HARTFORD, Conn. — In the presence of a small group of friars, family members, friends and parishioners – and with virtual guests from as far west as Arizona and east to Puerto Rico “attending” via live-streamed broadcast – Angel Vázquez, OFM, and Jay Woods, OFM, made their final vows to live St. Francis of Assisi’s Rule of the Order of Friars Minor during a Mass of solemn profession at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church. It was the first time in the history of Holy Name Province that a celebration of solemn profession was live-streamed on the Internet – which was one of several modifications implemented to meet safety protocols, as well as travel and group-gathering restrictions, amid the lingering global pandemic.
Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM, who was the celebrant and homilist at the 11 a.m. Mass on Aug. 29, received Angel and Jay’s profession in front of roughly a dozen friars and 60 relatives, friends and parishioners, all of whom wore face coverings and sat in alternating pews at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church, the oldest Roman Catholic parish in the state of Connecticut. Dozens more attended virtually, watching the 90-minute Mass live on the parish YouTube channel from their homes in Puerto Rico, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Florida, Arizona, and elsewhere around the country. The Mass of profession had been scheduled to take place at St. Francis of Assisi Church in New York City, but the unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic forced several adjustments to the original plans, which included moving the celebration to Hartford.
Despite attendance and other limitations, the zeal and conviction with which Angel and Jay professed their solemn vows – along with Kevin’s heartfelt homily, impassioned Franciscan traditions throughout the Mass, and stirring presentations by the parish vocal ensemble – more than filled the cathedral-style church in downtown Hartford with joy, love and excitement. The reverberating musical performances included a Communion meditation by soloist Gavin Gregory, a friend of Angel who provided a rousing rendition of “The Color Purple” from the musical of the same title.
Among the participants in the liturgy were Provincial Councilor Larry Ford, OFM, concelebrant of the Mass, and Roberto Serrano, OFM, who served as deacon and read the Gospel. The first reading was presented by Kimberly Baird, a close friend of Jay, and the second reading was delivered in Spanish by Aurea Vázquez, Angel’s mother. Both friars played an active role in planning the liturgy with master of ceremonies Thomas Gallagher, OFM, the longtime pastor of St. Patrick-St. Anthony, and cantor Pam Johnson, a parish staff member.
Confirmation, Affirmation and Culmination
For Angel and Jay, solemn profession is a confirmation and affirmation.
“Professing solemn vows confirms my commitment to the harmonious relationship between God, creation and humanity – especially those on the margins of society, many of whom were put there by our Church. Like St. Francis, I see this as a commitment to bridge-building and dialogue,” said Jay.
“Solemn profession means strengthening my relationships to God, my brothers, humanity and creation,” he added.
For Angel, solemn profession is the culmination of formation.
“This affirms what I am being called to do. I know I am meant to be a Franciscan, and it affirms that I have been accepted by the brotherhood. It is God calling to be in my life. My response, through these solemn vows of profession, is now etched in stone,” Angel said.
As master of ceremonies, Thomas led the calling of the candidates. “To our brothers who seek solemn profession in the Order of Friars Minor, come forward as your name is called,” he said, as Angel and Jay each responded, “present,” and stood before the altar.
Kevin asked them: “My dear brothers, what do you ask of the Lord and His Holy Church?”
In unison, the candidates responded, “We ask that by professing the rule and life of the Order of Friars Minor, we may be able to follow the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with his holy grace follow in his footsteps all the days of our lives.”
The Provincial Minister then proclaimed, “Thanks be to God!” – which was followed by sustained applause that echoed in the church. When Kevin encouraged the friars to turn and face the audience, Jay wore a wide smile and Angel could be seen wiping tears of joy from his eyes.
Angel was again overcome by the moment later in the Mass when reciting his solemn vows, as his voice noticeably cracked with emotion, forcing him to pause a handful of times to regain his composure.
“I was doing everything I could to hold it together. It was a crashing wave of emotion,” acknowledged Angel, who said that when his mother presented the second reading he immediately thought of his dad, who was watching the live-stream from their Florida home because he was unable to make the trip due to travel concerns over recent hip surgery and high risk for COVID.
Francis and the Seven Robbers
In his homily, Kevin used the current practice of face coverings and a story about St. Francis to deliver a message of encouragement and inspiration.
“It is great to hear clapping again,” the Provincial Minister said after guests applauded the candidates. “It’s a joyous occasion in a beautiful church. It almost feels normal. But your beautiful faces are covered with masks. We have gotten used to this – it’s required, effective and necessary. But not so long ago, a mask was seen in a different light. People who wore masks were often the bad guys.”
