Facing Change with Experience and God’s Grace

by Ronald Walters, OFM
Provincial Minister
Southwest Franciscan Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Ronald Walters, OFM

For many of us in the legacy province of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the consideration of the end of our Province has been sad; and yet, it is necessary. In our Province’s 37-year history, the number of men has steadily dropped from just over 100 friars to 42. Within six years of becoming a Province, we began to realize that we had few trained friars who could accompany men seeking Franciscan vocation. We had to turn to other provinces who had more friars focused in vocation and formation ministry.

Although we believed we could continue as a Province, attrition reminded us that, sooner or later, we would need to consider changing our canonical status. Change stirs many emptions – including feelings of failure and loss. In many ways, we were in denial about this, but we realized that to continue our ministry, we would have to accept the facts and realities. I know that if I never learn from my experience, I am foolish. Learning from experiences creates possibilities. I have always found learning new things enjoyable and exciting.

Change also often involves leaving things. Many times, in my life as a friar, I have had to leave one thing to embrace another. I left teaching for parochial ministry; parochial ministry for initial formation; the study of history for canon law, and initial formation for administration. Each change brought with it new skills to learn, and old skills that needed adaptation. I was tested when I was asked to be provincial treasurer. I am good at math, but I had no training in accounting!

After becoming a provincial councilor, I realized that administration cannot only be a matter of personnel – or, more precisely, filling positions because of retirement or death. The need to continue in present ministries with fewer friars became increasingly impossible. Playing a kind of “whack-a-mole” game did not permit the friars to consider new ministries.

We were maintaining what we did, but we weren’t embracing new ways to evangelize or to reinvigorate existing needs for evangelization and ministry. We began asking friars proficient in certain types of ministries to change to other kinds of ministries for which they were not well-trained or had little experience. Unfortunately, this encouraged a kind of ministerial status quo.

I became an enthusiastic supporter of bringing the US-6 provinces together, beginning with initial formation. I wanted us to find ways to discover what was common to all of us and emphasize that commonality, rather than the obvious differences. I strongly believe that what we have in common is what binds us as Franciscans. Our differences are what make that commonality shine and sparkle.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to our provinces forming a new single province is identifying the gifts each will bring – and, sadly, what they will leave behind. Such a choice requires something many people find difficult: sacrifice. That sacrifice involves not just the friars, but those to whom and with whom they minister. Those decisions are painful, as any kind of change is painful.

While we love those with whom we have lived, worked and ministered – and while we do not want them to suffer – change requires a little suffering. We friars may be able to accept the suffering caused by change, but others may find it difficult or impossible to accept.

Change also suggests that there will be unknowns – unexpected things, and things for which we feel unprepared or inadequate. But this is part of the excitement, much like the fear and tension in a riveting novel – when we race through a page to get to the next – or a suspenseful movie, when we put our hands over our eyes, but also peek out through the gaps between our fingers. We are curious about what the outcome will be!

I do not know if I have all that is necessary for what is unknown as our six fraternities become one. But I have the experience of having faced many changes in my life – changes I wasn’t necessarily prepared for, and changes for which I may not have had all the necessary knowledge and skills.

I also know I have not failed… well, at least not entirely. To paraphrase something from St. Paul’s epistles, God’s grace has been enough for me.