FOR BROTHER JOHN DAVID VAUGHN
ST. BARBARA CHURCH
OLD MISSION SANTA BARBARA, CALIFORNIA
OCTOBER 21, 2016
Br. Minister General Michael, Br. Provincial Minister David and former Provincials, Nephews of Fr. John and family Members, my Franciscan Brothers and Sisters, Friends of Father John,
“May the Lord give you peace.”
With these words, we are told, St. Francis of Assisi began his address, every time he preached. Let us wish for each other today that we may know the Lord’s peace in this place. And let us pray that our brother, uncle, friend, mentor, novice-master, Father John Vaughn, may know that same peace: may he rests in the Lord’s peace-filled love.
When I first received the news from Fr. David, our Provincial Minister, that Fr. John, my novice master and friend had gone to God, I did not feel shock or anguish or even great sadness. Rather I sensed a quiet, gentle letting-go, with a twinge of that Celtic melancholy that Fr. John knew so very well. We had talked at length this past August about leaving, letting go. And I knew that John faced that reality squarely, serenely, and without fear. I think we both knew at that time we were saying “goodbye.”
St. John’s Gospel presents us with the figure of Jesus who knows what lies before Him. Knowing that He would soon be taken away from them, He expressed His love for His friends on the night before He died. His humble gesture of washing feet was His way of saying “goodbye,” leaving them an example – an action, a gesture, not merely a word – to remember that night.
Our Brother John was a great man, a wonderful friend, an inspiring friar, a figure of great dignity mixed with a touching humility. His accomplishments were many, and he was very modest about them. His whole life expressed an appreciation of what it means to wash the feet of others.
Today’s Gospel reading, from the Gospel of John, was the one St. Francis asked to be read to him as he was dying. And the concluding part of John’s Gospel, especially the great prayer of Jesus in Chapter 17, was the chapter of Scripture most frequently cited by St. Francis in his writings. Like St. Francis, St. Clare identified deeply with the image of Christ the humble servant to His disciples, and we learn from witnesses for her canonization that she personally washed the feet of her sisters who returned from serving outside the monastery. Washing feet, for Francis as for Clare, was the great sign of the identity of Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh. And this image of Jesus as washer of feet made a deep impression on the friar and friend whom we commend to God today.
r. John was born in Santa Ana, California, in 1928. Following elementary school in his hometown, he attended Our Lady of the Angels Seminary in Los Angeles, forming friendships with classmates and fellow students that endured for a lifetime.
In John’s Gospel, we see Jesus surrounded by those with whom he had travelled and preached. For our Brother John, that would always include the many friends who later became priests of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, including some who later became bishops.
Deeply impressed with what he had learned about Fray Junípero Serra in school, young John wanted to become a Franciscan friar. (Little did he imagine he would later be the Vice-Postulator of Serra’s Cause of Canonization, and see him made a saint a year ago in September!) John David (as he was sometimes called) entered the Order of Friars Minor, making his novitiate in 1948 under the redoubtable novice-master Fr. David Temple at Mission San Miguel, a place that would be “home” to him in a special way throughout his lifetime. He also got a new name, “Manuel,” that remained with him even after he returned to using his baptismal name in the 1960s.
After the course of studies in philosophy and theology, Frater Manuel made his Solemn Profession of vows as a Franciscan Friar at Mission San Luis Rey in 1962. Here in the Old Mission Church of Santa Barbara he was ordained to the priesthood in 1955. And it was also here that John’s fine tenor voice was recorded along with the Padre Choristers, making him perhaps the only Minister General with a recording career.
His early assignments included teaching at St. Anthony’s Seminary in Santa Barbara (1957-62), a stint of Spanish-language practice and ministry at the Templo de San Francisco in Guadalajara in 1956-7, with the friars of the Province of Jalisco, strengthening that unique bond with the people of Mexico that would mark his whole life. 1962-7 he served at Mission San Miguel, as Assistant Master of Novices and assistant in the parish, with duties at Bradley and San Ardo, two years later becoming Guardian of the Mission community.
