Walking as Brothers Into a Future Filled with Hope

by James Gannon, OFM
Provincial Minister,
Franciscan Friars of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Province

“For all that has been – Thanks! Thanks! Thanks! To all that shall be – Yes! Yes! Yes!” The words of Dag Hammarskjöld that always seemed like a perfect quote to end an old year and begin a new one. It seems like the perfect quote to celebrate next month’s last provincial feast of Our Lady of the Assumption in Atlanta, Georgia, home to our new province.

The quote, which can be found in a Dag Hammarskjöld book that I still carry with me since my college days, seems like the ideal words to include in a theme of thanksgiving or a toast to a legacy province, than to actually live it. To thank God for all that has been, the graces and even the suffering and pain we have endured and caused because of our sins. To say yes to God for all that shall be, without any idea of what that might mean as we walk into something new – the Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

This is a work of faith, and the work of 136 years of living Franciscan fraternity and ministry as Franciscan Friars of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Province. As in the past, this pilgrimage toward our new province does not come easy. It can’t be traveled all at once. Day after day, we must get up, place our feet on solid ground, renew our vows in faith and trust, and follow Jesus Christ, who showed us how to live, love and serve in faith.

With our Our Lady of Guadalupe Province, we are walking as brothers into a future filled with hope.

When people like Abraham and Sara responded to the invitation from God, they began a journey of faith. It’s sometimes a journey filled with risk, drama and adventure

The prophet Jeremiah said, “Go from your country, your own people, the people you are comfortable with, and your father’s household, and I will show you.”

To begin such a journey means one allows oneself to be vulnerable, to place total trust in a stranger, to hand over control of one’s life, to venture into the unknown, to allow strangers to be instruments of God. Perhaps, above all, to live in humility.

A journey also means to never extinguish hope in times of uncertainty, frustration and diminishment. God’s call comes, as it were, from the beginning, and takes us into the future. God’s call opens us up to new horizons, invites us to follow as God leads. From that time on, faith, the future, and hope become inseparable. As Franciscans, people of faith, our future is filled with hope.

Sometimes, God’s call to us is away from something: family, friends, comfortable territory, my way of doing things, a province, a culture, traditions. At other times, His call is to something: “and the Lord gave me brothers.” The call could be to a foreign land, a new language, inclusive vision, and even a new province. And, often, the Lord’s purpose for us is simultaneously away from an old thing to a new thing.

Even after listening, obeying, leaving, travelling, arriving, and worshipping God… “there was a famine in the land, so Abram and Sara went down to Egypt to sojourn there, since the famine was so severe.” Life becomes difficult, things get hard.

A clear call doesn’t necessarily exclude hardship for us. If we dismiss the difficult and hard parts, our individual and communal sins, if we dismiss the difficult questions before us – what causes diminishment – then renewal will be a failure.

A question I place before us: Are you willing to consider leaving where you are, heading for a place that God will show you? Are you being called away from an old thing?  To a new thing? How often do you put yourself in a posture of listening to God—by prayer, studying His Word, trusting Him to speak to you through His Spirit, being in community?

Our founder, Francis of Assisi, did not write learned dissertations. But he showed us how to renew ourselves to be Franciscans for our time. In another time and age, like Abram and Sara, Francis heard the voice of God speak to him from the crucifix: “Francis, go and rebuild my house.”

Francis’ yes to that call from God made a huge difference to the Church in his day. We live in a world that is similar to Francis’ time – wars raging in different parts of the world, corruption in Church and State, a culture that encourages us to chase after power and money.

Francis and Clare’s message and way of life drew many followers during their time and injected new life into the Medieval Church and a society that was looking for something different.

Any “rebuilding” of God’s House – God’s Church today – any renewal and restructuring of Franciscan provinces and giving birth to a new province can only start with each of us taking a single step towards repentance and renewal in our own hearts. That first step, and then another, and then one more…

As Francis reminds us, “Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

We can learn from St. Francis on rebuilding and renewing ourselves, first by living simple lives that rely more on God’s providence. Francis’ example ought to at least make us more mindful of the excesses we have in our lives, in our rooms, in our friaries, especially when millions of people live in abject poverty.

Second, authentically love those around us. Love isn’t just a feel-good attitude. Francis once encountered a leper while riding on his horse. Though the smell and appearance of the leper were revolting, Francis got off his horse, embraced the man, and gave the man a kiss of peace. Our call is not to judge, it’s to love by both our words and actions.

Third, share the joy of the Gospel. If God has made a positive difference in our lives, if our vowed life has a positive difference in our lives, we ought to be ready, willing and able to share the Word of God – even when the message may be uncomfortable: God’s message of love, mercy and salvation with anyone, at any time.

Fourth, a reverence for the sacred. Do we still allow ourselves to be awed by mystery – the awesomeness of God? How do we stand before God in our reverence for one another? How do we present ourselves before God in our communal and private prayer? How do we reverence and respect the awesome Mother Earth? Do we hold a greater appreciation for the sacred things of the Church and our Franciscan Heritage?

Fifth, a renewed prayer life and relationship with God. Nothing in Francis’ life and mission would have borne fruit without his profound prayer life and love for God. He listened for, and then followed, God’s instructions to him through prayer.

Fear, doubt and frustration will always be a part of our lives, even on good days.  In many ways they propel us forward. Over and over as a fraternity, we have said yes to many possibilities that deep down we feared – the Philippines, Mississippi, the border, commencing hard conversations of interprovincial collaboration.

We were willing to respond to the unknown, and today we are called to do the same. Then and now, the possibilities are endless. The realities without a doubt will contain our fears, our frustrations, but most importantly our commitment to our covenant.  For this, I believe we have found great worth.

In these past 20 years of journey of renewal and restructuring, we have not only given voice to our feelings, but we have become far better listeners. And the moment we became better listeners was the moment we committed to entering the conversations for our future.

These 20 years of conversing have negated some of our doubts and fears, while strengthening our resolve.

This movement has only made us stronger and more focused. That focus has allowed us the luxury of being more dependent on God and one another. We are daring to move forward.

In Chapter 29 of the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, God’s loving call and promise rings loud and true: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord.  Plans to prosper you and not to harm you.  Plans to give you a hope and a future.”

In the life of Francis, we hear him say, “This is what I want with all my heart.” And much later, we hear him proclaim, “Let us begin again …” Could any two things be clearer as we move toward the completion of the unification of our US-6 provinces?

We have become better listeners and discarded what is useless from our past – and we embrace our future. Let us pray that like Abram, Sara, Jeremiah, Francis and Clare, we continue to say yes, no matter what.