A half-dozen Franciscan discerners from three countries, five states, and diverse backgrounds and experiences said “yes” to begin the next step of their vocation journey. The group of men was welcomed last month to the interprovincial postulancy program of the Order of Friars Minor, which marks the beginning of their Franciscan formation. They will engage for the next 12 months in theology, liturgical, and Franciscan spiritual classes at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Maryland, and will serve in Franciscan outreach programs for the poor, food-insecure, homeless, and migrants at nearby St. Camillus Parish and other area ministries.
After arriving on Aug. 10, the postulants spent an orientation period that consisted of inspiring visits and tours of extraordinary historic buildings and OFM ministry sites in and around the Washington, D.C., area – including the Smithsonian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, U.S. Capitol, Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land, and Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. There was also a trip to New York City for a brother’s Mass of solemn profession at the 130-year-old Church of St. Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street.
Among the six who entered this year’s postulancy program are Chad Butcher, a Knoxville, Tennessee, native who once had a six-figure income working with entertainer Dolly Parton; Ricardo (Ricky) Ferrer, a migrant from Cebu, Philippines, who was a facilities/special-projects manager for a parish in San Jose, California; Richard Gaunt, a native of State College, Pennsylvania, who was a legal assistant in the immigration services program of Catholic Charities in Austin, Texas; Matthew Junker of San Diego, a graduate of the University of California Berkeley School of Law, who left behind a successful legal practice championing workers’ rights; Daniel Mercado, from Chicago’s North Side, who was a project manager in the automotive and hospitality industries, and Jason Peterson – born in Russia and raised in Florida after being adopted at 11-months-old – who was a cast member at Walt Disney World in Orlando.
One Desire: Be a Franciscan
“These men come to us with unique gifts and distinct backgrounds, talents and inspired spiritual lives. It is a treasure and pure gift to journey with these men on their pilgrimage to the Franciscans. It is very humbling,” said Basil Valente, OFM, director of the National Vocation Office of the new U.S. Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“Their paths to discernment may have been different, but just as the friars of the US-6 will be united in October 2023 as a single entity, these postulants are already united in their desire to serve the people of God as Franciscan friars in the spirit of St. Francis,” added Basil, who also serves the new province as regional vocation director for the eastern region of the country, and who has served as vocation director of Holy Name Province since 2014.
More than 100 men are currently engaged in active vocation discernment with the US-6 provinces, each of whose formation programs have been integrated under the umbrella of single postulancy, novitiate and post-novitiate programs.
Of the six newly-welcomed postulants, Ricky and Jason have entered through Holy Name Province; Matthew through St. Barbara Province; Daniel through Sacred Heart Province; Richard through Assumption Blessed Virgin Mary Province, and Chad through St. John the Baptist Province. The men have been accompanied throughout their discernment journey by vocation directors and other friars from around the country.
“We are often the Order’s first contact with inquirers, guiding and walking with men discerning God’s call. I am humbled by their sincerity and desire to follow Christ in a more radical way as friars minor,” said Gregory Plata, OFM, who serves as the new province’s regional vocation director for the central region of the country, and who has been vocation director of Assumption BVM Province since 2018.
“As vocation directors, we try to encourage inquirers to see their goodness and potential in serving the Lord. As we shift to a new province covering the entire U.S. and Puerto Rico, it is my hope that we can inspire more men to join us in our existing and evolving new ministries that address the needs of the Church,” added Gregory, who noted that being on the road, meeting and interacting with discerners, and building relationships that foster and nurture vocations, is an important part of this ministry.
“In vocation ministry, I always tell discerning men – let us walk together and explore what God can offer you! As Franciscans, we are brothers to one another. As vocation directors, we are brothers to the men considering Franciscan life, being there to help them navigate their way through the process and helping them hear clearly God’s call,” said Erasmo Romero, OFM, vocation director of Our Lady of Guadalupe Province.
Who Needs Posters!
Thomas Smith, OFM, vocation director of Sacred Heart Province since 2012, says that providing inquirers with the opportunity to meet friars plays an important role in the discernment journey. “We invite them for prayer and dinner and sometimes for weekend visits. They tell us that hearing stories and experiences of discernment, formation and ministry from friars firsthand is very helpful in their own decision,” said Thom, a solemnly-professed friar for 44 years who lives at Holy Evangelist Friary in Chicago, which serves as a house of hospitality for inquirers.
