a dwelling Place of God in the Spirit”:
Revitalization and Restructuring as a Movement of Faith
Bro. Michael Perry, OFM
Minister General and Servant
24 August 2017
“Never measure the height of a mountain, until you have reached the top.
Then you will see how low it was.”
― Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings
“So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”
Re-Identifying Evangelical Values for Re-Igniting Our Franciscan Response
My dear brothers of the Provinces of Assumption, Holy Name, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Sacred Heart, Saint Barbara, and St. John the Baptist,
May the Lord give you peace! It is a great joy for Bro. Caoimhin and me to be with you these days as we reflect together on what it means to be Brothers, ‘fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of God’s household’, members of the one Order of Friars Minor. The reason why we join with you – beyond the invitation we received from the six Provincials – is to demonstrate the ongoing support and commitment of the General Definitory of the Order for the project of revitalization and restructuring upon which you have embarked and to which you continue to demonstrate an ever-deeper engagement. Clearly, the work accomplished over the past year in building greater knowledge and trust of one another has led to the historic decision yesterday morning, that all six Provinces will meet next year in Chapter to vote on the proposal for the creation of one new Franciscan Province in the U.S. There is no way to pre-determine the decision(s) that will come from these Chapter meetings, and how the Spirit of God might move among the brothers, especially if they (we) are open and attentive to His/Her voice. But nothing can distract from what God is accomplishing in the lives of each of the six Provinces, and in the lives each of you gathered here these days!
I personally wish to thank the current and former Provincials who, over the course of the past year, working closely with their Provincial Councils, have facilitated a deepening of the central values of our Franciscan way of life presented in the White Paper and also found in the documents of the Order (General Constitutions and General Statues; Five Priorities; Ite, Nuntaites; et alii) that should guide all processes of revitalization and restructuring of the Franciscan life in each of the Provinces in the U.S. This process was begun with the tremendous work of Page, Bill, and Richard and how finds fresh energy and commitment to continue through to the next major point of decision next summer.
If this process of revitalization and restructuring reveals anything, it is that living the Franciscan evangelical adventure is a lot of hard work and demands a serious commitment and self/collective sacrifice. Prayer, fraternity, living with and among those who are poor (materially and spiritually) in simplicity of life, development of a sharp sense of missionary identity ‘inter gentes’, commitment to ongoing conversion through permanent formation, engagement with the laity as co-disciples and co-missionaries, a ‘Franciscan’ style of engagement with the Church, and integration of the dimensions of JPIC (as expressed in part IV of GGCC, EG, and LS) into all dimensions of our life and activities. These are the tools, the via crucis, and the way forward for living the Gospel life with focus, clarity, energy, passion, and joy. This I believe also is at the heart of the meaning of reading from Letter to the Ephesians I have chosen for this reflection. The Jewish and Christian members of the newly forming church of the Christ, engaged in a wide variety of struggles, were urged to pursue a common vision together, to engage in the search of a new sense of identity that did not negate their past but rather found in the blood of the cross a unifying force for holding all things together.
We Friars Minor are also engaged in the search for our identity, a search to re-discover what it means to be re-born in the Spirit and to become an entirely new creature/creation in Christ Jesus. Like an actual birthing of the child, it comes with much pain, much suffering but also with much joy. It requires that we rededicate ourselves to the central or core values of the Gospel life, the ‘following in the footprints of Christ’, in order that we might enter into a new relationship with God, with ourselves, with one another, and with all of the created universe. It is precisely this process of being built up like living stones into the one household of God, the new temple, the church, reclaiming our identity as members of the one universal brotherhood of the Order of Friars Minor.
Recovering what is Authentic and Essential for our Gospel Journey
During the month of June 2017, I visited the Franciscan Province of San Felipe de Jesus in the region of Chiapas, Mexico, near the border of Guatemala. I took the opportunity to visit the Franciscan house of welcome, La Setenta y Dos, where I met a family who was fleeing from their home country of El Salvador. Their exile was provoked by a very troubling event: the beating and disappearance of their 15-year old son Emilio who, from the age of 11 had been forced to join the Mara Salvatruce street gang. The father, a welder by trade, and the mother tried to keep the family together. There were three other siblings: a 13-year old daughter; a 9-year old son; and a 4-year old girl. One day, news arrived that the son had been publicly beaten by a rival gang, had several fingers amputated, and then was taken to an unknown location. The parents contacted the police to try to get action but nothing happened. Four months passed with no word about their son. Out of a sense of deep fear and frustration, the father decided he could no longer take the risk of continuing to live in El Salvador. He could not defend his own family. What happened to his oldest son could happen to the second boy. He feared also for his wife and two daughters. With the help of paid traffickers, the family was transported to a small town in Mexico, in the Chiapas region, miles from the border with Guatemala. The family now thought that their nightmare of violence was over, and their dream to go to a place where they could rebuild their lives could become a reality.