From 1969 to 76 he was Pastor, Guardian, then Novice Master in Sacramento. After serving on the Provincial Definitorium, elected Vicar Provincial in 1973, and Minister Provincial in 1976. He had sent me to Rome to study the previous year, so I was there to greet him when he arrived for the Order’s General Chapter in Assisi at Pentecost of 1979.
On the Eve of Pentecost the Chapter’s members elected Minister General of the Order, much to the surprise of many, including himself! I was serving as a translator there and he asked me that evening if I would serve as his secretary. I told him, “I don’t know anything about being the Secretary of the Minister General!” And he said, “And I don’t know anything about being Minister General.” Of course, I then had to agree, and we were soon joined by other brothers helping John – Raymond Bucher, Bob Brady, and the late Tomás Zavaleta, his collaborators Cristoforo Tomatis and Peter Williams.
Fr. John, as 116th successor of St. Francis at the helm of the Order he founded, moved the Order into new directions. He visited, sometimes even in clandestine ways, the friars still suffering under totalitarian governments in Eastern Europe. He made a challenging visit to the People’s Republic of China, at a time when this was still something quite unusual. He heard the insistent requests for an expanded Franciscan presence in Africa and Asia.
During his two terms as Minister General he responded to that voice over a span of twelve years, as he oversaw the founding of what was called the Order’s “Africa Project.” Its fruit can now be seen in the flourishing Franciscan communities that grew from that project in such places as Ruanda and Burundi, Kenya, Madagascar and Mauritius, Togo, and Congo.
New initiatives in Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia also flourished with his encouragement. So many new Provinces, Vice-Provinces and Custodies were added to the Order during his early years in office that some claimed that the Order’s General Chapter of 1985 was favorable to his re-election because he had made so many of its members major superiors in under-represented parts of the world!
There is a famous parable told by St. Francis called “Perfect Joy,” in which, late on a dark and stormy winter night, Francis imagines to his companion Br. Leo that they are turned away from the door of their usual home, St. Mary of the Porziuncola in the plain below Assisi. The same thing nearly happened to this Californian successor of Francis.
Fr. Chris Tomatis and Fr. John were travelling together from northern Italy to Rome and were near Bologna one winter night when an unexpected snowstorm closed down the major highway on which they were travelling. Driving into the city, Fr. Chris managed to find the friars’ house in the dark and snowy night. Dressed in secular clothes, the two made their way through the storm to the front door and rang the bell. After a long wait, a small light was turned on above the door, and a friar opened the door. Fr. Cristoforo wanted to announce that he had brought the Minister General. But Fr. John insisted that he say only that they were friars from Rome and unable to continue driving because of the storm. The brother asked “What do you do in Rome?” Fr. John answered, perhaps with a twinkle in his eye, “Oh we do office work in the Curia.” With a suspicious look still on his face, the brother let them in, and said, “I suppose you want something to eat.” As they said "Yes", he led them to the kitchen and began to put out some bread and cheese, but then told them that he would have to call the Guardian. Shortly afterward, awakened late at night, the Guardian came into the refectory as the two visitors were about to eat their frugal meal. Then another friar and another began to arrive, awakened by the sounds of doors opening and closing. As the Guardian questioned the two about exactly what kind of work they were doing, one of the friars noticed that the man sitting at the table looked like a photograph hanging on the refectory wall. With a quick nod to the Guardian and a finger pointing up at the picture on the wall, the mystery was solved: the two visitors were the Minister general and his secretary. Immediately, with kissing of hands and expressions of “Reverendissimo,” the light supper transformed itself into the boiling of water for pasta, a bottle of good wine from the cantina, very much to the delight of Fr. Cristoforo, who thought things should have started out this way. Fr. John’s comment, however, was telling: “Cristoforo, remember that the brothers allowed us to come in, offered us food and a place to sleep before they knew who we were.”
We should remember that Jesus calls his disciples together for the Supper as he is about to suffer His Passion. The fact of His own death loomed on the horizon, yet Jesus still bowed down to wash the feet of the disciples.
