ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — “Religious life ‘is not over’! It is only now beginning! Go out and announce this message of joy, hope, transfiguration and transformation!”
It was with these words of enthusiasm that Fr. Michael Perry, OFM, General Minister, encouraged friars participating in the 2016 Franciscan Mega-Conference for Vocations, “Lesser Brothers on a Vocation Journey of Mercy,” to renew their commitment to religious vocation and to share the joy it brings to a new generation. His message of hope and passion for the Gospel way of life, as exhibited by St. Francis and his brothers, was a welcome start to what has become an important event in the life of the English-speaking communities of the three branches of the Franciscan First Order (OFMs, Capuchins, and Conventuals), the Brothers of Brooklyn, and the Friars of the Renewal.
Every two to three years, the vocation directors from across the English-speaking Franciscan family come together for the Franciscan Mega-Conference for Vocations. The role of host rotates among the three branches of the First Order. This year, the vocation directors of the English-speaking Conference of the Order of Friars Minor hosted the conference with residents of St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg. The conference, which took place from Sept. 6 to 10, was organized by the leadership team of the ESC/OFM Vocation Directors Committee: Basil Valente, OFM, president; Br. Eric Pilarcik, OFM, of St. Barbara Province, vice president; and Br. Luis Aponte-Merced, OFM, of St. John the Baptist Province, secretary/treasurer.
Thirty-four friars representing 20 provinces from the United States, Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, and Lithuania participated in the mega-conference. Fr. Michael gave the keynote speech, focusing on the core unity among the various Franciscan orders and the rich opportunities for growth offered by collaboration. Two featured talks followed. Daniel Horan, OFM, discussed social media as an avenue for vocational outreach, encouraging the friars to engage not only candidates but also each other through social media platforms to foster the “culture of encounter” proposed by Pope Francis.
Br. Moises Gutierrez, OFM, of Sacred Heart Province, gave the final talk of the conference, discussing “the valuable reality of diversity” among candidates and fraternities. He highlighted the richness offered by actively integrating the heritages of individual friars into the greater friar community. By celebrating the unique blessings of each friar and his culture together as a fraternity, Moises said, provinces and communities can begin to build a common, inclusive spirit where all are welcome in the truest sense of Franciscan hospitality.
Each day began with Mass and ended with evening prayer, celebrated with the friar community of St. Anthony Friary. The participants took time to discuss the topic of the day in small groups before reconvening as a single group for questions and answers with the speaker. The late afternoons and evenings were free for attendees to pray, to enjoy fraternal time together and to explore the city of St. Petersburg.
Fr. Michael spent the better part of two days with the conference participants and the friars of St. Anthony Friary, sharing meals and fraternal time. In a powerful moment, the friars extended a united blessing over the General Minister in thanks for his service and support of the friars worldwide and their vocational ministry. “It was yet another sign of our common bond in fraternity, expressed in sincere gratitude for the humble, pastoral and inspiring witness of our Minister General,” said Basil.
Appreciating Similarities and Differences
Basil drew attention to the homily given by Michael Reyes, OFM, on the feast of Mary’s nativity, as an inspiring highlight of the conference. The regional vocation team member reflected on the reality of Mary’s life as a real person: what were her favorite foods? What was her favorite color? Did she too feel like a nothing? “I think she must have,” said Fr. Michael, “when you understand how humble her life really was. But to God, she was something, she was someone special. And that is our challenge: to see somebody’s ‘something’ when they see ‘nothing,’ to tell every person we meet that they are a very special someone to God.”
“This reflection really captured the nature of vocation ministry,” said Basil, “and the friars really entered the day’s discussions with a new energy after the Mass.”
At the conclusion of the conference, the friars offered praise for the meeting. “The Franciscan Mega-Conference 2016 was an amazing experience of Franciscan fraternity, showing how very much we have in common as followers of Saint Francis’ way of the Gospel,” said Br. Steven Kropp, OFM Cap. “This conference helped allow us to see and experience our common calling in the midst of our diversity as brothers.”
