12 November 2007

A global brotherhood

The General Definitory and the members of the North American-Pacific Capuchin Conference have just comcluded their joint meeting in Tampa, Florida. Such meetings between the international leadership and the individual conferences of the Order during the early years of each sexennium were begun during Flavio Roberto Carraro's second term as General Minister, 1988-1994. The meetings serve the dual purpose of helping the General Definitory understand the particular environment in which the friars live and work, as well as the concerns that they have, and of communicating more directly to the Order's major superiors the concerns and plans of the General Definitory.

After an opening talk from the General Minister, Mauro Jöhri, members of the General Definitory delivered talks on Solidarity of Personnel, the project of moving parts of the Constitutions to a General Statutes or similar document, the Order's response to CPO's VI and VII, and Formation. In addition, the General Bursar presented a talk on The Fraternal Economy. After each talk, members of the Conference were asked to respond to the suggestions made and to relate their experiences and concerns regarding the topics. The members of the NAPCC were also asked to share any other concerns regarding the life of the friars in North America, Guam and Australia.

Space does not permit an adequate summary of each talk here. An English translation of most of the talks was provided to each member of the NAPCC and can be requested from them, if you are interested (or from me if you are not in the NAPCC). Some salient points from the talks were as follows:
  1. Solidarity of Personnel: The Order has made great strides in economic solidarity and has also seen an increase in the sharing of brothers among jurisdictions. The General Definitory wishes to encourage this form of solidarity, but also wants it to be practiced in an orderly, equitable manner.
  2. Constitutions: The General Chapter of 2006 mandated the General Definitory to prepare drafts of Constitutions and General Statutes based on the present Constitutions. According to the Chapter decision, juridical elements not essential to our charism should be moved from the Constitutions to the General Statutes. The present text of the Constitutions is to be respected and enriched with elements from recent Plenary Councils of the Order and documents of the Church. The work is now underway, and soon the friars of the Order will be asked to begin studying the question and making their suggestions.
  3. Formation: Collaboration in formation was strongly encouraged as a good in itself, not just as something to do when candidates are few. An apparent tendency toward abandoning the period of post-novitiate formation free of academic studies is a step backward for the Order. Going straight from the novitiate to philosophical and theological studies is a return to a less fraternal, more clerical form of formation.
  4. Fraternal economy: The traditional Capuchin charism of austerity needs to be re-discovered in the Order, in poor countries as well as in wealthier countries. Values such as transparency and accountability are still not sufficiently practiced in some parts of the world.
The meeting in Tampa was preceeded by a similar meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with the Capuchin Conference of the Andes (CCA) and the Capuchin Conference of Central America (CONCAM). From Tampa, the General Definitory will meet with the Capuchin Conference of Brazil (CCB) in Manaus, Brazil, where they hope not to loose too many extremities to the piranhas or too much blood to the mosquitos!

22 October 2007

Down Under, part 2

While visiting the former Capuchin seminary in Plumpton, which is now used as a retreat/conference center, I was able to visit the tomb of Br. Rudolph Blockinger. Rudolph was a member of the Pennsylvania Province who went to China as a missionary. When the missionaries were forced out, he went to Australia so that he could finish out his days as a missionary. I never knew Rudolph myself, by I heard many stories about him and I knew his younger brother, Br. Cletus.

Having basically completed my visitation, I was able to spend last Saturday seeing some of Sydney's sights. The picture below was taken outside the Cathedral of Syndey. The friars in the photo are (left to right): Thomas McFadden, me, Lam Vu, Nestor Sinaga (Medan Province), James Grant and Bernard Morawski (Warsaw Province). Robert Stewart is taking the picture.

19 October 2007

Down Under

For about the past two weeks, I have been conducting a visitation of the friars in Australia. This is my first time in the "Down Under", and I have been very impressed by the life and work of the friars here. There is a commemorative plaque in front of the provincialate in Leichhardt (Sydney) that gives a good summary of the history of the Capuchins in Australia. Here is a portion of that commemoration:

The Catholic Church, anticipating a boom in unassisted Italian migration after the Second World War, handed over St Fiacres to the Capuchin Order in 1946, to provide assistance. The first priests were Italian Americans including Fr Atanasio Paoletti. They met the boats and provided advice on housing and jobs to initially mainly single men. As well as providing religious services they became a meeting place, conducted dances, set up sporting clubs etc. Many settled at least initially in Leichhardt, some 90 families lived along Catherine Street, and many worked in local industry or construction, or established businesses here. As a consequence Leichhardt became associated with Italians.

