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Franciscan Influences: Embracing the Leper

This essay is part of a series about aspects of the Franciscan message that partners-in-ministry find compelling. The previous reflection was written by a St. Bonaventure University alumnus who volunteers for Mt. Irenaeus Franciscan Mountain Retreat in Western New York. Below, a staff member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Durham, North Carolina, describes what she has learned during her nearly 10 years working with and for the friars and why she has decided to run for a political office.

As a veteran of more than 20 years of church music ministry, a trained liturgist, and a practicing Catholic, many people have seemed bemused by my choice to enter public life as a candidate for the Congress of the United States. People ask me how I made this decision and what led to such a path, and I say without hesitation that it has been prompted and informed by my faith, particularly the Franciscan spirituality that I have come to know and embrace through my time spent with the friars of Holy Name Province at Immaculate Conception Church in Durham, North Carolina.

Angela with the friars in Durham, l-r, Hugh Macsherry, Chris Van Haight, and Mario Gomez. (Photo courtesy of Angela Flynn)

I’ll never forget my first exposure to Francis of Assisi. It was 1994, and I was not yet Catholic but traveling with a parish choir on pilgrimage in Italy. We were actually in Assisi, in the crypt where Francis is buried, celebrating Mass. The homily that day included the story of Francis encountering the leper on the road. The presider encouraged each of us to go out and embrace the leper. For me, on that day and in that space, I saw myself as the leper and recognized the depth of what it means to be embraced by God‘s love. I began to cry and was quickly joined by the singers around me who had become true companions on a journey that was both literal and spiritual. In my heart, that was the day I became Catholic.

Encountering Christ
Formally, it was not until the next year that I was received into the Church, and it was about six years before I again encountered Franciscan spirituality. My son was the vehicle this time, as he moved, in his sophomore year of high school, from a Jesuit school to a Franciscan school. He came home one day quite annoyed because, as he put it, whenever he wanted to discuss theological issues in his religion class, all the good Franciscan friar and teacher would do was continue to reassure him that God loved him. This was a wildly important message for my gay son to hear, and those good Franciscans nurtured him through that challenging adolescence by their firm and unwavering insistence on the love of God for all.

The Alabanza music group in Durham. The author is third from right. (Photo courtesy of Angela Flynn)

For the next 10 years, my husband continually told me that I would be very happy working in a Franciscan parish and should do so. In spite of my explaining to him that you simply can’t walk in, set up office, and begin to work in a parish because you want to, he persisted, so when I became aware that Immaculate Conception was hiring a new director of liturgy and music – coincidentally right after completing my master’s degree in liturgy – I applied. I’ve now spent more than 10 years working with the friars, and my understanding of Franciscan spirituality, as well as my own faith, have deepened and become fuller and richer than I could have imagined.

Through the friars, I have come to the deepest understanding of what it means to embrace the leper. I have come to know what it means to have a preferential option for the poor. I have come to see the stranger we are called to welcome. I have come to feel the responsibilities of caring for this amazing gift of the world around us. I have recognized that in the leper, the poor, the stranger, and even in nature itself, we encounter Christ. St. Francis opens our eyes to see the radical message that is the gospel of Jesus.

Angela with her Bridges not Walls shirt. #bridgesnotwalls (Photo courtesy of Angela Flynn)

Advocating for Values
It was not easy to make the decision to enter the political realm. I have lived safe and secure in the arms of my church and in the spiritual richness of my Franciscan world for a long time now, but perhaps the deepest message I have learned is that security and safety are illusions not enjoyed by all and that we are called, like Francis, to leave that safe place in order to truly follow Christ. As Catholic Christians, we have an obligation to advocate for the values that we hold dear. As people of a Franciscan ethos, we have a message to share – a message that once heard, can and will change the world, one person at a time.

Living a life of discipleship, especially of radical discipleship, is never easy. Likewise, living in a fishbowl of the political world is hard. To combine the two at times feels overwhelming, but I believe the world needs the Franciscan message, and I believe the resulting world will be a better place for my children and grandchildren.

I am and will be eternally grateful for that day a quarter-century ago, in the crypt, and that homily. I pray that we will all come to walk in Francis’ footsteps, embrace the radical gospel of Christ, and remember to embrace the leper. Pax et Bonum!

 — Angela Flynn, director of music at Immaculate Conception Parish in Durham since 2009, lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina, with her husband Kevin. She earned her master’s from Rensselaer Program of Church Music and Liturgy, formerly in residence at St. Joseph’s College, Indiana, and now at Alverno College, Milwaukee. In June of this year, Flynn led the music for the Mass at which Casey Cole, OFM, was ordained a priest.

Editor’s note: Laymen and women who are interested in writing an essay for this Franciscan Influences series are invited to contact Jocelyn Thomas in the HNP Communications Office at communications@hnp.org

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