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?