Some 60,000 Italian migrants were assisted by the Capuchins, many married and baptised their children here. Many of the children attended St Fiacres School.

The San Francesco Catholic Italian Association set up sporting and social programs, ran dances, sporting clubs, built a recreation hall at St Fiacres, and a kindergarten in Styles Street, all with volunteers. The annual Australia Day picnics on the Harbour and at Clifton Gardens were major events in the 1950's. The Capuchins also started the Italian press that became La Fiamma, and Italian language programs for children, now carried out by Co.As.It.

As the consequence of the Italian influx, Parramatta Road boomed from the 1950s as the Saturday morning shopping strip and 'passeggiatta'. Many clubs, restaurants, cafes and shops were established along Parramatta Road and into Norton Street forming the nucleus of what is now the centre of Italian Australian culture in Sydney.

The Capuchins at St Fiacres have a central place in the history of Italians throughout Australia.

12 October 2007

Eleven Years After, part 5

The final topic the Conference representatives were asked to comment on was the perception of lay brothers in their local churches and societies. Almost all the Conferences reported that lay brothers were poorly understood and under-appreciated. Some of the phrases they used to describe the perception of lay brothers in their areas were: “failed clerics”, “relatively useless” and “useful and edifying domestic servants”. These attitudes, unfortunately, even extended to the local bishops at times, who were happy to have Capuchin priests in their dioceses, but had no appreciation for the lay brothers. Most people, even Catholics, did not understand the lay brotherhood, although often respecting the work the brothers did.

It is hard to see that perceptions have changed much in the last eleven years. If they had, this blog would have a different name. I wondered whether the situation in Italy might be different because of the long history of Capuchins there and the fact that so many of the Order’s saints were Italian lay brothers. I put the question to the participants at the meeting of the lay friars of northern Italy. According to them, perceptions are no different in Italy than in the rest of the world. In retrospect, I should have realized this. I have lost count of the number of times I have had the following conversation* in Italy:

Person: Hello, Father Mark.
Me: Uh, hello. I’m Brother Mark. I’m not ordained, you see.
Person: Oh. Okay, Father Mark.

Most of the lay brothers I know are not terribly upset by people’s lack of understanding of their vocation. They merely sigh (at least figuratively) and go on with their lives. They are happily resigned to be, in the minds of others, just a brother.

* In fairness to the Italians, the word “Padre”, which I translated here as “Father”, is used only for religious priests and brothers. Secular priests are referred to as “Don”, short for “Dominus” or “Lord”.

Eleven Years After, part 4

Another topic that the Conferences were asked to report on at the 1996 gathering was the presence of lay friars in ministries of authority in the Order. Most Conferences reported having lay brothers serving as guardians. In a few Conferences, lay brothers had been elected to the Provincial Definitory. A few had been elected and confirmed as Provincial Vicars and, in one case, a lay brother had been elected and confirmed as Provincial Minister.

Today, the General Definitory receives a great number of requests each year for permission to appoint lay friars as guardians and vicars. The number of lay brothers elected as Provincial and Vice Provincial Definitors has also increased. In general, I would say that lay brothers today are fairly represented in the leadership of the Order.

The Order continues to request the Holy See to permit us to return to the original inspiration of our founder, St. Francis, by allowing us to elect both cleric and lay brothers to the office of major superior. In the meantime, many jurisdictions are not content to just patiently wait for the Holy See to change its stance. Instead, they are reviewing their own structures and traditions with a view to changing those that are more fitting for a clerical Order. For example, many, if not most provinces hold the installation of their newly-elected provincial definitory during a Mass, with the provincial minister as main celebrant and the definitors as concelebrants. This structure basically assumes that the provincial minister will always be a priest. To avoid this perception, therefore, several jurisdictions now have the installation of the newly-elected provincial definitory during morning or evening prayer. If we looked hard enough, probably we could all find other structures in our provinces that similarly presume a clerical orientation.

