NEW YORK — Eight friars represented Holy Name Province at the International Chapter of Mats last month, where nearly 1800 worldwide friars — five percent of the brothers of the First Order and Third Order Regular (TOR) Franciscans — gathered in Assisi, Italy, to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Order’s founding.
Officially named the Conference of the Ministers General of the First Order and the TOR, the April 15 to 18 Chapter was highlighted by a penitential walk from the Portiuncula at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels to the tomb of St. Francis, where friars were given a copy of the Rule.
The Chapter closed with a friar audience with Pope Benedict XVI, who told the friars, “Be witnesses to the beauty of God, which Francis was able to sing, contemplating the wonders of creation. …”
The Province’s Russell Becker, OFM, Brian Belanger, OFM, Thomas Conway, OFM, Francis Di Spigno, OFM, Michael Harlan, OFM, Gary Maciag, OFM, Mark Reamer, OFM, and Brian Smail, OFM, attended, along with members of all the Order’s three branches of Franciscans.
“The major thought that lingers is the much-quoted line of Maurice Brick, ‘It’s nice to see so many friars of different faiths gathered together,’” said Gary, of St. Anthony Shrine in Boston. “It was a tremendous experience to be a part of this historic event in the life of the Franciscan Order.”
Brian agreed, “It was an amazing experience to be part of a gathering of so many friars from all corners of the globe. Seeing friars from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North and South America, etc., was a witness not only to the universality of the Church but to the power of the Franciscan movement. Eight hundred years after the approval of the Rule, the voice of Francis continues to be alive and vibrant to a contemporary world. It was a powerful affirmation of my Franciscan vocation.”
“Even though we all came from different countries and cultures, you could feel a sense of unity among the friars as we gathered to listen to talks and testimonials and to join together for prayer and Eucharist,” said Michael.
Highlights of the Gathering
The programs, services and talks offered during the Chapter were broken into four themes: Arrival & Reception, The Testimony, Fasting & Penance, and Thanksgiving. Four languages were used — English, Italian, Polish and Spanish.Each day included morning prayer and Eucharist.
The friars, representing 203 provinces, participated in three full days of events that included:
• A gathering celebration presided by General Minister Fr. José Rodríguez Carballo, OFM
• A spiritual reflection by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap, “Let us observe the Rule we have promised the Lord.”
• A procession from the event tent in front of the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, which houses the Portiuncula chapel
• Eucharistic concelebration presided over by Bishop Domenico Sorrentino of Assisi
• Morning Prayer presided over by the Minister General of the Friars Minor Conventual, Fr. Marco Tasca
• Roundtable: “The Rule and Life of the Friars Minor is this: to observe…” coordinated by Francisco Giorgino, a journalist from Rai Uno. Panelists included: Bishop John Corriveau, OFM Cap, of Nelson, Canada, “The Lord gave me brothers;” Fr. Giacomo Bini, OFM, previous general minister, “The Lord has sent you into the whole world that you may bear witness to His voice in word and deed;” Bishop Agostino Gardin, OFM Conv, secretary of the Sacred Congregation for Consecrated Life, “Always be faithful and submissive to the prelates and to all the clerics of Holy Mother Church.”
• Talks and video presentations on “Witnesses of Hope”
• Ministry of Education Fr. Mark McBride, TOR, general counselor, U.S. university professor
• Interreligious Dialogue with Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, OFM, Custos of the Holy Land
• Music festival
One of the most notable events was the penitential procession from the Portiuncula, the small church where St. Francis experienced his conversion, an act of reliance upon the Virgin of the Portiuncula, to the tomb of St. Francis, presided over by the General Minister of the Third Order Regular Fr. Michael Higgins.
Gary recalled the procession: “It seemed to serve as a great metaphor for where we are as a movement. The procession was led by the ministers general, in turn, carrying a large crucifix. Just as we started, someone announced that we should line up in seven columns behind the ministers general. Well, anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the friars could guess how that went. We never achieved the barest approximation of that ordered procession.