“Living in fraternity, proclaiming the Gospel, serving the marginalized, and preserving the dignity and worth of all human beings – that’s the essence of Franciscan life and ministry. I talk about these values at discernment dinners and organic community gatherings (formerly called ‘come-and-see’ weekends), when discerners also have the opportunity to experience our ministries,” said Sebastian Sandoval, OFM, who serves as the new province’s regional vocation director for the western region of the country, and who has been vocation director of St. Barbara Province since 2019.
As a former vocation director once said (to no friar in particular, but to every Franciscan friar), “I don’t need to print thousands of [vocation] posters. You are the living posters!”
“Sometimes we fall into the trap that it’s the vocation director’s job, but I think it is very important for friars to realize that we are all vocation directors,” said Sebastian, who made his first profession in 1999 and was ordained in 2012, and who served as an associate pastor at a parish in Los Angeles prior to his work in vocation ministry.
Gregory, a professed friar since 1981 and ordained for 37 years, agreed that all Franciscan friars have a responsibility to vocation ministry. “Every brother has a unique story to tell, as well as a sacred mission that began when they said ‘yes’ to our Lord by their profession. If we really love our life as friars, then it should only be natural to want to share that passion with others by inviting them to where we minister, live and pray,” said Gregory, who served as pastor for 16 years in Mississippi before becoming vocation director, and who is moving to Holy Angels Cathedral in Gary, Indiana, home to a multicultural and enthusiastic fraternity that will host organic community gatherings with inquirers.
Did You Hear About the Atheist, Agnostic, and Methodist?
They’re Catholics Now
Discerners meet and discover friars at various points in their life, some while in high school or college, others through outreach ministries or chance encounters. But one thing many discerners have in common is their experience of profound conversion that pushes them to seek greater meaning in their lives. This couldn’t be truer than for all of the men who entered the postulancy program last month, including three whose discernment was sparked by their conversion to Catholicism.
Raised a Missionary Baptist on his family’s third-generation, 350-acre livestock and produce farm, Chad Butcher, a self-proclaimed agnostic by his mid-20s, experienced what turned out to be a life-changing event when he accepted a friend’s invitation to Sunday Mass.
As he describes: “Something happened, an internal conversion that I can’t explain, the desire to learn more, know more” – which led him to RCIA classes and a conversion to Catholicism in 2010. When the call to discernment got stronger, he walked away from six-figure-income employment with Dolly Parton in her reading advocacy program, and moved back home to work as a 9-1-1 dispatcher while sorting out “the feeling inside that I wanted to do more, but not as a layperson.”
Matthew Junker, another convert to Catholicism, was born and raised in San Diego, California, to a family whose parents weren’t religious, but sent their children to Catholic school for a better education. Finding instruction in faith “cold and authoritarian,” by 8th grade he became an atheist. While at the University of California San Diego, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and ethnic studies, his encounters with intellectual religious thinkers slowly opened him to spiritual practices and regular Mass attendance.
In 2015, at age 25, Matthew enrolled in RCIA and began reading about St. Francis’ life and followers. Volunteer work in eastern Kentucky and time with diocesan seminarians deepened his curiosity about religious vocation – which, at the time, wasn’t an option since he was a recent convert. Instead, he went to law school at UC Berkeley – and after working as a law clerk for a federal judge in West Virginia for a year, he started a practice focused on workers’ rights.
“I had a strong desire to work with those on the margins – and going to law school helped me develop a skill set that allows me to do that. I think about the possibility of practicing law as a religious in service to the poor, disabled, immigrants, and those who are discriminated against,” said Matthew.
Richard Gaunt was raised in a United Methodist household – and although very involved in the church through his teenage years, he drifted from faith as a young adult. At New York’s Ithaca College, where he received a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies with a minor in religious studies, he became more interested in politics and activism.
“Eventually, I found myself feeling deeply disillusioned and empty. This cleared space to really open up to God’s grace – not needing to ‘figure it out,’ but rather, letting God work in me and through me,” explained Richard. “Coming into the Church is a powerful experience of grace. I began to sense that I wasn’t going to be able to just go on with life unchanged, but rather that I needed to conform my life to the Gospel in a more radical way, which is what opened up the process of discernment for me.”
What Do You Most Need to Do?
What Does the World Need Most to Have Done?
Whether converts, or born into the Catholic faith, all discerners experience an awakening that is then encouraged and nurtured by vocation directors, initially through phone conversations and (during the pandemic) virtual meetings. They receive books about St. Francis and vocation information about the Order, and as their discernment journey progresses, they are invited to visit friaries for prayer and dinner, and to experience and participate in Franciscan outreach ministries.
