Revitalization of U.S. Provinces Progresses with Friar Forums, Discussions about New Entity’s Name, Governance Structure

Jocelyn Thomas In the Headlines

The information below summarizes updates that have been provided to the friars of the six provinces in the United States – called the US-6 – that are part of the Revitalization and Restructuring Process that has been well underway with its goal of forming a single, coast-to-coast Franciscan entity. It provides parishioners, donors, staff members, partners in ministries, alumni of the colleges, and friends of Holy Name Province with a glimpse into the status of the R&R Process.

When talk began about bringing together the six OFM provinces of the United States to form one new province, it was the start of a process that developed into a comprehensive plan – over time, gaining momentum and now at the point where the work of two friar leaders is dedicated solely to this initiative. Early discussions that focused on whether to come together morphed into discussions of how to restructure and revitalize six Franciscan entities, including Holy Name Province, into a strong, singular coast-to-coast province. The Revitalization and Restructuring Process, as it is called, has produced a team that is unified in creating a renewed and energized Franciscan presence in the United States.

After nearly eight years of discussions, fraternal gatherings, and prayer, the six Franciscan provinces – each based in different regions of the country – are now united in their approach to moving forward toward completing the unification in 2023.

Meetings that began as general exploratory conversations – through which members of provincial administrations shared ideas and brainstormed how to effectively meld communities with diverse customs and histories – gradually evolved into a defined and focused process for looking ahead toward the goal of unification and, ultimately, creating a stronger Franciscan presence in the United States.

Now, after years of building the foundation for restructuring, a leadership team has been formed to create the revitalized Franciscan spirit essential to the unification process. The team consists of the provincial minister of each of the six provinces, along with a two-friar office solely dedicated to the R&R process and working with outside consultants.

“I am feeling momentum and progress,” said Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM, as he reflected on the last 12 months. “I’m happy with where we are at this point in the process.”

Expanded Leadership Team
In addition to Holy Name, the provinces participating in the unification are Wisconsin-based Assumption Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe Province in New Mexico, Missouri-based Sacred Heart Province, St. Barbara Province in California, and Ohio-based St. John the Baptist Province. These six Franciscan communities are comprised of roughly 800 friars.

Though the process is called Revitalization and Restructuring – a term coined in 2016 – the emphasis is on revitalization. All decisions are made through the lens of strengthening the spiritual and fraternal lives of friars across the country.

Over the last year, many issues have been addressed and action steps completed, taking the R&R Process to a new level and enabling its leaders to make strides in every aspect – from administrative to fraternal to spiritual. Early in 2020, a business consulting firm with headquarters in the Midwest, and experience with religious organizations, was hired to provide guidance to the provinces and provincial leaders.

The consulting firm initially recommended the creation of an R&R Office – which was implemented last spring when Lawrence Ford, OFM, of Holy Name Province, and John Barker, OFM, of St. John the Baptist, were appointed to the office as director and assistant director, respectively. Both are familiar with the members of the six provinces after having organized an interprovincial gathering of 400 friars in Denver, Colorado, the year before. Both also have leadership experience – Larry as pastor of a large parish in New York City, and John as an instructor for eight years at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Since last summer when Larry and John began working full-time on this initiative, they and the consultants, along with the US-6 provincials, have worked together to advance ideas and plans. The team has aimed to gather as much input from as many people as possible – such as friars and staff members – always keeping in mind the goal of creating a stronger, renewed organization.

Pandemic-Related Adjustments
Because of social distancing requirements and other safety and health protocols of the coronavirus pandemic that went into effect throughout the country in mid-March 2020, R&R meetings have been virtual for nearly a year.

Since last March, the provinces’ leaders have been meeting via Zoom every other week; although not as effective as in-person meetings, it has provided them with the opportunity to meet more frequently.

“We’re at a place now where we are asking questions and decisions are being made,” said Mark Soehner, OFM, provincial minister of St. John the Baptist Province, who serves as the convener of the meetings.

“The addition of our consultant has been helpful for seeing the effects of our decisions on others and for making sure to reach the friars,” he added.

In addition to the provincials, the meetings are attended by the R&R Office staff and the consultant’s representatives. The bi-weekly meetings also include three friar moderators who are members of the provincial councils of the US-6, as well as Caoimhín Ó Laoide, OFM, the English-speaking Conference’s representative to the Order’s General Council, who also provide insights and ideas. In January, the group held an extended meeting over a four-day period to cover an assortment of details.

“Zoom works well, but of course it’s not as personal as we’d like,” said Larry, who lives on the campus of Siena College near Albany, New York. “I had planned to do a lot of traveling in the fall to visit the provinces, but that obviously couldn’t happen because of the pandemic.”

The conversations weren’t all about the R&R Process when the provincials initially convened, according to Larry, who said that the leaders of the six provinces spoke frequently when the pandemic broke out because of their concerns about the health of the friars.

“Despite the pandemic and the need to meet remotely, there’s been a lot of progress,” said Jim Gannon, OFM, provincial minister of ABVM Province and president of the OFM English-speaking Conference. “The team of Larry and John has added a professional element to our work.”

“Like so many people, we had to adapt our methods and plans to the pandemic,” Kevin said.

Friar Forums
Over the past few months, as the leaders addressed business needs, they have included in their discussions and decisions the members of the US-6 provinces who are scattered around the country.

“Hearing what friars are thinking is extremely important. Their ideas are essential to the process,” said Larry, who noted that updates ranging from meeting highlights to video greetings are communicated to friars by email. “We want their opinions and we also want them to understand what is going on.”