But the story of violence followed them. During the second week after their arrival in Mexico, members of a Mexican gang pulled the daughter out of a crowd and took her to an abandoned house where they raped her. Three months after the event, the family discovered that was she pregnant and HIV positive. As we listened to the story, tears began to stream down the faces of the father, mother, and daughter. For nearly seven months, the family has been staying at the Franciscan center for hospitality. As the father continued to speak about the life of his family, we did not hear cries of anger, nor did he call for revenge. He asked us to pray for him, for his wife, for their missing son Emilio, for their pregnant and infected daughter, for their two other children, and for extended family members who remained behind in El Salvador. He also asked for prayer, that he and his family could forgive those who had kidnapped their son Emilio, and for those who had raped, impregnated, and infected their daughter with the HIV virus.
What came to mind then, and even now, is what happens to us when we are stripped of everything, reduced to absolute existential destitution. The members of the Salvadorian family were left with nowhere to call home and nothing material to cling to for security, for identity. And yet, despite all that has beset their lives, the many different losses they experienced, they were not devoid of any human or spiritual resource. To the contrary, two essential elements of their human and spiritual lives emerged and took front and center stage: (1) their deep and abiding faith in God, the ultimate source of their lives and trust; and (2) their family bonds, the strength of the love and commitment they had made to one another – prior to, during, and now as a consequence of the struggles of the many years they have been together, of the pain of loss of loved ones, of the violent violation of the dignity of their son and daughter, and of the new-found acceptance and welcome they experienced in the hands of the Franciscans and lay collaborators at La Setenta y Dos. And while we can never undervalue the tremendous resource that religious identity and belonging offers, nor can we undervalue the invaluable contribution of what it means to be in a committed relationship as family, what Pope Francis has called the ‘first fraternity’ in the world (cf. Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitiae). These two sources for hope provided them with the necessary courage to continue to believe in human life, a life lived with dignity, hope, and love. But the story does not end there. The closer they moved to God, and the more they held onto one another, the greater their capacity to one again reach out beyond their pain, despair, beyond their trail of tears and suffering encountered along the way of life, seeking to become instruments of peace and forgiveness. They were not seeking to control the future. Rather, they were seeking to name whatever future that might come as something fully spiritual and fully human: the restoration of their friendship in God and the recommitment to work together, loving and holding on to one another, all the while opening their hearts to the mysteries of life and of God’s grace at work in all moments, bitter and sweet. It was precisely because they remembered their personal history of love and peace, suffering and loss, that they were able to be embraced by a new grace and a new spiritual power, one that would liberate them and allow them to reclaim a new hope and a new peace for their lives. They reached deeply within themselves and pulled from the rich trove of God’s mercy and love the in-sight and energy that would be required of them if they were to survive and thrive as individuals and as members of one family.
I do not wish to idealize the story of this family’s life and suffering. They did not try to do this so why should I. Rather, what emerges from their flight, their search for peace and forgiveness, and their commitment to open their live to God and to one another is an amazing story of a faith journey of simple, authentic disciples of the risen Lord Jesus. Someone once wrote that ‘It is not by clinging to dreams that the future is created; it is by opening oneself up to the mystery contained within each and every moment of existence, the mystery of the One standing behind and within all of life, present in each of these moments; this is how the future is created’.
For those of us who have professed a way of life that pretends to embrace the prophetic option, are we also open to the same mystery at work in our lives and calling us to embrace all that life and history brings to us, placing it before the cross of Christ and the power of his resurrection? Are we constantly preparing ourselves to undertake the daily ‘exodus journey’ that is an essential and inescapable part of our lives? Are we open to allowing God to bring to fruition the divine promise, namely, that “In him [we] also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22). Abraham and Sarah, Mary and Joseph, the Emmaus disciples, St. Francis and the early Brothers, St. Clare, and the family from El Salvador have all opened their lives to the invitation of God to allow themselves to become living stones and part of the dwelling place, the new temple, the new body of God’s love and mercy in the world. Have we Friars Minor not been called to enter into this same vocational journey of faith, hope, and love?
