A full selection of liturgies, presentations, musical performances, information booths, and small-group breakout sessions was among the highlights at two national Catholic conferences held virtually last month. Although the implementation of both events was anything but traditional, these types of virtual experiences have quickly become the norm for the Holy Name Province and other US-6 OFM vocation offices – all of which collaboratively participated at the conferences sponsored by Focus SEEK21 (from Feb. 4 to 7) and the Religious Education Congress (Feb. 18 to 21). These virtual platforms have provided an effective space for HNP and other province vocation directors to overcome the challenges of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions while promoting the Franciscan charism to men discerning religious life.
“In a world riddled by a pandemic, I was moved and inspired by the online gathering of so many people – particularly young people – all seeking community, hope, and faith,” said Jorge Martins, administrator of HNP’s vocation office. “By all accounts, they were a success for vocations and the universal Church.”
Although friars across the country acknowledge that nothing replaces the value of meeting in person with discerners, they agree that virtual conferences provide effective ways for vocation offices to collaborate and communicate.
“It’s always more fruitful to meet with men in discernment in person,” said Basil Valente, OFM, who has served as HNP director of vocations since 2014. “But interacting virtually was a genuine blessing, especially as we look for new ways to gather in community in the name of Jesus Christ and St. Francis to bring the good news of the Franciscan way of life to the many.
“It provided an inspired opportunity not only to minister with my brother vocation directors from other provinces, but also to move forward in collaboration, goodness, outreach, and ministry to people who are in discernment. The keynote talks, music, dancing, liturgy, heartfelt sharing, and specialized workshops – all presented in three languages (English, Spanish and Vietnamese) – were impressive and exalting.”
Both conferences implemented innovative interactive platforms that enabled religious communities and organizations to promote their mission through virtual information booths. Martins designed the virtual booth for SEEK21 and RE Congress for the US-6.
“Our booth received encouraging messages and visits at both conferences. Discerners were grateful for our Franciscan presence and expressed interest in religious vocation with the US-6 friars. As a young adult myself, I am always pleasantly surprised by the enormous presence of young people at these conferences. Even in the midst of a pandemic, the Church continues to grow and bear fruit. The significant attendance of young people at these conferences affirms this truth,” said Martins, a 2017 graduate of Montclair State University.
Virtual Information Booths
The SEEK21 Conference, whose theme was “proclaiming the beautiful promises of God,” was sponsored by FOCUS – the acronym for Fellowship of Catholic University Students. It was the first time that the HNP vocation office participated in a SEEK conference, which this year was a virtual system of online booths that the Franciscan provinces and other religious communities utilized as a vehicle to advance their mission, vocations, ministerial life, service, and social justice work.
The information booth presented by the US-6 provinces – the group of OFM Franciscan communities in the midst of an initiative that aims to establish an amalgamated province in 2023 – was operated by Basil, Martins, student friar Steven Kuehn, OFM, and HNP regional vocation directors Paul Santoro, OFM, and James Sabak, OFM. The booth had an instant-message chat component to directly engage with visitors, with friars using the opportunity to describe Franciscan life, answer questions, share faith experiences, and provide encouragement.
Martins uploaded PDFs of vocation booklets, images showcasing friars from the US-6 provinces, several videos – two of which HNP’s vocation office produced specifically for these events – and other related materials. One of the videos (above) about the US-6 provinces provided an overview of Franciscan life and ministry.
Sebastian Sandoval, OFM, vocation director for the West Coast-based St. Barbara Province, observed: “Although the conferences had to be held virtually, they still provided a real opportunity to make connections, deepen our faith, and enliven our spirit. They also provided US-6 vocation directors with a wonderful opportunity to collaborate on a project.
“I look forward to next year when we can do this in person,” added Sebastian, who lives in Los Angeles, where the Religious Education Congress typically hosts its annual event.
The Religious Education Congress created a 3-D component to showcase the 96 booths at the conference, titled “Proclaim the Promise.” The Franciscan booth contained a video produced by the US-6 vocation office, links to resources and webpages of U.S. Franciscan vocations, other promotional content, and an instant-message chat system to engage directly with visitors. Each of the US-6 vocation directors assisted in operating the booth at the virtual conference of the RE Congress.
A silver lining in not being able to gather in person has been the comfortable and cost-efficient alternative provided by the virtual conferences because it eliminates the cost of travel and allows participants – friars and discerners, alike – to attend from the comfort of their homes and offices.
Sharing Franciscan Joy
Jim Sabak, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, said the virtual conferences were appropriate forums in light of the current state of affairs. “They not only embraced the common medium for engaging people during the pandemic, but they also utilized a social format familiar and useful to an age group that is one of the audiences for our vocation work. If reading the signs of the times is integral to the renewal of the Second Vatican Council, then the work of evangelization which serves as the foundation for vocations must be open to unconventional forms for engagement and dialogue with others,” said Jim. “Virtual conferences are especially consistent with our Franciscan vocation work, as they exemplify the use of the marketplace and public square, which were fundamental to the progress of the early Franciscan movement.”
Although initially hesitant about the value of virtual conferences, Erasmo Romero, OFM, vocation director of the Southwest-based Our Lady of Guadalupe Province, said they turned out well.
“I was a bit apprehensive about the virtual conferences because of their limitations. But it was a great experience and opportunity to chat with young people and connect with those interested in a vocation. But I still look forward to the time we can once again be physically present to inquirers, shake hands, and interact outside of a computer screen,” said Erasmos, who made his first profession in 2006 and now lives in New Mexico.
Steve, who professed his first vows as a Franciscan friar in 2017 and is stationed this year in Western New York completing an internship at St. Bonaventure University, shared his impressions. “I had the opportunity to speak with a young man about his interest in the friars. It was a joy to be able to share with him a bit about our Franciscan way of life. Although I wish the event could have been in person, I am amazed that with the help of modern technology, we could join together and rejoice in our faith and discuss Franciscan discernment opportunities with potential candidates.”
Speakers at the SEEK21 conference included Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, Fr. Mike Schmitz, director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota, and Immaculée Ilibagiza, the best-selling author and motivational speaker who survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide as a college student by huddling with seven other women in the bathroom of a local pastor’s house for 91 days. Speakers at the Religious Education Congress conference included Bishop Fernand Cheri, OFM, of New Orleans, Louisiana, and a member of Sacred Heart Province, and Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, California.
The participation by the US-6 provinces in last month’s virtual conferences is a continuation of the online work they have been conducting since spring 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic suspended or restricted most in-person work and ministry. Holy Name Province vocation directors, as well as vocation personnel from the other Franciscan provinces, have been meeting by phone and video conference with men considering a Franciscan vocation.
Last summer, the US-6 vocation offices produced and distributed vibrant posters to communicate the joyful life of Franciscans and attract potential discerners. Information about joining the Franciscans can be found on the BeAFranciscan website and Facebook page.
— Jocelyn Thomas is the director of communications for Holy Name Province.
- “L.A.’s virtual congress offers participants ‘hope, vision’ for the future” – Feb. 24, 2021, Catholic News Service
- “Virtual Advent Vocation Retreats Attract 30 Discerners” – Dec. 16, 2020, HNP Today
- “Discerning a Religious Vocation in Age of COVID-19” — April 8, 2020, HNP Today
- “ESC Vocation Directors Attend Mega-Conference in Illinois” — Sept. 25, 2013, HNP Today