(Photo courtesy of Javier Del Angel De Los Santos)

Outreach Ministry at Shrine Prepares Jim Bernard for Solemn Profession

Stephen Mangione Friar News, Home Page – News

This article is the first in a series of profiles of Holy Name Province members who plan to profess solemn vows in August.

Jim Bernard (Photo from the Provincial archives)

BOSTON – When he learned that his year-long pastoral internship assignment in preparation of solemn profession would be at St. Anthony Shrine, James Bernard, OFM, was eager to dive into the dynamic urban ministry and be part of a friary with a large fraternity of solemnly professed and ordained friars. Despite the internship coming in the midst of a pandemic, he checked off both boxes of the objectives he set out to achieve – living and learning about the life of a friar in full-time ministry.

Jim made the 15-hour drive from Chicago, where he had been living at St. Joseph Friary, the Franciscan Interprovincial Post-Novitiate formation house in Hyde Park, and where he also was studying at Catholic Theological Union in pursuit of his master of divinity degree and on the path to priestly ordination. When he arrived at the Shrine on June 8, 2020, he quarantined for several days before integrating into the friar community. But the group ministries he had hoped to serve were still suspended indefinitely and the Shrine’s doors remained closed to in-person worship due to COVID-related restrictions.

However, like friars throughout the Province – and as he had done in Chicago at the height of the pandemic – Jim found unexpected and creative ways to fulfill his year of service and grow in ministry and Franciscan fraternity.

“I wanted to be at the Shrine to learn from the wisdom and experiences of the large fraternity of friars. The friars at the Shrine have been wonderful and I have had the most amazing experience of fraternity, which is at the core of the Province and being a Franciscan,” said Jim. “I can’t say enough about the love and respect I have for all my brothers. I am constantly amazed not only by their diverse backgrounds, talents, innovation, and courage but also by their loving compassion, generosity, and humility. Being with them at the Shrine has been such a life-giving experience for me. I didn’t have any doubts about professing solemn vows before I arrived. But if I did, my mind surely would’ve been changed by this fraternity.”

He continued, “As friars, we are called to live the Gospel in community. My brothers live the Gospel authentically as an example to others, and they make it look so easy. As a member of this fraternity, I encounter Christ and find joy, challenges, love, and support – all part of living the Gospel and living a servant life for others. Spending time with the friars gives you an appreciation of their deep commitment to God’s people, especially to the poor and marginalized,” added Jim, whose first encounter with the Franciscans came when he was living in New York City and became a volunteer with the St. Francis Breadline at St. Francis of Assisi Church on West 31st Street, where he attended Mass and eventually grew more involved in other ministries and developed friendships with many friars – all of which served as a catalyst to his exploration and eventual pursuit of life as a Franciscan with HNP.

Friars Paul Keenan, Sebastian Tobin, and Jim Bernard in the friars’ chapel at Arch Street. (Photo courtesy of Paul Santoro)

No Shortage of Service Opportunities
Although mostly everything was shut in Boston – in-person pastoral programs were suspended and the Shrine was closed for 11 months of Jim’s year-long internship – there was no shortage of opportunities to serve the greater community – the homeless, poor and marginalized, a population whose numbers skyrocketed as the pandemic raged on. Jim worked at the Shrine’s Franciscan Food Center, helping to pack bags of fresh produce and non-perishables and then distributing them to guests from the building’s garage door.

“Families that rely on the food center have sparse financial resources, and whatever government assistance they receive gets used up quickly under normal circumstances, let alone during a pandemic when many lost their jobs. The pantry program has become an even more critically important corporal work of mercy in the community as more families struggle with food insecurity,” said Jim, noting that the number of families seeking nutrition assistance at the center tripled – from 130 to an astounding 420 – since his arrival at the church on Arch Street.

A large majority of the guests are Asian families, a community that Jim notes has been battered by “irrational hatred and violence” during the pandemic. “For them, the center has become an oasis of safety and welcome, and a beacon of hope. Guests are treasured at the Shrine, and everyone is treated with love, respect, and dignity – which is true of all of Province ministries. It has been a great awakening for me – meeting people where they are, but even more so being a neighbor to those with whom I often only communicate by a smile, wave, or handing them a bag of groceries, because I don’t speak their language,” said Jim.

