This reflection is reprinted with permission, and with minor edits, from The Cord, a publication of the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. In it, a friar, who was ordained a priest 30 years ago this May, describes the value of fraternity as well as details of the structure of the Franciscan Order, topics getting much attention around the world since the new pope chose the name “Francis.”
Franciscans: Whether we are ordained or lay, we are all brothers!
In my first week as the new chaplain at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, N.Y., in September 2012, a freshman Latina student approached me in front of the college and remarked with an admirable smile, “Hey brother, I like your hoodie!” Little did I realize that this remark was a key sign of my initiation into a new ministry and what it truly means to be a Franciscan.
She meant to be funny in referring to my capuche as a “hoodie,” recalling the hoodie worn by Trayvon Martin, the young man tragically killed in a controversial shooting in Florida in late 2011. I explained the difference between a hoodie and the capuche, the garment that covers the shoulders and neck and, when necessary, the head as well. It is a religious garment that is very different from a hoodie.
I also corrected her that I was a priest, not a brother. “I am Fr. Brian, not Br. Brian.” She thought the difference was that the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn wore black religious habits and my Province wore brown habits. I corrected her and explained that the OFMs who wore brown habits were a mixture of priests and brothers. I went on to explain that the Franciscan Conventuals, who also wore a black habit, were likewise a mixture of priests and brothers. I then explained to her about the Capuchins and the Third Order Regular from whom the Franciscan Brothers of Brooklyn come.
She gave me a stark expression of disbelief and asked, “Well, you are telling me about all the differences among your groups. What do you all share in common?” I told her that we are all Franciscans. She retorted, “That means you are all brothers, right?”
For this past semester, I have been reflecting on this question after being constantly addressed as “Brother” instead of “Father” by students, faculty, staff and alumni alike. Finally, on Christmas Eve, I looked at the manger in the church at Our Lady of Peace Parish in Brooklyn where I reside, and I thought of St. Francis of Assisi at Christmas in Greccio. The answer came to me, “Right, we are all brothers!”
Relationship with the Brooklyn Brothers
I have been saying Mass and giving talks at St. Francis College for more than 10 years. I have become familiar with many of the Brooklyn Brothers and found them to be friendly, scholarly and good humored. One of them, Br. Joseph Moloney, OSF, joked with me when I first arrived and said, “Hey, if it weren’t for the Brooklyn Brothers, St. Bonaventure University would not have a college charter.” What he meant was that my Province of The Holy Name which once owned and still sponsors the university was greatly influenced by the charter New York States gave to St. Francis College, which the Brooklyn Brothers founded. At Br. Joseph Moloney’s wake in the fall of this year, I fondly recalled this conversation and the great bond between HolyName Province and theFranciscan Brothers of Brooklyn for over 150 years.
Earlier in 2012, I was invited to the 40th anniversary of Br. Joseph LaGressa’s religious profession. Br. Joseph is from the Immaculate Conception Province, which is strongly based in northeastern America. It overlaps in certain geographical regions with Holy Name Province. Immaculate Conception Province was also directly responsible for the founding of St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y. It was later that Holy Name Province assumed responsibility for Bona’s, but the university still remains an international gathering place for Franciscan scholars and students who desire to learn and evangelize in the living Franciscan tradition.
I have known Br. LaGressa since his 15th anniversary of religious profession when we worked together with the young adult ministry in the Archdiocese of Boston. Br. Lagressa was so effective with youth and young adult ministry that he was asked by then Cardinal Bernard Law to be on an advisory committee for the archdiocese for this meaningful ministry.
And did he advise! I vividly recall when he got in a dispute with the Cardinal that Br. LaGressa skillfully asserted to Cardinal Law, “With all due respect, Your Eminence, the City of Boston has a sign named after you — One Way.” Br. LaGressa made his point in more ways than one with this insightful remark. We still get together on occasion since he visits me in Our Lady of Peace Parish in Brooklyn, which is administered by the Immaculate Conception Province.
Discovering Fraternity Through Br. Juniper
On Nov. 3, 2012, one of the most influential brothers in my Franciscan life, Juniper Capece, OFM, was called home to God by Sister Death. Juniper was a tailor and habit maker in Holy Name Province for 56 years until in 2009, when he retired to Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Md. Besides making my religious habit, he made the habits for thousands of friars through those 56 years. Here I treat his name as an acronym and highlight my special relationship with him through each letter of his first name:
J — Jubilant was my first impression of Juniper when I met him in the friars’ recreation room in the Siena College Friary when I was a senior and contemplating religious life in the fall of 1977. He was in full habit and sandals with a drink in his hand playing the game Twister with another friar not in his habit. I laughed out loud at this unexpected sight of these two friars falling over each other as they moved to place a foot in one of the colored circles on the mat. I immediately appreciated the earthiness of the Franciscans.
