When OFM friars Conrad Targonski, Jeffrey Scheeler, Scott Slattum, and Roger Lopez received a letter inviting them to serve in vocation ministry for the new U.S. Franciscan province, there was no hesitation in their response. “When do we start?” was the collective refrain.
This was the resounding yes that the National Vocation Office had hoped to hear from friars around the country when it launched the first phase of an initiative that invites friars to become Local Vocation Directors as part of a coast-to-coast team. Each friar is serving as a Local Vocation Director (LVD) in the geographic area where they are stationed in other ministries. Thus far, more than 70 friars answered yes. Invitation accepted!
Although the US-6 provinces are scheduled to become a unified province next October, the National Vocation Office is one of the first major OFM Franciscan ministries to roll out its mission and implement a comprehensive agenda on a national level before the new singular province is officially operational. LVDs will participate in fraternal training sessions in the weeks and months ahead.
The friars received an initial letter from the provincial ministers of their respective US-6 provinces inviting their support of the new U.S. province’s vocation initiative. They received a subsequent letter from Basil Valente, OFM, National Vocation Director, personally requesting their consideration of this new and essential ministerial role.
The response to this initiative coincides with the Church’s National Vocation Awareness Week (November 6-12) – and while intended to promote religious vocations and attract inquirers through prayer and education, there is another element to vocation week that is often overlooked. It is also a time for ordained and solemnly professed to discern vocation ministry and how they can use their experiences, knowledge and talents to assist inquirers on their discernment journey.
An Invitation to Invite Others to Friar Life
For Roger Lopez, OFM, who teaches theology at Roger Bacon High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, the invitation, he says, is an opportunity for him to invite others into Franciscan life. The timing could not have been more perfect for Scott Slattum, OFM, director of faith development of the Young Franciscans (YouFra) ministry in Phoenix, Arizona, who had just completed a series of vocation articles that he plans to roll out at the start of the new year as blog posts – and also hopes to convert them into a resource for the National Vocation Office.
The timing was the same for Jeffrey Scheeler, OFM, who had recently arranged an organic gathering of prayer, dinner and conversation for three inquirers with the friar community at the Church of the Transfiguration in Southfield, Michigan, where he is pastor. Conrad Targonski, OFM, a campus minister at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin, had recently helped students establish a fraternity of Secular Franciscans.
There are dozens more stories like these among the 70-plus friars from across the country, whose yes is resonant for a number of reasons. They represent diverse cultures and a wide range of lived ministries, experiences and backgrounds. Their response – and the yes that will come from other friars to serve as LVDs – will help build the new U.S. province and revitalize the Franciscans in the U.S. as they accompany men discerning religious vocation with the Order of Friars Minor.
“This is important ministry work and I hope that this new coast-to-coast Province has a new and attractive energy that can draw more men to our way of life. New brothers are key to the success of this adventure. I am glad that I can play my small part,” said Alan (Al) Hirt, OFM, pastor of St. Francis Seraph Church in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.
Broader Church Family
Rommel Perez, OFM, said working in the postulancy program at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Maryland, for five years gave him the opportunity to experience vocation ministry on a national level. “I am more sensitive to the need for vocations and the openness of our Franciscan spirituality to young men seeking to belong to the Catholic Church in a broader family. We offer this in our Franciscan way of life – it’s who we are, being open to everyone in the world. I am excited to be part of this process because we are no longer individual provinces – and therefore, it is important for all friars to be engaged in vocation and to open the door to new vocations for the new province,” said Rommel, who now serves in pastoral ministry in the Midwest as a vicar at a parish in Joliet, Illinois.
Added Stephen Mimnaugh, OFM, who serves in campus ministry at the Franciscan-sponsored St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, New York: “I am honored to be asked and happy to accept this invitation. I am a proponent of inviting men to see friars as we are. Such personal ties should offer the best means for men to say yes to the Spirit’s prompting. I am pleased that the term ‘organic’ will continue as we move toward becoming one province – and I hope that my contribution will support our new province.”
To a person, the responding friars were eager to dive into this new ministry, enthusiastic about the prospect of being a source of support and information to men inquiring about a Franciscan vocation. At the foundation of the LVD ministry is organic community gatherings for inquirers – inviting men in discernment to join a local friar community at parishes, friaries, college campuses, weekend retreats, and soup kitchens and other outreach ministries for evening prayer, dinner, and conversation, and as a way to experience Franciscan life, fraternity and ministry.