In addition to his work at the food pantry, Jim joined others at the Shrine in bringing Franciscan ministry to another group in need. “Since we couldn’t have people in the building, street outreach became an important ministry. With most shelters and social service facilities shut down, those already living on the margins were hit hard by the pandemic,” explained Jim, who would go to the Boston Common, the sprawling public park in the downtown area, several times a week to provide water, healthy snacks, toiletry items, and a listening ear to the homeless.

“These encounters in street outreach and at the food center have helped me to understand what urban, social, and justice ministry are about. They have taught me what it means to accompany others – the simplicity of listening to the stories of their struggles and what they are going through. This experience has sparked in me a passion for outreach ministry. Outside of fraternity, it has been my most meaningful contribution at the Shrine for the past year,” Jim continued.

“Encountering people-at-large brings a certain amount of unpredictability, but a lot of this is about listening and just being yourself. A friar life is one in which you are led by the Spirit, modeling your life after the Gospel and Francis and Clare. The more I open up to this life, the more fulfilled my life has become – and it’s only just beginning,” he added.

“Being on internship during the pandemic was a challenge, but Jim rose to that challenge,” said Frank Sevola, OFM, guardian at St. Anthony Shrine.  “The primary purpose of the internship is to help a friar deepen his understanding of fraternity as he prepares for his solemn profession.  Jim is an excellent member of the fraternity.”

Frank added, “His presence, his care for friars, his willingness to help out and just be around with the friars is a sure sign that he is ready for his solemn profession.  It was a pleasure for me and for the entire Arch Street fraternity to have Jim with us.”

Jim feeding street people on the Boston Common. (Photo courtesy of Maryanne Rooney-Hegan)

Windy City Paves the Way
Life during the outset of the pandemic – when he was living at St. Joseph Friary in Chicago – somewhat prepared Jim for the challenges and adjustments awaiting him at the Shrine. In addition to his academic schedule, he had been working in adult and family faith formation ministry at Old St. Mary’s Church, a parish of the Paulist Fathers, as well as providing chaplain ministry at the University of Chicago Hospital System and a nearby assisted living facility – all ministries that were abruptly halted by COVID restrictions.

But he made adjustments, continuing to teach formation classes via Zoom and by joining other friars at the interprovincial post-novitiate house in a weekly outreach program with other area religious organizations – preparing sandwiches for a food truck that, in turn, distributed them to hungry and needy people in the neighborhood.

“One of my responsibilities at the friary was food shopping, so when I was at the supermarket, I also purchased everything for the sandwiches,” he said, noting the experience of joy and fulfillment in feeding the hungry and participating in an interreligious initiative.

Jim says that his theology and ministry are shaped by his vocation and identity as a friar. “It is through this lens that I minister to the people of God as a servant. When I am present with the people of God – whether the homeless or hungry, or anyone – every encounter is an encounter with Christ. It’s an opportunity to serve, grow, and open myself to wherever the Holy Spirit is taking me. I always seek God in every situation and ask what I can learn from these experiences about others, myself, and God,” he said.

Inspired by Friars’ Resiliency and Selflessness
Another lesson learned during this period of preparation for solemn profession has been resiliency – the friars’ and his own ability to navigate a crisis. “There have been many sacred moments, but one that stands out has been the commitment of the brothers to helping each other – their willingness to sacrifice for the greater community and finding ways to be together and share their talents. That has been most inspiring. It’s something that I admire, respect, and want to be a part of. It has helped me continue to live the vows and prepare for solemn profession,” said Jim.

He continued, “I learned the importance of being able to embrace spontaneity – embracing the gray. Life has been anything but predictable during the pandemic. But being at the Shrine with my brothers made me feel more comfortable and natural as a friar. It was challenging but exciting. I learned about being flexible. We learn lessons and we learn about ourselves throughout life, but these lessons and realizations become more profound during a crisis.”

Jim takes a break from helping to paint a room last summer in preparation for new friars coming to live at the Shrine. (Photo courtesy of Jim Bernard)

Jim took the lesson in talent-sharing and selflessness to heart, using his past experience in the corporate world by running a technology tutorial on how to use Zoom and other virtual platforms to help less tech-savvy friars connect with family, friends, and congregants when everyone was in lock-down. He helped the Shrine maintain a strong presence on social media – which became vital to communicating with worshippers, those seeking spiritual guidance, and supporters – and he also took on tasks that needed to be done, such as painting a room and installing an outdoor sign.

