SAN JUAN BAUTISTA, Calif. — More than 70 friars gathered last month for the English-speaking Conference’s first convocation of brothers that attendees have described as enriching, educational, valuable, encouraging and fraternal. The event, held Aug. 10 to 14 at St. Francis Retreat Center — several hours south of San Francisco — offered participants informational presentations, prayer and discussions as well as time to share their experiences of being a Franciscan.
Guests included the Order’s General Minister, Fr. Michael Perry, OFM, and the general definitor of the English-speaking Conference, Fr. Caoimhim O’Laoide, OFM, as well as Fr. John Hardin, OFM, provincial minister of St. Barbara Province, based in Oakland, Calif. In addition to friars from the United States provinces, the gathering included brothers from Australia, Korea and Singapore.
A committee of five friars — including Robert Frazzetta, OFM, and Paul O’Keeffe, OFM — organized the event. The need for this discussion and discernment arose several years ago, according to Robert.
Deepening the Role of Brothers
During the administration of the previous General Minister, Fr. José Rodríguez Carballo, OFM, it was brought to the attention of the language groups of the Order that the number of religious brothers was dwindling at an alarming rate.
“José was concerned and asked the brothers to gather and to try and discern why this is happening,” explained Robert, a Provincial Councilor. “In the United States, the brothers of the Province of St. Barbara held a successful convocation. As a result, the English-speaking Conference asked that brothers gather to pray, discuss, and discern the topic, and to report to the ESC on what the friars thought was the reason for the dwindling numbers and what might be done about it.”
Friars from St. Barbara Province organized and sent a questionnaire to all the brothers of the ESC. The completed questionnaires showed that friars thought the number of brothers was decreasing because a.) A large emphasis was placed on parochial/ordained ministry in the Order, b.) There are few options in the Order for non-professional work, and c.) The Church showed little interest in the option of brotherhood when calling people to consider a religious vocation.
“The value of this gathering of brothers was experiencing the energy produced by the speakers and the friars’ response,” said Robert. “There was a wonderful display of affection for the Order and all its members in the presentations, discussions, and prayers throughout the week. There was also, however, a discomfort about the fact that brothers in the Order do not share in the equality of all the members of the Order, not because this inequality has been placed upon us by the Order, but by the Church. We want this to change.”
According to an article on the Order’s website, the outcome of this gathering was “a commitment to gather again and to begin working with the lay brothers in other conferences — to assist the Order on the international level to deepen the formation and the role of lay brothers.”
The convocation included presentations by Br. William Short, OFM, titled “History of the Lay Brother,” and by Br. Sean Samon, FMS, titled “The Lay Brother in the Church.” Other activities included a Mass commemorating the feast of St. Clare, a presentation by the Franciscan Interprovincial Team about the restructuring of the U.S. provinces, and small group discussions. A summary was compiled in a reflection titled “All My Brothers… All of You Are Brothers” by Br. David Leary, OFM, of the Australian province.
“The highlight of the week was certainly the two speakers, Br. Bill and Br. Sean, but also the presence and listening ear of our Minister General,” said Robert. “The speakers shared both a historical survey of the life of the brother in the Order and in the Church as well as a future plan for continued witness to the Gospel in a life of prayer and service.”
Positive and Affirming Atmosphere
Several Holy Name friars expressed their satisfaction with the convocation’s format and the content.
“The conference was very well laid out,” said William Herbst, OFM, of Ringwood, N.J. “The best part was that Michael Perry came to talk to us. He was very inspiring. It is always wonderful to be with the friars. Getting to know people from across the country is a plus.”
Joseph Kotula, OFM, of Western New York, said the gathering was valuable because it provided the opportunity to not only meet members of other provinces, but to discuss the Order’s perception of brothers in the Order.
“Some interesting ideas arose about how to talk with student friars and with men thinking about joining the Order about their vocations and the options available to them,” Joseph said. “Michael Perry emphasized the importance of recognizing that we are all brothers under the Franciscan Rule.” Joseph said he especially appreciated the fraternal embrace that Fr. Michael extended to each brother.
Vocation director Basil Valente, OFM, of New York City, said that after the wonderful opportunity to meet brothers from around the globe, he reflected “on the tremendous value that we enjoyed while participating in the many prayerful and engaging events during the week.”
He said that the friars spoke about many possibilities, including (1) providing more preparation, training and support for friars, especially as they begin formation work; (2) adding a post-novitiate formative year, emphasizing the connection between the novitiate year and the apostolic year of ministry; (3) ways for the ESC to further promote and affirm the value of lay friar vocations and outline the many ministries available to lay friars; (4) developing an interprovincial model of formation where men are encouraged to reflect on and pray about their calling to be friars “first and foremost,” rather than initially training to be ordained or non-ordained ministers; (5) exploring opportunities for an interprovincial postulancy program; (6) strengthening support for novitiate team so they will be able to offer more direction to one’s process of discernment, especially as a man is choosing between an ordained or non-ordained track; and (7) ensuring there are lay and ordained friars involved in every level of vocation and formation work.
“In the end, the retreat was an inspired opportunity to pray with friars from around the globe and discuss the future of our Order,” said Basil. “All this, with the encouraging support of Michael Perry, who insists on being called, ‘brother,’ and our definitor general.”
Walter Liss, OFM, of Loudonville, N.Y., said, “the gathering was learning about the life, work, experiences, and challenges of lay brothers in the U.S. and other parts of the English-speaking world. The atmosphere was positive and affirming, and it was great to meet new friars, especially as we consider re-alignment. The talks, liturgies, and social gatherings were excellent, thanks to the hard work of the friars on the planning committee. Michael Perry’s message and encouragement gives me great hope for our future!”
In the upcoming months, several interprovincial events are planned for members of the U.S. provinces. In October, friars involved in Hispanics ministry will be gathering in Wisconsin. In January, friars from various provinces will attend the 2016 interprovincial retreat.
— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.
- “José Rodríguez Carballo Ordained a Bishop in Spain” – May 22, 2013, HNP Today
- “Reflection: ‘We Are All Brothers’” by Brian Jordan, OFM — April 10, 2013, HNP Today
- “Guardians’ Meeting Focuses on Fraternal Life” — Sept. 24, 2014, HNP Today