“Of course, my answer is a resounding yes,” said Jeffery Jordan, OFM, in his response to Basil’s letter. “Know well that I am here to support everyone in the National Vocation Office.” Jeffery has been serving as a regional vocation director for his province in the New England region, where he is stationed at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, Massachusetts.
P.R. & Cuba Friars on the LVD Team
Vocation ministry has also been embraced by the OFM Puerto Rico and Cuba fraternities, whose custody was transferred to one of the US-6 provinces last August and will become part of the new U.S. province next year. Gerardo Antonio Vargas Cruz, OFM, is serving as a Local Vocation Director, and other friars, including Eddie Caro Morales, OFM, and José Santos Pérez Castillo, OFM, are active in vocation ministry as well.
The National Vocation Office is equally energized and excited to embrace this new team of Local Vocation Directors who represent every region of the country.
“This is a ministry of inclusivity and an interdependency on one another – respecting, supporting and appreciating what each brings to the table, and recognizing that each region of the country has distinct realities, cultures and needs. Our vocation ministry is not guided by a template, but rather by empowering our brothers to lead – emboldening every one of our Local Vocation Directors with the freedom to use their creativity and to develop effective opportunities of engagement with men discerning Franciscan life,” explained Basil.
Words like embracing and inclusive are the pillars of Franciscan ideals, not only in fraternal life, but the way friars minister to the poor and those living on the fringes of society – always meeting the people where they are, making adjustments as necessary, for example, friars in the Northeast embracing and providing not just food and clothing to the thousands of migrants coming North, but also helping them to navigate social services, providing medical assistance, and offering spiritual nourishment at the Franciscan Migrant Center in New York.
The Home Field Advantage
To use a sports analogy, Local Vocation Directors are clearly operating from the perspective of having a home field advantage.
“The National Vocation Office provides foundational support and resources, but our Local Vocation Directors know what works in the regions where they live and minister. Their talents, lived experiences, and zeal for the Franciscan life drive how vocation ministry is done around the country,” Gregory Plata, OFM, a regional vocation director for the new province’s central region of the U.S. “What works in the Midwest may not be effective in the Northeast. Things may need to be done differently in the Southwest than the way they’re done in the Southeast. Local Vocation Directors are already having an impact on uniting our new coast-to-coast province and how vocation ministry is done.”
Erasmo Romero, OFM, who presently serves as vocation director in the Southwest for one of the US-6 provinces, praised the Local Vocation Director initiative because “local” friars are in tune to the cultural, social and other nuances of a region that enable them to more effectively accompany local discerners.
“Serving in a local area allows more frequent encounters with men in discernment, and it allows for a better dialogue and accompaniment because I, for example, see things through the same lens of a local discerner, than say a friar from a distance would see things. This is why I have responded yes to continue in vocation ministry. Helping men in discernment is the responsibility of every friar,” said Erasmo.
The new province’s regional vocation director for the Western region of the country, Sebastian Sandoval, OFM, said even friars sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that vocations are the vocation director’s job. “While it is an important part of the vocation director’s responsibilities, it is very important for friars to realize that we are all vocation directors. We all have the responsibility to listen to those who are being called to religious vocation, and be prepared to journey with them during their discernment,” Sebastian said.
“Living in fraternity, proclaiming the Gospel, and preserving the dignity and worth of all human beings – especially the poor, refugees, and others living on the margins – that’s the essence of Franciscan life and ministry. It’s what I talk about at discernment dinners and organic community gatherings for discerners,” said Sebastian.
Adds Basil, “Vocation ministry also impacts how Franciscans minister to the poor, homeless, immigrants and recently-arrived migrants. Friars taking their ideas and initiatives and running with them, and serving as witness to living Franciscan ideals – that is vocation ministry in action.”
Authentic Life of Service and Fraternity
Nationally, data shows that the process of vocation discovery, not surprisingly, comes through the Internet. The process of connection, however, comes through personal interaction, accompaniment, and invitation. It’s one thing to hear about Franciscan ministry, but it’s another thing to serve meals to the homeless at a soup kitchen alongside a friar, or help out at a ministry for migrants, or pray and have dinner with friars.