10 October 2007

Eleven Years After, part 3

A third topic that was addressed at the 1996 international gathering on the "Lay Dimension of the Capuchin Vocation" was ministry. In 1996, there were still many brothers involved in their traditional works, such as cooks, gardeners, porters, ecc., but most of the Conferences reported that brothers were also involved in non-traditional ministries, as well. There were teachers, bursars, formation directors, administrators of schools, and other types of ministry. This openness to new forms of ministry was not appreciated by everyone, not even by all the lay brothers of the world. Some felt that a professional education and the abandonment of manual labor would lead to the destruction of the traditional figure of the lay brother. In some parts of the world, lay brothers were criticized by others in the fraternity for accepting ministries outside the friary.

A difficulty encountered by friars in many parts of the world was a lack of ministries open to lay brothers, especially in areas of the world where the friars were heavily involved in parish ministry. In one or two areas of the world, lay friars were still not given an opportunity to do anything other than manual labor.

In regard to ministry, the situation for lay brothers has changed substantially in the last eleven years. Most friars have a range of ministerial opportunities open to them and are allowed, if not actively encouraged, to exploit those opportunities. Even in the country from which I heard the most complaints in 1996, the lay friars there today say they are very satisfied with the range of ministries open to them. Today, you will find many lay friars working in fields that require a high level of professional training. Many are involved in formation and vocations promotion.

The one possible exception to this otherwise very positive picture is in those countries where friars are heavily involved in parish ministry. Lay friars in these countries often feel a little like a fifth wheel. I have heard from several brothers that they have basically been told to go out and find their own job. While some friars might relish this kind of freedom, many brothers take this as a sign that they are not needed in the province. To put it another way, they are made to feel that they are not an important part of the province's mission.

06 October 2007

Eleven Years After, part 2

One of the topics that generated a lot of interest at the 1996 Gathering on “The Lay Dimension of Our Capuchin Vocation” was formation and vocation promotion. Brothers from several parts of the world reported a sense that vocations promotion in their areas tended to focus on vocations to the priesthood. As for formation, most areas of the world reported that all the friars received the same formation up to and including the novitiate. The experience of post-novitiate formation, however, varied greatly from one region of the world to another. In a few regions, all the friars had a common post-novitiate formation up to the time of their perpetual vows. After vows, those wishing to be priests began philosophical and theological studies, while those wishing to be lay brothers began either specialized studies or work. At the other extreme, some areas of the world reported there was almost no post-novitiate formation for lay brothers. In between were jurisdictions in which all the friars had a year of post-novitiate formation in common before beginning studies for the priesthood or some other ministry. Many of those reporting lamented that their formation programs were built around studies for the priesthood, and everything else was an afterthought.

As I have traveled in various areas of the world during my first year as General Definitor, I have asked many brothers about their experiences of formation to see how things have or have not changed in the past eleven years. From this limited perspective, it seems like some progress has been made in moving toward a style of formation that is adequate for all friars and that gives more emphasis to the specifically Capuchin Franciscan elements of our vocation. Most jurisdictions that I have visited have a common formation for all the friars at least until the first year of post-novitiate. No one who has gone through formation in the past eleven years complained that his post-novitiate formation consisted of working in the kitchen, as sometimes happened in the past. In many jurisdictions, lay brothers are working as formation directors.

Where there is still a great deal of uncertainty in the Order, it seems, is the question of theological training for those wishing to be lay brothers. Most jurisdictions require at least one year of theological studies for those who are not planning to be ordained. They would normally attend courses meant for the laity. Some jurisdictions, however, require lay brothers to follow basically the same curriculum as their priesthood students do, including two or more years of philosophy. While most jurisdictions are convinced of the need for all friars to have some theological training, many seem to be still searching for the right measure of such training for lay friars.