The Theological Basis for our Franciscan Identity
Among the signs of the times that we are facing as a Franciscan brotherhood are found a crisis of identity, fraternity, and mission. I have spoken of these extensively and will continue to do so because of the vital connection between the crises we face and a perceived weakening of the vitality of the Order. The White Paper made specific reference to several challenges that the Friars have identified in the 2012 Questionnaire. Among all of the different challenges, three stand out in bold relief: (1) lack of Trust in God, Self, and Others; (2) increasing inability to commit to the building of interpersonal relationships within the fraternity, and also outside in mission inter gentes; and (3) a closing of the ‘mental, spiritual, and social space’, leading to the creation of ‘gated worlds’ ( the computer is my cloister!), with tremendous consequences for how we are to live our lives and fulfill our commitment to engage in evangelizing mission. I am sure you as Provincials and Councils/Definitories could identity other areas of crisis, including psychological fragility/pathologies, the threat of individualism, new forms of dependence and addiction, etc.
It is for these reasons that the process upon which you are deeply engaged is so vital to the life of the Order and to the life of the Brothers, to each and every one of us. There is tremendous good will among you and the Brothers of the six Provinces. There is an increasing sense of the common good and a common identity as Brothers on the Gospel way together. And I sense there also is a growing willingness to step out and take risks together, as members of different Provinces who share one common identity as believers, co-heirs, Brothers committed to the pursuit of the Gospel life and the joy of being members of the one Body of Christ, the Church, the Pilgrim People of God on the way towards a future that God is preparing for each of us and all of us.
In an article examining the nature of Franciscan identity, Franciscan sister Ilia Delio, OSF, building upon the work of Michael Blastic, OFM, attempted to outline two sources for the ongoing construction of our ‘Franciscan’ identity. The first of these sources is connected with the theological insights that St. Francis discovered along the way of doing the Gospel life, with specific focus on the incarnational and relational nature of God, the relational nature of the human person, and the relational nature of all of the created universe. There is an innate, spiritual connectedness existing between all that exists, rooted in the Trinitarian nature of a relational God. In the case of the followers of St. Francis, they embraced the theological vision of Francis and placed it within the context of ‘doing’ the Gospel (facere), the ‘doing of theology’. Blastic’s analysis of the early sources, and specifically the work of Thomas of Celano, led him to postulate three specifically Franciscan theological insights that continue to exercise their influence in the theological, philosophical, and ‘praxiological’ experience of the Franciscan movement. Blastic discusses a tri-partite theological intuition that emerged from within the spiritual experience of St. Francis, leading to a specific way of being and doing Christian discipleship in the world. These include: (1) the relationship of Christians to the world; (2) the meaning of the humanity of Christ; and (3) the nature of the human person, as a social, inter-relational being, created from the ‘fraternity’ of the Triune God, and destined for fraternity shared with all of humanity and all of creation. (Cf. Delio, 18). Blastic writes: “Francis looked down on the things of the earth” and recognized “the image of him who make himself poor for us in the world” (quoted in Delio, 18). In the image of the crucified Son of God, Francis saw that “authentic humanness is revealed in Jesus Christ, that is, the human person like Christ is fragile, limited, and vulnerable” (Blastic, examining Celano, quoted in Delio, 18). This tri-partite theological intuition served as an “architectonics of Franciscan identity” (cf. Delio, 18). The specific and necessary context in which both Francis and the brothers engaged in the ‘theological endeavor’ was the living, thriving, struggling, hope-filled fraternity. “What ultimately distinguished his [St. Francis’s] way of life was the realization of a new set of relationships – a community of relationships that he described as ‘brother and sister’” (Delia, 18-19). And the specific form of fraternity – the theological model – for St. Francis was grounded in an absolute and unconditional interdependence, an absolute form of solidarity, that welded the lives of the brothers into one single unit, the fraternity. “Let each one love and care for his brother as a mother loves and cares for her son” (cf. Regis J. Armstrong, W. Hellmann, and W. Short, 1999, Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 1, The Saint). Thus, the theological project of St. Francis was not simply to create conditions for the realization of the Kingdom, nor to imitate some previous saints in the conduct of a life of holiness and asceticism. Rather, “The identity of Francis and his followers in the context of community (fraternity) was marked by ‘creating together’ the reality of Incarnation, the goodness of God in creation and the dignity of the human person, especially among the poor and the sick. This new way of relating to God in the world gave birth to an ever-expanding fraternal way of life,…an Incarnational Franciscan culture” (cf. Delia, 19-20).