“We have found that men in discernment are seeking a more authentic life of service to the poor, and that they want to serve in a welcoming community of brothers. Our Franciscan fraternity and charism offer both. It’s up to us as friars to provide as much opportunity to help discerners determine whether Franciscan life is for them,” said Gregory.
Local Vocation Directors will receive the necessary resources and support from the National Vocation Office, and will work closely with friars and lay staff, including office manager Jorge Martins, who says that LVDs are considered “our vital ‘on-the-ground’” resources – usually the first point of contact for discerners – who help manage communication, ongoing dialogue, and day-to-day relationships with inquirers who come from their geographic area.
“It’s important for all friars to understand that each of us has a responsibility to promote vocations. As a former vocation director once said, he didn’t need to print vocation posters because friars are ‘living posters.’ We are encouraged and energized by the response thus far from our brothers across the country to serve as these living posters. God is good!” said Basil.
“This new ministry of Local Vocation Directors is foundational to our Franciscan lifeblood and our new province. There would be no Order without vocation – and vocation ministry is the beginning of all other ministries,” continued Basil, noting that “respectable, trustworthy, hard-working, prayerful, and community-oriented” are some of the key qualities of the friars who have said yes to serving on the LVD team.
Vocation Ministry – The Beginning
Kevin Tortorelli, OFM, who has responded yes to the LVD invitation, agreed that everything starts with vocation ministry. “I’ve been a strong believer that vocation work is where it all begins. We acknowledge that the Lord is working His own harvest, and when he leads people in our direction, as friars we have to be there for them. There can’t be silence on the other end,” said Kevin, who has been serving in vocation ministry in the Florida region. “The person should have a sense that you’re invested in him. You want to build momentum, put some wind in their sails, provide encouragement, and learn to listen while respecting their freedom to choose. Meet them and move things along. I always say a short prayer – ‘Lord, let me listen and encourage, but don’t let me get in your way.’”
“Our role is not as ‘recruiter,’ but rather to help a person listen to what the Lord is calling them to do,” said Roger Lopez. “Sometimes we can be passive as friars – waiting and seeing who comes to us. But we need to be more like Jesus, who invites people to come and follow Him. My role as a friar is to witness to the love and joy of our fraternity, and to invite people to our Franciscan life. As a vocation director, I can provide opportunities that invite men to Franciscan life in an intentional way,” added Roger, who is in the midst of forming a vocation discerning group designed to assist men and women, whether they are seeking marriage or religious life.
As a former vocation director, Conrad Targonski has always felt a deep connection to vocation ministry. He also said that St. Francis evangelized by attraction. “That complements the ‘living poster’ imagery in Basil’s letter,” Conrad said. “As someone who has been in campus ministry (at Viterbo University), we constantly receive inquiries from students about St. Francis. We have young people establishing an OFS fraternity – which is just one of the many amazing things happening on campus.”
Future Depends on Friars Saying Yes
Basil said the success of the new national province is dependent on friars saying yes to this invitation to vocation ministry. “We must bring more discerners into Franciscan vocation in order to ensure a future for our Franciscan charism and ideals of serving the poor and marginalized,” said Basil, noting that a current and former provincial minister are among the friars who accepted the invitation of LVD ministry.
Jeffrey Scheeler, the former provincial minister, said he is delighted to do whatever he can to promote Franciscan life. “Organic gatherings are something the whole friar community at Transfiguration Church would like to do periodically. After the three inquirers attended our Transitus celebration last month, we invited them for dinner the next night on the feast of St. Francis. Afterwards, I sent them a link to the US-6 web page. We are not sure what will come out of it, but we have planted some seeds,” said Jeffrey.
That is precisely what the National Vocation Office is hoping to accomplish, according to Basil. “By providing these wonderful opportunities to experience friar life and fraternity in organic environments – and to spend a week or a weekend in ministry serving the homeless and refugees – we are planting the seeds and then cultivating them to see where the Spirit takes these discerners. But it starts with friars saying yes to vocation ministry,” said Basil, who added, “We are grateful to our brothers who are answering this call.”
If God is calling you, or someone you know, to be a Franciscan, visit USFranciscans.org #USFranciscans, contact Jorge at the National Vocation Office, at 800-677-7788, ext. 345, or scan the QR code. Be sure to share this article and the QR code with others.