Seasonal Reflection: Franciscan Spirituality

Neil O’Connell, OFM Features

This reflection is adapted from a presentation given by Neil O’Connell, OFM, on Oct. 3, in the rectory of St. Joseph of the Holy Family Church in Harlem, where he lives. Neil shared with parishioners his understanding of the concept of Franciscan spirituality. The full text of his reflection is provided in aseparate document.

An invitation from the pastor of the parish where I am in residence to make a presentation on Franciscan spirituality to parish members prompted me, after 51 years as a professed Franciscan, to reflect on that spirituality, which I profess to be living.

Since I have spent 38 years in higher education, I need to cite my sources, as I require my students to do. Aside from my own personal reflection, I acknowledge as sources Francis, Clare, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, my father’s fond recollections of growing up in St. Patrick Parish, Buffalo, N.Y., a “great cloud of (Franciscan) witnesses,” starting with my Bishop Timon High Schoolfreshman teacher, Boniface Hanley, OFM, through my novice master Peter Sheridan, OFM, to the present, and Michael Himes, brother of Kenneth Himes, OFM.

Franciscan spirituality is not a well-defined, structured spirituality, as those constructed beginning with the Catholic Reformation of the 16th century. Francis’ spirituality was a rather spontaneous response to God’s grace and personal revelation. It was a lived process until the end of his life. 

In 2009, Franciscans are celebrating Papal approval of a rough draft of a way of life which Francis finally formulated, under Papal pressure, into the approved Rule of 1223. Even that Rule was quite minimal and has lent itself to interpretations of various Franciscan families. Franciscans, both individually and communally, will always be “pilgrims and strangers” on the road of ever-evolving Franciscan spirituality. Having said this, my German side will now violate this assertion by presenting a structured personal view of this evolving Franciscan spirituality.

The center of Franciscan spirituality is the triune God, who is all love and all good. Unlimited love and good, of itself, can only limitlessly overflow. Although he had a problematic relation with his own father, Francis saw God the Father as all love and all good flowing into God the Son, and both flowing into the Holy Spirit.

Our spirituality has a variety of strong themes; they include emphesis on the incarnation, community, peace and the balance between contemplation and action.

Focus on Incarnation 
From this, Franciscan spirituality is deeply incarnational. The ultimate overflowing of trinitarian love is in the Son of God immersed in human flesh. Human sin is not a “happy fault” fusing the incarnation, but a mordant malady which requires a passover of the always intended incarnation to restore humanity to original grace which trumps original sin every time. The resurrection of the incarnation is the seal on the continued eternity of the incarnation. In our baptisms, all creation is being baptized too.

Franciscan spirituality is Pentecostal. Francis and his first followers were constantly in-spirited or inspired. In the face of a recent Church prohibition against new rules for religious life, Francis asserted that his way of life was inspired by God, and he prevailed. Francis proclaimed that the General Minister of the Order was the Holy Spirit. No doubt, the relation of the Holy Spirit and Mary has played an important role in Franciscan Pentecostalism and draws Franciscan spirituality to transcend the limits of the impossible, for all things are possible in the Holy Spirit.

“We” Over “I”
Franciscan spirituality is communal, emphasizing the “we” over the “I.” While each human is a separate species, each human grows and flourishes in community. Franciscan communalism has the calming insight that we can choose our friends but we cannot choose our brothers and sisters. In the larger society, Franciscan communalism democratizes aristocracy and renders all people lords and ladies, replacing class warfare with class cooperation. Franciscan communalism is always for others.

Franciscan spirituality is lesser, humble, poor. It acknowledges that all is gift from the triune God, including our talents and abilities. Since Franciscans own nothing, they wear greatness well, and are the true and faithful stewarts of creation, always asserting that up to now, we have done nothing.

Franciscan spirituality is practical; not fasting more beyond what the Church requires for all, eating of what is set before one, preaching without words and feeding 100 bag ladies by noon tomorrow.

Spirituality of Wisdom
Franciscan spirituality is wise. It espouses wisdom which is knowledge wrapped with intuitive love bathed by divine illumination. Thus, Franciscan education promotes learning with feeling and shares the riches of wisdom with the poor and alienated.

Franciscan spirituality is peaceful. Yet, it advocates an active peace which is always emanating outward to transform a frequently violent world with peace and reconciliation.

This is my personal reflection, and, in reality, a distinctive feature of Franciscan spirituality is that it is as varied as the number of Franciscan men and women who have are now living it. 

— Fr. Neil, a former president of St. Bonaventure University, is the Catholic campus minister at Manhattan Community College and Herbert H. Lehman College in the Bronx, where he is also an adjunct professor of history. Topics planned for future seasonal reflections include, but are not limited to, All Souls Day, John Duns Scotus and Our Lady of Guadalupe.