Franciscan Influences: Formative Experiences and Lifelong Impact

Marc DelMonico Features

This is the 18th in a series of essays by the Province’s partners-in-ministry. The last installment, by a staff member of St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish in Hartford, appeared in the Aug. 15 issue of HNP Today. Below, a parishioner of St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Md., describes why he believes what St. Francis “said and did matters for the way we interact with every person we encounter,” and why he appreciates the Franciscan tradition.  

My first experience of the Franciscans was with the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany when I was in Catholic grade school in Utica, N.Y. Both in the school and in the associated parish where I grew up, and where I first became involved in what became a life-long love of theology and engagement in ministry, the Franciscan influence of two Franciscan sisters — one a principal, the other the parish organist and pastoral minster for the sick — were formative in different ways. Both of these women impressed upon me, long before I could express it, the great diversity that marks Franciscanism as a whole. Similarly, throughout grade school, and in high school, I was touched by those who, while not formally Franciscan or even associated with Franciscan communities, radiated what I would later discover to be Franciscan core values of hospitality, an inclusive respect and love for all persons, and an approach to life and relationships with others that hinged on a life of thoughtful attentiveness, integrity, and a deeply spiritual center.

At St. Bonaventure University, I quickly became more familiar with the friars of Holy Name Province and more of the Allegany Franciscans in their work on campus as teachers, administrators, and campus ministers. I was particularly transformed by my work as a peer minister in association with the friars and extended Franciscan community at Mt. Irenaeus. However, beyond the experience of the brothers, priests, and sisters in the community, I continued to be impressed by many professors, administrators, and students — some of whom were not even Catholic or Christian — who presented to me both the appeal and depth of the Franciscan tradition and its values. After college, I was fortunate to experience the diverse Franciscan community of St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia, another HNP-sponsored ministry, which serves the needs of the hungry on a daily basis, with hearts ever large enough to embrace the full lives, needs, joys, and pains of all who come in need of food.

Deepening Awareness
By learning more about Francis of Assisi (and later, in different but no less important ways, Clare) I had the opportunity to discover the real person behind the florid stories of the “birdbath saint” and to understand the significance of Gospel living for this man who, like many today in our super-saturated society of consumption and efficiency, found himself misunderstood and maltreated by others. A deepening awareness of the relevance of what Francis said and did, along with the insights of ministers and scholars who have reflected on him, served to ground my own awareness of a call to ministry, to teaching, and to the work of justice in our world.

These diverse experiences, begun in childhood, solidified at St. Bonaventure, experienced at St. Francis Inn, and later integrated in graduate studies in theology and ministry at Washington Theological Union, have all impressed upon me a simple, yet profound, truth: what Francis said and did mattered.

What Francis said and did mattered for the way we interact with every person we encounter; indeed, for every creature we encounter. It mattered for those suffering from extreme poverty and the structured systems and institutions which perpetuate it. It mattered for ecology and the role humans have played in the tearing down of the earth and its resources, and in efforts to restore proper balance to our relationship with the planet. It mattered for politics, not in the superficiality of election campaigns, but in the decisions about how our political and social choices affect those who do not wield monetary power, but who have a voice and a wisdom for the common good of society which must be heard and heeded.

Traditions of Ministry
Of course, what Francis said and did mattered for my chosen field of study and work – theology and ministry – too. In the Church of today, there are many good and noble traditions upon which people have approached reflection on God and God’s meaning for our lives and our world, and similar traditions upon which ministerial approaches have flourished. At times, both in centuries past, and more recently, some traditions of theology and ministry have garnered almost all the attention in circles of leadership in the Church and driven many of the conversations, ideas, and practices about how we view Christ, the liturgy and the sacraments, the relationship of the Church to the world, and so on.

The Franciscan tradition, especially more recently, in the renewal begun in conjunction with the Second Vatican Council, has modeled a different way of thinking and acting in theology and ministry. These recent approaches have emphasized, for example, the humanity of Christ and the transformative power of symbol to disclose “the heart of things,” or, put another way, “what is really going on.” Franciscan ministry has emphasized the collaboration of laity, clergy and religious, as well as the dialogue and mutual building up which can result from a Church-world relationship that seeks to build on common ground, rather than seeking to put one or the other on “higher” ground. Franciscans and those inspired by the Franciscan tradition are at the forefront of contemporary efforts in the dialogue and common work among all the Christian churches, as well as in the challenging arena of interfaith relations and activities.

The Franciscan tradition, like the greater Church of which we are all part, has not always lived this vision completely, and, at times, actions of historical Franciscan figures have obscured it. Yet there continue to be many in official Franciscan communities, including Secular Franciscans, and those beyond institutional boundaries of religious communities and churches who have been inspired by Francis and Clare, and who present the joyful, hopeful, and challenging Franciscan call to the world. On my better days, I hope and pray that I am one of them.

Marc DelMonico is a doctoral student in theology at The Catholic University of America, working on a dissertation. A parishioner at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Md., Marc holds a B.A. degree in theology and philosophy from St. Bonaventure University as well as M.Div. and M.A. degrees in theology from Washington Theological Union.