Franciscan Influences: Finding Inspiration Through Friars

Leo Vaccaro Features

This is the 10th in a series of essays by the Province’s partners-in-ministry. The most recent, written by Mychal’s Message co-founder Kelly Lynch, appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of HNP Today.

Below, a 2009-2010 Franciscan Volunteer Minister reflects on what is important to young adults, sharing experiences from his time at St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia. The writer, a native of Abington, Pa., spoke at the Province’s Chapter in January.

Over a year ago, I was asked by Holy Name Province to prepare a speech outlining what I thought Franciscan friars could do for my generation of young men and women. I was finishing a year of service with the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry, and I eventually spent the better part of the next year searching for a response. My answer was that friars (and all Franciscans) should continue to be inspiring. I came to this conclusion after reading in the Pensées Blaise Pascal’s “three sources of belief”: reason, custom, and inspiration. I argued that the Church has done an excellent job in my lifetime of providing the first two: My friends and I are well educated (reason) and we have relatively easy access to Catholic rituals (custom). Inspiration, however, is a need in our world of terror, cynicism, and fear.

Part of the problem is that when we are inspired we are often influenced by the wrong ideas and many Americans of my generation are discouraged by a church that they see as being connected to abuse scandals and are dissuaded by what they see as its politics. Additionally, many of the Catholic women my age are demotivated by what they think is the Church’s attitude toward their gender. In turn, the Church has responded to these issues through reason and custom, but we still need inspiration. I have seen the impact on people when they look at the inspiration that the Church offers — when people look past the institution and see the communities that that our faith creates.

Never deny the simple power of a joke: Three priests — a Jesuit, an Augustinian, and a Franciscan – happen upon a time machine and travel back to the time of Christ. There, they find the Holy Family outside Their home, and a 14-year-old Jesus. The Augustinian goes to Mary and says, “Mary, let us go celebrate Mass and pray together.” The Franciscan goes to Jesus and says, “Jesus, let us go and play together.” The Jesuit goes straight to Joseph’s side, puts his arm around him, and says, “So where are you thinking of sending Jesus to college?”

Expressing Joy
For me, this joke reflects some surprising truths, the most relevant one perhaps being that Franciscans have a comparative advantage when it comes to playing (or, more precisely, in expressing joy within the love of God and humanity). We could all use the type of playful inspiration that Francis and Claire have given to young Catholics for 800 years. Certainly, I have met many serious and intelligent Franciscans in Holy Name Province: but I also jumped into Philadelphia’s Logan fountain with one, threw snowballs with others, and laughed with all of them. Our HNP friars represent a number of inspiring qualities — they embrace meaning while remaining lighthearted, they stand for truth while staying joyful, and they laugh with us.

It is disappointing to me that many people either do not see this as inspiring or do not get the chance to experience it like I have. One friar with whom I worked — Fr. Michael Duffy, OFM — often delivers a homily about greatness to incoming Franciscan Volunteers (or, FVMs, as they are often called). He described having seen in person his favorite model — Sophia Loren — who is beautiful, a fantastic actress, and is generally described as being a “great” person. Meanwhile, Michael had returned home to find an elderly parishioner volunteering to wipe each pew in the church with a rag, saying that she hoped women would not get dust on their dresses during Mass. In his homily, Michael sympathetically contrasted the two women, saying that he thought that they both were “great,” but that the elderly parishioner was acting even “greater.”

My generation may not look to Sophia Loren, but we do look to our own media giants. Among our American generation of young and educated, recently deceased Steve Jobs is revered and respected. To many of us, he is aninspirational figure of the first order — someone who had given us a number of products and experiences. In return, we gave him an awful lot of money. He was also the personification of a number of post-modern virtues: he always seemed anti-conservative, anti-dogmatic, and — most ironic of all — anti-corporate.

Seeking Humility and Compassion
I am not against Jobs inasmuch as I am against this projection of his character that has been given to us. I am claiming that there were at least two Steve Jobs: the Jobs who was a human father and husband; and the non-human Jobs who was a corporate mascot. I hope that the human Jobs was kind and loving, but the other “Jobs” that the public has loved is as unworthy of praise as he it is inhuman. That “Jobs” was not really an innovator of progress as much as he was a creator of division; a capitalist who did not believe in charity; a religious man who was hypocritical even in his own views. These are all human characteristics, and as a Christian I too must love Jobs (As I write this, I am reading about the Westboro Christian Church’s decision to protest Job’s funeral — by announcing it through Margie Phelps’ iPhone — and obviously this doesn’t strike me as being very Christian), however, it is still alarming how people have embraced the projection and rejected the man.

We have to come to terms with ourselves and with our own times. Although I could be on websites like reddit and the Huffington Post offering the usual obsequies to a generation’s fallen hero, I would rather discuss some of the people who are truly inspiring in my opinion.

When I worked there, the St. Francis Inn community constantly constantly inspired me. People loved each other, laughed with each other, and enjoyed working with God in a way I had never experienced before. At Christmas time in particular, when the whole city felt festive, the Inn was particularly joyful. After the whole community came together to celebrate the incarnation of God at Christmas Eve Mass, we also celebrated by serving with the poor.

That Christmas day, I was lucky enough to be cooking roast beef for 300 guests, with none other than Br. Fred Dilger, OFM. While working, Br. Fred was laughing about how only a few years before the friary had burned down during the Christmas meal — “It made room for me,” he joked. That was a friar’s humor, humility, joy, and compassion all in one moment.

I’ve compiled a collection of Franciscan and Franciscan-hearted people who inspire me. Among them are Holy Name friars Fr. William DeBiase, OFM, and Br. John Gill, OFM. They are simply impressions and, at that, they are unfortunately trite descriptions of beautiful people. In keeping with the themes of joy, inspiration and playfulness, I intentionally tried to express both their “serious” and “humorous” sides.

— Leo Vaccaro, a 2009 graduate of Gettysburg College, teaches history and economic at St. Joseph’s Prep School in Philadelphia. He is pictured above with Fr. Michael Duffy.