Franciscan Influences: Trusting in God’s Greater Plan

Tobias Harkleroad, OFS 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 a parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Triangle, Va., who has participated in many mission trips to Peru. Below, someone with a long involvement with the Franciscans and with Catholic education describes his life, his work and what led him to become professed as a Secular Franciscan. The author is principal of Saint Francis International School in Silver Spring, Maryland, located on the St. Camillus Church property,

For the last 10 years, I have had the honor of serving as the founding principal of Saint Francis International School, which was a dream that Mike Johnson, OFM, enabled me to have as he and I grew together as a first-time pastor and first-time principal and struggled with the challenges of trying to provide high-quality Catholic education for the poor and marginalized. It is in the midst of this challenging ministry that I decided to consider a vocation as a Secular Franciscan.

The author with Mike Johnson, former pastor of St. Camillus Parish. (Photo courtesy of the author)

When I was in Catholic elementary school, I believed that I understood my vocation. Actually, my elementary school self had everything figured out  — fully expecting to  one day be a diocesan priest and a Catholic high school principal. I admired the pastor of my parish as well as the local Catholic high school priest-principal who was in-residence at our parish and I especially admired the IHM Sisters who ran our parochial school. I was blessed because I had sisters and priests and family who didn’t think that it was a crazy idea for a kid to feel called to something greater. But, despite this sense of vocation and desire to serve, I am not sure I really understood the breadth of what ministry and vocation could mean.

Strengthening Formation with Capuchins and OFMs
In 1992, my parents drove me from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin not exactly knowing what we were getting into. They believed that I had a heart and a dream to serve God, and with great faith, they nurtured that dream. The Capuchins offered an opportunity for young men to pursue those dreams on a hill in a rural village, one of the few places like that left in our country.

Entering Saint Lawrence Seminary in Mt. Calvary, Wisconsin, all those years ago shaped my life in ways I could not have predicted or understood. Those four years of formation by the Capuchin friars and their partners in ministry bore witness to ways of living Christian faith that continue to impact me every day.

In those years on “The Hill of Happiness,” I encountered Christ through the lens of St. Francis of Assisi. So many friars and laymen and women made the Franciscan vision real. I experienced and understood universal brotherhood, living in simplicity, and felt the call to embrace all as children of the Almighty deserving of love and care. It was authentic and real in a way that challenged and transformed me to live my life and my calling more broadly than I expected.

The Capuchins of St. Joseph Province continue the ministry of Saint Lawrence Seminary High School today, not because it produces the majority of their friars as it once did nor because it was their first ministry in this country — but because they believe that there is untold value in giving young men the opportunity to experience the Franciscan vision in an intensive way. They continue to invest time, talent, and treasure in a minor seminary in the 21st century because they cling to a Franciscan understanding of ministry that goes beyond the very black and white visions that I had as an elementary school student — and they trust that God has a greater plan for his creation, even when we can’t always see it.

As an adult, I have been blessed to encounter the Franciscan friars of Holy Name Province who have cared for me as pastors and have embraced and enabled me to minister and be a servant-leader in many ways as a true partner-in-ministry and as a friend and brother.

Ten years ago, a friar and friend, my pastor at St. Camillus Church, gave me permission to dream a response to the words that Francis of Assisi heard 800 years ago: “Rebuild my church.” Having the privilege to lead Saint Francis International School has allowed me to reflect the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who taught me as a boy, and to magnify the very special vision of Franciscan formation that the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph has used to nurture thousands of Sons of Calvary since 1860.

Today, I rejoice because my children, Margaret and Joseph, have been raised within Franciscan communities. I am glad that I have been part of giving them and many children what the Church, and especially the Franciscan family, has given me in terms of care, education, stability and wisdom.

Professing to Live a Life More Fully
After many years of association with the Franciscan way of life, I began the process three years ago to commit myself to living the Gospel of Jesus Christ more fully in the third way encouraged by St. Francis. While I have great admiration for the priests and religious who have been part of my life, I have found myself not on their path. I am grateful for Francis accepting the need for several different rules of life to meet the needs of many.

Toby (right) and Chris Posch (left) honor the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in October for founding St. Camillus School in 1954. (Photo courtesy of the author)

I have learned from so many Franciscans that it is okay to be broken, it is okay to revise dreams, it is okay to travel a twisting road, provided you remain open to God’s love wherever it may be.

As it stands, I am not a diocesan priest or a friar, and I am not the principal of a Catholic high school as a young me imagined. Over my adult life I have discerned a vocation as friar, I have been married,  and I have also been divorced.  I have gone through periods of personal and familial stress and crises that have turned my world upside down.  I have also experienced moments of pure joy as I have clearly seen God’s goodness and grace in my life and the lives of the people around me.

On Sept. 21, I made a solemn profession to live a life more fully committed to continual conversion to the Gospel according to the rule of the Secular Franciscan Order. My profession took place in the chapel of a Capuchin formation house with an OFM friar serving as the celebrant of the Mass. I could not have seen this path, and yet it seems as though Divine Providence had mapped it out.

I continue my struggle each and every day to try to make Catholic education possible for the poor and marginalized, while also doing my best to be a good father to my children despite us living in a difficult and broken world. My profession as a Franciscan gives me strength and perspective that allows me to have a strong sense of peace and hope.

Somehow, my life is not what I imagined it to be as a naïve but hope-filled boy — and, yet, thanks to the Franciscan vision and the model of life given to us by Francis — which I received from so many friars, Secular Franciscans, and others — I can honestly say that my dreams have come true and I am proud of the man I have become. For me, there are two short quotes that best capture the Franciscan vision after all of these years of living in and around it: “Be who you are and be that well” — which is a quote attributed to St. Francis de Sales, who was a tertiary, a cord bearer, and was affiliated to the Capuchins. Blessed be God in all his designs,  came from Blessed Solanus Casey in difficult times during the 20th century.

For me, my profession as a Secular Franciscan, and my many experiences with the friars and others, are wrapped up in this call to radical trust in the Gospel and the understanding that if I live my life as a flawed human in a broken world, and if I trust in God and if I am grateful that God understands and loves me and this world better than I can ever understand it, then the right things will happen and the Kingdom of God will reign as Jesus promised.

— Tobias Harkleroad, OFS, has been a parishioner of St. Camillus since 2004 where he has helped establish ministries and been a member of the parish council before becoming the principal of St. Camillus School in 2008. He graduated from the Capuchins’ St. Lawrence Seminary High School in 1996 and earned a M.Ed. in Catholic school leadership in 2008. In addition to his ministry at St. Camillus and SFIS, Toby has served as an advisor for the Maryland Catholic Conference for over a decade. Toby lives in Bowie, Maryland, with his children, Margaret and Joseph, who have both received all of their sacraments at St. Camillus and have had Toby as their principal since preschool.

Editor’s note: In summer 2017, Tobias Harkleroad wrote about his experience in the Holy Land.