RACINE, Wis. — More than 60 friars representing the seven U.S. OFM provinces gathered at the Siena Retreat Center earlier this month to continue the national conversation regarding the state of Franciscan life in America.
The event followed a series of gatherings and chapters held from March to June, during which all seven provinces voted to approve a proposal that stated each community would “commit to participate in a process that will reduce the current number of Provinces in the United States by creating one or more new provinces that better serve our Franciscan fraternal life and mission.”
The provincial ministers, vicars and councils of the provinces as well as three provincial secretaries — including Michael Harlan, OFM — and members of the interprovincial commission — including Dominic Monti, OFM, former Provincial Vicar—were present at the Aug. 3 to 6 meeting. Also in attendance was General Minister Fr. Michael Perry, OFM, who shared his hopes and support for the process, as well as Fr. Thomas Smolich, SJ, outgoing president of the Jesuit USA Conference, who spoke about the Jesuits’ recent reconfiguration process that resulted in reducing the number of provinces from 10 to four.
“The major conclusion was that our chapters all voted to have a place at the table and we were most encouraged,” said Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM. “We decided that there are two main ideas on which to focus: mission and values, and development of structure.”
Framework for the Future
During the meeting, the friars created a broad framework for a process that will address both the friars’ fraternal life-in-mission and its structures.
This process will begin with the appointment of a team of friars to work on reconfiguration efforts. The friars will forgo their current assignments to work on this project fulltime and the provincial ministers will oversee their work. The provincials will appoint the friar-team within the next few months. An outside consultant will also be hired to work with the friar-team.
All seven provinces will provide financial support for the friar-team, as well as for the consultant’s fees. Also, the provincial councils plan to spend significant time discussing the reconfiguration process at their regular meetings.
“Whatever the process costs in terms of time, money and personnel, resources invested in the future of Franciscan life in the United States are, in the view of the brothers who met in Racine, resources well spent,” according to the first issue of USfranciscans, a newsletter of the U.S. provinces focusing on the reconfiguration process.
The administrations agree that this process must be guided by a renewal of Franciscan life, not only demographics.
“One significant outcome of the meeting for me was the rearticulation of the goal of restructuring. It is a process intended to revitalize the quality of our Franciscan fraternity-in-mission in the United States at the beginning of this 21st century,” said Provincial Vicar Lawrence Hayes, OFM. “The number of provinces and other such structural concerns are secondary to, and in service of, an enhanced and reinvigorated Franciscan presence in our nation at this time in history. Put differently, as we move forward, we need to read the signs of the times as well as the demographic data.”
The provincials state, in a letter sent to friars on Aug. 15, that the reconfiguration process must address two fundamental ideas.
“In the words of Francis, we must enliven both ‘the spirit of prayer and devotion’ and ‘the work of our hands,’ our mission and ministries, along with the structures that make them possible,” the provincials said.
As the reconfiguration process moves forward, organizers will include as many friars as possible, especially those who are already participating in some form of interprovincial collaboration in areas such as formation and justice and peace.
“This process will require prayer, patience, dedication and sacrifice from all of us,” the provincials stated in their letter. “We all have something to give. We all have something to gain. We believe that the Lord is showing what is ours to do in our day: rebuild Franciscan life within ourselves, so that we can be part of rebuilding the Church around us.”
Advice from Jesuits, General Minister
The August meeting was “rooted in prayer, consistently cordial, deeply fraternal, open, honest, positive and hopeful,” according to USfranciscans, a newsletter edited by Fr. Thomas Washburn, OFM, of Immaculate Conception Province, the executive secretary of the OFM English-speaking Conference.
During the gathering, the friars listened to a presentation from the outgoing president of the Jesuit USA Conference. Fr. Thomas shared actions his community took during the reconfiguration process, including:
- Immediately beginning working across provinces to stop functioning as isolated groups
- Assuring financial equality across the new provinces
- Seeking vocations immediately
- Listening to younger members, giving more weight to their voices
The OFM General Minister also addressed the friars, stating that he was not in attendance to give the U.S. provinces their “marching orders” from the General Curia.
“I am not here to dictate the result of your discernment, but only to be sure that a good discernment takes place,” he said. “There is no ‘plan book’ in Rome for your discernment. But while we’re not going to tell you how to proceed, you must join in the process of examining the state of Franciscanism, realizing that this may well involve changing some of the boundaries of existing provinces.”
The administrations agree that the reconfiguration process must be “short enough to get it done and long enough to get it right.” USfranciscans, which replaced A Place at the Table newsletter, emphasized the importance of giving friars time to get to know each other as brothers and learning to trust one another.
“The participants at the meeting in Racine envision a process that will yield concrete proposals for the brothers to deliberate and decide upon at their next provincial chapters,” according to USfranciscans. “The subsequent implementation of those proposals, should they be approved, will likely take an additional three or more years.”
The future number of provinces has not been pre-determined nor have boundary lines been drawn.
“To do either at this point would be foolish, short-sighted and profoundly un-fraternal,” stated the administrations in USfranciscans. “It would undermine the shared hope that decisions about the future of Franciscan life in the United States would be the result of a nationwide conversation and consultation of all the brothers, a conversation that needs to include the voices of their lay partners-in-ministry as well as experts in the field of social and cultural analysis.”
Kevin described the meeting as “a very good fraternal experience,” and Lawrence agreed.
“I experienced our time together at Racine as friendly, fraternal, honest and very positive in tone,” Larry said. “I think that all the provinces left the meeting more squarely ‘at the table.’ It strikes me that the restructuring process will not be such a huge stretch for us Franciscans of the United States if we can build it upon a solid foundation of trust, based on the friars’ first knowing each other. It doesn’t take much time together to discover how much our similarities outweigh our differences.”
The Provincial administrations first gathered in July 2012 for a retreat in Malibu, Calif. While there, they reflected on the nature and challenges of Franciscan leadership. Discussions about the reconfiguration process formally began with a meeting in December 2012 in Burlington, Wis., where Provincial leaders gathered to discuss the future of Franciscan life in the United States. That meeting resulted in the creation of an interprovincial commission that prepared and presented a report in October 2013. The commission found that “the present structure is not sustainable.”
The administrations will most likely meet again next summer to further discuss the reconfiguration process.
— Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province.