“Buon giorno, buona gente – good morning, good people!” shouted the early friars as they traveled across Italy and then all of Europe as they entered town after town to preach the Gospel. For over eight centuries, itinerant Franciscan preachers all over the world, and from all branches of the Order, have continued the special ministry of preaching the Gospel message.
In Holy Name Province, that ministry was carried out for many years in what was called the Mission Band, a term used not only by the friars but by many religious orders of men who preached parish missions. Back in the 1980s, the mission band was dying. Vatican II had taken place and people were turning to movements such as the Cursillo, the Charismatic Renewal or Marriage Encounter for spiritual nourishment.
At that time, the late Brennan Connolly, OFM, and Roderic Petrie, OFM, decided to keep the ministry of itinerant preaching alive by taking a different approach. Rather than the emphasis on sin that traditional missions offered, they developed a program based on sharing the vision of the Gospel with themes of love, forgiveness, and healing. They were aided in their effort by spending time with the Archdiocese of New York’s parish mission team. After that, a Ministry of the Word Friary was established at the former convent of Sacred Heart Parish in Rochelle Park, N.J., then staffed by friars. This new approach was an immediate success with the friars and was in great demand throughout the New York metropolitan area and beyond.
Growth and Expansion
That initial effort by Brennan and Rod 30 years ago was like a spark that ignited a fire. The Ministry of the Word expanded rapidly. By 1989, a MOW friary was established in Belleair Bluffs, Fla. From there, friars went out to points all over the southern U.S. to preach the Gospel.
Expansion continued in 1993 when another MOW fraternity was established – first at the novitiate in Brookline, then in Natick, Mass., a suburb of Boston. Friars stationed there spread out all over New England and even into eastern Canada.
The New Jersey fraternity would move to a friary in East Rutherford, N.J., in 1992 and later to a house in Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J. By the mid-1990s, there were 16 friars preaching.
In 2000, the Florida presence of the MOW moved to Hialeah, Fla., where the friars preached missions and were also involved in local evangelization efforts.
Lay Partners and Preachers
The MOW is not, however, an endeavor of only friars. With the Province’s call to develop partners-in-ministry, the friars sought ways to partner with laypeople. In New Jersey, Francis Pompei, OFM, started the Simon Peter Fishing Company, a team of laypeople who offered one-day follow-up sessions to many of our missions. He also started the Franciscan Mystery Players, a group of teenagers with adult leaders who dramatized the Passion of Jesus during Lent. That program continues today with teams of Mystery Players in several areas of the country.
Also in New Jersey, Linda English went out to preach with the friars. She grew up in the Callicoon area and is the daughter of Alma Doyle, who was well known to the friars at St. Joseph Seminary back in the day. She gave several years to the Ministry of the Word.
Peter Chepaitis, OFM, moved out of New Jersey and established a presence in Middleburgh, N.Y., where, with Sr. Anna Tantsits, IHM, he formed Bethany Ministries. They preach often in the Albany, N.Y., area.
In Florida, as the friars headed into Miami, they found the need to preach in Spanish. Rod and Martin Bednar, OFM, filled that need and occasionally I joined them. Two laymen – Jose Pedro Fernandez and Pete Suarez – also preached with them. Pete still works with me out of St. Petersburg. In Boston, Sr. Helen Roberts, OSF, an Allegany Franciscan, often teamed with Raphael Bonanno, OFM, to preach in the greater Boston area.
Books, Tapes, and Blogs
Proclaiming the Gospel in our times requires more than direct oral preaching. Over the years, the MOW has found expression in both print and electronic media. Several books have been published and several audio tapes, as well as videos, have been produced.
In 1996, under the editorship of Kevin Cronin, OFM, several friars wrote entries in the book “A Friar’s Joy,” a work that sold well on our missions for more than 15 years.
Rod, Dan Lanahan, OFM, and I later published books, and Kevin, together with Brennan, produced several DVDs. I also delved into the Internet, starting a blog called “The Wandering Friar” in 2009 and I also maintain a presence on Facebook.
The model of Franciscan life for the MOW for many years was a life in small fraternities where the friars would go out to preach and then come home to pray together and share in the chores of cooking and maintaining the house. As the years have gone by and we have grown older, we have changed that model. We now live in larger houses in Butler, N.J., and St. Petersburg, Fla., the Province’s retirement residences. There is also a MOW presence in Boston at St. Anthony Shrine on Arch Street. In these friaries, it is not quite as necessary to engage in household maintenance.
What is important is the fraternal life – especially our prayer life – that we share with the other friars. Speaking of friar life, many friars tell us that they could not live out of a suitcase like we do. While it is true that we travel a lot, we are not road warriors who venture far and wide and become strangers to the other friars. Participation in friary life has been a core value of the MOW team since the beginning. We make every effort to balance time away with time at home. At one time, we did most of our work in pairs, in the spirit of the Gospel and in the spirit of the early friars. We have not, for several reasons, maintained that but with modern communication tools, we are able to keep in touch with each other and the other friars as we travel about.
While parish missions and retreats for religious and priests constitute the bulk of our ministry, we are each ministers in other ways. The summertime is our “off-season”. We are not in as much demand as during the school year, yet we need to bring income into our ministry and our friaries. Over the years, we have served as parish helpers all over the country. At the present time, I preach for Unbound, a lay-run Catholic organization that seeks priests to preach in parishes to find sponsors for needy children and adults in 18 different countries. Raphael has also done some preaching on behalf of Food for the Poor.
Through the years, others worked with us and all of them made significant contributions. They are: Edward Flanagan, OFM, Thomas Hartle, OFM, Jack McDowell, OFM, Philip O’Shea, OFM, Fr. Dennis Koopman, OFM, of Sacred Heart Province, Emmet Murphy, OFM, Gerry Mudd, OFM, as well as the late Justin Bailey, OFM, Roch Coogan, OFM, and Thomas Vigliotta, OFM, and former friars Francis Smith and John Kelliher.
Time for a New Beginning
Earlier, I mentioned how the Ministry of the Word was a new expression of what had been the Mission Band. There was also a Retreat Band. The MOW took on both of these tasks. I think that it is time for another change of direction. We are few in number and are growing older. While I would not discourage another friar from joining us, I would prefer that friars would meet and plan to take the itinerant ministry in a new direction. It could still be called Ministry of the Word or it could bear another name. I have noticed that some of our younger friars have begun exciting ventures into electronic media. This must certainly be part of the future.
As the six US provinces move into reconfiguration and revitalization, perhaps there could be a network of Franciscan preachers. The current MOW works with one format that we all adapt to our personal styles. Maybe something less structured but still well organized would work on this large scale.
The ministry of itinerant preaching in one of the oldest Franciscan ministries; I pray that it continues as we move into the future. Who is ready to step up to the plate to make that happen?
— Fr. John, who professed his first vows as a Franciscan in 1964, lives at St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg, Fla. He maintains a blog called The Wandering Friar.
- “New Jersey Mystery Players Present 300th Lenten Program” – April 20, 2016, HNP Today
- “Bethany Ministries Update from Peter Chepaitis” – Feb. 5, 2014, HNP Today
- “Ministry of the Word Friar Preaches Among Navajo Indians” – June 5, 2013, HNP Today
- “Ministry of the Word Friars Look Back over 2012” – Dec. 19, 2012, HNP Today