“Still, the way the friars processed served as good images of how we approach our life and ministry. Some were fast; some were slow. The speedy ones did not leave the crowd in the dust, but doubled back or held their position for a while to let others catch up. Some had more labored breathing or more beads of sweat on their brows; they plugged away, sometimes falling back a bit, but never falling out of touch with the group.
“Some elbowed others aside as they sought to get closer to the front of the crowd. Some tried their best to stay connected to others, holding on to a cord, a capuche or a souvenir bag. Some sang loudly; some proceeded in a meditative mien, with heads bowed. A good number ran outside or ahead of the group to perch along the road, on a stone fence or stairway to get a picture of the huge throng. Many craned their necks forward or backward to try to get a sense of the size and shape of the whole procession. Yet, the reality was that we were all part of a group that was headed in the same direction for the same purpose.”
Words from Pope Benedict
On April 18, the friars had the opportunity to participate in an audience with Pope Benedict at Castel Gandolfo outside of Rome. Mark Reamer wrote in the May 3 bulletin of St. Francis of Assisi Church, Raleigh, N.C., where he is pastor: “Friars recommitted ourselves to living the Gospel life of Jesus Christ — a way of peace and reconciliation. Benedict challenged us to be witnesses to the resurrection of Christ — much as Francis was a witness of Christ in his day.”
Pope Benedict also reaffirmed the Order’s purpose. He addressed the friars: “While you praise and thank the Lord who has called you to be part of such a great and beautiful family, stay attentive to what the Spirit says, continue to proclaim with passion the Kingdom of God. Every brother and every sister should keep always a contemplative mood, happy and simple; always begin from Christ, as Francis set out from the gaze of the Crucifix of San Damiano and from the meeting with the leper, to see the face of Christ in our brothers and sisters who suffer and bring to all his peace.
“Be witnesses to the beauty of God, which Francis was able to sing contemplating the wonders of creation, and that made him exclaim to the Most High: ‘You are beauty.’ Dear friends, the last word I would like to leave with you is the same that the risen Jesus gave to his disciples: ‘Go!’ Go and continue to repair the house of the Lord Jesus Christ, his Church.”
He continued: “In recent days, the earthquake that struck the Abruzzo region has severely damaged many churches, and you from Assisi know what this means. But there is another ruin that is far more serious: that of people and communities. Like Francis, always start with yourselves. We are the first house that God wants to restore. If you are always able to renew yourselves in the spirit of the Gospel, you will continue to assist the pastors of the Church to make more and more beautiful the Church’s face, that of the bride of Christ. The Pope now, the same as then, expects this of you.”
Summing up the Event
Gary said the gathering captured the culture of the Franciscans.
“In short,” he said, “we are a diverse — some might say motley — group. We take up various positions that give us some sense of direction and belonging in a movement that can never be adequately summed up or lived by any individual. We affiliate ourselves with stronger or weaker ties to the whole or some particular subgroup. Some like to be out in front, while others prefer to follow.
“Piety stretches over as wide a range as personality or mode of self-presentation,” Gary said. “But, at the heart of it, we see ourselves as part of the same enterprise, and perhaps the strong divergences we experience at times are the result of wanting to get to the same place together.”
“We all tend to objectify people and rob them of their personhood, but when someone comes along and recognizes you are a person, it’s really a most remarkable life-changing experience,” said Russell, director of Holy Name’s Franciscan Missionary Union. “Franciscans, with their easily identifiable robes, are lucky, because people respect them and expect them to have the same gifts St. Francis had.”
“It was a privilege to be part of this historic gathering since it was only the second time in the history of the Franciscan movement that a Chapter of Mats has taken place at the Portiuncula,” said Michael, the Provincial Secretary. The first was in 1221 when Francis called more than 3,000 friars together for a Chapter of Mats.
The chapter was telecast on Direct TV channel sky 821.
— Wendy Healy is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. Jocelyn Thomas contributed to this story.