Spirit is alive at St. Meinrad
BY TONI CASHNELLI
Reports are read, elections are held and proposals are passed.
On paper, a Chapter sounds like a business meeting. But the real business of Chapter is the honest and open exchange that happens when friars are moved by the Spirit. It can be touching, insightful, and sometimes surprising.
The agenda for last week’s meeting at St. Meinrad Archabbey was ambitious, as outgoing Provincial Minister Jeff Scheeler and General Visitor Caoimhin Ó Laoide shared visions of a future in which change will bring both challenge and opportunity.
"We don’t want to let go of the good things we have been doing," Jeff stressed in his report, referring to U.S. restructuring and revitalization.
"What we can no longer do by ourselves, we do with others. We will have to be open to change. We will have to be willing to adapt…We are older. We are fewer. We are not dying."
The Chapter opened Monday with the usual roll call and announcements. Executive Secretary John Barker, who seemed to be everywhere throughout the week, conducted the meeting with such alacrity and efficiency he was dubbed "indefatigable". The moniker stuck.
When it was time to read the Rule of St. Francis, a video flickered to life. As senior friars who were unable to attend read various sections, the audience in the chapel was visibly moved.
That evening when Jeff spoke at St. Bede Theater, he was looking into the face of the future. For the first time, guest friars from five other U.S. provinces attended the Chapter of St. John the Baptist Province. At the end of the week, they seemed so at home it was hard to remember which ones were visiting. All of them expressed gratitude for the welcome they had received. Chuck Faso of Sacred Heart Province added to his thanks, "I’m so glad to be here."
Tuesday, the day before elections, friars who received the most votes in straw ballots for Provincial Minister and Council were tasked with talking about themselves. "I have empathy for friars who find themselves in this position," said Caoimhin. "There’s a certain vulnerability about being considered for a position, a sense of being ‘weighed up’."
Fr. Jim Bok related his ministerial journey from Roger Bacon High School to the province development office to the missions in Jamaica. "I’m very honored at standing here today," he told fellow friars.
In 34 years as an Air Force chaplain, Fr. Bob Bruno has seen his share of downsizing, relatable to issues facing U.S. friars. In January he moved to a civilian position at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. In the midst of this, he asked himself, "Are you prepared to surrender your future to God’s plan?"
Fr. Bill Farris talked about working through a midlife crisis when he was "pushing 40." In his years as a friar, "I’m been given the gift of variety in ministry and living situations." As current pastor of Transfiguration Parish in Southfield, Mich., a position "I dearly love", he wondered, "maybe it’s time to start giving back."
There was no equivocating from Vicar Frank Jasper. "The last nine years have been challenging, a learning experience, totally awesome," he said of his role in leadership. As for being Provincial Minister, "I have neither the desire nor energy to do this at this time. I feel as though I’ve just finished running a marathon. In other words, please don’t vote for me."
Early in life, Fr. Mark Soehner said, a passion for Francis "connected deep in my soul." He shared his shortcomings – "I tend toward fear; I can at times be selfish" – as well as his gifts: the gifts of administration and compassion; a reputation for being firm but fair; an ability to listen, honed through training as a psychotherapist. "I’m a team player; I want others to participate," Mark said. He thanked brothers for their support. "It’s a genuine privilege to be standing up here."
After all had spoken, Caoimhin told friars, when it comes to leadership, "You’re blessed to have a ‘bench’."
In his own report reflecting his impressions and opinions, the General Visitor combined poetry and practicality.
"I’ve grown to love this province because of the people," he said. "This province has wonderful gifts. I think I have a handle on who you are." Throughout his travels, for example, "Friars have expressed their appreciation for their leadership."
He used symbolism to describe what’s happening in SJB Province. "I see us as a tree going through seasonal changes. It doesn’t deny that things are changing, but it doesn’t say things are dead. We’re in winter now, especially in the Western world, but it’s spring and summer in other parts of the Order. Friars who joined in the last 20 years will know fall and winter" in their lives as Franciscans.
The reality is that "for every friar under 60, seven are over 60. A lot of the older guys are keeping the show on the road." What will this mean? "You’ve had a huge impact," he said. "You’re used to large-scale projects. Being content with being small scale probably is something you haven’t fully expected."
In Jeff’s report, Caoimhin said, "He spoke of the possibility of living our calling in a vital, creative, enthusiastic and joyful way, and he mentioned various initiatives that arose out of that energy. …It is eight years since some of the friars walked through Virginia and I have heard about it frequently as a venture which was life-giving for so many people and friars. Why not continue to risk doing something along those lines?"
