yet, it was precisely what I had learned in East Boston that led me into this time of quiet listening.
In all of this, I felt the urge to reexamine my commitment to the Franciscan way of life, and I requested and received approval to spend a sabbatical in Assisi. Here, I was totally absorbed in Franciscan history, spirituality, and walking the hills of this enchanting mountainside oasis of holy depth.
Returning home, I felt a great sense of renewal and everything seemed different. There was within me a deep hole awaiting God’s fullness. Again, I asked for and received approval to study theology more seriously. I liked studying, and I especially appreciated the opportunity to read much and write, so that I had the ability to prove that I knew what I was talking about.
The friars again encouraged me to travel along a road I had not anticipated, to teach theology on the high school level. How different this would be! My experience of teaching music to elementary level children was actually fun. They loved coming to my classroom because it was a break from the “serious” work. But theology to high school students?
After living in a number of north Jersey friaries, I settled in a community with a large number of senior friars. How interesting to find myself in a place surrounded by men who have completed most of their journeys and live quite happily and most prayerfully. And what a joy it is for me to share stories about the lives and ministries of 80-year-old senior friars with 18-year-old senior high school students in a church history class.
I was relieved to discover that my fears about high school kids were unfounded. Teenagers are deeply spiritual and have the capacity to ask the most haunting questions about God and are most ready to search for truth as long as it is an intelligent search. At this point in the journey I repeat, most gratefully, that I never expected a life so full and genuine.
It is important to note that playing music or teaching theology is not what has made my life as a Franciscan friar any more authentic than the life and ministry of any other Christian. It has been the daily community prayer, the intense fraternal love, and the truly sincere encouragement with which I have been surrounded that has made the journey so real.
In my 34 years of religious profession, I have found that Franciscan life and service is more about the process of conversion within community than it is about the rudiments of law and structure, and so it is with our lives as Christians. Ultimately, it’s about conforming one’s mind to the mind of Christ.
— This essay, which appears in the Fall 2011 issue of The Anthonian, was written while Br. Robert was a teacher at Oratory Preparatory School in Summit, N.J. and a member of the friar community in Butler, N.J.