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U.S. Franciscans Look to Future Renewal With Hope

General Minister Michael Perry and the provincial administrations of the six U.S. provinces who are discussing revitalization and reconfiguration. (Photo courtesy of Tom Washburn)

Below is a report from the provincial administrations of the six provinces that participated in the revitalization and restructuring discussions last week at Mt. Alvernia Retreat Center in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. It has been edited for style.

WAPPINGERS FALLS, N.Y. — The provincial ministers and members of the six provincial councils of the Franciscan provinces of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Holy Name, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Sacred Heart, St. Barbara and St. John the Baptist, more than 40 friars in all, met from Aug. 21 to 25 at Mt. Alvernia Retreat Center. They continued their work of planning the revitalization and restructuring of their provinces. This work has been ongoing since 2012, when these six provincial councils met as a group for the first time in Milwaukee, Wis.

Last year, at a similar meeting in Techny, Ill., the provincial council members decided to prepare, with the help of friar experts, a document titled “Making Fraternity Our Mission” to examine how to pursue the revitalization of their fraternal life and mission. Besides leading extensive discussion of that document throughout their provinces, the provincial ministers asked several existing groups of friars and lay cooperators engaged in the same administrative and internal ministries of the provinces – such as communicators, vocation, and formation directors, and JPIC animators – to come together to explore how to take a national approach to their work.

Among the groups reporting to the friars were their provincial treasurers and chief financial officers, who concluded that each of the provinces is individually financially stable, while also having the funds to support any collective action they wish to take. They also explored demographic and actuarial information that showed all of the provinces facing the same critical challenges with regard to the aging of their membership during the next five to 20 years.

After careful consideration, the six provincial ministers, in the midst of prayer and ritual on Wednesday morning, voted unanimously to place before simultaneous chapters of their six provinces late next May a resolution requesting that the General Minister and his Definitorium restructure their fraternal governance so as to create one new province from the six provinces engaged in this process. As they voted, the provincial ministers each made statements of why they voted as they did.

Kevin Mullen, OFM, of Holy Name, said, “One new province provides us with the opportunity to have a vital fraternal experience. With regard to mission, one new province allows us to take the core values of Franciscan life and implement them in a unified way, and with regard to the Church and the Kingdom, to make us more responsible to the promptings of the Spirit in the world and in the Church.”

Fr. David Gaa, OFM, of St. Barbara, stated, “True revitalization requires a critical mass of younger brothers, which one new province will make possible.”

Fr. Tom Nairn, OFM, of Sacred Heart, explained how listening to members of other provinces and the quality of the input on the first day of the Wappingers Falls meeting led several members of his Provincial Council to change their minds to favor one new province, rather than two.

Fr. James Gannon, OFM, of Assumption, added that voting for one new province acknowledges what is already happening as, “our initial formation programs are united and that lines us up to move this way.”

Fr. Mark Soehner, OFM, of St. John the Baptist, remarked, “One new province will increase opportunities for strong guardians and dynamic communities, broaden our perspective as a national group, and finally, we do this because God is inviting us to become more of a ‘joyful band of missionary disciples,’ as Pope Francis has invited all Christians to be.”

Finally, Fr. Jack Clark Robinson, OFM, of Our Lady of Guadalupe, said, “As Fr. John David Vaughn, OFM, (the first-elected U.S. General Minister) once said to me, ‘Friars do not exist to serve structures. Franciscan structures – such as they are – exist to support Franciscan life and ministry. It is time for the least structure to serve the most friars.”

The day after the vote, friars were still talking about the power of the voting and attendant prayer ritual, which concluded with friars, most often of different provinces, blessing and fraternally embracing one another, after praying, “Lord, you have given us the gift of your call to Franciscan life, to Franciscan community and to Franciscan ministry. This day, you have called us to a great work as brothers. So we ask your help to strengthen one another, that our work may be a good work, that it may truly be your work.”

The friars were encouraged to pursue ongoing renewal by taking time for prayer and reflection by Fr. Michael Perry, OFM, the General Minister of the Order of Friars Minor, who came from Rome to be a part of the meeting. Fr. Caoimhin Ó’Laoide, OFM, the English-speaking General Definitor of the Order, spent the entire week with the friars and reflected powerfully for them at the celebration of the Eucharist on Thursday.

On Thursday, Fr. Michael led a morning of recollection after the vote. He shared his joy and excitement at seeing the leadership teams of these six provinces coming together. “Your work is important for the future of the worldwide Order as a demonstration of our ability to build bridges and cross boundaries in a world which seems too often divided.”

Later, Fr. Michael went through the mechanics of the process that will follow the votes at the provincial chapters next May. As he outlined it, that process will include the appointment of an official delegate of the General Minister, who will conduct at least two visitations of the friars and those with whom they work in various ways. Those visitations will result in reports to be considered by the General Definitorium. After consideration of those reports, the General Minister and Definitorium will name an initial administration and set the time for the formal establishment of the new province, probably no earlier than the fall of 2022.

One of the next means of continuing the national conversation among the friars with regard to continued renewal and restructuring will be a national survey of every friar in the six provinces regarding what they see as necessary to move the process forward. Before the vote of the six provinces next May, the provincial ministers will also invite their friars to attend one of two large regional gatherings of friars, as well as numerous other face-to-face gatherings of smaller groups, to participate in numerous local coversation about what is proposed with the help of discussion materials prepared for use across the country, as well as to interact with distant friars through the use of videos, YouTube, Facebook and other social media.

The 900 friars of the six provinces will also have various possibilities to discuss in a variety of smaller groups the revitalization of their lives and ministries. These small groups will not only talk about their internal life but also especially about ways to go to the peripheries and margins where friars are not currently engaged. The friar leadership of the six provinces left Wappingers Falls with a clear, agreed-upon plan of action for the next nine months.

After the vote next May, the ministers are already looking forward to gather during summer to continue what everyone gathered in Wappingers Falls this year found to be an exciting and life-giving fresh start to Franciscan life in the United States. As one friar reflected, “Ignatius Brady (a very distinguished late Franciscan scholar) once said that ‘Every novice must refound the Franciscan Order in his own heart.’ What we are doing now is our own refounding of the Order all over again in our time and place, but with lots of years of experience and lots of brothers to help us!”

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