To involve friars in the discussions, Larry and John have set up a series of virtual friar forums – three were held in January, and eight are scheduled from February through May, twice each month at different times to accommodate four time zones. These virtual discussions, which have attracted an average of 30 friars per session, provide friars with the opportunity to ask questions and express their concerns.

“It’s important that these forums are interactive. The conversations have been showing interest, optimism, and some hesitancy,” said Larry. “They reflect the attitudes of the friars across the country.”

The most frequently asked questions are about the new entity’s governing structure, assignments, new ministries in the new province, international missions, and the timeline.

“They ask whether 2023 is going to happen – and we believe it will,” said Larry, who is responsible for collecting information, while his colleague John focuses on the ongoing formation needs and goals of the R&R Process.

Among the various aspects of the R&R Process that the leaders have been addressing include an integrated calendar, information technology needs, a new province name, and a governance structure.

The provincial ministers of the US-6 provinces: (top row, from left) David Gaa, OFM, St. Barbara Province; James Gannon, OFM, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Province; Kevin Mullen, OFM, Most Holy Name of Jesus Province. (bottom row, from left) Thomas Nairn, OFM, Most Sacred Heart Province; Mark Soehner, OFM, St. John the Baptist Province; and Ronald Walters, OFM, Our Lady of Guadalupe Province. (Photos courtesy of the respective provinces)

Emphasis on Fraternity
In tandem with the R&R Office’s work, the working groups of the US-6 have been providing programs to deepen fraternal connections and Franciscan spirituality among the members of the six provinces. This past Advent, a series of reflections was offered to friars and now, for the Lenten season, video reflections by the six provincial ministers are being distributed to friars — one each week.

The issue of revitalization is key to the creation of a coast-to-coast province.

“We are not simply joining together the organizations,” said Larry, who professed his first vows as a Franciscan in 1991. “We are looking to determine what is working well now and what we, as friars, need to do differently in the future. We are putting a lot of emphasis on the renewal of fraternal life. It is a reprioritization.”

“Real revitalization is always local,” said Mark. “What will revitalize us is intentionality as a friar. Having friars talk about their adventures is important – once we can catch on to this. Living with and among the poor is important.”

Kevin, who has served as HNP’s provincial since 2014, emphasized the value of friars spending time together.

“We need to have gatherings such as retreats and pilgrimages. This is a key aspect of revitalization,” he said. “Unfortunately, most everything we had planned for 2020 was canceled or held online because of the pandemic. The situation has forced us into some challenges.”

Last week, the R&R Office announced that two friar groups had been established to help guide the R&R Office and provincial leaders during the process.

The seven-member Fraternal Life Commission will advise the R&R Office on revitalization and restructuring matters as they relate to Franciscan life. By sharing their experiences of fraternal life, the commission will explore the role of the local fraternity and guardian, as well as the individual friars’ response to his local fraternity.

The second group – the nine-member Work and Mission Commission – aims to identify emerging needs of the communities served by the Franciscans, as well as the needs of the country and Church.

These commissions are complementary councils to the R&R Office, sharing insights into how friars are feeling about specific issues. Their perspectives will help guide the R&R Office and the provincials as they make decisions on matters related to revitalization, fraternal life, and ministry.

The commission members began their work in December with an orientation to get to know their colleagues and the consultants.

In the coming months, the R&R leaders will continue to address their goals – expanding ways to create the “new” in the new coast-to-coast organization, rather than simply thinking of the process as a unification. They will explore ways to coordinate and further develop the ongoing formation efforts in place throughout the six provinces, and they will finalize contracts with companies that will provide services, such as information systems (software), interprovincial compliance personnel, legal representation, and evaluating ministerial commitments.

“The R&R Process is continually unfolding,” said Kevin.

Friars from six U.S. provinces gathered in Denver in 2019 for a “Chapter of Mats.” (Photo courtesy of the Provincial archives)

R&R Process – The Beginnings
The leaders of the Franciscan provinces in the United States have been discussing the concept of unifying for almost a decade. Early conversations took place among the members of the provincial councils of the English-speaking Conference when they were attending a meeting in California in 2012. Those conversations led to a subsequent meeting in August 2014, at which the provincial leaders decided to move ahead with evaluating the possibility of unification.

Members of the administrations of seven provinces met in Racine, Wisconsin, and after a week of discussions, friars created a broad framework for a process to address both the friars’ fraternal life-in-mission and its structures. More than 60 friars representing the seven U.S. OFM provinces gathered at the Siena Retreat Center to continue the national conversation regarding the state of Franciscan life in America.

A team of friars, each of whom put aside their regular ministerial assignments to give their full-time attention to this project, was appointed to the reconfiguration efforts with oversight by the provincial ministers. The provincial councils also agreed to spend significant time discussing the reconfiguration process at their regular meetings.

In August 2015, the administration members of the U.S. provinces approved the restructuring possibility and decided to evaluate four potential approaches.

Although all seven U.S. provinces were involved at the outset, in early 2017, it was determined that six of the provinces would move forward on unification. The seventh, Immaculate Conception Province, which is based in New York City, announced that it would not be participating in the restructuring discussions.

In 2018, the members of the six provinces, in a simultaneous vote held on May 30, voted to proceed with the initiative to unify their communities and to work toward building a stronger Franciscan presence in the United States.

In July 2019, more than 400 friars from around the country gathered in Denver for a historic event – the first interprovincial Chapter of Mats – to get to know each other as the R&R Process switched into high gear.

Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.