Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Notes on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.

As I wrote last year, I have never been particularly taken with Saint Francis of Assisi, whose feast falls on this date. I was confirmed under the name of one of Francis' twentieth-century followers, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, but the fact that Kolbe was a Franciscan had no bearing on my choice. My real-life encounters with Franciscans have been relatively few, most taking place in an academic context: one of my professors in law school was a Franciscan priest (and a doctor utriusque juris to boot), and a few of my classmates in graduate courses at Fordham were Franciscans of various sorts. While they are known more widely today for their work with the poor, the Franciscans also have a significant intellectual tradition represented historically by such luminaries as Saint Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham, so one should not be surprised to find members of the Order laboring in the groves of academe.

Perhaps inevitably, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi leads me to reflect upon my own encounters with members of the Franciscan family. The most vivid of these was not one of the 'academic' encounters noted above, but rather an experience I had as a Jesuit novice. Like many other Jesuits, I made a 'pilgrimage' as part of my novitiate. The pilgrimage is often imagined by people outside the Society as a period during which all novices are sent out to wander for a fixed period of time, begging for food and shelter and discovering their absolute dependence on God's providence in the process. Not all pilgrimages are like this, of course: the cultural and geographic circumstances of individual novitiates and the different ways of thinking of particular novice masters mean that the pilgrimage can take a variety of forms. I know of a Latin American novitiate that typically sends its novices to live and work with migrant farmworkers; I also know of a novitiate in Europe that has sent novices to the Holy Land in imitation of Saint Ignatius (unlike Ignatius, as far as I know, none have been expelled by the Franciscan Custos). In some novitiates, and for very sensible reasons, the pilgrimage has been dispensed with altogether.

I mention the novitiate pilgrimage because mine took me to a Franciscan community: for a few days, I lived with a group of friars in the American Midwest. In exchange for room and board in the cloister, I did odd jobs around the house and at an adjacent shrine church run by the friars - I cleaned bathrooms, replenished the stock of candles provided for pilgrims to light in the church, and counted the dimes, quarters, and crumpled dollar bills that pilgrims left as offerings. Attending prayer, meals, and recreation with the friars, I also learned something about the Franciscan approach to community.

Coming from another religious order, I found some aspects of life among the Franciscans a bit surprising. For example, in contrast with my novitiate - and all of the Jesuit communities I've known since - this Franciscan community had retained the old monastic practice of sitting in assigned places at a U-shaped table, with the religious superior seated in the center. At the same time, the Franciscans had not retained the practice of reading and silence during meals, so there was conversation at table; the refectory and the dining table itself were both relatively small, so the sixteen or so members of the community could all hear one another quite well during meals. The effect of all of this was that conversation at table had to involve all members of the community - in consequence, all talk during meals was rather formal and (or so it seemed to me) somewhat superficial.

Another experience from my days with the Franciscans remains deeply etched in my memory. One of the friars suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which had advanced to a point at which he could no longer move his limbs and had difficulty speaking. The Franciscans that I stayed with during my pilgrimage had nothing like a province infirmary, so the friar with ALS remained in the same community he had lived in before he was ravaged by disease - the alternative would have been to send him to a nursing home, to effectively put him out of the community, and that was something no one wanted. With the help of a live-in caretaker, the friars of the community cared for their infirm brother at home - feeding him, bathing him, changing his clothes, and generally going out of their way to make sure he was able to participate as fully as possible in the life of the community.

Though the Franciscans took these extraordinary steps partly out of necessity, it appeared to me that they did so with real joy - not 'joy' of the effusive and outwardly ecstatic variety, but rather the quiet satisfaction of people who were confident that they were faithfully living out the vocation that God had given them. When they became Franciscans, none of these men knew that living out this vocation would mean devoting countless days and hours to the physical care of one of their own - the sort of ministry that attracts no public notice, a way of preaching the Gospel (not necessarily with words, as Francis would have it) that leads to the conversion of no one, except perhaps the caregiver himself. My brief experience with the Franciscans on pilgrimage taught me an enduring lesson about the nature of ministry and religious brotherhood; on this Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, I give thanks for that. AMDG.

The photo that illustrates this post was taken at the Kapuzinerkirche in Innsbruck.


At 2/16/2013 9:30 PM, Blogger Cole Matson said...

Was this the friary at Victoria, KS?

At 2/16/2013 11:41 PM, Blogger Joe Koczera, S.J. said...

No, actually - I've never been to Victoria, Kansas. Let's just say this place was further north.


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