The Surprise of His Life: Michael Blastic Honored by Peers with ‘Festschrift’ Volume

Stephen Mangione Friar News, Home Page – News

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – When he received an email from the provincial minister last October requesting a video conference, Michael Blastic, OFM, anticipated the conversation would be about a new assignment. Instead, he got the surprise of his life.

“Completely shocked, almost speechless,” is the way Michael described his reaction when Kevin Mullen, OFM, during the virtual meeting, read him the title of a newly published “festschrift” – “Non enim fuerat Evangelii surdus auditor (1 Celano 22): Essays in Honor of Michael W. Blastic, O.F.M. on the Occasion of his 70th Birthday.”

“Mike never sought such recognition, but judging from his reaction, it meant a great deal to him that his peers recognized and celebrated his accomplishments in this manner,” said Kevin, who noted that delivering the good news during a video chat became necessary after the pandemic derailed an originally planned surprise birthday/book event on 31st Street in New York City, and a second attempt of presenting the book to Michael at a symposium at the Franciscan Institute on the campus of St. Bonaventure University in Western New York.

“First and foremost, Mike is a Friar Minor. He lives the Franciscan life in a manner that does not draw attention to himself, but one that reflects the values of the Gospel. His scholarship – which is acknowledged throughout the world – is the result of hard work and reflection on the experiences and meanings that support the written word,” said Kevin.

A festschrift – the literal German-to-English translation is “celebration-writing” – is a collection of peer writings that pay tribute to a scholar on the occasion of a birthday, anniversary, retirement, or other milestones. Michael knew the significance of a festschrift because over the years he had contributed essays to celebratory books for some of his professors.

The Latin phrase used in the title of Michael’s festschrift, “Non enim fuerat Evangelii surdus auditor” – translated “For he was no deaf hearer of the Gospel” – was intentional. Also known as a widely respected retreat master – giving Franciscan-themed retreats in Central Africa, India, the Philippines, Australia, and throughout the U.S. – Michael had used this meaningful phrase during a presentation 30 years ago, referencing Francis of Assisi’s obedience to the prompting of the Spirit – that the Gospel didn’t fall on deaf ears – which also describes Michael’s spiritual disposition.

The book – which is Volume 18 of The Medieval Franciscans series published by Brill, the international academic publishing house based in the Netherlands and with a U.S. presence in Boston – is a collection of 18 essays written mostly by Michael’s colleagues both here and abroad (four of the authors are from Italy). Among the contributors are three of his former doctoral students who now teach at universities. The nearly 500-page volume is a tribute to Michael’s decades in academia and ministry – his living, preaching, publishing, researching, and teaching Franciscan intellectual tradition with a focus on the early writings of Francis and Clare in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Humbling Tribute
“This was a totally unexpected surprise. I know all of the authors and editors who worked on this book – and, amazingly, not one of them breathe a word about it,” said Michael, who has a doctorate degree in historical theology from Saint Louis University in Missouri, and a bachelor of sacred theology degree from Collegio Seraphicum in Rome, Italy.

“When I read the essays, it deepened my gratitude and admiration for my colleagues. Each essay begins with something I may have said or taught, which is a wonderful acknowledgment of what I have tried to say, live, write and teach. This book furthers the significance of relationships in Franciscan life – celebrating the relationships with colleagues and students – and it is a recognition of a life spent promoting our Franciscan roots and vision. That’s what makes this such a rich gift,” continued Michael, who has taught at The Catholic University of America and Washington Theological Union, both in Washington, D.C., the Franciscan Institute at SBU, and Siena College in Loudonville, New York.

“I have never considered myself the high-level scholar who warrants this type of recognition. But it’s a great honor – a very humbling honor – to be acknowledged by peers for my academic contributions and, more importantly, to be celebrated as a Franciscan friar and person,” added Michael, who has written numerous essays for professional journals, authored a book and reviewed many others, and co-edited the Franciscan Institute’s renowned three-volume series about Francis and Clare – which includes “The Writings of Francis of Assisi: Letters and Prayers,” “The Writings of Francis of Assisi: Rules, Testament & Admonitions,” and “The Writings of Clare of Assisi: Letters, Form of Life, Testament and Blessing.”

Kevin said that Michael not only knows what the texts say, but he also grasps the context and the experiences that gave rise to the words of the texts.

