Fr. Daniel McLellan, OFM
I sometimes get embarrassed when I listen to friars describe how they became Franciscans. So many friars have the kind of story that makes for exciting and inspiring reading. They’ve been moved by a wonderful friar or fascinating event. They’ve gone through a powerful spiritual awakening. I have to admit that none of that happened to me. In fact, I literally grew up from my early teens into the friar that I am today. Looking back, it happened with an amazing ease. No crises. No tortured decision making.
As a boy, I went to public schools. I was an altar server and was impressed by the priests in my parish. I wanted to do what they did. Priests were priests, I thought, and so I wrote to all sorts of what I now know to be religious communities. These groups advertised regularly in a newsletter we got at CCD. A group called the Franciscans wrote back telling me that they had a high school and junior college seminary. I remember thinking this would be my chance to do something now about what I wanted to be. My Mom thought it was all crazy. I was 14 years old! But my Dad had joined the Navy as a teenager. “If he doesn’t like it,” he told my mother, “he can always come home.” It would be a great adventure! And it has been.
I guess I’m among the last of a kind: someone who went through 13 years of formation, high school through final profession and ordination. In the earlier years, life was highly-disciplined and confining. Yet, it wasn’t hard even for a teenager to learn Franciscan values. You watched the friars. You listened. The daily lives of these men were the books from which I picked up most of the important things I know about being a friar.
From the brothers who ran the farm, the kitchen and did all the maintenance, I learned that this Franciscan life is bigger than priesthood. From the priests who taught us in school, supervised us at study hall, recreation and every place else, and who then spent weekends helping out in parishes, I learned that I’d have to juggle lots of commitments.
These days, some people scratch their heads when they hear my story. How could a young boy make up his mind about his life at such an early age? And how could you possibly make good in life with so little of “normal” teenage experience? I don’t know how I could: I just did.
Over the years, the camaraderie of the friars, the pride in mission, the dedication, and the so unglamorous but necessary work, were all virtues I learned from the example of the friars. I think I got some “experience” from these men that has paid off.
In my 25 years as a friar, I’ve pastored some of Boston’s most creative students at a Back Bay university parish. I’ve earned a Ph. D. at Notre Dame, been a teacher, served as a college trustee, traveled to every continent except Antarctica, and been privy to the hopes and dreams of more people than I deserve. I’ve celebrated Mass and heard confessions in parishes and prisons, baptized 16 oz. infants in a neo-natal, tiptoed around the blood in hospital emergency rooms to anoint the dying and cried with those who love them.
I’ve cleaned toilets, scrubbed showers, waxed corridors and done the laundry. I’ve administered a seminary and taken my turn cycling and getting the dishes done. I’ve had to make sense of the Gospel to inside-the-Beltway congregations. I’ve worked in half-way houses and with people living on the streets. I’ve met with China’s Religious Affairs Bureau and toured that country’s new generation seminaries. I’ve trained students for the priesthood and been with them to celebrate their first Masses in Nigeria, New York and New Jersey. And lately, I’ve been involved with the formation of a new generation of friars.
In these 25 years, I’ve had my share of frustrations and failures and been the cause of these for others. What has kept me from discouragement and cynicism is the sense of God that St. Francis had. That sense? Two stories explain it.
Once when I was whining about how somebody had let me down, a friar pulled me up short saying, “You know, when Jesus hung on the Cross, he looked down on a lot of disappointing people.” The message of course: even those you find disappointing are worth the Cross.
And some 20 years ago, when I passed through the sacristy of our Arch Street Shrine in Boston on my way to the church to hear confessions for the first time, an older friar with a rough edge was sitting there. I was a nervous wreck. He growled a word of encouragement. Two hours later when I came in from the church, he was there again. He asked me how it all went. I was absolutely moved by people’s faith in God’s mercy, their hunger for holiness. I’m not sure what I said. But I’ve always remembered his reply, this gruff man.
He said, “Aren’t they wonderful? Aren’t these people great?” Then he wandered off. But his words stayed.
—This essay was written in 1997 when Fr, Dan was the Guardian and formation director of Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Md. It appeared in the June 1997 issue of The Anthonian magazine.