Kevin continued, “But there were exceptions – the Lone Ranger, Zorro and, later, super heroes like Batman and Captain America. They weren’t necessarily covering up; they were presenting a different side of their personality. Looking at Angel and Jay, wearing their masks, we all affirm they are the good guys. But right now, I want everyone to think of the bad guys. There is an early Franciscan story – about St. Francis and the encounter with the three robbers – that is appropriate on this occasion of solemn profession.”
The Provincial Minister went on to explain that Br. Angelo, a friary guardian, answered a knock at the door from Francis and Rufino. Angelo informed them the friary was low on provisions, so the pair went out and begged for alms. Angelo answered another knock at the friary door – this time three men who he recognized as a trio of robbers known in the area for pillaging and murdering. They asked Angelo for food, but he demanded they leave and think about their sins.
“When Francis returned with an overflow of bread and food, Angelo told him of the three robbers who came knocking. Francis called Angelo to task in front of the brothers, saying that he was the sinner for being unkind and uncharitable to people in need,” Kevin said. “For his penance, Francis told Angelo to go into the woods, find the robbers, share the food with them, and beg their forgiveness.”
While the robbers sat and ate with Angelo, they reflected on their lives. Angelo begged for their forgiveness, and they, in turn, begged for his. Angelo returned to the friary, and a day later, as the story goes, said Kevin, the three robbers showed up at the friary door and joined the Order.
“It’s a great story that instructs us as friars and as people of faith on important lessons of life,” said the Provincial Minister. “How do you meet people – do you welcome them, are you hospitable, and do you bring them in as opposed to push them away? Francis wants us to be people of inclusion. He doesn’t want us to leave anyone on the fringes or judge others by their past deeds.”
A second lesson, he said, is dignity. To Francis, the three robbers were born with God-given dignity – something they couldn’t recognize, but that Angelo should’ve seen. “As a Friar Minor, always affirm a person’s dignity. Don’t look to the externals and accidentals of life, but look to the heart and essence of the person,” Kevin said.
A third lesson Francis taught was reconciliation, according to Kevin. “One of the great traditions that Angel and Jay come into as Friars is living, and passing on to others, healing and reconciliation. We live in a fractured broken world divided by all sorts of accidentals that are not at the heart of who people are. Sadly, our culture sometimes celebrates these divisions. You must have the courage to walk into the breach, stand in the midst of tension, anger and violence, and be healers, reconcilers, and people of peace,” Kevin said.
He continued, “Lastly, the story teaches us obedience – one of the vows you will take today. Angelo’s obedience to Francis wasn’t blind. He didn’t lose his freedom, he found himself. Your vow of obedience is relational – a vow to God, to be obedient and responsive to His call.”
Good Guys Wear Masks
The Provincial Minister noted that faith is the listening-and-response dynamic demonstrated in the story of St. Francis and the three robbers, and in one of the scripture selections from the Book of Samuel. “Like young Samuel, you have listened to God’s voice through your family, formation, and friends. You have discerned the voice and have had the courage to respond,” Kevin said.
“As you wear masks while professing your vows, remember that you are one of the good guys. To keep that growing, remember Angelo’s obedience, remember Francis challenging his brother to affirm the dignity of the robbers. Be mindful of the poor as you profess the vow of poverty, that you will take it to heart by living simply and sharing what you have,” Kevin said.
Following the homily and examination of the candidates was one of the most sacred moments of the Mass – the litany of saints, when Angel and Jay prostrated themselves before the altar in the center aisle of the church, while the vocal ensemble called on each Franciscan saint to pray for the friars. After they professed their solemn vows, the pair was summoned to the altar by Kevin to sign the Book of Solemn Profession of the Order of Friars Minor – another longstanding tradition of Holy Name Province. Thomas and Larry were witnesses to the signing.
After Angel and Jay professed their final vows and Kevin recited the prayer of consecration, the solemnly professed friars in attendance participated in the traditional fraternal greeting, processing to the altar to congratulate the newly professed brothers with a bow and words of welcome, rather than the traditional embrace, in order to maintain appropriate distancing.
The Provincial thanked the Vázquez and Woods families for the gift of their sons, “for having the faith to share them with our Franciscan brotherhood.” He also thanked the formators and communities of friars for shaping the candidates, and cited the laypeople at St. Bonaventure University, St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish, and other ministries for their part in Angel and Jay’s formation. Kevin acknowledged the hospitality and effort of the Hartford parish, particularly the music ministers, in making the Mass of solemn profession a wonderful celebration.
