The essay below is part of a series about aspects of the Franciscan message that laypeople find compelling. (The previous installment featured a former trustee of St. Bonaventure University who described the strength and support she has received from friars with whom she has worked, prayed and laughed.) Below, a staff member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh, N.C. – which Franciscans maintained for 33 years – recalls how the many friars he has met have enlightened, inspired, educated, and entertained him.
As we drove west across the George Washington Bridge, James Taylor’s song “Carolina in My Mind” played on the radio. My wife and I looked at each other and smiled. In hindsight, it was as though we had just received a wink from God, letting us know we were on the right path.
Karin and I both grew up in New York City’s Upper Manhattan. We met when we were 14 years old and got married in our early 20s. Neither of us attended church in our early lives. Although I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school, by the time I was a sophomore in high school, I had stopped going to church.
When we moved to North Carolina in 1985 with our two-year-old daughter, finding a church was not on my priority list. It was, however, on my wife’s radar. I agreed to go wherever she decided. Never would I have imagined that the people I met at the parish we chose would end up affecting my life as much as they have.
Technically, my wife was Jewish, having been born to a Jewish mother. Her family did not practice any form of religion, nor did they encourage her or her siblings to explore their faith. I, on the other hand, had fallen off the wagon as a cradle Catholic and had no plans of getting back on it.
My wife, having better sense than I, decided we should find a faith community so that our daughter might be grounded in something positive; however, we would have to participate in this faith journey together.
One late summer day, this Jewish-born woman brought her Catholic-born husband to a church led by a priest dressed in a plain brown robe with a funny rope belt. Karin had previously visited the Franciscan parish of St. Francis of Assisi in Raleigh and felt it would be a wonderful place to put down faith roots for our young family. Up until that time, I didn’t even know what a friar was. I thought that stepping into a Catholic church again would be like stepping back into my childhood’s Catholic school church and being bored to death. That’s until I actually saw, heard, and met my first Franciscan friar, David McBriar, OFM.
I soon learned that Fr. David was part of a special group of men, the Franciscan friars of Holy Name Province, who are devoted to guiding lost sheep, such as myself, back to Christ. They are guided by St. Francis of Assisi, a man who was crazy enough to follow Christ so completely that he lost himself to the trappings of his cultural and physical restraints, and found himself in the love of Christ to the point that this beggar was, in a beautifully strange way, the richest man in the world. And, people wanted what he had. They wanted that peace, joy, and connection with the divine.
In my first encounter with Fr. David, I saw it in his eyes. I felt it. He had a peace, joy, and connection with God that I had not seen, or perhaps just never appreciated in a priest when I was growing up. I felt that connection in his warm and sincere smile, and his kind and gentle invitation. I wanted that for myself and my family. I wanted to connect with the God that Fr. David was connecting with.
My wife went through the church’s first RCIA program and since then our family has called St. Francis of Assisi our home. We have been touched by four Franciscan pastors and many of the Holy Name Province friars during the last 33 years.
As I got to know more of the Franciscan friars of Holy Name Province, I noticed that they seemed to be freer than what I remember of priests from my school days. Freer in a sense that they easily shared their flaws, experiences, and even some bad jokes. They’re real people with interesting stories of their own. They leverage those flaws into messages of hope for people around them.
These men broke the mental mold I had of what a lifelong servant of God looked like. For example, I never thought I would meet a man of God, a friar who was a bodybuilder and would eventually inspire the protagonist in my second novel; enter Bill McConville, OFM. I never expected the first words at a great homily to be “Booze, Butts, and Beers.” Enter Emmet Murphy, OFM. I never thought my wife and I would be led to be re-married in the Catholic Church; enter Dan Kenna, OFM. I never expected to be hired to work at a Catholic church; enter Mark Reamer, OFM.
Also, I never thought I’d see a puppet being used during a homily to make a point about the teachings of Jesus; enter Julian Jagudilla, OFM. I never expected to meet such an astute observer of nature; enter Steve Patti, OFM. I never thought I’d meet a friar with such a hearty laugh and connection to kids; enter Jim Sabak, OFM. I never expected to meet such a natural comedian and be part of a wonderful poet’s journey; enter Steve Kluge, OFM. And, I certainly never expected to meet a person who would become one of my heroes, who kindly encouraged me as I wrote my first novel, and helped change my life forever by shepherding me back to Christ. That was David McBriar.
So, what sets the Franciscan friars apart? It’s the fact that they are a little crazy themselves in following a man who lived 800 years ago and embraced poverty, lepers, brother sun, sister moon, and would risk his life to sow peace against everyone else’s better judgment – all for the love of Jesus Christ – to be like Christ – to live as Christ lived. They embrace a Church turned outward instead of inward. They’d make terrible Pharisees because they are concerned with emulating Christ, not simply enforcing rules, which at times are unintentional and painful barriers to those who most need Christ. Their arms are always open even if the church doors are closed.
The Franciscan friars are each a bit of God’s breath visible among us. They are flawed men transformed for God’s divine purpose, willingly accepting their gift of faith and doing some of the tough work to help create the rich soil onto which the seeds of God’s divine providence can take root. They are God’s gardeners and I am eternally grateful for the mud they put in my eyes.
— Diogenes Ruiz is the communications coordinator for St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh, N.C., where he has worked since 2009. He has written two books and, since 2013, he has produced “Fr. Bill’s Daily Devotional” for Bill McConville, OFM. This year, he produced Steve Kluge’s book of poetry.
Editor’s note: Other parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh who have contributed to this Franciscan Influences series include Ben and Gladys Whitehouse, Marc Kielty, Trevor Thompson, and last spring, two students of The Franciscan School.
- “Raleigh Parish Bids Farewell to Franciscans”– Sept. 14, 2020, HNP Today
- “Friars’ decision to leave St. Francis tests faith of Raleigh Catholic community” — Jan. 6, 2020, WRAL