Fr. Jud Weiksnar, OFM

Fr. Jud Weiksnar, OFMAlmost every friar from Western New York who writes “My Franciscan Journey” begins by saying he met the friars at Bishop Timon High School or at St. Bonaventure University, but my path was different.

Though my parents and the religious sisters at school instilled in me a love for God and for the Church, I did not meet a friar until my first day of college at the University of Notre Dame. Though Notre Dame is not a Franciscan university, as I walked through the front door of my dormitory on my first day of college, the first person to greet me was a friendly man dressed in a brown robe. He was Fr. Chuck Faso, OFM, a friar from Sacred Heart Province who was pursuing his master’s in liturgy.

In one year at Notre Dame, Fr. Chuck made such an impression that three students ended up joining the friars, with two of us professing solemn vows. I had thought about becoming a priest since I was a young boy, but Fr. Chuck’s joy-filled manner steered me in the direction of religious life rather than diocesan priesthood.

Although I went on two retreats with the Franciscans after graduating from college, I did not think I was ready to join them. After two years of teaching high school in Chicago, I returned to Buffalo for graduate school. The University of Buffalo also is not a Franciscan university; in fact, it is known as the birthplace of secular humanism. Yet, it was there that I met another friendly man in a brown robe: Fr. Matthew Gaskin, OFM, of Holy Name Province.

Fr. Matt, a campus minister at the Newman Center, inspired me not just by his great preaching and retreat skills but by his example of simple living in a room above a homeless shelter near downtown Buffalo. He became my spiritual director, and one day while chatting in my kitchen, he asked what I planned to do after grad school.

He was not satisfied with my answer that I was “keeping my options open” and said I should seek my Master Possibility. As soon as he said that, I knew my Master Possibility was to give my life to Christ and his Church following the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi. Next thing I knew, I was visiting Mt. Irenaeus in upstate N.Y. and the St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia, meeting more amazing friars.

I realized that in Holy Name Province one could encounter God in contemplation at a mountaintop retreat as well as by serving one’s brothers and sisters in an inner city soup kitchen. I could not wait, and joined the friars with work still to be done on my degree. I finished my dissertation during my affiliate year at Holy Cross Church in the Bronx and dedicated it to Fr. Matt.

Since joining the friars in 1987, I have been superbenedecido — unbelievably blessed. I have met the greatest people in the world, including my classmates who helped me through the trials and tribulations of our first years. I have been fortunate to serve at St. Bonaventure, at St. Camillus Church in Maryland, and now in Camden, N.J., the poorest city in the United States. I have never been happier; there’s nothing better than preaching in Camden when the Gospel begins “Blessed are the Poor.”

One of our great joys in Camden is welcoming other Franciscans who wish to join us on our journey. New friars, Secular Franciscans, and members of the “Fourth Order” — the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry — have all made amazing contributions not just to the ministry here, but to our spirit of prayer and devotion. Our fraternity more than doubles in size on Tuesdays when our Secular and FVM brothers and sisters join us for evening prayer and dinner.

The social and economic challenges in Camden can bring out both the best and the worst in people, and at St. Anthony’s they certainly bring out the best. Last fall, we planted 53 trees on our block — a symbol of hope. We worked with Camden Churches Organized for People to secure $7 million in aid for Camden homeowners to make improvements, so our parishioners can live in safe, attractive dwellings right here in Camden. And we have formed a consortium with five other Catholic schools so that we can cooperate to provide quality, affordable Catholic education and extracurricular programs for as many Camden children as possible, setting them on their own Franciscan journeys.

One of the reasons I am so intent on giving our students and parishioners opportunities to celebrate the fullness of their humanity and their faith is that the Franciscans have given me so many opportunities to do the same. I have been blessed to study theology at the Washington Theological Union, to do an internship in Peru, and to visit the friars, sisters and Secular Franciscans in El Salvador, Vietnam, Bolivia, Colombia, Brazil — and Assisi.
I am most grateful to my brother and sister Franciscans who serve and live among the poor and those considered least important in society — whether in Camden or across the globe. I thank God and my brother friars for leading me on this wonderful, Franciscan journey.

— This essay was written in 2007 when Fr. Weiksnar was serving as pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Camden, N.J. It appeared in the September 2007 issue of The Anthonian magazine.