Fr. John Ullrich, OFM
Although I did not know it at the time, my journey with the Franciscans began when I was six years old. I was introduced to the first Franciscan in my life, Sr. Francis Gertrude, on the first day of first grade. She was a wonderful woman — bright, cheerful, and very dedicated to us as her students. The rest of my eight years at the grammar school were filled with the example of six other Franciscan women who were just as dedicated and just as committed as was Sr. Francis Gertrude. I suspect that this etched something deep in my consciousness of what it means for an individual to be dedicated to serving God and the people of God in a very unique way.
I also vividly recall the first day I met a Franciscan friar. I was in the eighth grade at the time. I was convinced, and my parents were convinced, that I should go to Bishop Timon High School in Buffalo, N.Y. The Franciscans taught there, and they had an outstanding reputation in the area.
On that Saturday morning in the spring of 1962, we all sat in the high school auditorium, probably 600 or 700 eighth graders. We anxiously awaited our assignments to classrooms to take the admissions exam. In front of this mass of unruly and nervous kids, were three or four men dressed in brown robes who had a very good handle on the situation.
They knew exactly what they were doing, not only in terms of keeping order, but also in terms of caring for a large crowd of uptight kids. As they called our names and escorted us to the appropriate classrooms, I was impressed with what seemed to me to me their very personal interest, their warmth and their friendliness.
I attended Bishop Timon High School for four years. It was there that I had my first glimpse at what it might mean for me to be a Franciscan friar. Beyond the fact that we received a quality education, it seemed to me that these men, who gave us occasional glances into their life, had a genuine sense of whom they were and what they were about as Christians and as people of faith. There was a certain joy about living that they exuded. Not only were they friendly with the students but they engaged us in ways that showed us that they cared for us and cared about our future.
My next encounter with the Franciscans was at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., again, a Franciscan school. Here I was able to witness the Franciscan presence in an even more intense way. Not only did the friars teach us in the classrooms and provide personal counsel and support outside the classroom; they also lived with us in the residence halls.
What struck me most about these men was their sense of availability to the students. I can recall several nights when I or a group of us would sit up until the early hours of the morning with the friars who lived in the residence halls, talking about anything and everything. Again, these men showed me just what it meant to be committed, dedicated, warm, caring and selfless.
In many ways, my experience of college was fairly standard for a student in the late 1960s. I questioned everything — all kinds of authority, the Church, the meaning of institutions, etc. At one point the last thing in the world I wanted to be was a Franciscan or a priest. The experience with Church in general drifted far to the back of my consciousness.
Yet in the midst of all this doubt and confusion the desire to be a Franciscan emerged very strongly for me. I set up a meeting with one of the friars on campus whom I trusted and admired. I told him about all my confusion and doubts, and at the same time having a deep sense somewhere within me that I thought God was calling me to serve the world as a Franciscan. Very clearly and very deliberately he told me not to be concerned about the doubts but to give it a try. And so I did.
In some respects, those first 20 years of my life stand as a kind of a paradigm for Franciscan living for me: the voice of God, glimpses of a loving God, occasionally reaching out and touching me and inviting me to open my life and my heart. In many respects living as a Franciscan has taught me, very simply, to find a way to trust a God who loves me deeply even though at times I’m not really sure where God is calling me to be.
Over the years I have served in campus ministry, as the coordinator of an Ecumenical Campus Ministry Center in Denver, Colorado. After I was ordained, I served for two years in the Vocation Office. Following that I served two years on the novitiate formation team; six years in Rye Beach, N.H., as director of the St. Francis Retreat Center. Then I ministered six years as an associate pastor in Hartford, Conn., developing a program for faith and work, and coordinating an adult faith formation program.
I have been at St. Anthony Shrine in downtown Boston for three years now. As I consider this journey, I see myself as having engaged in a wide variety of ministries and having lived with an equally wide variety of friars. Through all of it, I lived with brothers who cared for the people of God deeply, and who openly shared their own, sometimes-awkward journeys of faith. The experience has given me the inspiration to continue to move out of my own self and to minister where it seems that I am needed at the time. All of it has been challenging; at the same time it has all been extremely rewarding.
I think the most interesting experience in the ministry has been working in downtown Hartford. I arrived in 1991 to assist the friars in developing an urban ministry that served the needs of the people of Hartford. In a typical Franciscan manner we simply opened our doors, looked outside and asked ourselves, “What do these people need?” We saw lots of people working in downtown Hartford and decided right away to direct our ministry towards them. We gathered a small group of people around and asked them what they thought might work best.
Amazingly enough, the people responded immediately. There was a clear hunger, very evident from the very beginning. People had lots of questions and lots of concerns about how they could connect their faith with their work. We developed a broad range of programs that attempted to answer their questions, that allowed them to listen to each other, that helped them pray together, and provided opportunities for them to learn about how they might better live, express, and articulate their faith in the workplace. The dedication and the intense desire of these people to live good lives in the midst of a very challenging situations moved me deeply.
What has emerged as most significant for me over the last 30 years is the fact that I have learned from people, both people of God and the friars that I live with, that we find God right in the heart of our daily lives. God is never really very far away. I have learned from the good people that surround me to trust in the abiding, loving and caring presence of God wherever I am and whenever I might dare ask the question, “Where is God?”
I guess words like joy, freedom, hope compassion, kindness and trust characterize for me what Franciscan life is about. I continually find it in the people that surround me: friars, sisters and lay people. I hope and I pray as I continue this journey, however long it might be, that God grant me those same gifts so I can share them with the world that needs the peace and healing presence of the God who loves us all.
— This essay was written in 2000 when Fr. John was serving at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston. It appeared in the June 2000 issue of The Anthonian magazine.