“Mike has developed a skill that enables him to take written material from the 13th century that emerged in the Umbrian countryside of Italy and make application to the experiences of men and women in the 21st century of the United States and around the world. His scholarship speaks to those who long to live their Franciscan life in the present day. Along with other Franciscan scholars of the last century, he has contributed to a deeper appreciation for the life, experience, and vision of Francis and Clare. We all owe Mike a debt of gratitude,” said Kevin, who was president of Siena College in 2012 when he invited Michael to join the faculty as a visiting professor of interdisciplinary studies.

Praise from a Colleague
The content of the book is divided into four sections that reflect the subject matter and academic areas of which Michael has excelled, taught and published – the writings of St. Francis of Assisi; Franciscan history, hagiography, and spirituality; medieval Franciscan women, and philosophy and theology in the Franciscan intellectual tradition. Three of the essays in the volume are devoted to the writings of Saint Francis, seven are dedicated to particular issues in Franciscan history, hagiography, spirituality, and texts, while five deal specifically with women during the Middle Ages and three explore aspects of Franciscan theology and philosophy.

“The volume commemorates Michael’s 70th birthday year, the marker for entering into this type of project, which is common in the academic world,” explained Michael Cusato, OFM, a member of Sacred Heart Province and a longtime colleague and friend who worked with Michael when they were at the Franciscan Institute.

“Michael is a first-class scholar and a true Franciscan – humble in the best sense of the word. This was an ideal way for us, [his peers], to give a colleague – one who doesn’t go around showcasing himself – due honor for a lifetime of scholarship, teaching, and other kinds of ministries,” added Fr. Michael, who led the festschrift project that took nearly three years to complete, and who read through the 18 essays more than a dozen times during the editing process.

Michael Cusato, who served as director of the Franciscan Institute and dean of the School of Franciscan Studies during part of Michael’s tenure there, had ample help from others – including Steven McMichael, OFM Conv, a member of Our Lady of Consolation Province and an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, who is the general editor of Brill’s medieval series and who co-edited Michael’s festschrift.

Self-Effacing, Welcoming, and Focused
The book contains two introductions – the first co-written by Michael Cusato, OFM; Jim Hines, OFM Conv; Dominic Monti, OFM; and Wayne Hellmann, OFM Conv, and the second by Timothy Johnson, professor of religion and humanities at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida.

“Michael Blastic… has for many decades been one of the premier scholars of the Franciscan intellectual tradition. This volume [is] presented in deep gratitude, affection, and admiration for him as a friend, colleague, confrère, mentor, and teacher by a broad array of scholars in recognition of the many and diverse ways in which he has touched our lives over the course of his Franciscan life and academic career. It is the hope of [the] contributors that their essays reflect back to Michael the gift that he has been to us and illustrates how the seeds which he has planted… have grown and borne fruit in new, creative and even unexpected ways,” the quartet of writers said in the book’s first introduction.

In the second introduction, Johnson wrote, “Over the years, I crossed paths with Michael… he was self-effacing, welcoming and focused on his research and ministerial outreach… [evincing] a continual commitment to research and ministry of scholarship through teaching, preaching, publishing, translating, editorial and review work, and public presentations. The focus of [his] academic efforts… marks him as the most prominent English-speaking writer of his generation in the field of Franciscan pastoral theory and practice. [He] returns time and time again to the experience of the early community of brothers and sisters as the touchstone for reading [and interpreting] Franciscan sources.”

Staying Rooted in Franciscan Tradition
In his own writings, Michael consistently attempts to create historical-critical works on the sources, serving as pastoral resources that provide information, knowledge, and the ability to translate text that bring into today’s understanding the core experience of the early brothers and sisters. His collaborative efforts with Michael Cusato at the Franciscan Institute were based on their shared belief of the importance and implications of Franciscan tradition on present-day living.

“Michael [Cusato] is a foremost historian of medieval Franciscan history, so his work helped clarify a lot of what I was teaching in the classroom. We complemented each other in our work. Studying and staying rooted in Franciscan tradition has always been important to me. Communicating that tradition to the next generation is essential for our own viability as servants to both the Church and the world. We don’t just repeat it blindly, we have to adapt to it,” explained Michael

“My first experience in the novitiate expanded my love of learning and teaching novices. The friars have been instrumental in furthering my teaching career. I was fortunate to be invited initially to WTU, and then by Holy Name Province to teach at the Franciscan Institute. Teaching immerses me in the texts, thought, experience, and spirituality of the Franciscan tradition,” Michael continued.

