Learning Collegiality, Hope, Joy and Compassion from Friars

Robert Porcelli Features

This essay is part of Franciscan Influences, a series published by HNP Today since 2010, in which laypeople describe the impact of Franciscan friars on their lives. Here, a Siena College alumnus reflects on his long connection to the friars and how their principles have guided his life — recalling that friars taught students how to live, not only how to make a living. The previous reflection was written by a staff member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The start of a new year and the approaching 55th anniversary of my graduation from college recently got me thinking about my life and my work. It brought to mind my long connection to the Franciscans.

I met the Franciscans at a very young age. After World War II, my family left Texas, my natal state, and settled on the south side of Mount Vernon, New York, just north of New York City.  We attended St. Francis of Assisi Parish, which was not only named after our beloved saint but was actually staffed and operated by friars. It was also the parish that the Porcelli family had historically attended, so I was comfortable with the “Brown Robes,” as we called them, even as a child. I remember the friars as quiet, respectful, and humble men. I always felt at ease in their presence, which was important because I had no other religious exemplars at that point in my young life. When I was 10 years old, my family moved — and I lost that connection to the friars. Over the years, I attended a number of diocesan parishes.

Later, when I chose to attend Siena College, it was a homecoming of sorts. I again felt very much at ease because having friars as teachers, mentors, spiritual guides and friends seemed so natural and yet, in that era, their presence in my life was much more profound. They were beyond just celebrants of Mass, listeners to confession, and the distributors of the sacraments. They would become the foundation of my secular and spiritual life.

The framework of my Siena Franciscan experience was succinctly expressed during the first week of my freshman year by Brian Duffy, OFM, the college president. We were told that we were going to be taught “not only how to make a living, but also how to live.” Learning how to make a living, of course, was achieved in the classroom. Learning how to live, however, was achieved by watching the examples of the community of friars on campus. By living their lives of service with humility, joy, and hope, they set me on a course to live my own life by these Franciscan principles.

Robert Porcelli with the late Ed Coughlin, OFM, during his term as Siena’s president, in 2016 at Siena’s 50th class reunion.  (Photo courtesy of the author)

Lessons in Franciscans Principles
As teachers, the friars certainly fulfilled that first goal of learning how to make a living. As a biology major, I was taught the sciences. In fact, the biology courses I took in my first year in graduate school at New York University were mostly repetitions of those same courses I took at Siena. Equally important, the science curriculum at Siena was tempered by courses in the arts, philosophy, and religion, thus making my education not only well-rounded but founded on those Franciscan principles. My teachers did their job!

As mentors, they achieved outcomes in two important ways. First, most of the faculty members were approachable. If I had any trouble with my coursework, they were understanding, encouraging, and committed to my success. But they were important in another way. They were examples of what a mentor should be. As I traveled through my career in medical research and teaching, I became an advisor to many students. I was certainly helped by the wonderful examples I had at Siena College. As a result, I approached my service as a mentor with the same principles of collegiality, understanding, and humility I had learned from the friars.

My spiritual guidance during my first years at Siena was singular in the person of Anthony Moore, OFM. I met Fr. Anthony when I joined the Third Order of Saint Francis. As prefect, he was, for me, an important motivation for living a Franciscan life. He was a man of peace, love, and inspiration. His love for all creation was extraordinary and his example has lived on in my life even after all these years.

Yes, they taught me how to make a living. But, more importantly, they taught me how to live!

During my time at Siena, I became friends with a number of teachers, including some friars. Some of these men taught me in the classroom, while others played non-academic roles.  In either case, as friends, they taught me how to be more patient, humble, and more contemplative. Unfortunately, as I moved on from Siena, my life became more centered on establishing my career, my marriage, and my family. I lost touch with Siena and some of those dear friends.

Now that I am in the third phase of life and more reflective on my past, I miss the friendships I made back then. Some friendships that I had with classmates have endured over the past 55 years. However, after all these years, almost all of my teachers, mentors, spiritual guides, and friar friends have passed on. All but one, actually.

On the occasion of his 90th birthday, I sent a card to one of my teachers, Peter Fiore, OFM, (aka Fr. Amadeus). That card reacquainted us all these years later. I had taken English courses with Fr. Peter and I remember his teaching style, knowledge, and sense of humor as being very inspiring. To me, he is a quintessential example of a Franciscan scholar. I have since dedicated some of my writing to Fr. Peter and have often referred to him as “my longstanding mentor and muse” —  even though he had no inkling. Remarkably, I still now have one friar friend.

Core Values of Life
As I recount these experiences, I am again reminded of these core values of Franciscan life and how important they were to my education, and how they have been reflected throughout my own life. What is sometimes not obvious to oneself is at times obvious to others.

A short story: I was on a flight back from Texas and my flight mate was a Baptist minister whose congregation was in Washington, D.C. Although our discussion covered a lot of topics, such as our careers, family, philosophy, and social beliefs, I never related what my religious convictions were. As we prepared to leave the plane, he turned to me, said goodbye, and then stated, “You’re a Franciscan!” I guess my expressed views on life revealed me.

The principles of respect for all life and all individuals, being compassionate, and proclaiming joy, peace and hope have been the cornerstone of both my Franciscan experience and the foundation of the long journey of my life. I do not, however, want to leave the impression that I have always lived my life by these principles — because I have not. In 2000, I visited the tomb of St. Francis in the basilica in Assisi with my family. While sitting for a few minutes before the crypt that contains the saint’s remains, I had the urge to quickly leave.

In front of the basilica, my family asked me what I was doing. I had to admit, that while in front of the remains of the man I professed to follow, I felt very uncomfortable. Upon reflection, I realized that I had inadequately lived up to the principles of St. Francis. It was a profoundly disturbing experience, one that has substantially altered the view of my own life. That experience has refocused me in ways that have been unimaginable.

Thankfully, I am restored most every night. I end my day by saying this prayer:

Remember that when you leave this earth,
you can take with you nothing that you have received:
only what you have given;
a full heart, enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage.

— Robert Porcelli, a graduate of Siena College (1966) and New York University (’69 MS, ’72 Ph.D.), is a retired scientist and teacher who taught pulmonary physiology at SUNY at Stony Brook School of Medicine.  He also served as project manager for the migration from paper to the Electronic Health Record (EHR) at the Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital in Northport, New York.  He and his wife Stephanie Adamowicz and have a daughter, Danielle Porcelli Bianchi, an attorney with the United States Marine Corps. In 2014, he established the Porcelli Family Scholarship in memory of Archie J. Porcelli.

Editor’s note: Previously published articles in the Franciscan Influences series can be found on the features page of the HNP Today section of the Holy Name Province website. Newsletter readers who are interested in submitting an essay are asked to contact the HNP Communications Office at communications@hnp.org.