The Order During the Pandemic

Jim McIntosh OFM Franciscan World

Life around the Order of Friars Minor and around the world has dramatically changed in the last two months as people and organizations guard against the spread of the novel coronavirus. The current issue of Fraternitas, the Order’s international newsletter, provides descriptions about how Franciscans are responding to the pandemic in creative ways, as well as overviews of new Franciscan books.

The descriptions below summarize recent developments throughout the Order of Friars Minor. Additional details can be found on the OFM website and by following the Order on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

► In Rome, Caoimhín Ó Laoide, OFM, the general councilor for the English-speaking entities of the Order, reported earlier this month on life at the General Curia which overlooks Vatican City.

Unsurprisingly, the General Curia’s total lockdown of eight weeks has been a very strange period for the 35 friars who have been enclosed together for the duration, seeing very few other people, and them only at a distance. The lockdown in Italy has been enforced just like a 24/7 curfew; 80% of the friars here have not left the property at any time whatsoever in almost two months.

The General Curia of the Order of Friars Minor in Rome. (Photo courtesy of the author)

There are so many conflicting feelings — gratitude that we’re all healthy and that we live in a very spacious building with access to a beautiful garden is accompanied by a sense of embarrassment that we are living in comfort while families close by share cramped apartments over empty streets. While we’re very happy to be able to continue to celebrate the Eucharist, and we appreciate the extra time and space we can give to the community and personal prayer, we also feel the pain of so many people who do not have these blessings, especially the Poor Clares and the many other communities of sisters to whom we are chaplains. There’s also a sense of frustration that our capacity to help those in need is so compromised, but we know too that the best way we can help is by staying home; so, along with so many people, we’re conflicted.

Because the friars here come from 20 different countries, there’s a great awareness of the worldwide impact of the pandemic. Suffice it to say, some international leaders have been more effective than others! International flights from Italy have practically ceased, so the friars with elderly parents or sick family members feel the anxiety of knowing that should illness or death strike, it will be impossible to get home in time or have a proper funeral. Right in the middle of the lockdown, our General Secretary, Giovanni Rinaldi, had to obtain travel permissions to go to his home near Milan following the death of his father, Giuseppe. Having returned, Giovanni is now in self-isolation for two weeks and he attended the last General Council meeting via Zoom conferencing. The suffering of the Italian people has been heartbreaking to witness; their cohesion, discipline, and good sense at this time is very impressive.

We have times when we reflect on how much the world has changed — for example, as an international fraternity, we’ve been used to traveling all over the world as part of our work. At least until a vaccine is found and is widely available, that travel will be very much curtailed. But our Zoom experience over the last while has taught us a lot about what can be achieved at a distance, and our commitment to reducing our carbon footprint will certainly be expressed long-term in a lot less air travel. We recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of Laudato si’, a document that has never been so apposite. In an interview this month Pope Francis said: “God always forgives, we forgive sometimes, but nature never forgives. […] Every crisis contains both danger and opportunity. Today I believe we have to slow down our rate of production and consumption (Laudato Si’, 191) and to learn to understand and contemplate the natural world. We need to reconnect with our real surroundings. This is the opportunity for conversion. […] This is the time to take the decisive step, to move from using and misusing nature to contemplating it.

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting particularly hard migrants and refugees. (Photo courtesy of Franciscan Migrant Network)

► Though the COVID-19 pandemic has struck the entire world, its impact on refugees and migrants is especially strong. A number of religious leaders and entities, including the Franciscan Migrant Network and Holy Name Province, have issued a five-part framework “for action to protect migrants and refugees and help all communities survive this crisis and rebuild with justice and equity.” These guidelines include demands that as many migrants and asylum seekers as possible be released from detention, that immediate steps be taken to slow the spread of the virus in refugee camps, that migrants and refugees have access to testing and treatment, that the right to asylum be guaranteed, and that large-scale investments be made in public health and food and income support for vulnerable families.