“The meeting was a great opportunity to come together and see what we have in common, having one founder, and, more importantly, to see how much duplication we have,” said Fr. John Bamman, OFM Conv. “It’s great to have support from each other, and the idea of a communion of provinces and orders to pool resources and to be a think-tank to see what’s going on in a global context, it really opens your eyes to a greater vision of people chasing after St. Francis, after the dream.”
“The Mega-Conference was a prime example of how friars ought to pray and live together,” said Br. Patrick Lynch, OFM, vocation director for the Irish Province, who praised the conference for “bringing the friars together to grow in unity, as St. Francis desired.” This sign of unity and fellowship was emphasized by Fr. Xavier Meiergerd, CFR. “Our community was very grateful to be invited,” he said. “As our own community continues to grow, we saw this as an opportunity to get to know, and enter into deeper communion with, the other Franciscan orders, and to see what we can learn and how we can benefit from the history and experience of the other orders.”
All three presentations were well received. Br. Damian Novello, OSF, commented that he very much appreciated Michael’s highlighting the fact that the friars are in fact all brothers to one another. “That comment meant a lot to me, as someone coming from a community of all brothers,” said Damian. “His message that our first vocation is as friars, those who live a Gospel life in fraternity, whatever we do, was very powerful.” Basil agreed, saying that “Fr. Michael continues to challenge us to be better at being brothers in fraternity, and brothers in mission, and to never forget that we’re all Franciscan brothers in mission together.”
Dan commented that “it was a joy and an honor to be a part of the Franciscan vocations Mega-Conference and to engage with brother friars from all the branches of the Franciscan family. There’s a lot of energy, enthusiasm, encouragement, and excitement about our Franciscan way of life in the 21st century — the main challenge centers on how best to get that spirit about Franciscan vocations to those men that might be discerning a call to join our way of life. I think it is a wonderful sign of the Franciscan spirit that all branches of the family could collaborate together as we move forward.”
Kevin Mullen, OFM, Provincial Minister, offered a special thanks to the community of St. Petersburg: “The mega-conference was a great success largely due to you,” he said, “Like St. Francis, your words and your actions made fraternity more than a concept, it was a lived-reality. As a result, your brothers from the conference returned to their respective homes nourished, refreshed, and recommitted to go out to welcome more people to the Franciscan experience. Thank you for all that you did to make this conference a successful event… [it was] your Franciscan welcome that made all the difference.”
Basil added, “I’m truly grateful to Joe, the friars of St. Anthony Friary, and to the Holy Name Province office staff, who extended tremendous generosity to the international friar guests. Quite simply, their outstanding welcome remains one of the most open and Franciscan invitations of hospitality that I’ve ever experienced. I’m so proud to be a friar and a brother minister with these wonderful men.” Joe Hertel, OFM, on behalf of the friars at St. Anthony Friary, where he is guardian, said he was “deeply honored to host the mega-conference. It was a true privilege to join the Minister General and our brother friars from across the Franciscan family in fraternity and discussion.”
A special thanks was given to the ESC/Vocation Directors’ leadership team members for their hard work “while [they] tended to [their] own ministries.” “Hard to do better than this exciting conference,” said Br. Patrick, “thanks to all the coordinators!”
The Capuchin friars, represented by Br. Rafael Anguiano, OFM Cap., Br. Steven Kropp, OFM Cap., and Br. John Russo, OFM Cap., will host the next Franciscan Mega-Conference for Vocations in 2018.
— Benjamin Simpson is administrative coordinator for the Holy Name Province Vocation Ministry.
- “General Minister Encourages Creation of Organic Discernment Communities” – Sept. 2, 2015, HNP Today
- “Brothers Gather for Inaugural Convocation” –Sept. 27, 2016, HNP Today
- “‘Trailblazers’ Host Vocation Weekend in Florida” – March 4, 2015, HNP Today