Fr. Michael Duffy, OFM
Fr. Michael Anthony Duffy, OFM, born in Laconia, N.H., in 1940, was professed as a Franciscan in 1965 and ordained a priest in 1971. He has been a member of the Franciscan team at St. Francis Inn, Philadelphia, since 1987.
The fact I am a Franciscan is proof in my life of the Holy Spirit. I never knew a Franciscan, I had never seen a Franciscan house until I wrote for an interview. The Holy Spirit indeed loves to work with unsuspecting souls.
After graduating from Boston College, I joined its lay apostle volunteer program and was sent to Jamaica to teach over a hundred students. Those three years changed my life. I learned responsibility, dedication, and the meaning of adventure. But the most important lesson I learned is still part of my daily life: you learn what you are called to be from the people you are called to serve. I still live by that.
One evening, I accompanied the nurse to bring leftover food to an old man. We arrived to hear weak groaning coming from a poor small bamboo hut with a dirt floor. Mr. Edwards was inside kneeling. When he heard us, his smiling face broke into a million wrinkles and he said, “Welcome!” We rushed to him. “Mr. Edwards, is there anything wrong?” As we helped him to his feet he said, “Oh, no. I was just praying. Thanking God for all the blessings that he has given me!”
Thanking! This man had nothing and he was thanking God. I could feel my American dream fall in pieces. What faith! He is so rich! I am so poor!
The Holy Spirit then made a most interesting play. I ran across a vocations book—in the jungle, of all places, some 20 miles from civilization! It had short descriptions of religious orders and I wrote to three. The Franciscans offered to meet with me when I returned home. They were supposed to be simple and joyful, close to the earth and approachable. Something inside of me urged me to throw in my lot with the friars and let God take care of the details.
My first full-time ministry was at St. Joseph’s Parish, East Rutherford, N.J. There the people helped me realize that parishes are full of good people and untapped potential waiting to be unleashed. I was then asked by the Province to go into vocation work. I talked to hundreds of men who asked what Franciscans do, why they become friars, what was different or special. We were being asked by our Franciscan leaders and directed by documents to return to the spirit of our founder, to live simply among as well as work for the poor. The Holy Spirit was at it again — this time not so subtly.
Upon leaving the Vocation Office, I joined a group of friars who had formed an inserted community in a poor section of East Boston. We lived and prayed together, we were able to start a food pantry and a family shelter. I became more settled with my life as a friar, ministering and living in the manner that was consistent with what I was shown by those I served and by the Order’s directives.
Now I work at a soup kitchen in the heart of Kensington, one of America’s most desperate neighborhoods. I am rich beyond measure, because the Spirit continues to teach me this unrelenting lesson: I am taught what I am called to be by the people I am called to serve.
Daily I am transformed. The bag lady who left me three pennies under her plate as a tip, is giving from her want and I am taught generosity. The disabled veteran who limps in high on drugs after his mind and body were damaged in Vietnam, teaches me the value of peace. The prostitute who fell asleep on the floor, who asked us to call her family in Delaware, is the prodigal daughter who teaches me repentance.
The woman who pushes a cart collecting cans who, in responding to my “Thank God it’s not raining,” told me rain or not she thanks God every day, because she’s been given one more chance. She teaches me gratitude. An 80-year-old woman who daily picks through the trash in front of our thrift store smiled and told a young co-ed that she hopes the young girl’s life will be as happy as hers has been. I am taught where true joy lies.
—This essay was written in 1991 when Fr. Michael was a member of the Franciscan team at St. Francis Inn, Philadelphia. It appeared in the December 1991 issue of The Anthonian magazine.