Jorge Martins, office manager of the National Vocation Office, plays an instrumental role in distributing information to discerners in an effective, expeditious, and creative way.
“At a recent meeting of national vocation directors, we all sung Jorge’s praises for his effective and successful work and ministry throughout the country,” said Basil, who added that Jorge’s talents as a graphic designer, even-tempered personality, and ability to multitask and work with many constituency groups is a great asset to the National Vocation Office.
No matter when or where the spark is lit, the common thread of Franciscans is underscored in the centerpiece of their values – recognition of the dignity and worth of all persons, and service to the poor and marginalized.
“C. Frederick Buechner, a renowned inspirational theologian and poet, characterized vocation in this way: ‘The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’ For someone who did not have a Catholic upbringing, Frederick (who died last month at age 96) reflected quite remarkably on the Franciscan charism and our work with the poor and marginalized,” said Basil.
“The work to which God calls discerners is the kind of work: A) that you need most to do, and B) that the world needs most to have done. The question for all discerners and friars is, ‘What do you most need to do, and what does the world need most to have done?” added Basil.
Thom, whose friar life has traversed three states (Michigan, Ohio and Missouri) and has included pastoral ministry, teacher, librarian, campus minister, and director of a national shrine, said he has found that inquirers are attracted to the Franciscans because of “our love and ministry to the poor, marginalized, and those most in need.”
Sebastian said fraternity is another significant draw to the Order. “Inquirers are interested in our community and prayer life, and, of course, the different ways that we minister to the marginalized,” said the vocation director, who lives at Assumption Friary in Los Angeles, California.
The postulant class of 2022 couldn’t agree more.
Outside the Walls
“The most appealing thing about Franciscan life is that the friars are called to be where the people are,” said Jason Peterson, whose introduction to the Franciscans was a Capuchin friar who helped with Sunday Mass at his local parish. “My Franciscan heart drew me to the OFMs. I spent a lot of time with friars who were instrumental in helping and guiding me during my discernment process,” added Jason, who, being in the Orlando area, often visited HNP’s nearby regional vocation directors, including Kevin Tortorelli, OFM, at the St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg, and Henry Fulmer, OFM, at Sacred Heart Parish in Tampa.
In Chad’s case, he was ready to say “yes” after a weekend visit with friars at St. Anthony Friary in Cincinnati. “What attracts me to the Franciscans is how they preach outside the walls. They meet the people and put their faith into action. Working on my family’s farm helped me value all of God’s creation, so the opportunity to work with people of all walks was a tipping point for me.”
“Being introduced to the breadth of Franciscan ministries and diverse professions of friars during [discernment] weekends made me realize I could thrive in the Order. I also love the idea of being part of a close fraternity that is wholly dedicated to building the kingdom of God and serving the most marginalized,” said Matthew, adding, “I felt an immediate connection and [realized] this was a community I would feel at home in.”
Inside the Soup Kitchen
For Daniel Mercado, the most appealing aspect of Franciscan life is community and brotherly love. “Once I started interacting with various Franciscan communities, I saw how the friars completed each other, rather than competed with each other. They were unique and transparent with their ideas, opinions and personalities. Divine honesty! It was wonderful to hear friars sharing their own stories and experiences,” said Daniel, whose initial contact with Thom was followed by Zoom meetings with friars, including Fred Dilger, OFM, and Aaron Richardson, OFM, whose passion for their work at St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia influenced Daniel’s decision to serve at the iconic Franciscan soup kitchen for one year under the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry before entering the postulancy program.
“FVM gave me a chance to minister in a Franciscan way at a ministry that captures the spirit of St. Francis. I loved serving and spending time in community with the brothers. The first thought I had when I awoke each morning – I really want to be a Franciscan! Serving the marginalized also taught me to be vulnerable with the most vulnerable of society. They need to be loved and understood, not rejected and judged,” said Daniel, who noted that a series of events in 2019 – World Youth Day in Panama, the National Catholic Youth Conference, and a night of Eucharistic praise and worship with a group of friends – kicked his discernment journey into overdrive.
Richard, who scrapped plans for a master’s degree in community and regional planning when he instead decided to pursue “the tug to discern” a different calling, said he is drawn to the Franciscan way of life that is “out in the world bringing God’s presence to others – but also rooted in deep spirituality, prayer life, and community. I also like that the [Order] encourages friars to develop and use their talents and hobbies,” added Richard, who is hoping to bring his passion for music and photography to ministry life.
