Franciscan Influences: Jumping in and Trusting the Spirit

Patrick Carolan Features

This essay is part of a series about aspects of the Franciscan message that partners-in-ministry find compelling. The previous essay was written by the principal of St. Francis International School in Silver Spring, Maryland, on the campus of St. Camillus Parish. Here, the departing executive director of the Franciscan Action Network in Washington, D.C., describes what he learned over the past nine years and offers his definition of a Franciscan.

In September 2010, I submitted my resume for the position of executive director of the Franciscan Action Network. Now, after having served in the role for nine years, I find myself wondering what made me apply for that position.  At the time, I was living in Connecticut and three of my four children were still at home. Also, my wife Stella had a very good job that she loved  — and my connection to the Franciscans was minimal. I never thought there was any chance the Franciscans would hire me. But a Sister of Mercy friend of mine told me I should apply because it was a perfect job for me and I applied —  mostly on a whim.

Patrick Carolan, with Joe Nangle behind him in habit. (Photo courtesy of Janine Walsh)

I have had an interesting journey through life, and I realize that the one constant is how I have been guided by the Holy Spirit. When I interviewed for the FAN position, I had been doing social justice work for my parish and development for a Catholic school system in Connecticut. The interview was held at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C., by Sr. Margaret Mary Kimmins, OFS, and Joe Nangle, OFM. Having worked in corporate America, I was used to both conducting interviews and being interviewed.

Building Relationships
This was perhaps the most unique interview in which I had ever participated. Actually, it was more of an informal relationship-building discussion than a formal interview. Sr. Margaret Mary started by offering me an apple and proceeded to tell me a joke. It was about two priests, a Jesuit and a Franciscan, who were fishing. They saw a man drowning in the middle of the river. The Jesuit stopped, calculated the water current and the wind factor and thought about how much energy he would need to swim out and then pull the man back. The Franciscan jumped into the water and realized he had absolutely no idea how to swim. That pretty much sums up how FAN has operated successfully for the past nine years. We have jumped into the water first. I often told my staff to just trust the Holy Spirit. That has been our mantra since day one.

The interview went well enough, though I left thinking there was no way I would be hired. Fr. Joe and I discovered that we had much in common — a mutual friend,  a great passion for social justice and we were both die-hard Boston Red Sox fans. But I felt they were looking for someone more connected to the Franciscans. Sr. Margaret Mary had asked me if I had any connection to the Franciscans. I responded that in the town where I grew up, there was a Franciscan high school. I didn’t attend it but some of my good friends did. As I took the train home, I thought about my mother.

Patrick Carolan, right, with FAN staff members and Fr. Larry Dunham of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C.  (Photo courtesy of Janine Walsh)

My parents came to America from Ireland in 1950. They had no money, no real job skills and as my mom would tell, they got off the boat with one baby in her arms another in her belly and not two nickels to rub together. Mom just had incredible faith, a dream, and a Franciscan heart. I remembered her telling me about her youngest brother. My mom was the oldest and Richard was the youngest. She ended up raising him. He entered the Franciscan Order in Belfast. A few months before he was taking his final vows, he got sick and died. Mom told me that she always loved the Franciscans so she raised him to be a Franciscan. Remembering all this on the train, I realized that she had done the same with me. Even though she had little formal education and no theological training, she understood that to truly be a person of faith was to stand with justice. It occurred to me then that I had a much deeper connection to the Franciscans than I initially realized.

The original idea behind FAN was to create a united Franciscan presence in Washington, D.C., to work on social justice issues. A small group of Franciscans  — including Fr. Joe and Russ Testa, Holy Name Province’s director of justice, peace and integrity of creation, Sr. Margaret Mary from the Allegany Sisters, Tom Bello from the Secular Franciscans, and Br. Tino Arias from the Capuchins — began talking.

In 2007, they organized a gathering in Baltimore where more than 160 Franciscan leaders and JPIC ministers representing all branches of the Franciscan family — including the Anglican, the Lutheran, and the Ecumenical Franciscans — spent the weekend in prayer and discussion. Out of that gathering, FAN was conceived  — and a year later, in 2008, FAN was officially launched. The mission seemed pretty simple and straightforward: “Inspired by the Gospel of Jesus, and the example of Saints Francis and Clare, the Franciscan Action Network is a collective Franciscan voice seeking to transform United States public policy related to peacemaking, care for creation, poverty, and human rights.”

When I was hired as the executive director in 2010, our country looked a little different. The affordable health care act had recently passed, there were discussions on a bipartisan immigration bill, and people were starting to finally take seriously the destruction of our climate. Compare that to today. Now, nine years later, we live in a different world. We live in a nation where hatred and fear have taken over love and compassion. Where once we did as Jesus told us — welcomed the stranger, fed the hungry, cared for the marginalized and protected God’s awesome creation — it seems now racism, environmental destruction, and divisiveness are the norms.

Discouraging Attitude of Indifference
St. Bonaventure described the created universe as the fountain fullness of God’s expressed being. As God is expressed in creation, creation, in turn, expresses the creator. Today, children are dying at the border and starving around the globe. People are being shot in the streets and our blessed Earth is being destroyed due to our inaction on climate. What kind of creator are we expressing today? I was once asked to give a one-sentence answer to describe a Franciscan. I replied that a Franciscan is someone who is in right relationship with all of creation and that, by doing so, they are in right relationship with God.

Patrick Carolan and Jacek Orzechowski.  (Photo courtesy of Janine Walsh)

Nine years ago, I was both blessed and challenged by being welcomed into the Franciscan family. I was blessed with the opportunity to work with, pray with, and laugh with Franciscans from all parts of the family and all across the globe. In the beginning, I was guided and mentored by folks like Sr. Marie Lucey, OSF, who made sure that my writings were done in a Franciscan voice, and Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, who was not afraid to stand with our undocumented brothers and sisters. I remember six years ago when FAN worked with Fast for Families, we made a commitment that there would be a Franciscan in the tent fasting every day for immigration reform. Not only did we have Franciscans join us in the tent, but all across the U.S. sisters and friars, Seculars, Anglican, Lutheran, and Ecumenical Franciscans participated. I fasted 13 days and was so moved to know that large numbers of my Franciscan family were there with me every day.

St. Francis taught us that living with an attitude of indifference is morally, socially and spiritually destructive. During my time at FAN, I learned that being part of the Franciscan family is not about being comfortable in our piety. Rather, it is about standing uncomfortably with the poor and marginalized and challenging those in power, whether it be our political or religious leaders, to do as St. Francis did and not worship at the foot of the cross but take up the cross.

Nine years ago, I was hired as an outsider to help resurrect an organization that seemed as if was about to go under. I leave as a welcome member of the Franciscan family, of which I will always be a part. For that, I will always be grateful. Peace and all good.

Patrick Carolan, who was honored by the Franciscan Action Network in November, finished his role at FAN on Jan. 3 and is joining Vote Common Good as director of Catholic Outreach. Carolan is a co-founder of the Global Catholic Climate Movement and Faithful Democracy.

Editor’s note: Information about the Franciscan Action Network can be found on its website and on the Franciscan Action Network Facebook page.