Just before Christmas, the current issue of Bonaventure, the magazine of St. Bonaventure University, arrived in the mailboxes of SBU alumni, trustees and other friends of the Western New York college. As it has done since its launch in 2008, the publication included an essay called Franciscan Minute. The Winter 2011-2012 piece, by a recent addition to SBU’s administration, describes the continuing Franciscan spirit that is evident at the 153-year-old university despite the reduction in friars and the changes in the Catholic church. Previous contributors to the Franciscan Minute series have included F. Edward Coughlin, OFM, and Provincial Vicar Dominic Monti, OFM.
The other day, SBU senior journalism and mass communication major Emily Deragon asked for an interview in order to complete her capstone project. As the newest friar on campus and the new executive director of University Ministries, I wasn’t exactly sure what a capstone project was but I thought if it could help a student, why not?
I have since learned that capstone experiences are required for all majors. Requiring a thesis, project or course, the capstone challenges students to integrate the knowledge they acquired over their previous years into something useful and relevant for our time.
Emily, the efficient journalist that she is, sent the questions before the actual interview. She asked questions such as “When did you become interested in being a Franciscan?” and “What was your previous assignment before you arrived at St. Bonaventure?”
But one question caught me by surprise: “Why do you think the number of friars at Bona’s has decreased?” Perhaps it was presumptuous, but I thought the question was asked with a sense of sadness and dismay.
By extension, one could ask, why do you think the number of priests and religious has decreased in our Church? If I had the answer to that question, I’m sure many more people would be requesting an interview.
As with most other religious communities, our numbers as a province, as well as a local community here on campus, have decreased over the past four decades.
While some 70 friars were once housed in “The Friary” — known today as Doyle Hall — 12 friars remain. On the one hand, the significantly reduced number of friars on campus can be seen as a very disconcerting fact. But on the other, perhaps we might ask, what is the Spirit saying to us? What are the long-term implications for Bona’s if there are going to be fewer “brown robes” around?
As I explained to Emily, attitudes toward religion and the Church have dramatically changed since the “Catholic culture” of the 1950s. The core values of the vowed life stand in stark contrast to aspirations of many 21st century men and women.
The search for “the reason,” the simple “explanation,” have eluded researchers. It is also important to understand that our campus experience mirrors the national and international trends that demonstrate the decrease in professions and ordinations across the board. There is no doubt that the times have changed but the truth of the matter is that the one thing that we are certain of is that these times are ours.
We can lament the fact that we are not what we used to be — who is? — or we can embrace the reality of who and what we are today. That, coupled with God’s grace, allows us as followers of St. Francis to embrace his challenge “to do what is ours to do.” Do not forget, the Franciscan Order grew from the commitment of one man to live according to the values of the Gospel. He lived in the reality of his time and offered the Church and world an alternative way.
Similarly, St. Clare embraced that same challenge and introduced to the world an alternative way for consecrated women to live the Gospel.
Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi were innovators in their time as they listened to the inner promptings of the Holy Spirit. Their courageous choices resonated with some of the deepest longings of the world in which they lived. Many were inspired to follow them in religious and secular ways of Gospel life.
We are not here to re-create a former day of the 13th century, nor of the 20th. We are here to create our day if we are willing to listen to the Spirit with faith and courage.
No, our Franciscan presence is not what it was. We no longer have 70 friars teaching, coaching, or serving as administrators, but the Franciscan challenge to live the Gospel is still present in the four Franciscan sisters who minister at the University, the 12 friars who reside on campus, the six friars who live at Mt. Irenaeus, and all of the other wonderful people who teach, coach, and administer here at St. Bonaventure University.
During the five months since I arrived on campus, I have seen how this university has taken up the challenge to invite and include the different aspects of the campus life into our Franciscan heritage.
When I hear Betsy Cashing, a lecturer in our School of Education, integrate the Franciscan values into her classroom, despite her Presbyterian background, I know my predecessors planted good Franciscan seed. When I hear of Jim Mahar’s call for BonaResponds to help those affected by the devastating path of Hurricane Irene, I know the Franciscan message has deep roots.
When nine different faith traditions can gather in our University Chapel to pray for peace in response to Pope Benedict XVI’s call to remember the 25th anniversary of the Spirit of Assisi, the Franciscan message continues to be proclaimed.
If I were to complete a capstone project myself to illustrate how the university has integrated the Franciscan presence in Western New York over the past 153 years, I would certainly have enough data to create a thorough project. However, our journey continues. As the friars and sisters had previously done, we will continue to listen to the promptings of the Spirit and ask today “what is ours to do” in the reality and in the world in which we live.
The Franciscan presence is here. The spirit remains. The heritage continues.
— Fr. Francis has served as executive director of University Ministries at St. Bonaventure since June 2011.