I noted, as have several other General Definitors, a disturbing trend in the Order toward a return to the old system of formation—a system that was centered around studies for the priesthood, and which everything else seemed to be an afterthought. There appear to be at least two reasons for this temptation to turn back the clock. One is the lack of trained formation personnel. Rather than identifying and training additional friars to work in formation, it is easier to assign the personnel the province does have to the “obligatory” stages of postulancy and novitiate, and offload post-novitiate formation to a seminary. The other reason has to do with the scarcity of vocations in some areas of the world, and the age of the candidates in those same areas. When provinces are shrinking in size, its leaders are naturally concerned about how they will maintain the ministries of the province. When these ministries include parishes, as they very often do, provincial leadership will want to push candidates through formation and get them ordained as quickly as possible. They are tempted, therefore, to see an extra one to three years of post-novitiate formation free from formal studies as a waste of valuable time. When you add to this the fact that many of the candidates coming to the Order in these same areas of the world are older men—in the thirties, forties or even older—there is even more pressure to get them ordained quickly. This tendency is of serious concern to many friars in the world and to the General Definitory.

23 September 2007

Eleven Years After

I recently attended the Formation Meeting of the Capuchin Lay Brothers of Northern Italy, where I was asked to speak about the international gathering held in 1996 on The Lay Expressions of the Capuchin Vocation. It was a good exercise for me to look back at the issues that were of major concern for lay brothers eleven years ago, and how those issues have been addressed since then. I thought I would summarize my presentation in this forum. I spoke about five issues: the number of lay brothers in the Order; formation and vocation promotion; ministry; service of authority; and the perception of lay brothers in the Order, Church and society. I will present each topic in a separate blog entry.

In 1996, many friars, myself included, were concerned that the lay dimension of the Capuchin Order was headed for extinction. Paul Hinder stated in his opening address to the gathering that at 17% the percentage of lay brothers in the Order had never been as low as it was in those years. Furthermore, the percentage of lay brothers in the areas of the world with the greatest number of vocations at that time, especially Africa and Asia, was among the lowest in the Order. It looked at the time as if the percentage of brothers who chose not to be ordained would only decrease over time.

Looking back now, it appears that those fears were unfounded. The percentage of lay friars in the Order has slightly increased since 1996. In preparation for these talks, I used the General Curia’s databases to find the percentage of friars making perpetual profession between 1930 and the present who were not ordained six years after their perpetual profession—in other words, the percentage who originally chose to be lay friars. The results, shown by the blue line in the graph below, were interesting (click on the graph to open a larger version in a new window).

The percentage varied from year to year, but there was a clear cyclical trend of periods when more friars chose to remain lay and periods when fewer friars made this choice. The period of the cycle was approximately 15 years. The lowest percentage occurred in 1980, when only 11% of friars chose the lay state. The highest percentage—33%—was in 1969. On average, 20% of friars in this time period chose to be lay friars. I also studied the percentage of friars in the same time period who remained lay friars for their whole lives. On the whole, about two percent of the friars making profession during the period of the study chose to be ordained more than six years after their perpetual profession, which means that about 18% of friars ultimately chose to remain lay friars. There is a slight increase in recent years in the number of friars choosing to be ordained later in life, which is attributable, I think, to the fact that friars are now free to choose between being ordained or not, whereas in the past the choice was often made for them by their superiors.

25 July 2007

Update from India

Br. John Antony and I are into the fourth week of our visitations of the Vice Province of Andhra Pradesh-Orissa, the Vice Province of Pavanathma and the Province of St. Joseph-Kerala, where we are currently working. It has been a fascinating experience for me. The culture and social situation of India is so different from that of the United States so it has been interesting to see how the Capuchins in India have adapted the charism to their situation.

Kerala is home to the oldest Christian community in India, which is said to have been founded by St. Thomas the Apostle. The Church is very developed here. Both dioceses and religious congregations have been running educational institutions here for a long time. The schools are recognized by Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike as being among the best in the country. Because of this commitment, Kerala has the highest rate of literacy among all the states in India. The Church also has many hospitals, clinics and social service centers in Kerala. Today, you will find nurses from Kerala working in hospitals all over the world.