He challenged the province: "Let’s try to be courageous and creative and find means to break down established practices and prise one another out of the cocoons that our rooms have become….As I have said before, there is a huge task ahead. We are called to bring the Gospel to generations who in many cases have lost the vocabulary and the fundamental concepts of the Christian faith…" As Thomas Merton said, "Our task is to seek and find Christ in our world as it is, and not as it might be."
As an Irishman, he said, "I cannot end without a reference to my own country’s literature." The poem "Begin" by Brendan Kennelly echoes Francis’ final wish, and ends with: "Though we live in a world that dreams of ending that always seems about to give in, something that will not acknowledge conclusion insists that we forever begin."
It was perfect.
Thanks and praise
Next on Tuesday’s agenda was, "Discussion of White Paper & Restructuring", a chance to re-imagine Franciscan life and ministry. Small groups tackled each chapter of "Making Fraternity Our Mission: Revitalizing and Restructuring the Order of Friars Minor in the U.S.A.", the document organized according to the eight core Franciscan criteria found in Ite, Nuntiate.
Each group later shared the substance of its huddle, offering suggestions and observations. For example, from Chapter 5, "Evangelizing Mission" – a topic so popular it was split into two groups – one of them asked, "Does our affluence prevent us from evangelizing?" The other Chapter 5 group offered ideas for outreach such as, "Riding the bus regularly" and "Learning another language."
The most jam-packed day of Chapter, Tuesday ended with the Jubilee Mass and Dinner honoring 23 brothers for their 50 to 75 years as friars or priests. "Thank you for the witness and dedication of your lives all these years," said homilist Jeremy Harrington. "I was struck by how many years were covered by our Jubilarians and all the changes in our world, our culture, the Church, the Order, the province."
In the context of renewal in the Church, he cited the contributions of Jubilarians to the missions, the field of education, the life of prayer. "These are the people who helped change, renew and revitalize our province," Jeremy said. "We look back with thanks and praise, but we also look forward…Thanks to all you Jubilarians and may God continue to bless you with his grace and his love."
They were celebrated at dinner with video portraits assembled by Br. Chris Cahill and stories penned by Fr. Fred Link that were read by members of Council. The words describing the ministry of Fr. Warren Zeisler, 75 years a friar, were "stability" and "faithfulness". Those same words apply to 22 others whose devotion and years of service are awe-inspiring.
Elections dominated Wednesday morning and afternoon, with Mark Soehner elected Provincial Minister and Bill Farris voted into the office of Vicar, both on the first ballot.
The new Provincial Council includes two first-timers – Bob Bruno and John Barker – as well as veterans Fr. Page Polk and Br. Vince Delorenzo.
Then it was time to consider proposals. Anyone who thinks these discussions are boring has never attended a session chaired by Fr. Tom Richstatter. After Wednesday night’s read-throughs, they got down to business the next morning. Tom explained, "The process will be guided by Robert’s Rules of Order – modified a whole lot. It seems to me this morning is to decide which proposals we want to decide upon. We are not writing a document to win the Pulitzer Prize. What we want to do this morning is to campaign for or against the issue."
So they did. In general, friars followed Tom’s instructions, and most of the proposals drew positive responses. There was sentiment in support of Proposal 7, which requested a study that could lead to province-supported housing for refugees. The debate was lively and extended. Eventually, what started as a very specific idea from Br. Dominic Lococo was rewritten as:
"We members of the Province of St. John the Baptist affirm our concern for refugees coming to the United States. As a practical expression of that concern, we ask that the Provincial Council initiate a study of ways by which we can help provide housing and other needs to refugees and give practical witness to our solidarity with them."
In its revised and broadened form, the proposal passed easily, as did the other six on the Chapter agenda.
‘A great future’
In closing on Friday, Provincial Minister Mark thanked all who attended and praised "the indefatigable-ness of John Barker." He recognized his predecessor, Jeff, for 21 years of service to the province as a Councilor, Vicar and Provincial Minister.
Chapter President Caoimhin sent friars forth. "This province has a tremendous past, but a great future," he said. "There’s so much closeness to the Lord, a real desire to live Gospel values." He told them, "You have elected an excellent team of leaders. They have the grace of leadership in this province. But the rest need to have the grace of membership and allow leaders to lead. It’s not that they’ll be leading top-down, but they may be leading from the front, leading you to places unfamiliar and stretch you in ways you’d prefer not to be led. Please pray for these men. Pray for yourselves, too, that you’ll have the confidence and trust to be people who can be led."
Before declaring the Chapter closed he assured them, "The Spirit is alive and is present in this room." No one could argue with that.
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