Retreats Provide Friars Setting for Facing Fraternal Ecology Transitions

Stephen Mangione Friar News

Three retreats were held for friars who currently serve at ministry locations from which Holy Name Province will withdraw pastoral and administrative responsibilities by June 30. The Province-sponsored retreats were intended to provide friars with support and guidance and help them deal with the breadth of emotion brought on by HNP’s decision to withdraw from nine Fraternities-in-Mission.

The retreats, which drew the participation of a total of 18 friars, were held in North Carolina, Florida, and New Jersey. They provided friars with the opportunity to gather in fraternity by sharing prayer, meals, and dialogue.

The retreats also provided friars with the resources to help their congregations adjust to the realities of the Province’s “Fraternal Ecology” initiative – a more than two-year collegial process in which HNP engaged the participation of virtually all friars, as well as local dioceses and lay partners in ministry, in evaluating the future sustainability of the Province’s 30 Fraternities-in-Mission.

The process culminated with HNP’s announcement in January of the decision to withdraw from nine of the 30 Fraternities-in-Mission, among them seven parishes, a chapel mall ministry, and a university campus ministry.

At the time of the announcement, Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM, said that the departure of the Franciscans from these ministry sites would inevitably bring sadness and disappointment – which he noted are “natural emotions because of the many decades of association between the friars and the good and faith-filled congregants” at the Fraternities-in-Mission.

But after the initial wave of emotion and reaction, says David Convertino, OFM, a member of the Provincial Council, it was time to grieve, heal and, ultimately, respect and begin to accept the decisions.

“The friar retreats were designed to help our friars navigate this process, providing an arena where they could openly and honestly share their feelings about the Province’s Fraternal Ecology decisions, what was happening in their lives, and how they are affected,” said David, executive director of the Province’s development office who led the friar fraternal support team that planned, organized and led the retreats.

In the spirit of the Fraternal Ecology process, we are grateful to the brothers who organized this series of retreats, which truly reflected our Franciscan ideals and principles – gathering in fraternity during this emotional and difficult time of change, supporting and taking care of one another as any family members would do,” said Kevin. “We thank our brother-friars for participating in a meaningful way, and for their honesty, understanding, and acceptance. We are hopeful that it not only made us stronger as a Province but that these sessions also provided the spiritual guidance that will enable our brothers to help their ministerial communities navigate through this change.”

Moved by Sharing, Openness
“It was a privilege to be with my brother friars at a difficult time like this. I was deeply moved by their trust, openness, and sharing. These friar retreats illustrated a real sense of what fraternity is – and how powerful fraternity can be in a difficult time. Hopefully, these fraternal gatherings were spiritually and emotionally nourishing, and helped our friars adjust to the realities of Fraternal Ecology,” David said.

A hermitage at St. Francis Springs Prayer Center in rural North Carolina was the venue for one of the friar retreats. (Photo courtesy of St. Francis Springs)

He noted that the feelings about change and transition in the Fraternal Ecology initiative were not very different from those that surface around the ongoing Revitalization and Restructuring Process in which six U.S. provinces will eventually unite as a single entity. “There is change and transition in the Province – and really, throughout the Order,” he said.

The retreats were fraternity driven, held in home-like, family environments where the friars collaborated in the kitchen for meals, prayed together, and participated in frank discussions on change and the pastoral dimension of transition.

“We want these brothers to know that they can count on support from the fraternal community,” said David, noting that although the retreats had a planned itinerary, the schedule and discussions were fluid. “Whatever direction they took, that’s the way we went. The participants had a lot of questions and a lot to say.”

Frank Critch, OFM, director of the Catholic Center at the University of Georgia in Athens – one of the nine Fraternities-in-Mission from which the Province is leaving – appreciated the opportunity to give voice to the concerns and needs of the people and friars in the affected ministries.

“Decisions made remotely and how they impact the community locally can be quite jarring. Whether we agreed or not, the decision to withdraw from UGA has had an impact on the people and their concerns for the future. As friars, our priority was to be here for the people in the ministry, but the retreat was a time for someone to be here for [the friars]. The retreat allowed us to voice our fears, frustration, and pain in a safe environment – and without being criticized,” said Frank, who attended the Jan. 28 to 30 retreat in Orlando, Florida.

“My emotions ran high. I was angry and upset, but I trusted the fraternal support team. Being heard and listening to others brought some healing to the process. The best part was gathering at meals; it was a time for laughter and fraternity. The retreat gave me time to breathe and provided strength for the journey ahead. I joined this Province for the fraternity and mission. Sometimes we lose our way, but these are the times that we find our way home again,” added Frank.

Tranquility in a Time of Chaos
For Steven Patti, OFM, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh, N.C. – another of the Fraternities-in-Mission from which the Province announced its departure – the retreat provided the opportunity to spend time with other friars who are going through the same thing.

“The setting, about 100 miles west of Raleigh nestled in the woods, provided a sense of quiet and peace in a time of chaos. It was a small group of 10 friars, so we all had the chance to talk through what it was like to get the phone call and what each of us was dealing with in the days since the announcement. It was a nice few days of talk, prayer, free time, and meals together,” said Steve, who attended the Jan. 14 to 16 retreat at St. Francis Springs Prayer Center in Stoneville, N.C.

The beginning of one of the prayers prepared for retreat participants. (Document courtesy of Jim Sabak)

“Emotions have run from stunned disbelief to a sense that this is the new reality of religious life in the Church. People were angry and upset, but at the same time very supportive of the friars. It’s sort of an awkward time as we draw closer to the time [that we] actually leave. It’s calmer now since the days following the announcement, but emotions will run high once we get closer to the departure date,” said Steve, who noted that Jim Sabak, OFM, part of the fraternal support team, has helped the friars and parishioners at the Raleigh parish plan and develop prayer services during the transition.

Heightened, Humbling Trust
Jim, who has an extensive liturgical background, also put together a litany of prayers specifically for the retreats – and which participants brought back to their ministry sites to pray with their congregations.

Henry Fulmer, OFM, of Triangle, Virginia, was humbled by the trust of the participating friars. “It was eye-opening to hear them in one of the most vulnerable times in their lives and ministries. The process showed how fraternal the Provincial Administration is to the pain and suffering of our brothers,” said Henry, who is a member of the fraternal support team.

“The retreats were very different and challenging because each had its own charism and the ministries where the friars serve have their own distinct histories. It was truly an example of what we are called to do – to care for and walk with each other in good times and bad. It was a wonderful time to express gratitude for those who came before us and those who will follow. I find these moments to be the most grace-filled times of our lives – and this grace is reflected in our diversity as friars,” added Henry, who gave a presentation on pastoral ministry at each of the retreats.

For Jim McIntosh, OFM, of Wood Ridge, N.J. – where the Province is withdrawing from the Church of the Assumption of Our Blessed Lady – the retreat was exactly what the affected friars needed.

“David prepared an excellent program on dealing with change, particularly the significant change of withdrawing from a ministry site. It addressed the friars’ personal struggles with change, as well as how to deal with the partners-in-ministry at the site affected by the changes,” said Jim, who attended the Feb. 4 to 6 retreat in Margate, N.J. “Particularly relatable was the description of the uneasiness experienced when someone knows they are leaving, but have not yet learned where they are going.”

Some of the retreats included conference calls with Bob Sandoz, OFM, and Dennis Wilson, OFM, providing presentations about the administrative aspects of withdrawing from ministries, and Jim Sabak leading a call about prayer and liturgy within the context of the friars’ departures.

Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.