A Voice Calling from the Desert
(it was really the church parking lot)
The postulants are grateful to their vocation directors and other friars for maintaining the line of communication, and for the many fraternal events, ministerial opportunities, and even the impromptu encounters, that helped in their decision to say “yes” to Franciscan vocation.
“[During discernment], the friars treated me like a brother. I was drawn to the Franciscans by the joy of brotherhood and the ability to minister and collaborate with those they serve – to smell like the sheep and, at the same time, be the sheep,” said Ricky Ferrer, who credits William McConville, OFM – whom he met after a Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Raleigh, North Carolina – for awakening the spirit that lay dormant since migrating with his family from the Philippines.
“The moment Fr. Bill laid hands and recited the prayer of absolution [after confession], I felt the warmness of God’s love and presence in my life. That moment reignited the fire,” Ricky said of the calling that lingered for much of his life, but which he admits he often ignored – “even ran away from.” It was a voice literally calling out, not from the desert, but from across the church parking lot – that of Stephen Kluge, OFM, asking, “Are you discerning?” It was a question and an encounter that Ricky said couldn’t have been a coincidence – and one that he could no longer ignore.
After sharing that he had moved to Raleigh temporarily to help care for his grandfather and an uncle, both in failing health, Ricky – who, like Daniel, spent one year in service as a volunteer minister at St. Francis Inn – recalled Stephen’s reaction: “He said, ‘You have Franciscan blood in you!’ I kept replaying those words in my head on the entire plane ride back to San Jose.”
For Jason, he never thought of any other job as a lifetime career. “I have always felt a calling to religious life – that I would one day be serving God’s people in a special way,” he said. “I think back to the Capuchin friar who showed me what it meant for a Franciscan to live the three vows in his daily life – poverty, to live simply; chastity, to love everyone with your whole heart, and obedience, to do what is asked of you with total reverence for the building of God’s kingdom.”
Jason continued, “I am grateful for meeting the friars in St. Petersburg and Tampa, and for the time they so generously spent with me in my discernment. They validated my desire to serve all of God’s people, but especially the poor. Br. Basil was absolutely supportive of my openness to being a friar and my calling to serve the people. When he informed me that I was accepted to the postulancy, it was a very emotional moment. It was something that I prayed about my whole life, and it was finally happening.”
Richard called his vocation director an amazing guide. “I loved getting to know Fr. Greg. He has always been kind, compassionate, and encouraging, and I am so grateful for his help in this process! The OFM friars were the first to have a virtual discernment event (when everything was on COVID lockdown at the time), which gave me a good first introduction,” he said.
Daniel, who credits his church youth group for developing his faith – which led to service as a youth minister, catechist, usher, and other positions – said Thom and other vocation friars kept him engaged with Franciscan events throughout the process.
“I want to especially thank HNP’s team of eastern regional vocation directors – those serving in New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Florida – for their patient and important work that has been so vital to the success of vocations and particularly to this group of discerners who responded ‘yes’ to the Franciscans,” said Basil.
How Are Those Guys Doing?
Discernment is not only a time for inquirers to contemplate religious vocation, but also a time for vocation directors to examine their ministry – reflect on whether they are being a positive influence and demonstrating their joy and commitment as friars minor.
Basil recalls the words of a former minister general of the Order – who always told friars in vocation ministry to “be sure to tell our Franciscan discerners that we are not holy people! Rather, tell them that we are good, broken men trying to grow in God’s holiness.”
When he first became involved in vocation ministry, Thom recalled seeking advice from a handful of brothers who had previously served. Their responses ranged from, “Be honest,” “Remember, you’re walking with them, not leading them,” and “Keep a sense of humor, pray often.” But the one that still stands out for Thom: “Even though your name is on the door, always remember that all friars are part of our vocation office and ministry.”
There is no better example than two friars who both recently celebrated 70 years of profession, according to Thom. “Seventy years and still in ministry. They are generous with their time spent with inquirers – and it’s not one day and forget. They’ll ask months later, even a year later, how ‘those visitors’ are doing, and they pray every day for them. That’s the spirit of vocation ministry,” he said.
Added Sebastian, “There would be no Order without vocations. Vocation ministry is the beginning of all other ministries.”
If God is calling you, or someone you know, to be a Franciscan, visit USFranciscans.org #USFranciscans, contact Jorge at the National Vocation Office, at 800-677-7788, ext. 345, or scan the QR code. Be sure to share this article and the QR code.