He also conveyed a message from the Order’s Minister General Michael Perry – that he was with the friars in prayer and was proud of their accomplishments.
Solemn Retreat at the Mountain
With pandemic-related travel restrictions canceling the traditional, month-long, pilgrimage retreat to Assisi, Angel and Jay instead spent four weeks at Mt. Irenaeus, the Franciscan mountain retreat in West Clarksville, New York.
“A small part of me was sad not being able to walk through Franciscan history in the footsteps of Francis and Clare. But spending my solemn profession retreat at the Mountain showed me that you can encounter the beauty of God’s creation no matter where you are,” said Angel.
“I was in a cottage with a spectacular view of a meadow overlooking a pond, where small birds would swoop and dive to pick out fish. The Mountain provided a wonderful sense of calmness, nature, and opportunity for self-reflection,” added Angel, who spent his one-year internship in preparation for solemn vows at St. Bonaventure University in Western New York, where in August 2019 he opened a campus barbershop in a converted storage room.
His unique ministry was shut down when the pandemic forced SBU to switch to remote learning – which prompted Angel to work at a soup kitchen operated by students in nearby Olean. A graduate of Siena College, he worked as a recruiter in the college admissions office for five years. After earning a master’s degree in counseling from Sage University, he worked as a student counselor in public schools in Florida, where he also volunteered with parish youth ministry programs.
The Staten Island native entered the postulancy in 2014 at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Maryland. A year later he went to the Franciscan Interprovincial Novitiate in Burlington, Wisconsin, where he professed his first vows in 2016. He then entered the interprovincial post-novitiate program at St. Joseph Friary in Chicago, where he also attended barber’s training school and worked in a barbershop on the north side of Chicago after obtaining his license.
For Jay, the highlight of the solemn profession retreat at Mt. Irenaeus was contemplative reflection and time spent with his brothers.
“It was spiritually rejuvenating to make time to re-read the writings of Francis and his early brothers. This always helps me deepen my Franciscan vocation. Each time, I grow a little deeper in appreciation for my brothers and our fraternity, and the 800 years of brothers whose shoulders we stand on,” said Jay, who spent his one-year internship at St. Patrick-St. Anthony serving in pastoral ministries and working with parish committees.
A Massachusetts native, Jay earned a bachelor’s degree in fine and performing arts, with a concentration in theater, and a minor in philosophy at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. He landed a job out of college as costume director at the largest regional playhouse in New England. After a 13-year career in theater, television and film, he joined the Franciscan Friars of Immaculate Conception Province in Boston, and in 2014, entered the interprovincial novitiate in Burlington, where he professed his first vows a year later.
Jay transferred to Holy Name Province in Sept. 2016, relocating to St. Joseph Friary in Chicago to begin the interprovincial post-novitiate program. With intentions to pursue ordination, he has spent three years studying theology at Catholic Theological Union.
Back to Ministry
After professing his solemn vows on Aug. 29, Jay returned to Chicago, where he will be ordained on Sept. 26 to the transitional diaconate and will serve in ministry at Our Lady of Pompeii Shrine while completing studies at CTU for his master of divinity degree.
After the Mass of solemn profession, Angel returned to St. Bonaventure University, where he has been self-quarantined as part of SBU’s COVID policies. After 14 days, he will resume his barbershop ministry and will be taking on a new role as minister in residence at one of the student resident halls on campus.
“I was excited about returning to St. Bonaventure because I wanted to continue to grow the ministry I started in my internship year. I am looking forward to catching up, ministering and working with the students, as well as getting back into the barbershop,” said Angel.
During the Aug. 29 Mass, Kevin acknowledged the virtual attendees watching the livestream, saying that they were united in Christ with those physically present in the church. Comments were posted during the live-streaming Mass – among them John Aherne, OFM, of New Jersey, who wrote, “Pompton Lakes in the house,” with a bunch of clapping emojis. From Iris Vazquez-Llantin: “We see you and we are so happy for both of you. Watching from Puerto Rico.”
“To all who have gathered in the midst of pandemic and the many challenges in our nation, take time to give thanks to God for the gift of one another, and for the gift of these brothers. Together, let’s walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ to make our world a better place,” Kevin said at the conclusion of his homily.
— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.
- “Friars Develop Ways to Bring Virtual Worship to Homes During COVID-19 pandemic” – March 26, 2020, HNP Today
- “Two Friars Profess Final Vows” – Sept. 11, 2019 HNP Today
- “Franciscans’ Presence in Hartford Commemorated with Mass, Block Party” – Nov. 12, 2015, HNP Today