The demanding schedule of international travel and difficult, often tense meetings to address problems in the Order and the Church also took their toll on Fr. John’s health. He suffered his first heart-attack in 1980, and had several other bouts of health problems after that. What is remarkable is that through it all he was never one to complain.
In 1991 Fr. John returned from Rome to the life of an ordinary friar of the Province, serving at St. Boniface in San Francisco and St. Elizabeth’s in Oakland. In 1994 he returned to Mission San Miguel as Novice Master and Guardian, remaining there until 2003, when he returned to St. Boniface. I calculate that he had by that time spent 22 years of his religious life in the novitiate. From 2007 until his death, the fraternity of Mission Santa Barbara was his home.
Our own John was also a Brother to others. He deeply loved his family, and first of all his Sister, known to us simply as “Sis,” and his nephews and niece from the Valley, with the news of their lives that was also so important to him. He felt the loss very deeply when his beloved sister died, almost literally in his arms as they were travelling together near her home. I am sure that today both of them can be looking with approval on our gathering here.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends. And in this too, our Brother John was in harmony with his Master. He was a man of strong friendships. He recalled with pleasure the trips he took while a student in Rome to join two other friar-students, Fr. Kenan Osborne and Fr. Pierre Etchelecu, both Santa Barbarans. He loved to travel to Tahoe from St. Francis in Sacramento, where he was novice master and pastor, with staff members from the Parish Offices. Secular Franciscans of Sacramento became close friends of his. And his confrere and novitiate classmate, Fr. Lester Mitchell, was always able to bring a smile to Fr. John’s face with his droll stories of the Disney film character “Bambi.”
We should remember that Jesus reclined at table with His friends that evening before he died. He was among them as one of their community, even acting as their lowest member. Our Brother John was a friar’s friar. With a group of his brothers at recreation, whether in San Miguel or Rome, Sao Paolo or Singapore, John delighted in listening to the stories of others, sharing a glass of wine, and sharing many wonderful stories of his own. During his years in various offices he had met so many friars, Poor Clares, Franciscan Sisters and Secular Franciscans that around the world today he is still remembered fondly in the most remote areas. Friars in many different countries have told me how touched they were to receive from John a note on the anniversary of their Solemn Profession at which he had presided many years earlier, in Australia, or South Africa or Mexico.
And I would be remiss to overlook one other characteristic of this down-to-earth son of St. Francis. As I liked to remind him, after the Resurrection, the Lord was never mistaken for a theology professor, but he was at least once mistaken for a gardener. Gardening, whether with dahlias or chili peppers, was one of the joys of Fr. John’s life, a good source of fresh air and exercise, and good therapy for days that could be stressful at times. His rural family roots on the prairie in Colorado kept him close to Mother Earth and both were the better for it.
The familiar Franciscan icon, the Crucifix of San Damiano, was an image before which the two saints of Assisi, Francis and Clare, both prayed. And it represents the Glorified Christ of the Gospel of John, surrounded by many figures who are being “lifted up” with Jesus as He is glorified by the Father, lifted up through death to resurrection and glory at the Father’s right hand.
Let our prayer today be for the same glorious journey for our friend, uncle, brother, Father John, being lifted up by His loving Father from the sleep of death into the glory of a new life, surrounded by that “cloud of witnesses” which includes so many of those whom he loved during his life.
As I was wondering how to give an appropriate conclusion to these remarks, I received an e-mail message this morning from Fr. Romain Mailleux in Brussels, John’s former Vicar General and friend. He sent his condolences along with a copy of the eloquent words of farewell he delivered at the General Chapter of 1991, as John was leaving office. Let Br. Romain’s words serve as a fitting farewell also today:
“Dear Brother Minister, you are for us the complete Friar Minor, after the image of Saint Francis. And you encourage us to become that in turn, because you have always believed in each one of us. In this way you gather in yourself the virtues of all the friars of the Order, and your face is radiant with the beauty you discover and evoke in others. Saint Francis must be proud of you, as all of us are. Thank you for who you are among us, and for us, both yesterday and today, both today and tomorrow. May the Lord bless you and keep you always, Thank you, Brother John.”