All of this is prelude to our lives as Friars and Lesser Brothers living in the post-modern world. Not only have we inherited a very rich theological tradition, and the attending ‘Franciscan’ culture it has generated, we also have inherited the responsibility to take up the same challenges as St. Francis and each generation of Friars Minor. We must draw upon our rich heritage with all of its diverse expressions – i.e. the different cultures of the six Provinces represented at this assembly – and embark in a manner that is theologically and fraternally responsible upon the arduous task of reconstructing a Franciscan identity that is ours to offer to the world today. “That is why the renewal of Franciscan identity must begin with community (fraternity), with sharing values and vision and with listening to the challenges that each one faces in trying to live out these values today. Only through the values of common purpose, mutual care and shared capacity for suffering can we regain a sense of identity that moves beyond apathy or indifference,” thus “recovering the art of doing theology” (Cf. Delio, 28).
We must be willing to enter into an open an honest dialogue between that which we hold sacred and sacrosanct (‘sacred canons’ of our Franciscan way of life), allowing them to be challenged and critiqued “in the light of the present moment” so that they – and we – might be reborn of the Spirit (Cf. Delio 30). The advent of the first Pope to take the name of Francis adds a sense of urgency and opportunity to this vital mission.
A Return to the Essentials of our Franciscan Evangelical Life
The journey upon which all of us Lesser Brothers have embarked, -beginning with our response to the call, confirmed through our profession to the Gospel life proposed by Francis and ratified by the Church – provides us with an opportunity of a lifetime to experience the intimate communion, which is at the heart of the writer’s intention in his letter to the Ephesians. Some scholars argue that the enduring tensions between Jew and Gentile, especially as the Gentile presence in the new faith of Jesus expanded numerically and geographically, was the chief motive for the writing of the letter to the Ephesians. Other scholar suggest that it was, rather, the tension between tendencies to domesticate the new community of Jesus, succumbing to the inevitable transformation of the movement into structure and order. Still other exegetes suggest that the letter was meant to serve as a type of lex orandi, the praying of a specifically Christ-centered identity and way of being, transmitting the way of Christian discipleship to catechumens and the newly-baptized in the faith communities where the letter might have been read and studied. There also were concerns within the early communities about how to balance the needs to establish structures for the faithful transmission of the faith, on the one hand, and the urgency to continue the Pauline apostolic ministry of missionary evangelization, with all of its insecurities and challenges. My personal take on the latter is that it addressed all of these concerns and was used in different ways in different Christian communities to help them move beyond mere ritual and outside ‘performance’ of faith, moving to an inner experience of encounter with the living Lord of history, Jesus. Moreover, they too were challenged not simply to repeat or duplicate the practices of the faith in some static, controlled, manner. They like us were challenged to find ways to bring the central values of the Gospel life alive for their generation.
Some Thoughts about Emerging Themes, Dynamics, and Challenges
I would like to call particular attention to the ‘White Paper’, entitled Making Fraternity our Mission: Revitalization and Restructuring the Order of Friars Minor in the U.S.A. (April 2017). The document zeroes in on the central values that guide our lives as Friars Minor – i.e. the Five Priorities, restated in the small document on renewal of life and mission, Ite, Nuntiates, and taking the form of eight central priorities or instruments for evaluating and re-igniting our passion to live the evangelical life. I also would like to briefly comment what I perceive has transpired to a greater or lesser degree in the lives of the Friars of your respective Provinces, as they have reflected upon their own living out of the Gospel life and as they confront their hopes and fears related to the future restructuring of the six existing Provinces. I will state these in terms of themes/dynamics/processes.
- Development a clearer understanding of the dynamics involved when speaking about institutional change, and the possible reconfiguring of six of the current seven U.S. Franciscan Provinces, with the possibility of creating one Province, including a thorough analysis of the technical, organizational, economic and ‘contextual’ aspects related to how we currently organize and live out our Franciscan life and mission in the different regions/Provinces.