U — Understanding was the constant demeanor of Juniper for the 35 years I knew him. He was a genial listener and always went out of his way when he perceived that a friar (ordained, lay or in formation) was in need of some type of consolation or reassurance. In words and actions he consistently encouraged anyone going through difficult times. I am convinced that he heard more friars’ confessions than most priests and he kept each one to himself. He never betrayed a confidence. I consider him one of the best confessors ever in our Province. Yes, brothers hear confessions too!
N — Naughty but nice! If you had the unique privilege of being on Juniper’s mailing list, chances are you received letters filled with a series of hilarious cartoons spiced with bawdy jokes and pithy spiritual sayings. Yes, some were quite naughty, but the spiritual sayings were more than nice—they were meaningful. Juniper quietly believed that the vow most friars struggled with most was chastity. In a society filled with overt sexual messages, whether through magazines, movies or online, sexual passions are easily aroused. Juniper firmly believed that if one laughed at oneself despite all the many temptations, the spiritual sayings could help one find coping skills for living a celibate life. After reading numerous articles and texts on this subject, this so-called uneducated brother had the best advice for those struggling with celibacy. He urged us to be honest with oneself. “Know that you are not alone, but with brothers. Don’t take yourself too seriously and, most of all, bring it to the Lord with prayer.” Not simple-minded, just pure simplicity.
I — Intuitive was Juniper’s key gift. He knew before the formation team what formation student would be approved for solemn vows or what lay employee was hard working or not. Juniper never hesitated to pick up a mop and clean the floor, take out the garbage, wash the dishes or even collect and distribute the mail. He could sense goodness in a person right away, and just as quickly, he could also sense deceit. In the latter case, he did not hesitate to tell that person of his shortcoming for the sake of fraternal correction.
P — Professional characterized Juniper’s dutiful work ethic. He possessed tremendous skill with his gifts as a tailor. Not only did he make religious habits for many Franciscans even beyond the Province, but well-known tailors and dressmakers sought out his professional expertise on material, design and measuring sizes. He was a mentor for many religious and lay people who still make religious habits today.
E — Entertaining was among Juniper’s great gifts. Whether he was sharing humorous stories in the rec room, at the dinner table or in the garden — everyone in the room was radiant with joy with this spry brother’s love for life. He entertained you because he cared about you and you were important to him. He loved fraternity and constantly entertained us because he wanted us to experience fraternity in the local community rather than in some clandestine liaison that one may later regret. Juniper exuded true Franciscan joy as a means of keeping us laughing and keeping us in the community.
R — Religious life is based in prayer, both personal and communal. Juniper loved participating in the Liturgy of the Hours through morning and evening prayer, and especially in the celebration of daily Eucharist. He always believed and practiced the belief that we receive the Body of Christ (Eucharist) as the Body of Christ (Community). Personal prayer was his constant guide, and even when Sister Death was fast approaching in early November 2012, Juniper was not afraid. He echoed the words of St. Francis “My God and My All” and experienced his Transitus from death into eternal life. May he rest in peace!
Since Vatican II, numerous Franciscan documents have expressed the need to identify ourselves as brothers and not just priests and brothers. In the words of his testament, St. Francis wrote, “I thank the Lord for having sent me brothers.” My new ministry and new fraternity encourage me to share the Franciscan charism with other Franciscan provinces and orders. We are Franciscan Catholics, not Franciscan Congregationalists! We are not separate entities, but part of a greater global body called the Franciscans.
Through the inspiration of a young Latina freshman student and three remarkable Franciscan brothers named Joseph, Juniper and Joseph, I have renewed my Franciscan identity as being Br. Brian rather than Fr. Brian. Why? Because that is what we truly are — brothers to one another and to all! Amen.
— Fr. Brian, a resident of Our Lady of Peace Parish, Brooklyn, N.Y., is chaplain, St. Francis College, Brooklyn. Friars interested in submitting reflections about holy days, holidays and other timely topics are asked to contact the HNP Communications Office by phone (646-473-0265 ext. 321) or email.