Fr. Roy M. Gasnick, OFM
My Franciscan journey nearly came to a fatal crash one December afternoon in 1950, when Father Cassian Kirk, OFM, the seminary rector, summoned me to his office. He had decided to expel me for reasons of health. Because I had fainted twice that term, he had sent me to the local doctor for an examination. The doctor’s evaluation persuaded him that I was on the road to a nervous breakdown. I was stunned. Only 16 years old, in third year high school, I grasped for words to argue but my mind went blank. The timing couldn’t have been worse–just before Christmas vacation.
On the train home, I knew something was terribly wrong. “I HAVE a vocation; no doubt whatever.” The attraction had always been there. No one pushed me; certainly not my dad, an agnostic because of bad experiences in the Polish parish he grew up in. My mother’s father was Russian Orthodox; her mother, Anna Lucas, was Slovak, staunchly Catholic, the backbone and center of a large family. All our family traditions came from her—including her church, St. Mary’s in Passaic, N.J. There my mother, my sister, my two brothers and I worshiped and went to school. I was proud that whenever I served the 8 a.m. weekday Mass, my grandmother would always be there as well.
One Sunday, I met a Franciscan priest who was filling in for one of our priests. His warm, brown robe captivated me; he seemed more of Jesus. He was friendly and preached in a simple but inspiring way that touched my heart. I decided on the spot: that’s the kind of priest I wanted to be. That decision was clinched a few years later, when we moved to East Paterson, N.J. and into a Franciscan parish with a school taught by Franciscan Sisters. I finished grammar school there, and entered St. Joseph’s Seraphic Seminary, Callicoon, N.Y., the preparatory seminary of Holy Name Province.
I was happy. My family was proud. My dad, seeing how happy I was, and after rubbing shoulders with the Franciscan friars at the seminary, returned to the sacraments. Then came that crashing day when Fr. Cassian told me that I had to leave. I could not accept that decision. When I got home, I told my immediate family but no one else, not even my Franciscan pastor. I made no alternate plans. I naively left everything in the hands of God. And that’s when, in words of St. Francis that I’ve come to love and cherish, “the Lord gave me some brothers.”
It started with Father Michael Feeney, OFM, from the seminary, who visited me on Christmas afternoon. As we talked, he became convinced that I belonged back at the seminary. He told me to pray, and that he would ask the brothers at the seminary to pray for me. “I can’t make any promises,” he said, “but there might be a way.”
As I learned later, Fr. Michael sat down with Father Finbar Carroll, OFM, my pastor and a former prefect of discipline at Callicoon. The two of them worked out a plan A and a plan B. Fr. Finbar would send me for a second opinion to his own doctor, a New York City specialist. This doctor was also, by chance, the personal doctor of the Provincial Minister, the revered Father Thomas Plassmann, OFM. I took the bus to New York, met with the doctor, had a thorough examination (two sessions), received a clean bill of health, but got a warning to slow down and not try too much, too soon.
An attempted meeting with Fr. Cassian never materialized, so Fr. Finbar switched to plan B. He made an appointment for me to meet Fr. Thomas, at the Provincialate on 31st St. in New York. He listened to my story and took the doctor’s report. He was comforting, but still let me know that he had to respect the rector’s decision before coming to his own. Since time was short, he said that he would decide quickly so that, if his answer was negative, I would have time to make other plans. Even so, I was filled with hope. I went next door to St. Francis Church and prayed. Two days later, a telegram instructed me to report back to the seminary.
I carried that telegram with me for over 30 years until it literally disintegrated. It is a constant reminder of how God came to the aid of a 16-year-old boy; gave him brothers in the worldwide Franciscan Order in 1953; called him to the priesthood in 1960; assigned him to teach and be director of student activities at St. Bonaventure University; to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 and hear and try to live his “I have a dream” speech; to be appointed head of Holy Name Third Order (secular) Province and begin the renewal called for by Vatican II; to be charged with founding a full-fledged Franciscan Communications Office in New York City for the friars of his Province; to write and publish books, pamphlets, magazine articles; to branch out into TV and multimedia productions with Franciscan Communications in Los Angeles; and lastly to serve retired Franciscans, some of whom were the same friars who first cared for him when he was that 16-year-old boy in 1950.
God is good. God is great.
– This essay was written while Fr. Roy was on the staff of St. Anthony’s Friary in St. Petersburg, Fla. It appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of The Anthonian magazine.