Franciscan Influences: Finding a Spiritual Home

Trevor Thompson Features


The author, second from right with his wife and children and friars Joe Kotula and Kevin Kriso, right.

This reflection is part of a series by Holy Name Province’s partners-in-ministry. The previous, written by a Franciscan Volunteer Minister, was published in August. Below, a staff member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh, N.C., describes the ministries and institutions that that have shaped his spirituality and his life.

My formation in the Franciscan tradition comes by way of countless relationships with friars, Franciscan sisters, and other Franciscan-hearted people. As I reflect back upon the last 15 years, it’s the formative presence of Franciscan institutions for which I’m most grateful. Let me share a bit about these places — the mission and vision they embody, and the things I learned from them.

Formative Time at Franciscan Institute
I arrived at the doorstep of The Franciscan Institute as a layman searching for a spiritual and intellectual home. My curiosity that the Franciscan tradition might have something to offer was actually piqued by my former undergraduate professor Msgr. Frank Lane, who was partial to the mystical, symbolic, and Christocentric thought of St. Bonaventure. After three years of teaching at a Catholic high school, I longed to do some further study and remembered my conversations with Msgr. Lane. I was then made aware of this international center of Franciscan research and learning called The Franciscan Institute at St. Bonaventure University. Sr. Margaret Carney, OSF, who was director at that time, welcomed me in with open arms.

The Commission on the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition had just been established, and there was anenergy in the air about the distinctive spiritual vision of the Franciscan tradition. This energy poured out of Sr. Margaret and was contagious. Whether it was getting lost in the stacks of books in the Institute library, sitting at the feet of dedicated professors, sharing liturgical life with the friars and sisters, or having conversations with Franciscans from around the world, I found myself soaking up every opportunity to learn about the Franciscan form of life. This was an exhilarating, absorbing, and immensely formative time, and when I graduated, I felt that I had indeed found my spiritual home.

Franciscan Values of Canticle Farm and Mt. Irenaeus
A couple of Franciscan ministries with which I worked over the course of my early days at the Institute played a part in my formation into a Franciscan-hearted person. The first was a ministry founded by the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany called Canticle Farm, a community-supported agricultural program that grew and distributed naturally-grown vegetables. This farm was the sisters’ bold attempt to put their Franciscan spirituality into practice in a fresh way. My wife and I spent three years working with Canticle Farm in a variety of capacities, from farm assistant to marketing and education. We learned a load of life-long practical skills about growing food and composting, but just as importantly, we learned about these Franciscan values: the cultivation of local communities, the fraternal spirituality of Creation, and the value of manual labor. Also, early in my studies at the Institute, I began friendships with Dan Riley, OFM, and Joseph Kotula, OFM, and the community of friars, students, and local people who call Mt. Irenaeus their home.

This special place, set apart in the enchanted mountains of Western New York, tendered another glimpse of Franciscan life lived in a fresh manner. For a couple years, I regularly joined the friars in ministry by assisting with retreats and evenings of reflection, and in time, my wife and I came to understand the Mountain to be our spiritual and parish home. Mt. Irenaeus’ vision of Franciscan life and ministry also became my own — creating all things new in Christ through contemplation, intentional fraternal living, and relational ministry.


The author, right, with friars Joe Kotula and Jud Weiksnar, right.

Spirituality of Building With Living Stones
The first job I had after completing my degree from the Institute was working as the North American Coordinator of the Franciscan adult education resource called Build With Living Stones. Though BWLS had its limitations as a resource, it was one of the only small-group-based tools on the market that provided an introduction to Franciscan spirituality. One of my main tasks during my short tenure was to contextualize the Franciscan charism for groups all over the world. Through presentations, trainings, and writing a facilitator’s guide, I learned how to translate Franciscan spirituality into the idiom of the academy, parish, and boards of hospitals and universities. I found great joy in turning the lives of people long dead into something that speaks compellingly to contemporary world.

Warming House’s Community
My next calling in the Franciscan family was to provide leadership to the Warming House, a soup kitchen in Olean, N.Y., a ministry of St. Bonaventure University. More than a place for handing out free meals, the Warming House was a community. Day in and day out, disparate people gathered around tables and broke bread with each other, coming together through their common need for connection, for dignity, for laughter, and ultimately for a sense of being known and loved. This kind of community, I learned, emerges when we relate to one another out of our mutual poverty, that is, our vulnerability and non-competitive sharing of God’s gifts.

In his final letter about Franciscan life, Francis renarrated his foremost experience of being led among the lepers and feeling the Lord transform his sensibilities — his vision of the good life. At the heart of my vision for the Warming House was the invitation to all people to discover this fundamental Franciscan intuition of where and how God dwells among us in poverty and joy.

St. Bonaventure University’s Warmth
Underlying each of these above opportunities is the indispensable presence of St. Bonaventure University. I am not alone in saying that my life was altered at this institution of higher education and Franciscan formation. First as a graduate student, then as part of the campus ministry team and an adjunct professor, SBU provided countless opportunities to embody the Franciscan way of life. I developed so many relationships with students on the “good journey” and even remain their friends and mentors as their journeys unfold. Western New York winters can be long, cold, and dreary, but there’s a Franciscan warmth in the Bona family. In the face of many challenges in higher education, I’m grateful that the friars continue to support the vocation of discovery, service, and community in Western New York. I needed a place like this in my life, and I’m confident that many more will need the Bona Family as much as I did.


Trevor, right, with parishioners and friars Stephen Kluge and Steven Patti at the Raleigh, N.C., church campus.

Stimulating Setting of Raleigh Parish
In early 2010, my family and I made a move south to be closer to extended family and to take a position at a Franciscan parish in Raleigh, N.C. Under the pastoral leadership of Mark Reamer, OFM, and now Steve Patti, OFM, this community strives to be faithful to the core values of the Franciscan tradition while ministering in a suburban context and among a large community of nearly 5,000 households. This is not the typical Franciscan ministry context; yet, it’s precisely this counterintuitive setting that I have found so stimulating. Sure, there’s the temptation to kowtow to the culture of consumerism, but there’s also a deep desire among the faithful for meaning and justice. I listen to people’s stories, accompany them on journeys of faith, connect them with ministries and resources, and invite them to a deeper encounter of Jesus in their neighbor and their enemy.

While St. Francis’ size can be intimidating and create complexities for pastoral leadership, I’ve learned how to be a pastoral leader with a Franciscan heart. The translation of the Franciscan tradition is definitely more subtle in this parish than at a soup-kitchen; nevertheless, through the ministries under my umbrella of responsibilities, this parish is forming Franciscan-hearted partners-in-ministry. It’s always a gift and blessing to be part of people’s lives in this way.

As you can see, I’ve learned much from my time and work with Franciscans. My vision of the good life, of ministry, of the Church, and of God cannot find coherence without the formative presence of the institutions of Holy Name Province. I am who I am because of you. Sometimes ministry can be a thankless job. Hopefully this reflection shows what your sacrifices and commitments mean, what they are doing in our world, what might happen if you double-downed on what really matters in the tradition. Today, I extend a warm Franciscan embrace and say “Thank you!”

— Trevor Thompson works at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh, N.C., coordinating social justice outreach, education, and advocacy and leading the pastoral ministries team in reaching out to parishioners and others in a Franciscan spirit. He and his wife Elizabeth have four children and live in rural Chatham County. Trevor is finishing a thesis for a doctorate in ministry from Duke Divinity School.

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