- Intensification of interactions between members of the different Provinces through shared retreats, participation in the chapters of the different Provinces in 2017, regional inter-Provincial meetings, sustained dialogue between the Provincials, and this meeting in Wappingers Falls. All of these are designed to provide new opportunities to meet face to face and discuss evolving visions and objective realities, and to work together to create a shared framework for generating a renewal of the spiritual imagination of each Friar, one capable of stirring or rousing the Brothers to embark upon renewal while proposing ways to move towards the re-organizing of structures destined to support this ongoing process.
- Increasing awareness of the need to communicate a message of hope and promise rather than of doom and despair, thus creating potential for synergy, and for the re-imagining of our Franciscan life in the U.S. in response to God’s invitation. This message of hope and promise seeks to open new paths, new opportunities for ongoing conversion, a deepening of faith and trust in God and in one another as Brothers on the same ultimate journey. This same message is an effort to encourage the Brothers to work together to generate new responses (not necessarily new answers) to new questions, those emerging from the post, post, post-modern world defined by change, speed, increasing divisions and the erection of barriers/walls, of defensive strategies for survival and self-perpetuation rather than offensive strategies for compassion, solidarity, dialogue, forgiveness, and courageous witness.
- An emerging recognition of the need to find new ways of re-awakening and tapping into the passion of the Gospel life that we have chosen, especially after decades of commitment, a result of medical advances and the extension of human lifespan, and the need, as Pope Francis reminds families (married couples), of renewing our commitment to our religious profession so that it might withstand the test of time. Parenthetically, this aspect of the prolongation of life, and by consequences of our religious profession to the vowed, evangelical life, was discussed within the context of the departure from the Franciscan Order of friars after more than 20, 30, 40 or more years. In the end, it is becoming clearer that the Order needs to focus on the creation of more effective strategies and programs for Ongoing Formation and renewal of life and mission.]
- Re-discovering and promoting the central hermeneutical theme of what it means to be ‘fraternities of faith, hope, and love as and in mission’. This necessarily implies movement, freeing the spirit, the mind, and the heart of the friars so that they (we) might come to understand ourselves as ‘pilgrims ad strangers’ engaged in unending journey. It is only when we take to the road that we can renew our sense of what it means to be ‘fraternities of faith-filled brothers’ who are called to go out and share the Good News that we live within our daily lives, within our fraternities, and within our Provinces and the Order. We must recover a sense of identity that is universal, understanding that Provincial identities and structures, important as they might be, are in fact means and not ends. The White Paper underscored the centrality of this hermeneutical theme, the need to recover what it means to be a Gospel brotherhood on the move.
Let Us Begin
There are three words that Francis offered to his Brothers once they had advanced numerically and in holiness of life and apostolic/missionary engagement. “Let us begin.” These three words point to the constant need to open our lives anew to the mystery of grace, to the beauty of God’s image, and to the uncontrollable actions of the Spirit of God at work in our lives, in the lives of our brothers in the Order(s), to all people who are brother and sister, and to all of creation. For this, I turn to two texts to serve as commentary on what I have tried to convey to you in this spiritual reflection. The first is a text from our General Constitutions and General Statutes, Article 1.2:
The friars, as followers of St. Francis, are bound to lead a radically evangelical life, namely: to live in a spirit of prayer and devotion and in fraternal fellowship; they are to offer a witness of penance and minority; and, in charity towards all mankind, they are to announce the Gospel throughout the whole world and to preach reconciliation, peace and justice by their deeds; and to show respect for creation.
The second is found in the third chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians (3:14-21):
“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine, by the power at work within us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
St. Francis recognized that Jesus Christ was – and is – at the center of all of existence. His life, teachings, suffering, death, and resurrection serve as a vortex, pulling each of us disciples and Friars Minor into the center of the Triune love of God. Francis also recognized that even as each of us are caught up in this loving act of God, expressed most clearly and definitively in the Incarnation, our mission is to grab hold of one another so that together – we brothers of the Gospel, all human beings, and all of creation (Laudato Si’) - might find ourselves living in and nourished by God who is love and who calls us to become love with and in Him. In this way, the promise of God expressed by the author of the Letter to the Ephesians might be realized, namely, “that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:17-19).