The Capuchins in Kerala directly or indirectly administer a few elementary schools in Kerala, especially in the north. For the most part, however, this sector is already well covered by other congregations. Due to the large number of vocations coming from Kerala, both for religious orders and the diocesan priesthood, Capuchins are only rarely needed to work in parishes. In some dioceses, in fact, bishops are reluctant to assign any parishes to religious congregations. As a result, Capuchins in Kerala work mostly in the area of evangelization. Preaching parish missions occupies many of the friars. This provides a lot of exposure to the friars, which is one of the reasons they are so successful in promoting vocations. The Province also has many missionaries working throughout the world.

The area of northern Kerala, where the Vice Province of Pavanathma is located, was opened for settlement only a few decades ago. Many people from southern Kerala moved there in order to buy land. As a result, though there are many Catholics there, the Church is less developed. Religious orders, therefore, are more likely to be asked to undertake parish ministry. The Capuchins there have a few parishes, but they are also heavily involved in ministry to the poorest of the poor. I was very impressed by the homes for destitute men and women, the AIDS hospice and the orphanage that they administer.

The Church in Andhra Pradesh, as a whole, is also less developed than in southern Kerala. There, schools are still in great demand. Accordingly, the friars currently administer two elementary schools, which are attached to their parishes. They also have care of several other parishes in the state. Very early in the history of the Capuchin mission in Andhra Pradesh-Orissa, the Province of St. Joseph-Kerala began a seminary at the request of the local bishop. This institute of philosophy and theology now has over 300 students from several dioceses and religious congregations of men and women. Though it is a young jurisdiction, the Vice Province of Andhra Pradesh-Orissa is growing quickly.

01 July 2007

A visit to India

On July 2nd, I leave for a month-long visit to the Vice Provinces of Andhra Pradesh-Orissa and Pavanathma, and the Province of Kerala-St. Joseph. This will be only my second time in India; the first was over ten years ago. Those ten years have been a time of great change in India so it will be interesting to compare the two experiences. I must admit to being a little apprehensive about the trip—foreign foods and customs aren't as exciting to me as they once were. On the other hand, the hospitality of the Indian brothers is legendary so I do not expect any major problems.

With over 1300 friars and a high rate of growth, India has become an important source of growth and vitality for the Order. Indian provinces have not only opened presences in new areas of India and begun new missions in Africa, but are supplying missionaries to many already-established missions and even to some long-existing provinces. That alone makes it in interesting place to visit.

I also have a special interest in India because it is one of the countries of the world where the Order has been less successful in attracting candidates to the non-cleric state. (I purposely use the term "non-cleric" here rather than "lay" because it is the preferred term in India. That is the subject for another post.) There have been many reasons given for this situation—it is a culture that values education and status, for instance—but there are many cultures that value education and still regularly receive candidates who choose to be non-clerics. I would like to understand what is different about India in this regard.

I do not mean this as a criticism of the Indian friars. If after careful discernment one feels called to the priesthood, who am I to say that they made a bad choice? Furthermore, the non-cleric brothers from India that I have known have all been wonderful friars. In a sense, it does not even matter whether a friar is a priest or a non-cleric since we all have the same vocation. On the other hand, I believe that the existence of non-cleric brothers is essential to the spirit of the Order. When the non-cleric element of our charism is proportionally small in one of the largest and fastest-growing countries of the Order, I become concerned.

Or am I overreacting?

15 May 2007

Getting to know you

Since being elected general definitor, I have presided at two provincial chapters (Mid-America and Central Canada), attended one NAPCC meeting and completed the visitation of one province (Central Canada). This hardly qualifies me to draw general conclusions about the area of the Order I serve, but I want to address one topic seems to keep arising—how to handle the diminishment and aging of our provinces.

At the recently-concluded chapter of the Central Canadian Province, the friars made the courageous decision to begin moving toward much greater collaboration, and possibly even amalgamation with another province. Their discussions could have been used as a case study of Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief. I did not hear much anger, but there were certainly traces of denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Actually, there was much more acceptance than I had expected—clearly, they have been contemplating this issue for some time already.

During the General Chapter, one of the topics that the NAPCC committed itself to discuss during the present sexennium was the reorganization of the number of jurisdictions in the Conference. The topic came up at the fall 2006 meeting, but was tabled until the spring 2007 meeting. At the spring 2007 meeting, we ran out of time so tabled it until the fall meeting (with the suggestion of bringing in a speaker to address the issue). Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but I sense some reluctance on the part of the members of NAPCC to tackle this issue.

