As Labor Day approaches, four friars transitioning to new ministries after the Provincial Chapter and Congressus reflect on their work and their hopes for their new assignments.
Changes in Scale, Responsibilities
Some friars experience a change in the size of a ministry when moving to a new location. Christopher VanHaight, OFM, had a similar experience when he transitioned from pastor of St. Bonaventure Parish, Paterson, N.J., to pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, Durham, N.C.
“Having come from a much smaller parish, it has been a real eye-opener to see how a large, multi-ethnic parish with a parochial school functions,” said Chris. “It couldn’t without the hard work of our dedicated staff and literally hundreds of volunteers who do everything from ironing altar linens, to bringing communion to hospital patients and prisoners. Such faithful service inspires me to want to do my best at serving the people of God here at Immaculate Conception.
“Any transition in life has its challenges, but also its opportunities,” he continued. “Coming here as the new pastor has certainly provided both, and this has been an exciting and rewarding time for me. I look forward to journeying with this faith community, as it continues to grow, and to help spread the Good News in Durham and beyond.”
Sean O’Brien, OFM, is also adjusting to a new environment and new responsibilities, having moved from Sacred Heart Parish in Tampa, Fla., where he was parochial vicar, to associate director of the Franciscan Center for Service and Advocacy at Siena College.
“One major change will be not following the daily sacramental duties of parish life, where presiding at Mass, hearing confessions, anointing the sick or preparing for funerals and weddings are the norm,” he said. “Although I will continue to engage in these ministries, it will not be with the same intensity or volume.
“With great excitement and enthusiasm, I embrace my new life and ministry at the place I call home,” said the friar, who grew up a few miles from Siena. “My primary duties will be with the Franciscan Center for Service and Advocacy. I will be working with the Mentoring Program, a special ministry that brings kids from the inner city of Albany and connects them with students at Siena College. I will also help students engage with various outreach programs in the tri-city area and service projects to places like Jamaica, Haiti, Africa and St. Francis Inn of Philadelphia, to name a few.”
Sean will assist the center in expanding its advocacy work. “This will involve helping the students become more conscious and aware of important life issues, such as human trafficking, climate change and homelessness, and how students can be the voice for change and transformation.”
In addition to the changes in responsibilities, Sean is coping with another new variable: the weather.
“The most obvious change will be taking my vitamin D tablets again,” he joked. “If my memory serves me correctly, the sun shows its lovely face in the Albany skies from time to time, while in Tampa it shines brightly and beautifully just about every day.”
Saying Farewell, Embracing Fraternal Life
Leaving a place that has been home for several years is not an easy task.
“After nine glorious, grace-filled years at Sacred Heart, the spirit prompted me to move on,” Sean said. “Saying goodbye to a community of people whom I have come to know and love, and letting go of some of the great ministries I was involved with, was not easy, but it is right.”
“As I embark on a new ministry, I think of the story of Sir Christopher Wren, architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, who, while visiting the construction site, asked a stone worker, ‘What are you doing?’ The worker responded, ‘Cutting stone, just making a living.’ He asked a second worker the same question and, with a great smile and a gaze toward the heavens, the worker replied, ‘I’m building a cathedral.’
“My ministry as a pastor at St. Francis of Assisi for the past 19 years has been helping to build the Body of Christ,” he continued. “If I was simply a stonecutter, it would be easy to say goodbye. Saying goodbye to brick and mortar is always easy. What is difficult is saying goodbye to the Body of Christ, as I have come to know the people of God in Raleigh. Together, we have received Eucharist and washed one another’s feet, as we have celebrated new life through baptism and memorialized our beloved dead.”
Throughout these past years, Mark said, “the greatest gift in my life has been to share in people’s lives in times of both joy and sorrow, and to walk the Christian journey with parishioners from simple days of Advent to the great Easter Vigil, gathering about the altar Sunday after Sunday, celebrating the Eucharist where Christ continues to be broken and poured out for the hope and well-being of all.
“As I depart the Catholic community of St. Francis of Assisi in Raleigh and arrive at Siena College in Loudonville, it is the people I will miss, and the people I look forward to meeting and being a partner-in-ministry with, as we continue to build the body of Christ,” he concluded.
As friars make their transitions, they draw comfort from their fraternal life and mission.
“This is now my third ‘change of job’ in four years, and there is always a sense of getting reoriented into a new situation, of meeting people on staff, of learning a new culture,” said Steven Patti, OFM, who moved from St. Francis Inn, to become pastor and guardian of St. Francis Church in Raleigh. “What comes through in these new situations is that, amid my own newness and finding my bearings, there is always a kind of Franciscan presence that has come before me, and has been planted and cultivated by other friars and laypeople. Amid all the questions that emerge during a period of transition, this presence is a reminder that I am being carried along more than I know. I’m grateful for it.”
That Franciscan presence is alive at Siena College, where Sean remains mindful of the words of St. Francis: “And the Lord gave me brothers.”
“I will go from living with three friars to approximately 20 friars,” Sean said. “Together, I believe, with the help of God’s grace, we will remind each other and the people we minister to of how we are called to live as lesser brothers in service to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
— Compiled by Maria Hayes with research from Jocelyn Thomas
Editor’s note: The HNP Communications Office welcomes friars to submit reflections about holidays, feast days and other topics of a timely nature. Those interested in submitting a reflection for consideration for inclusion in HNP Today should contact communications director Jocelyn Thomas by email at JThomas@hnp.org.