The friars in Brazil are serving up to 4,000 meals a day to people impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of ofm.org)

► The Catholic News Service reports that, as unemployment grows during the pandemic, the friars in São Paulo, Brazil, are serving up to 4,000 meals daily in their new food distribution center called the Franciscan Tent. Jose Francisco de Cassia dos Santos, OFM, who heads the Franciscan Solidarity Service, has been distributing meals to the homeless in the center of Sao Paulo for more than 13 years. The traditional solidarity service, dubbed the Priest’s Tea, usually drew a few hundred homeless people, who congregated at the St. Francis rectory. Now the majority of people in line waiting for the Priest’s Tea are those who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Hunger came before the fever,” Jose told Catholic News Service.

► Franciscans International has issued a statement on the human rights impact of the COVID-19 pandemic which puts the testimonies and stories from Franciscans dealing with the virus into a more global picture. “From a human rights perspective, the issues raised by the pandemic are manifold and the impacts numerous at various levels.”

Michael Calabria, OFM, and the members of the OFM Commission for Dialog with Islam issued a letter to “our Muslim brothers and sisters throughout the world” at the start of the month of Ramadan which is observed from April 23 to May 23. In it, they write, “This year our letter comes to you at a time when together we are experiencing great sadness and struggle in the world as we remember the many people of all faiths who have succumbed to the COVID-19 virus over the past few months, and the many more who are suffering illness even now. We pray with you for those who have died – may Allah have mercy on them – for those who mourn their passing, and for the health and wellbeing of all people.”

The friars end the letter saying, “During this Easter season and the month of Ramadan, let us be united in our faith in God who does not abandon us to darkness and death, but who sends to us His holy prophets and reveals to us His Holy Scriptures to illumine our hearts and minds, and assure us that He will bring life from death. Our respective celebrations of Easter and Ramadan both use the symbol of light to express this faith. The fire and candle used at the Easter Vigil and the lantern of Ramadan remind us of the light of faith and hope in the midst of the darkness.”

► The Conference of General Spiritual Assistants OFS-YouFra has published the latest issue of its newsletter Koinōnia. It contains an article on “The OFS Rule as a Response in Times of Great Changes” that describes how its rule can be of help to Secular Franciscans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new volume of “the Omnibus” of Franciscan sources in English will soon be available. (Photo courtesy of ofm.org)

► Twenty years ago, a number of Franciscan scholars, including some from HNP, produced a new “omnibus” of English translations of original sources of Francis’s writings and the medieval hagiographical sources to the mid-14th century. This three-volume collection, originally titled Francis of Assisi: Early Document, will be continued with the publication of a new book, “The Book of the Conformity of the Life of Saint Francis to the Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” written by Friar Bartholomew of Pisa between 1385 and 1390.

The Book of the Conformity (often called The Conformities) represents the highest point of medieval glorification of the figure of St. Francis. It contains a nearly complete record of the saint’s own writings and a vast store of material from all the known hagiographical legends of the saint from the 13th through the late 14th centuries. In addition, it has extensive lists of the places where Franciscan friars, Poor Clare nuns, and Franciscan tertiaries lived and ministered, with personal details about many Franciscan personages, both famous and obscure.

This new translation, which is publishing the text into a modern language for the first time in six centuries, brings The Book of Conformity to the modern English reader. More information is available on the OFM website.

► Stefania Proietti, the mayor of Assisi, wrote an Easter letter to the residents of Assisi. In it, she said:

The basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. (Photo courtesy of  Andy Hay via Flickr)

“Today more than ever, I feel the need to reach out to you as we share a time that we never expected to face. An invisible enemy has upset our lives, our thoughts of the future, our institutional, and our work activities. It has generated fear for us and our loved ones, and a general sense of total bewilderment. Even in concern, we must try to see this great test with a prophetic gaze: in these Easter days we would have had shrines, streets, squares, structures overflowing with people; instead, we find ourselves in an empty Assisi that appears surreal to us in its great beauty almost empty of life.

“Let’s start now, together, soberly, humbly, to think about the future. May we start from the love of St. Francis, who, stripping himself of everything, has become a giant of the Church and of universal spirituality, and has made our city great, over centuries, in history and in the collective imagination. Now more than ever Assisi, the city of the patron saint of Italy, will be an emblem of hope and rebirth for the world: in the authenticity of the Franciscan message we can find the strength of real-life through solidarity and the preferential option for the poor and needy.”

The full text of the mayor’s letter is available on Franciscan Media’s website.

— Jim McIntosh is a communications assistant for the HNP Communications Office.

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