No one was talking about amalgamation at the chapter of the Mid-America Province (in the interest of full disclosure, this is the province to which I belong). The work of the chapter, however, was to prepare the friars for the unavoidable changes that will need to be made because of the province's declining numbers and increasing median age. A study I did a few years ago projected that the number of friars in the province will fall to about 40 before it finally levels off—provided that we get and keep at least one new vocation every year. It is clear to me that my province will also need to start talking about an amalgamation in the near future.

Unless there is a sudden and massive change in the number of vocations to the Order, all the provinces of the NAPCC will eventually face this discussion. It is not an easy discussion to have. It evokes failure (Why don't more young men want to join us?). It threatens our carefully cultivated identity (We're more traditional/progressive than they are. We're more scholarly/ministerally active/social justice oriented/fraternal/contemplative than they are.). It upsets the balances and compromises that we have spent years putting into place in our provinces.

Most of all, talk of combining with another province evokes a fear of the unknown. I imagine it is similar to what a young man and woman must have experienced when their parents announced that they had arranged a marriage. I am no stranger to the provinces of the NAPCC. As the Executive Secretary of the Conference for several years, I had the opportunity to travel to all the provinces and meet many past and present provincials and vicars. I met other friars while working on Capuchin Heritage Programs in Italy. Still, there are many friars that I have never met, and many more that I do not really know well. Most of the friars of any given province in the NAPCC know only a handful of friars in the other provinces. This, I believe, is the real source of the distrust of other provinces and of the fear of further collaboration. The common novitiate will be a great help in overcoming some of this fear and distrust, but it only reaches the youngest friars. Maybe it is time to organize some opportunities for the older friars of our provinces to meet one another. In fact, as the first step toward joining with another province, the Province of Central Canada resolved at its chapter to organize gatherings between its friars and those of the Quebec and Detroit Provinces. The Heritage Program once served this purpose, albeit unconsciously, but the number of friars making the Program has been decreasing for the past ten years of so. Either the Heritage Program needs to be revitalized or another means of increasing contacts between provinces needs to be found. Could provinces hold a joint retreat, for instance?

It's an idea. What do you think?

30 April 2007

Some people...

seem to think there is a rule stating that a blog must have at least one entry each month. I, however, would never stoop to posting an entry merely for the sake of having an entry.

25 March 2007


Welcome to my blog, “Just a Brother”, or JAB, for short.
You may find the title a little provocative. I hope so; otherwise all the time I spent thinking it up was wasted. Let’s talk about the title a while (actually, I’ll write about it; you’ll sit quietly and read).

I have been asked many times during my nearly 27 years of religious life if I was a priest. When I replied that I was not, the person often responded with, “So, you’re just a brother then”. One person actually responded by saying, “Don’t worry. You’ll make it someday!” I suppose I felt a little offended the first couple of times this happened, taking the response to mean that the questioner did not value my form of life. It does not bother me any longer, however. Most of the people who respond in this way, I believe, are not making a value judgment. In fact, I now consider it a badge of honor. I am just a brother.

In his acceptance speech after his election at the General Chapter of 2000, our former General Minister, John Corriveau, said words to this effect: “If you want to know how to address me, I’d like you to call me ‘Brother John’, for I consider Brother to be an honorary title.” And why should it not be? After all, Francis of Assisi wished that he and his followers be called brothers, and Jesus became incarnate in order to become our brother. If it is good enough for Jesus and Francis, it is good enough for me!

I am well aware that I was elected to be a General Definitor for all the friars of the Order, not just for the lay brothers. I intend to do that to the best of my abilities. Moreover, I want to avoid recreating the artificial distinctions that the Order has worked so hard to eliminate during the last few decades. At the same time, I cannot ignore the opportunity that I have been given to bring to the General Definitory a view of the Order that may differ from that of a priest-friar. Furthermore, if I can support and encourage in any way this form of life that I love so much, I feel it is my duty to do so.

It is great to be just a brother!