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Vocation Ministry Hosts Retreat Honoring Feast of St. Francis

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Basil Valente (far left), Benjamin Simpson (third from left) with Francis Greene (center), Gonzalo Torres-Acosta (far right) and several visitors.

NEW YORK – “We spend much of our life trying to find God, to know God, and to love God, but we do not realize that God is trying to find us, to know us, and to love us! Like the father in the parable who runs halfway to meet his son, God, too, heedless of dignity, rushes to welcome us.”

With this poignant reflection, Basil Valente, OFM, vocation director, welcomed five men to spend five days with the community at St. Francis Friary in Manhattan as they prayed, cooked, worshiped, and ministered with the friars in celebration of St. Francis of Assisi. In honor of the feast, Basil extended this retreat from the standard three days to allow guests who are discerning their vocation a chance to dive more deeply into the fraternal and ministerial life of the friars, who welcomed them in the spirit of Franciscan hospitality.

The Sept. 30 to Oct. 5 retreat began on Friday with Evening Prayer, followed by joyful fraternal time with the friars and parishioners at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi’s Viva Francesco Cabaret, an annual fundraiser hosted by the parish music ministry. The concluding song, Michael Jackson’s Heal the World, was presented by the choir as a “prayer that speaks of Francis’ mission and a better world for you and for me,” an invitation which served as a primary point of reflection for the participants as they entered into deeper prayer and discernment over the following days.

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Vocation office coordinator Benjamin Simpson (second from left) with Gonzalo Torres-Acosta and Brian Jordan (middle), vocation director Basil Valente and discerners.

Over the weekend, the discerners, whose ages ranged from their late twenties to early forties and hailing from Florida, Maryland, New Jersey and New York; had opportunities to meet various friars and parish staff members to better acquaint themselves with the ministries of the friars and their lay partners-in-ministry. They toured the parish with pastor Andrew Reitz, OFM, and heard about the multitude of parish ministries from Ed Trochimczuk, director of volunteer ministry, and Meredith Augustin, director of music. The participants also joined the morning breadline; and they toured the St. Francis Residences with Stephen Mimnaugh, OFM. Each of these experiences provided the visitors with an opportunity to see the friars at work, and to discern how the work of the friars fits into their own calling.

“The biggest impact of the weekend was seeing the brothers in action,” said a visitor from Sewaren, N.J. “Seeing them with such joy in serving those in most need: This truly challenged what I hold as a priority in my daily life.”

Intimate Prayer With Deeper Sharing
During morning and evening prayer, they discussed the struggles and joys of their journey and came to bond in a very special way. “Considering religious life can feel lonely, especially when friends or relatives don’t understand your yearnings,” said a participant from New York City. “Spending five days with other men considering this life gave me an opportunity to hear others’ stories and to create connections with other men seeking to serve Christ and his people. I couldn’t have asked to spend the weekend with a better group of guys.”

“To me, the key to the success of the retreat was how well we all bonded. We all felt at home,” said another discerner, from Hollywood, Fla.

“Being able to call a stranger your brother and to be able to feel that way about them; being able to share your dreams, fears and ideas, and being united by the love of God in the adventure to follow the path that God’s voice, which is taking us on the Franciscan path, was a true blessing,” said a retreat participant from Silver Spring, Md.

A poignant moment for both the discerners and the vocation ministry team was the Mass celebrated by David Convertino, OFM, on Saturday, during which David delivered an inspiring homily about our relationships with God and with us. David highlighted Jesus’ call to Francis to “Rebuild my Church, which is falling into ruin,” and challenged the participants to reflect on St. Francis’ answer: “who are you, Lord, and who am I?” Opening up the opportunity for a deeper, more vulnerable experience, David invited the discerners to share openly in a discussion about the Gospel as a part of the homily. “This was a profound and intimate moment with God,” one of the discerners from Florida commented. “The love, the ease that comes from being surrounded by the friars, it was something that I never experienced before.”

