Serving as a General Visitor

Jocelyn Thomas Friar News

Brian Belanger and Daniel Dwyer

When two friars on the staff of Siena College, just outside of Albany in Loudonville, N.Y., were each asked to take on the assignment of general visitor, Daniel Dwyer, OFM, and Brian Belanger, OFM, knew their work in the Province of Ireland and in the Custody of Santa Maria de la Esperanza del Caribe, respectively, would be fast-paced and intense.

Despite Dan’s assignment in history-rich Ireland and Brian’s assignment on a trio of sun-drenched islands (Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba), sightseeing and catching rays were not on either of their itineraries.

Although the environments were different and their roles as general visitors were not quite the same, the assignment and responsibilities of the two friars were similar.

As general visitors, this canonical-driven mission has Dan and Brian examining the governance and life of the provinces and assessing the friars’ fraternal life, mission and ministries. Between them, they will have interviewed nearly 200 friars, many of whom are in formation, and visited dozens of friaries (houses) and other facilities when the process is concluded. Both are then be required to produce a detailed report on the state of these provinces.

While they are charged with focusing on issues that might need attention, Dan and Brian don’t actually take action; they do, however,  after conducting a thorough examination, make recommendations.

“The visitator – as the position was traditionally called – serves as a listener and observer,” explains Brian, who was assigned to serve as assistant visitator from January through mid-March of this year in the Province of Arantzazu, upon which the Custody of Santa Maria is dependent. “It is not the job of the visitator to directly ‘fix’ anything, but rather to try to point the friars in the right direction in the hope that they will use this evaluation and assessment to respond accordingly.”

Dan’s work as general visitor also began in January and will continue through early July – longer than Brian’s assignment because the Province of Ireland has five times the number of friars than the Custody of Santa Maria. Also, Dan will be serving as president of the province’s chapter, which begins July 26.

“Visitators provide another set of eyes and ears when a province is making important changes and decisions,” explains Dan, an associate professor of history at Siena College. “The visitator acts on behalf of the minister general to encourage the friars and to help them in their growth in Franciscan life, as well as the health of the fraternity and the province as an entity.”

They both agree that it sometimes requires an outsider to fully assess a community. Although outsiders, the friars became part of the provinces during their visitations.

To help them compile as much detail, information and input as possible for the purpose of producing comprehensive, all-encompassing and accurate reports, Dan and Brian immersed themselves in the daily routines, work and ministries of the friars. Their work takes them beyond the walls of the friaries.

Embracing Daily Life
“As a visitator, you want to spend as much time as possible with the brothers, and that means doing everything they do – pray with them, have meals with them, travel with them to their community environments such as associated parishes, shrines, sanctuaries, and pastoral outreach centers,” said Brian, who is director of Siena College’s Center for International Programs.

Dan, too, participates in prayer and liturgies, embracing the entire daily life of the friars. In addition to meeting individually with all friars, he visits every friary in the province.

“I also attend special functions of the congregations served by the friars, and I visit with brothers at their ministries, for example, those serving in hospitals and nursing homes. As a visitator, you can’t do a complete assessment unless you become part of and live the province and every aspect of the brothers, friaries and communities,” he said.

In a way, Brian was prepared for this enormous undertaking because he previously had served as an assistant visitor for the Custody of the Holy Land – which is likely the reason he was selected for his current assignment. It certainly helped, too, that he speaks fluent Spanish.

“The reality is, it’s a lot of work and somewhat stressful, in that the brothers are counting on you to provide a fair and accurate assessment,” adds Brian, who has served on HNP’s Provincial Council since 2011.

Dan’s adventure as visitator, on the other hand, began when he received a call from HNP Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM, informing him that he was selected to serve in the Province of Ireland and its two dependent custodies, Great Britain and Zimbabwe.

Photos of places Dan visited while in Ireland (Images courtesy of Dan)

“It got my attention. I was intrigued, and I accepted the request,” said Dan, who served on HNP’s Provincial Council from 2005 to 2011. “After being selected by the Irish provincial administration, my name was sent to Rome. What makes this extra special is my love for Ireland and my Irish heritage.”

Before being placed into the environments of the respective provinces abroad, Dan and Brian spent a week of training at “visitators’ school” in Rome, where they attended formal classes, reviewed past visitation reports, and picked up helpful information from others who had served as general visitors.

Brian says they came away with a clear understanding of – and were well prepared for – the responsibilities, policies, procedures and protocols of a visitation.

“Visitators’ school in advance of being placed into the province community was a great celebration of international brotherhood, and it also provided a glimpse into how the Order functions at the highest level,” said Dan, who was grateful for the opportunity, while in Rome, to spend time with HNP members Jeffery Jordan, OFM, and Russel Murray, OFM.

