Fr. Jacek Orzechowski, OFM
Born and raised in Poland, I grew up in an environment steeped in a rich Catholic tradition. I recall spending my summer vacation as a boy at my grandparent’s house out in the country and waking up early in the morning to the sounds of my grandmother singing her morning prayers. I remember the Corpus Christi processions in my hometown, and how I would walk with tens of thousands of people along the main street of this city singing religious songs. It was in my family life, in the popular religiosity and Polish patriotism that God began to sow the seeds of my Franciscan vocation.
In 1987, a few years before the collapse of communism, my family emigrated from Poland to Italy. We lived there as refugees for more than a year. I worked cleaning the windshields of cars at one of Rome’s busy intersections with my squeegee and bottle of water in hand. This helped support my family. In retrospect, that experience was very important in shaping my present Franciscan identity. It helped me to be more compassionate and humble. More than once, an Italian man or woman would stop at the intersection and hand me a few coins without wanting to have their car windshield cleaned in return. I didn’t like it, but it taught me a lesson in accepting my vulnerability and poverty and that I can count on people’s goodness.
My family settled in Connecticut, where I entered a diocesan minor seminary. In my last year there, one of my fellow seminarians introduced me to the Franciscan friars at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish in Hartford. I was impressed by how down-to-earth and welcoming the friars were and by their outreach ministry.
Though I had a great experience at the diocesan seminary, in the end, I joined Holy Name Province. I guess you can say it was providence, and that God’s finger was definitely guiding me. Why did I stay despite periodical self-doubts about whether I had what it takes to be a good friar? I stayed, because in these difficult times, I could lean on my Franciscan brothers, especially on my two classmates.
I have been a Franciscan friar/priest for more than four years now. I serve in a very active and diverse parish in Durham, N.C. I find great joy in ministering among the Latino community. But it has its challenges, that’s for sure!
In every phase of my Franciscan life I have been blessed with many wonderful brothers. We’re not a perfect fraternity, and we have our idiosyncrasies, yet my brothers are good and holy men, beautiful human beings. And this is true not only for friars in the United States, but so many friars I had the privilege to meet in other parts of the world.
Even though I don’t get to see too many of my Franciscan brothers very often because of either large distance or the business of ministry, they continue to play a huge part in my Franciscan journey.
I have had lots of surprises in my Franciscan journey. One of the most amazing things is how powerfully I have been challenged to grow in the Franciscan way of life by people from outside of the Franciscan Order. For example, I have been involved in the Religious Campaign for Forest Conservation. This involvement has brought me into contact with people of diverse faith traditions.
Their witness has inspired me to know not only about the Franciscan view of creation but also to try to embody and live it. In a similar vein, I have been spiritually stretched and inspired by what I have witnessed through my participation in a Christian Peacemaking Team delegation to Israel and the Occupied Territories.
The heroic witness of some of the Quakers, Church of the Brethren members, Jewish and Palestinian non-violent peace activists who stand up in solidarity to the Israeli military occupation, persistently hold up the truth despite a huge propaganda machine and the writhing hypocrisy of so much of our public policy and mass media.
This has challenged me to place the call of Francis to be healers in the world in a more contemporary context. We must be bold peacemakers who create viable alternatives to the vicious cycle of violence.
Among other things that have invigorated me on my Franciscan journey is being involved with other friars and lay Franciscans in addressing the issues of justice, peace and the integrity of creation through public witness and advocacy. Whenever I come across another Franciscan at a Respect for Life March in Washington, D.C., or at the Ecumenical Advocacy Days, or at a rally in support of the immigration reform, I rejoice.
What advice would I give to someone considering the Franciscan way of life? Join the Franciscan movement and allow yourself to be challenged by faith that is real. You will find a deeper meaning in life, joy, and a powerful touch of God’s Spirit.
— This essay was written in 2006 when Fr. Jacek was serving at Immaculate Conception Parish in Durham N.C. It appeared in the September 2006 issue of The Anthonian magazine.