“It’s all part of being a member of the Franciscan fraternity,” said Jim, who has a bachelor of arts degree in financial planning from Grove City College in Pennsylvania, a graduate degree in banking from the American Bankers Association Stonier Graduate School of Banking on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, and accreditation as a mortgage professional from the School of Mortgage Banking in Washington, D.C.

The Shrine reopened just weeks before the conclusion of his internship earlier this month – and although he would have departed the Shrine under normal circumstances, Jim received permission from the Province to continue his work on Arch Street until his solemn profession, which is scheduled in August.

With office buildings and retail stores reopening and people returning to work in the heart of Boston’s financial district, worshippers are resurfacing at the Shrine. “People were in tears when the church was reopened. Many were asking who I am and when I arrived because I was meeting them for the first time, even though I had been here for nearly a year. They told me how much they missed the friars and how they were praying for us,” said Jim.

“It was nice to see people walking through the doors again, and meeting people face-to-face. Being in a new place and unable to meet with people in person for 11 months was a challenging start to relationship-building, but I am catching up and people have been eager to share their sacred stories of their struggles and of loved ones lost to COVID-19,” he added.

Well-Prepared for Solemn Vows
As he looks forward to solemn profession, Jim says it is a “natural next step” in the progression of his Franciscan vocation. “These past 12 months have very much been about living the vows and Gospel. I have been living my life in service to others since professing simple vows, but solemn profession will be evidence of my lifelong commitment, and continued growth and conformity, to this life. It is me saying that this is what I want for the rest of my life and what God wants for me,” said Jim.

Jim preparing food for the Shrine’s food center. (Photo courtesy of Jim Bernard)

After joining Holy Name Province in August 2015, he spent his postulant year at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Maryland, and then was stationed as a novice in 2016 at the St. Francis Interprovincial Novitiate in Burlington, Wisconsin – where he professed his first vows in August 2017. While in Wisconsin, he served at several local ministries, among them St. Ben’s Clinic, a comprehensive health care and outreach program for the homeless in Milwaukee sponsored by the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph.

“It was consistent with my desire to work with the least among us,” said Jim, who served at St. Ben’s in hospitality and administrative roles. “It was a ministry of presence and accompaniment, which sometimes meant connecting people to immediate medical care, or having a conversation, or just listening.

“I recognized during those encounters that we were ministering with people – and not to people. It’s about one person caring for another. A lot of times, people on the street are given a quick ‘no’ or a push out the door. Those who came to the clinic, however, were treated like family. We helped to restore some of their dignity,” said Jim, who also worked at a thrift store and, during a 2019 summer assignment, served as a chaplain in the level one trauma center and oncology floor of a hospital in New Jersey.

The common thread in his ministries has been working with people when they are at their most vulnerable – when they start asking a lot of questions that they were afraid to ask before, according to Jim, who said hospital chaplaincy has been an enriching experience, as has been his work in prison ministry at the Cook County Jail on the west side of Chicago.

“You can have some amazing conversations with people who are examining their faith and reconsidering their prospects with God. I let them know that they are not forgotten, that people care about them, and that someone is willing to listen,” said Jim, who hopes to continue a ministry of presence when he returns to Chicago after solemn profession.

Next: Solemn Profession Retreat at the Mountain
Jim will be spending his month-long solemn profession retreat – the spiritual exercise in which Franciscans participate before professing their final vows – at Mt. Irenaeus in Western New York, where he will be joined by two other members of Holy Name Province, as well as friars from other US-6 provinces, scheduled to make solemn profession. (The US-6 consists of the half-dozen provinces working to create a coast-to-coast province in 2023.)

“I am looking forward to living in community with the fraternity of friars at the Mountain retreat, and to spending time with the other guys who are planning to profess solemn vows this summer,” said Jim.

Each of the candidates for solemn profession, he explained, has been asked to identify two solemnly professed friars who will share their experiences and Franciscan life during a Zoom session.

“I look forward to hearing from these friars and learning more about their victories, struggles, and challenges,” said Jim, who has a deep interest in provincial history – whose collective richness, he says, comes from the stories of the friars who preceded the current members.

Jim is looking forward to the next phase of his Franciscan journey as a solemnly professed friar – “but still a student,” he notes, as he works toward completing studies for his master of divinity degree. After solemn profession, he will be moving to Blessed Giles Friary, also in Chicago and not far from the interprovincial post-novitiate house, where he hopes to serve in local parish ministry after ordination to the transitional diaconate, and eventually priestly ordination.

— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.