Dan will eventually have visited a total of 30 sites on three continents – including locations in Ireland, England, Scotland, Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Belgium, Italy, and the state of Wisconsin.

He has traveled part of the time with Ireland Provincial Minister Hugh McKenna, OFM, from Dublin to London, and to places like Johannesburg, South Africa, Harare, Zimbabwe, and Kraainem, Belgium, where the Irish friars have an English-language parish, and to the Irish friars’ three sites in Rome.

In Zimbabwe, he visited friars at every house – which ranged from comfortable to rustic sites – under the Zimbabwean custody, as well as to suburban parishes, a leper center, a high school, and a rural hospital staffed only with nurses, all of which were ministered to by the friars.

Dan Dwyer in Zimbabwe (Photo courtesy of Dan)

Meeting with Individual Friars
“The roads in Zimbabwe are deteriorated due to the economic and political climate. But the people are incredibly warm and welcoming, and the country itself is beautiful. One of the most memorable sights is during the early morning hours when children emerge from the fields and head to school. The friars are hardworking and often on the move from place to place,” said Dan. “One of the most impressive things I witnessed was the packed churches and the way that everyone raised their voice in song,” he added.

After completing his work at a friary/community, he assembles the brothers and provides a summary of his impressions. Then, Dan is taken to the next location.

In between gathering overall observations, Brian and Dan meet individually with every friar to gain insight into their lives, as well as their input and perceptions of life within the fraternity of friars, province and Order. They also address whatever else the friars may want to discuss.

Formation students in the Caribbean custody (Photo courtesy of Custodia Franciscana del Caribe)

Brian’s work as visitator took him to three independent nations, each with cultural similarities but distinct political realities. He visited the three friaries in San Juan, Puerto Rico; two in the Dominican Republic (in Santo Domingo and Bonao), and one in Havana, Cuba – including the postulancy program in Santo Domingo and the post-novitiate house in San Juan. He found that the Custody of Santa Maria is integrating more with friars from Haiti on issues like formation, for example, even though Haiti is a foundation of the Central American province.

“Traveling between the islands is complicated because of the national boundaries. For Cuba, I needed a visa; for the Dominican Republic, a passport sufficed, and for Puerto Rico, it simply was a driver’s license,” said Brian, who began working at Siena College in 2000 and served as guardian of the Siena friary from 2007 to 2011.

In addition, general visitors are expected to review all financial accounts to make sure the province and individual friaries are fiscally sound, that they are meeting the statutes of all governing policies and procedures, and that various records are up to date. They also must comb through the reports of previous visitators and the recorded minutes of various provincial meetings. They spend time with members of the hierarchy, such as the local guardian and provincial.

“It is very rewarding to meet other friars and get to see how other Franciscan fraternities conduct themselves,” says Brian, noting that group meetings are also held at each house, depending on the number of resident friars.

“Writing the report is the challenging part, having to synthesize so much data and information, and hopefully make it meaningful, relevant and insightful,” said Brian.

In addition to their official assessments, Brian and Dan have collected a wide range of impressions of the places they have been, people they have met, and Franciscan life they have observed.

(Photos courtesy of Custodia Franciscana del Caribe)

Appreciating Hospitality and Prayer
A highlight for Brian was Sunday liturgy in San Juan. “There was such joy and engagement in the worship that I could not help but be deeply moved by the people and the spirit they expressed as a community of believers. It was an experience of real celebratory grace,” he recalled.

He also spoke about a trip to a friary nestled in the hills of the Dominican Republic, cherishing the “wonderful conversation” with the driver – a young friar, newly solemnly professed, who was more knowledgeable and passionate about the area as any tour guide because that is where he was raised.

“I was also humbled by the simplicities of the friaries and the humility in which the friars lived,” he said.

Dan summed up his impressions in two words: hospitality and prayer.

“I have been received as a brother in every house, providing me with a great sense of comfort and belonging,” said Dan, who recently submitted his interim report and was scheduled to visit Irish/British novices in Burlington, Wis., this month.

“Situations and problems vary from place to place, and friar to friar, but this experience has strengthened my own vocation and given me new appreciation for our global Franciscan Order,” he added.

Both friars were humbled by the tradition in which they have now etched their names.

“On this visitation, it has been nice to see the comments of some of my HNP predecessors, such as Charles Finnegan, OFM, and the late Mathias Doyle, OFM,” said Dan, noting that all anxieties over the work at hand are relieved when he stamps his filed documents with the provincial seal that has been entrusted to him.

“We didn’t just take on a title or a role,” said Brian. “You really feel a keen sense of taking part in a very special historical process. Like our predecessors who didn’t record their comments in a computer, I wrote in long-hand about my time spent with the Custody of Santa Maria – all the while thinking what a privilege it is to be the most recent in a long line of visitators of the Franciscan Order.”

Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.

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