NEW YORK — Brian Smail, OFM, began his new role last week as the Province’s Vocation Director. He replaces Gregory Jakubowicz, OFM, who took a new call at Washington Theological Union, where he is chief operations officer.
Brian, comes to New York from St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, where he was the assistant executive director and oversaw finances of the large and busy downtown ministry center. Taking a new call in New York is especially exciting for Brian, who had spent his entire ministry to date — eight years and a year of internship — at the shrine.
“I will miss Boston very much, but it’s exciting to be asked to do something new,” he said by cell phone as HNP Today caught up with him on a train to Boston last weekend. “It’s a chance to give back to the Province for a wonderful eight years in Boston.” He was asked by Provincial Minister John O’Connor, OFM, to take the call, and gladly accepted.
One of the factors that led to the Provincial Council’s decision to ask Brian to accept the position is his proficiency in Spanish. “The growing presence of young immigrants from Latin America on the East Coast showed us the need for someone with that skill,” said Provincial Vicar Dominic Monti, OFM.
Brian said that he is especially excited to be directing a ministry so essential to the future of the Church. “Vocations are key to the future of the Church and the Order,” he said. “The Province has put a lot of trust in me — it’s daunting. But I have been overwhelmed by the support I have received from friars throughout the Province. It is very, very encouraging to me.”
Thinking Outside the Box
With only a week on the job, Brian said he was still figuring things out, but was mulling over thoughts about the direction of the ministry.
“I’ll be looking at other ways of reaching out to young people. We have to start thinking outside the box,” he said. “I don’t have all the answers. I don’t think anyone does. I look forward to working with the regional vocation directors, our lay partners in ministry, as well as friars in the Province.”
He does know, however, that to be successful, the Church has to reach young people where they are today — in places like the Internet. He looks forward to working with friars and ministry partners to increase the Province’s Web presence and to identify and recruit young men.
“The days are over when the vocation director was solely responsible for vocations. Today, there is more emphasis on the fact that everyone — both friars and our lay partners — have a share in this important ministry.”
In addition to increasing a vocational Internet presence and working with regional vocation directors, Brian envisions visiting St. Bonaventure University, Siena College and the University of Georgia in Athens, schools with a strong friar presence. He also intends to visit all of the houses in the Province to discuss vocations with the friars and laity, and to seek their ideas.
“I see this job as being visible, building awareness for Franciscan ministry,” he said. “If we can be authentic witnesses to our life as friars, and show our commitment, people will be attracted to our ministry and way of life.”
Brian is shown with Gregory in a photo from Insight and Wisdom, the quarterly publication produced by the Vocation Office.
Meeting the Challenges Today
Lack of commitment by young people today is one of the issues Brian and vocation directors across the country are facing. “Young people often have a problem with commitment today. They’re marrying later, and going into religious life later, or not at all.”
Brian recently attended a conference given by the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC), where participants shared thoughts on commitment and other trends affecting the ministry.
While it is widely known, he said, that the number of new men entering religious life is down, many people may not know why.
“There are many social and ecclesiastical factors affecting vocations today,” he said. “The conference I attended shed some light on the issue. For young people, according to one speaker at the conference, religious life is not ‘cool’.”
In addition, family structure and dynamics are a factor. The two-parent family is more rare than years ago which often affects the stability of young people, he said. Fewer young people are encouraged by their families to enter the priesthood, and families are also having fewer children. “There seems to be less support for vocations within the family structure these days,” Brian added.
Young folks today, he said, also have a greater sense of individualism, and therefore are not attracted to religious life and its emphasis on community living.
Consumerism, a rampant phenomenon, also affects the ministry. “What sells today,” said Brian, “are money, sex and power. Religious orders take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. That presents a striking contrast.”
Lack of trust and authority in institutions poses another challenge, and unfortunately, the sex abuse scandal has created a terrible time in the history of the Church, according to Brian.
People today also have very active and fulfilling opportunities for lay ministry in the Church without being a priest or religious. “It used to be that if you wanted to be a minister in the Church, most roles were filled by priests and religious. Emphasis on laity and lay ministry offers more options for young people today.”
Another obstacle that Brian sees is the decreasing visibility of Catholic culture. Big city churches are closing or consolidating, and many Catholic schools are being replaced by businesses.
Hope for the Future
But despite all these challenges, Brian is very hopeful for the future. He finds one trend today especially interesting. “Religious life is so counter-cultural today, and this resonates with young people. Many see themselves as standing for more spiritual values. There’s something attractive about that and I think we need to tap into it.”
“We have to be not only recruiters, but work with men actively in the discernment process. We may never recoup the numbers we had in religious life decades ago, but I feel strongly that we have a future. I am not sure what that future looks like at this point. It will be different for sure, but religious life is not about to disappear. We have always played a significant role in the life of the Church and that will continue.”
Brian envisions being out on the road a lot, something he said he will find easy to do since he enjoys traveling.
One of 10 children from an Irish Catholic family, Brian is a second-career Franciscan. With a degree in business administration from Boston College, he worked for the Bank of America before going to seminary in Washington, where he earned a master in divinity degree. He was ordained in 1999 and immediately was called to St. Anthony Shrine, where he had interned the year prior.
Brian is moving to the recently-built friary on West 31st Street in Manhattan, and his office is in the Provincial headquarters on the second floor. He looks forward to learning New York City.
Staffing and Hospitality
The Vocation Office has an opening for an administrative assistant for the promotion of vocations. A full-time staff member is needed for a position that is varied and valued. A job description can be found using the link below. Interested applicants are encouraged to phone or e-mail Brian.
Holy Name’s Vocation Office has planned several weekends over the coming months for men who are interested in joining the Franciscans. Their themes, dates and locations are below.
►Hospitality weekend – Boston – Dec 7 – 9, 2007
► Franciscan Experience Weekend (FEW) — Bronx, N.Y. – Jan 18 – 20, 2008
►Hospitality Weekend – Holy Name College in Maryland – Feb 8 – 10, 2008
►Holy Triduum & Easter weekend – Holy Name College – March 20 – 23, 2008
►FEW (Franciscan Experience Weekend) – Bronx, N.Y. – April 11 – 13, 2008
►Discernment retreat weekend – Mt. Irenaeus Franciscan Mountain Retreat – April 25 – 27, 2008
— Wendy Healy, a freelance writer based in Danbury, Ct., is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.