The culmination of the retreat came with the celebration of the Transitus and the feast of St. Francis, during which participants stepped into the life of the friars. Before the celebration of the Transitus, the Vocation Ministry team took the visitors to St. Francis College in Brooklyn, where they joined Professor Francis Greene for a discussion of the Transitus as depicted in sacred art. This was followed by a dramatic presentation of the Transitus of St. Francis produced by Brian Jordan, OFM, the chaplain, and the student body of the college. Upon arrival, Brian invited the visitors to participate in the production by joining the students as part of the cast and passing out the bread, given to the audience to remind them of God’s blessings of both physical and spiritual nourishment. This the candidates did with great enthusiasm.

“I was thrilled that the candidates for admission to Holy Name Province not only attended but participated in the Transitus ceremony at St. Francis College. Their participation was well received by the assembly,” said Brian. “I was also heartened by the presence of our two dedicated, hard-working friars in the HNP Vocation Office, Basil Valente and Gonzalo Torres. Their presence enhanced the solemnity of the Transitus ceremony.”

Professor Greene was also moved by his time with the discerners, saying “It is especially meaningful for me that Br. Basil, Fr. Gonzalo, Ben Simpson and the candidates came from Manhattan to my college in Brooklyn Heights to share a Transitus service together, joined by college students, faculty, and administration.  I could sense that a real bond of community had already been forged between the Vocation Office members and the candidates and in which I readily took part–an experience of the Franciscan charism of hospitality. I came away inspired, uplifted and with the deepest admiration for these candidates engaged in a process of discernment.”

Collaborative Prayer, Collaborative Cooking
The friars of 31st Street were equally affected by their time with the visitors. Stephen said: “Having these men join us for a few days enabled me to see the Transitus and Feast with new eyes. There were two high points for me: The first was when they visited the St. Francis Residences. The discerners enjoyed learning about the Franciscan response to homelessness launched in 1980, and the St. Francis staff was pleased to meet men interested in their work. The second was when our friary chef got sick on the day of the feast, and one of the guests, a professional chef, declared ‘we’ll cook!’ He went on to lead the team in creating a wonderful, festive, fraternal meal.”

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Visitors considering Franciscan life prepare dinner.                                                      

The visitor’s readiness to step in during a time of need was perhaps the most meaningful moment of the retreat for both the participants and the friars.

“Their gift of openness and joy, combined with their ability to seamlessly enter into community and fraternity with the friars at St. Francis Friary, was truly one of the more extraordinary retreat experiences of my life,” said Basil.

“These candidates not only demonstrated a strong sense of who we are, but they had a very real grasp of what community is about. Their enthusiasm and desire to pitch in and help with the weekend cooking, setup and clean-up was a real inspiration to me and gave me a strong sense of future possibilities for fraternity and ministry with discerners like these men,” said David. “I spent a great deal of time with them, and was very impressed and inspired and hope that they pursue their calling to join the Order.”

Joe Cavoto, OFM, summed up the community’s reaction to their time with the candidates with these words:
“The generous welcoming spirit of the friars and the equally spirited generosity of our guests have remained with me. Throughout the five days, each of the men shared his story, and with song and spontaneous response to the challenge of preparing the meal on the feast of Francis, we lived as brothers in the truest sense. Their spirit lingered wherever we saw them, and I believe they really experienced Franciscan fraternity, and even in that brief time, I believe their lives changed – and likely ours too.”

Basil, Gonzalo, and the entire Vocation Ministry Team remain appreciative to the friar community of 31st Street for their openness and hospitality extended to the men in discernment. “Truly, it was this deep experience of real fraternity that impacted these men most profoundly, and which continues to inspire them as they journey with us,” said Basil. “I’m grateful to these men for providing me with boundless opportunities to journey, more deeply, with God and with Francis.”

— Benjamin Simpson is the administrative coordinator for the Holy Name Province Vocation Ministry. Information about joining the Franciscan Order can be found on the Be a Franciscan website.

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