“This has been an especially enriching experience in the classroom, where I have learned as much as I have taught. Particularly at the Franciscan Institute, with a very international population, I learned from the students how they culturally received the Franciscan tradition and tried to live it in their own cultures. The opportunities to give summer retreats on Franciscan themes around the world, and working with Poor Clare monasteries across the country, have enabled me to encounter and engage the global Franciscan family,” he said.

Grateful to HNP
Michael expressed his gratitude to Holy Name Province for supporting Michael Cusato and Steven in their work on the festschrift. “I am also grateful to the Province for warmly receiving me into the fraternity and for always being supportive of my work. The support of the Province and the presence of the brothers motivates what I am doing,” said Michael, who, although unable to thank anyone in person, has sent notes of gratitude to essay contributors and all those involved in the festschrift project.

After earning a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, Michael entered the novitiate of the Conventual Franciscan Province of Saint Bonaventure. He made his solemn profession on the feast of St. Clare in August 1973 and was ordained to the priesthood in April 1975. Michael served in parish ministry from 1976 to 1978 in Rockford, Illinois, before a six-year assignment as director of novices at the province’s St. Bonaventure Novitiate, and later as vicar provincial – a two-year appointment that ended in 1989 when he became a full-time instructor in the department of ecclesiastical history and pastoral studies at Washington Theological Union, where he was instrumental in creating several course offerings that broadened the appeal of WTC’s curriculum to women religious congregations and lay students.

Prior to that, his teaching ministry began as a part-time adjunct professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, during which time he also served on the summer faculty at the Franciscan Institute at SBU.

In 1996, Michael became a full-time associate professor on the faculty of the Franciscan Institute-School of Franciscan Studies, where he taught academically focused courses in the graduate program, as well as courses in the undergraduate theology department. He was well-liked by the university population and Holy Name Province friars – communities that he embraced throughout his 14 years on the SBU campus. When the Franciscan Institute discontinued its regular academic year program in 2010, Michael returned to WTU as an associate professor for two years before joining the Siena College faculty.

In 2016, he returned to formation ministry by serving as co-director of novices of the North American Interprovincial Novitiate in Burlington, Wisconsin, and a year later joined the interprovincial novitiate team at Old Mission Santa Barbara in California – where he mentored novices and taught non-graded courses on Franciscan themes, chief among them the Franciscan Rule and its development and implications for living in modern times, and the history, meaning and interpretation of texts.

In the midst of his academic ministry, while serving at the Franciscan Institute, SBU, Siena, and WTU, Michael developed a deep fraternal association with HNP and the Province’s friar community – which weighed heavily on his decision in 2006 to transfer his obedience from the Friars Minor Conventual Province of St. Bonaventure to Holy Name Province. He made his solemn profession with HNP three years later.

“The switch made perfect sense after I had grown close to Holy Name Province and lived and worked with the friars for so many years,” he said.

New Assignment
After serving the past five years as a team leader at the interprovincial novitiate at Old Mission Santa Barbara, Michael is looking forward to his new assignment about 220 miles south as a faculty member of the Franciscan School of Theology at the University of San Diego, where he will be teaching Franciscan spirituality and theology starting at the end of August.

“This is a great gift at this point in my life. I am excited to be getting back into the classroom, engaging with and providing pastoral training for both lay and religious graduate students. Everything I have written comes from that teaching space. It’s very fertile ground, a place to reflect and articulate in new ways,” said Michael, noting that it’s the only institution of higher education in the U.S. that offers an academic degree in Franciscan spirituality and theology. “I am happy that I can support and be part of this.”

Since the pandemic has delayed the formal presentation of Michael’s 70th birthday gift and canceled in-person events to celebrate the publication of the festschrift, Kevin and Michael Cusato decided that a virtual presentation – a pre-recorded video containing messages from some of the scholars who contributed to the volume, as well as from Province friars and others associated with the book – would be appropriate and just in time for Michael’s 72nd birthday in August.

— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.