Discerning a Religious Vocation in Age of COVID-19

Jocelyn Thomas Be A Franciscan, Friar News

Sharing the joy of Franciscan life with those who are considering a vocation with the Order is continuing despite extreme changes in communication and social interaction driven by the COVID-19 outbreak across the United States and around the world. The Holy Name Province vocation ministry, like most organizations and the Province itself, has revised its methods to adapt to social distancing guidelines – arranging for meetings and conversations to be held electronically. HNP leaders have been pleased with the results.

Over the past few weeks, after restrictions were enacted prohibiting large gatherings to avoid spreading the coronavirus, Basil Valente, OFM, vocation director, and his team moved their organic discernment meetings and vocation retreats online – avoiding in-person contact but still creating opportunities for men interested in a vocation to learn about Franciscan life without risking illness.

“These men in discernment are very open to this new possibility and I’ve already conducted vocation interviews by Zoom video conferencing,” Basil said from his residence at St. Francis Friary in New York City. “Each was very successful, offering the opportunity to discuss one’s calling to the Franciscans in deep and significant levels.”

This image, from The BeAFranciscan.org website., was taken at the 2019 St. Bonaventure University commencement ceremony.  The men in the front row are part of the 2019-20 interprovincial postulant program.

Online Conversations
Not long after New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on March 20 that all non-essential businesses should suspend in-person work, the vocation ministry posted information on its “Be a Franciscan” website, reminding men that Franciscan friars have celebrated for more than 800 years Christ’s self-giving love.”

The post states that friars hold “the needs of the good people with whom we work and minister close to our hearts, just as we do every morning and evening when we gather as a fraternity for prayer. As Pope Francis made lovingly clear, there is a hunger in today’s world for the values of St. Francis of Assisi.”

Juan Turcios with some men interested in the Order . (Photo courtesy of the HNP Vocation Office)

The message continued, “Despite this tumultuous time, know that we continue to welcome all those interested in discerning a vocation with the Franciscan friars. We want to reassure you that we are working to help discerners respond to the Lord’s call in the safest and healthiest manner possible. Just contact us to set up a Zoom session! Through prayer, sensible precautions, and communal efforts, we will overcome this cross.”

“Although we’ve had to cancel an in-person come-and-see/discernment retreat in Boston, the vocation office team, in conjunction with our regional vocation directors, are working hard to re-schedule that event and also to schedule an online mini-retreat with a number of men still interested in the consecrated life with the Franciscans,” said Basil, who has directed the Province’s vocation ministry since summer 2014.

Ironically, social distancing measures and the slower lifestyle have been a benefit to those thinking about religious life, according to Basil, who said that because of the pandemic, men in discernment are able to afford more time for prayer, reflection on God’s call, and opportunities for FaceTime calls, Skype initiatives and Zoom meetings.

“Given this critical time for all of us around the world, I invite the friars to pray for our men in discernment, especially now when we need more men in ministry serving the good people of God as Franciscans,” said Basil. “Let us continue to pray for each other using St. Francis’s Prayer before the Crucifix: ‘Most High, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me, Lord, a correct faith, a certain hope, a perfect charity, sense, and knowledge so that I may carry out your holy and true command.’”

Before the pandemic hit the East Coast of the United States, the Province’s vocation ministry held two successful discernment weekends – gatherings where friars share experiences and guests learn about Franciscan life. The most recent, titled “Called by God, Invited by Francis,” took place in St. Petersburg, Florida, the weekend of March 6.

Five vocation candidates attended the discernment event at St. Anthony Friary, where they had the opportunity to talk with the Province’s Florida-based friars, as well as several friars who visited from Chicago and New York City. As is often the case at these vocation gatherings, the guests ranged in age, background and hometown origin – coming from Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, and South Carolina.

Informal Gatherings
The participants listened to talks given by friars, ate meals together, enjoyed a tour of St. Petersburg, and visited Sacred Heart Church in nearby Tampa, where they attended Mass and had Saturday dinner. Among those who gave presentations that weekend were regional vocation directors Zachary Elliott, OFM, guardian of Sacred Heart Friary, and Kevin Tortorelli, OFM, vicar of St. Anthony Friary. Basil also made a presentation on “Poverty, Chastity, Obedience: Artistic Renderings of the Franciscan Vows,” as did Juan Turcios, OFM, who gave a talk titled “My Experience of Franciscan Formation and as a Solemnly Professed Friar” and Raymond Mann, OFM, who described his personal prayerful journey of life as a friar.

The previous month, on Feb. 11, a discernment event took place at Siena College, outside Albany, New York. The discernment night was an informal, yet genuine, gathering of eight Siena students who joined the friars for evening prayer, dinner, and discussion. It was the second discernment evening held by the Siena friars during the 2019-20 academic year.

Kevin Tortorelli, left and Juan Turcios, right, talk with participants at last month’s  vocation discernment event at the friary in St. Petersburg.  (Photo courtesy of HNP Vocation Office)

After evening prayer, friars from Siena’s friary and the guests joined Mike Tyson, OFM, for a discussion on highlights from his experience in ministry and service as a friar. “He shared engaging anecdotes from his experience as a parish priest in New Jersey, New York, and Puerto Rico,” said George Camacho, OFM, a regional vocation director. “Mike also discussed his passion for social justice, along with his experiences with interfaith initiatives, direct service to the poor, and demonstrations in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. with local faith leaders.”

The conversations continued over dinner, according to George, who said Mike elaborated on some of the stories and insights he shared, while other friars conversed with the student guests about their experiences as professed friars.

“Overall, the discernment night provided an opportunity for student guests to engage the friars outside of the professional college setting – to pray with us and to learn more about the experience of being a friar,” said George, who professed his final vows Franciscan in 2016.

As of March 30, Holy Name Province has accepted three men into the 2020 Franciscan Interprovincial Postulant Program and has another 10 men with applications that are being processed, according to Basil. “We are encouraged by the continued interest in our Franciscan way of life,” he said.

Men who are interested in learning about the process for applying to Holy Name Province are welcomed to contact the HNP Vocation Ministry by phone at 800-677-7788, or by email at vocation@hnp.org. Whether they are working at their office on West 31st Street or from their homes and friaries, Basil and his office administrator, Jorge Martins, and the regional vocation directors around the Province are ready and available to talk to potential applicants with interest in Holy Name Province.

“Let us remember to always pray for each other and help each another, so we can — with the help of God, our health professionals and our state and federal leaders — journey safely during this crisis and eradicate the coronavirus,” said Basil, wishing, “Peace and blessings to all, especially as we continue our journey from Holy Week to the wonderful season of Easter.”

— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.

Editor’s note: Information about vocation work being done by the US-6 provinces — as part of the new US-6 OFM Franciscan Vocation Office, temporarily located in New York City – is planned for a future HNP Today article.