Br. Walter Liss, OFM

Br. Walter Liss, OFMMy five-year journey as a Franciscan has taken me along many unexpected, challenging, and joyful paths. When people ask me why I joined the Franciscans, I always put the blame on God, since a religious vocation was not my idea.

When I joined, the whole idea of a religious vocation made no sense to me. I had a good job, owned my own home, had many close friends, and enjoyed my free time. I thought, why would I want to leave all this? Yet, a desire for living as part of a religious community continued to attract me, and God seemed to keep placing events and people in my life that directed me towards a religious vocation.

The seed for a religious vocation was planted early in my life. I attended Catholic elementary and high schools, both of which were staffed by communities of religious sisters. While I was not the most committed student at that point, I remember being impressed with the prayerfulness, devotion, service, and wisdom of the sisters who taught me. I doubt I would have become a Franciscan had it not been for the witness of the sisters.

My parents were also an essential influence for my vocation. First, their service to the parish taught me the importance of contributing to a community. Secondly, they instilled in me the importance of commitment, which is inherently part of religious life. I do not recall my parents ever talking to me about the importance and joy of a commitment. Instead I have learned through the example of their life together.

I took studying more seriously after high school. I graduated from college, and eventually earned my first master’s degree. My professional career was in information technology and my responsibilities ranged from writing programs for statistical analysis to directing computer technicians and programmers. My life as a friar has been quite different.

The following is a reflection on my ministry experiences with three different groups: those who suffered from mental illness, soldiers injured in war, and college students. I chose these experiences because they reflect the diversity of people the friars are called to serve.

My first unexpected encounter was ministering in a residence for people suffering from serious mental illness who were homeless or in danger of being homeless. The first thing I noticed was how polite the residents were; perhaps I had grown accustomed to a lack of politeness in our culture. Some of the residents had previously lived on the streets, received no medical care, and faced constant threats to their lives. Despite their hardships, I found them to be gentle, kind, considerate, grateful, and fun to be around.

I learned many lessons from my experiences at St. Francis Residences including the fact that politeness is always welcomed. I was reminded that unexpected people often show us the face of Christ.

I have never been in the military, nor do I come from a military family, so when I was invited to serve as a chaplain at a military hospital I was not sure what to expect. With a nation at war, I did expect that I would encounter people who were injured in battle. It turned out that most of my time was spent ministering to soldiers who were wounded in Iraq. The injuries were severe — often multiple amputations, brain damage, and disfiguration. I learned new medical terms such as “multi-system failure” and “polytrauma.”

Each week, I saw the realities of war in a way that television could not convey. The faces of war became very personal and the scope of the tragedy all too real. I felt deep compassion for all people living with the realities of war, and I think I could understand more clearly John Paul II’s reflection that “war is always a defeat for humanity.” My ministry to the wounded and to their families was largely one of companionship. I listened to their stories, prayed with them, and helped them to “pass time” on their long road of recovery.

Next, I was called to work in a college retreat program. I met with students to help plan retreats, I prepared and delivered talks, and I offered spiritual conversation and prayer. The students left me with a tremendous amount of hope for our future and the future of the Church. They enriched my prayer life, invigorated my commitment to ministry, and taught me new ways to have fun. I was deeply moved by their desire and willingness to grow in their life of faith.

Part of the joy I experience as a friar is seeing where God will send me next. I have been privileged to enter the lives of a variety of people and to journey with them into a deeper relationship with God. My life has been greatly enriched. I do hope that those whose paths I crossed have been enriched by my presence. I am very grateful that God led me to the friars, and I thank and pray for those who make possible our way of life and service to God’s people.

— Br. Walter was serving a formation internship at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., at the time that this essay appeared in the June 2007 issue of The Anthonian.