Speaking with a passerby during a gathering of Holy Name friars, Dominic Monti was taken aback. “What’s this senior gathering about?” someone asked. Dominic had to admit: Given the preponderance of gray heads, it was a natural assumption.
The realities of aging and diminishment cannot be denied, he said last week during a presentation at SJB’s All Province Assembly in Dayton. “The thing that is hitting us in the face is this dramatic decline in numbers.” But don’t be too quick to assign blame. Instead of asking, “What are we doing wrong?”, maybe we should be asking, “How do we adapt in a changing world?”
A roomful of friars – a remarkable turnout of 127 – was the perfect class for historian Dominic, whose lively talk, full of examples and gesticulation, went a long way toward reducing the anxiety that often accompanies a discussion of vocations. Earlier in the week, two groups of friars shared their best times as brothers in a “Fish Bowl” format. Others were recruited as “Listeners” to gauge the sentiment of the group. Among the many candid and heartfelt exchanges, it was Dominic who helped friars understand why they are where they are.
HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF
Basically, it seems, everything is relative. “The Order has seen these kinds of things before,” he said, referring to the drop in vocations since the 1960s. For example, “When you look back at our country, you see the tremendous work of friars in the colonial period” in regions like the Southwest and the Great Lakes. “All those efforts gradually dwindled away to a presence of about eight people in California. All that effort died. But precisely at that moment was rebirth,” a resurgence sparked by the arrival in Cincinnati of Friar William Unterthiner from the Tyrolese Province in 1844. Led by our German, Irish, Italian and Polish forebears, “There was suddenly a huge explosion of immigrants,” in America, 37 million between 1840 and 1920. Friars from Europe came “precisely to minister to those people.” They moved away from their comfort zone, the monastery, to lead parishes and open schools.
In blue-collar Catholic communities, few could afford college, so the occupational choice was often, “I could be a priest or work in the mine.” Hence the boom in vocations. After World War II, numbers dipped again when the GI Bill of Rights gave Catholics another option: college and an entrée to the middle class. “Three things were happening,” Dominic said:
1) The disintegration of old ethnic Catholicism;
2) Cultural revolutions in American society;
3) The revisioning of Catholicism in Vatican II
Putting things in perspective: Between 1966 and 1974, “We lost 120 solemnly professed friars” in Holy Name Province, Dominic said. Today, “We have huge challenges facing us in terms of our Order.” Among them, the “new” immigration is changing the definition of what it means to be American; “the country is much more mobile,” fragmenting families; and fewer people identify with institutional religion. “How do we swim in that new water?” Dominic asked.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Last fall’s gathering in Milwaukee with then Minister General Jose Carballo was a statistical revelation. Of the 1,210 friars in America, the average age is 68; “16 percent of us are ‘young’,” Dominic said. “The number of people you need to keep a province going – running it – is decreasing.” Reality dictates serious discussion of issues like, “What is our mission?” and, “How do we structure ourselves to best accomplish this mission?”
Even in Francis’ day, that mission was not set in stone. “Francis did not have an intuition of what he wanted to do. What that meant concretely was only expressed through the brothers.” In the 21st century, “We don’t have the luxury of waiting around while the vision becomes clear.” Fortunately, “Through the confusion of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, we learned some things.” One was to return to the sources for the vision of the early Franciscan movement. Another was to adapt to the changing conditions of the times.
Last fall when councils visited the interprovincial novitiate in Burlington, Wis., “There was a sense of energy and enthusiasm,” with some novices expressing the shared desire: “We hope for one identity.” There is concern, Dominic said, “that we have over-identified ourselves as provinces. We are first Friars Minor.” New forms of collaboration could be manifested in a joint Associates program or through mutual support for a publishing entity like Franciscan Media.
“Ultimately,” Dominic said, “who we say we are is not what we do; it’s who we are. We’re brothers. We’re lesser ones. We are grounded in prayer.”
Today, “Lay people can minister in religious life,” so why would men join a religious Order like the friars? The reasons Dominic hears are, “To deepen my spiritual life” and, “To live in fraternity.” On the flip side, when men leave the Order, “What are the reasons? The source of disappointment is bad community. Not being what we claim to be. Not living up to the fundamental things we profess to be. Are we who we say we are?”
The answer may be closer than you think. “The answer,” Dominic said, “is in our hearts.”
From SJB News Notes, Newsletter of St. John the Baptist Province. The Province just concluded an All Province Assembly last week. Learn more about the St. John the Baptist Province