Profile: Robert Menard Marks 50 Years as a Friar

Stephen Mangione Friar News

This is the fifth in a series of profiles of friars commemorating their anniversaries of profession this year. The 2017 silver and golden jubilarians will be honored at a Provincial Mass on June 22. The previous newsletter issue featured William McConville, OFM

CLEMSON, S.C. – When a library opened its doors across from his apartment building in the Winchester Square neighborhood of Springfield, Mass., Robert Menard, OFM, who was raised in a family where reading was as important as breathing, was jubilant. Apparently, the heavens were smiling, too.

Robert, currently director of Catholic campus ministry at Clemson University, recalls roaming the shelves before settling on his first book from the new library: My God and My All – The Life of Saint Francis of Assisi by Elizabeth Goudge.

As he commemorates five decades of profession as a Franciscan friar this year, Bob is convinced that divine intervention was at work.

“Somehow, I must have heard about St. Francis, although I still have no explanation for selecting that particular book. But God probably exclaimed, “We got him!” said Bob, at the time a student at Holy Family Elementary School in Springfield.

That the Franciscans allured him is ironic because the Edmundites, through a series of high school retreats, first introduced Bob to religious life at their novitiate in Mystic, Conn.

“Although they played an important role in my discernment, the Edmundites couldn’t pull me away from St. Francis!” he said.

His first book from the new library may have introduced him to the life of St. Francis, but a visit to his home, after he wrote a letter to the Franciscans by Daniel O’Rourke, OFM, then Province’s vocation assistant director, left a lasting impression.

Early Franciscan Life
After graduating from Cathedral High School in Springfield, Bob contemplated the seminary but decided to enroll at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt., the only Edmundite-operated college in the world.

“That was the Edmundites’ last chance to hook me,” he quipped.

In 1965, upon completing one year of studies at St. Michael’s, Bob entered the Franciscan St. Joseph’s Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y. He was received the following year into the Order at St. Raphael’s Novitiate in Lafayette, N.J., where he professed his first vows in 1967.

Bob then went to Washington, D.C., where he studied philosophy and theology from 1967 to 1972 at The Catholic University of America and the Washington Theological Coalition. He made his solemn profession in 1970 and was ordained to serve in the ministerial priesthood in 1972 at the chapel of Holy Trinity Missionary Seminary, home of the Theological Coalition. Bishop Joseph Bernadin, a neighbor of the friars at Holy Name College, was the ordaining bishop. Bob’s first assignment was to the Catholic Center at the University of Georgia in Athens as associate campus minister.

He went on to serve at St. Anthony Shrine, the Province’s church in Boston, to be closer to his family to care for his ailing father. While there, Bob served as the Catholic campus minister for Suffolk University. He then served for six years on the post-novitiate formation team at Holy Name College in the nation’s capital, guiding students during their discernment – and where he was reunited with Robert Monahan, OFM, a now deceased former friar, one of his mentors when he was a student at Holy Name College.

Returning to the University of Georgia as director of the Catholic Center, Bob oversaw the campus ministry program for six more years. He then moved on to a ministerial sabbatical in Jamaica, West Indies.

“Soon after I arrived, the ‘Big Breeze’ blew in – Hurricane Guilbert. This storm devastated the island,” he recalled.

Interest in Secular Franciscans
While in Jamaica, he guided Secular Franciscans – laypeople seeking to pattern their lives after Jesus in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi – island-wide, helping them rebuild their homes, expand their local fraternities, and deepen their vocation as lay people in the Church and in the world.

Once Bob returned to Boston, he served as New England regional spiritual assistant for Secular Franciscans. He was also director of Franciscan Volunteer Ministry House, where college graduates participated in a one-year experience of fraternal living and community service.

The Second Vatican Council sparked Bob’s work with Secular Franciscans, a benchmark of his ministry.

“Before Vatican II, the Secular Franciscan Order was primarily a devotional society anchored in prayer and charity,” he said. “But Vatican II’s decree on the role of the laity changed everything. Knowing the difficulties that would come with this transition, I wanted to encourage and support Secular Franciscans in their response to Vatican II’s decree of asking laity to become a source of light in the world through family life, work for justice and peace, and caring for creation.”

His earliest work with Secular Franciscans began in Georgia as the unofficial spiritual assistant for a fraternity in Atlanta. When he was later appointed pastor to the Franciscan parish of St. Pius X in Greensboro, N.C., Bob planted the seed for a new Secular Franciscan fraternity that continues to flourish today.

Later, with the support of the friars, he entered a rehabilitation program and joined the HNP Alvernia network, which he called “a great blessing.” He was then asked to serve as parochial vicar at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Triangle, Va., where he spent 13 years ministering in various roles and, of course, he revived the parish’s dormant Secular Franciscan fraternity.

Christian-Muslim Relations
After 9/11, Bob requested a year sabbatical to move and study with the friars who live in Islamic cultures. He moved to North Africa and the Middle East to pursue another ministerial passion – Christian-Muslim relations. Other than requesting hospitality from the friars in these locations, he had no specific plans.

“I didn’t know where I was going, or where I would stay and what I would eat on any given day. But I wanted to experience the Islamic religion and culture, so I booked a flight into the unknown. Shortly after I arrived,” he recalled, “signs of the new Arab Spring began to show themselves. I never experienced any difficulties, but demonstrations, rallies, street violence, and bombings were always on the periphery of the roads I travelled.”

His attraction to Christian-Muslim relations began during his assignment in northern Virginia, as Prince William County became ground zero for the immigration debate after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The county experienced some of the federal government’s most aggressive raids against undocumented immigrants, prompting Bob and fellow religious and community leaders, including imams of local area mosques, to collaboratively establish Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (V.O.I.C.E.) to fend off increasing opposition toward Muslims and other immigrants. He worked with imams in developing joint community programs, including organized panel discussions and town hall-style meetings.

Bob became such an outspoken supporter of Catholic-Muslim dialogue and immigrant rights in Virginia that he was extended the rare invitation to speak from the minbar pulpit of the Manassas Mosque in Manassas, Va., and was often interviewed by print and digital media.

“While discerning a possible assignment to Clemson, I felt that I might be too old for this work, thinking that someone younger needed to do it,” he said.

Campus ministry will always have a special place in his life, said the jubilarian.

Ironically, he had similar thoughts about Joseph Houlihan, OFM, when he was assigned to assist the older friar in campus ministry in Athens, Ga. “He turned out to be a wonderful mentor who showed me how to be a servant of the Church, and how to help young people open their hearts to the Word of God and guidance of the Spirit.”

Bob remains a “voracious reader” of biographies, poetry, philosophy and theology. His travels often influence his reading selections and help him maintain connections with the people and places he has visited – including Belgium, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Israel/Palestine, Central and South America. The latter where he established a sister parish relationship and created a still very active “Pennies for Peru” initiative through which students at St. Francis School in Triangle, Va. raise money for school supplies and academic scholarships for their poor counterparts at Peru’s Our Lady of Lourdes Church.

As he reflects on the past 50 years, Bob said he feels a deep sense of humility.

“Franciscan life is a great grace,” he says. “Holy Name Province is a very human community that has enabled me to grow and recognize my personal giftedness and calling to engage with young people; to dialog with other traditions, and to stand up against bigotry and bullying in all its forms. This fraternal way of being in the world has been the joy of my life.”

– Stephen Mangione is a longtime writer and public relations specialist, based in Westchester County, N.Y.

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