By Joshua J. McElwee
For the first time in their centuries-long history, the leaders of the seven separate provinces of the major group of Franciscan friars in the United States met together in Milwaukee in December 2012.
Joined by the international head of the order founded by the 13th-century St. Francis of Assisi, the leaders had made the historic summit to answer a decidedly uncomfortable question faced by religious orders across the globe: What to do in an era of steeply declining numbers?
Laying out the data for the group was Franciscan Fr. John Puodziunas, leader of one of the U.S. provinces. By the year 2025, he told the group, there would be a 40 percent drop in the some 1,171 Franciscan friars. The number of active friars, he said, would likely decrease by 2025 from 907 to 506.
To address the decline, the Franciscans decided to commission a group from their seven provinces to create a report on how they might together restructure themselves nationally.
The report from the group, known as the interprovincial commission, was released last September. A 97-page mix of sociological data, interviews and demographic history, it recommends a number of options, including creation of a central U.S. Franciscan federation, merging of several of the provinces together, or a complete merger of the seven provinces into one pan-U.S. Franciscan province.
Puodziunas also leads the English Speaking Conference of the Order of Friars Minor (OFM). The conference is a representative body for members of the order is six English-speaking countries.
Puodziunas said in a recent interview he feels excitement about the process, which he said some friars are calling "our sign of hopefulness."
"It is exciting that as we are diminishing and as we are aging, we're not seeing that as an obstacle to a future presence," he said.
"We feel it actually could be our strength in restructuring, because the aging and the diminishing will bring us to looking at our structures and saying we're really about ministry," he continued. "That's exciting - that we'll be able to focus on our charism and our ministry as opposed to the fact that we're getting smaller and our structures are having a difficult time staying afloat."
The project of considering the restructuring is being led under the aegis of the English Speaking Conference, which has a special sub-conference concerned with issues faced by U.S. Franciscans.
The Order of Friars Minor is the largest of several orders that trace their founding to St. Francis. Others include Capuchin and Conventual Franciscans, who are not part of this restructuring process. The process also does not affect Franciscan orders of women religious.
Unlike other orders that have very centralized international structures - the Jesuits for example, have a curia in Rome that makes most structural decisions for the order - the Franciscans, while having Roman headquarters, leave many decisions up to their order's local groups.
That echoes the ideology of St. Francis, who sent groups of friars around the world on their own - giving them little instruction other than to live and preach a life of poverty and nonviolence closely following the precepts of the Gospel.
"This is all historic for us here in this country," Franciscan Fr. Thomas Washburn, executive secretary of the English Speaking Conference, said in an interview. "We've never really interacted in this way before."
"Our order doesn't work with centralization much," he said. "For us to accomplish something like this really requires collaboration and cooperation between the provinces. The notion of looking at ourselves nationally as Franciscans is a new and wonderful thing for us."
Following the process laid out by the 2012 Milwaukee meeting, the seven Franciscan provinces are to meet individually this spring and early summer to review the recommendations made in the interprovincial report.
Part of their considerations will be how they can change their structures to best serve in their ministries. One focus of the study of the friars' interprovincial group was to ask laypeople, both men and women, "What do you want us to be?"
Puodziunas said that part of the process is key, as for the past 150 years Franciscans in the United States "were defined by the needs of the people we wer serving."
Most of the history of each of the seven provinces, Washburn said, revolves around the Franciscans in those provinces serving the needs of immigrant groups as they built different ethnic communities in the various parts of the country.
"We can't exist just for ourselves," Puodziunas said. "In order for ourselves to understand where our future lies, we need to ask either people we serve or people we may potentially serve, 'What is it we should be doing today?'"
"That will help us understand our identity," he said. "It's not in a vacuum of living in a monastery. We're not monks. We're friars in the workplace, friars in the marketplace. In order to do that we need to hear the needs and the cries of the people that potentially we can serve."
Following the individual meetings of each of the Franciscans' provincial councils, the seven are to meet again together this fall to discuss the options and decide how to go forward. They are to make a final vote on any changes by 2017, and then to implement whatever new structure they choose by 2020."
"This is the beginning of the process," said Puodziunas. "There are no preconceived notions of what this is going to look like. We are in our own charism now, in our own style, working with all our individual friars to bring them on board because leadership sees from one perspective and the friars live from their perspective."
The interprovincial report does make one thing clear, however: Not doing anything isn't even on the table.
"The status quo is not an option," it states bluntly. "The maintaining of the status quo of seven fully autonomous OFM provinces in the United States is not sustainable given demographic realities and the urgency for a revitalization of Franciscan life and ministry."
[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR national correspondent. His email address is; [email protected]]