24 December 2009

29 October 2009

Capuchins in the 21st Century

Here is the presentation I made at the meeting of the Conference Presidents a few weeks ago. Google Docs didn't handle the graphics very well so some words are cut off and others overlap.

Some of the slides may not be self-explanatory so here are the instructions for seeing my notes on the slides. First, click on the box to the right of the words 'Slide 1/27' at the bottom of the opening slide. This will open the presentation in a new window. At the bottom of this window, again to the right of the words 'Slide 1/27' there is a drop-down box called 'Actions'. Click on the arrow to see the various actions available and choose 'Display speaker's notes' (or something similar). This should bring up a smaller window with my notes in it. Use the arrows at the bottom left of the slide to move forward or backward through the presentation.

27 October 2009

A sign of hope in Pakistan

One of the concrete signs of our global brotherhood is the concern we show for our brothers natural disasters strike or other troubles occur. When the tsunami hit Indonesia years ago, offers of help came from provinces throughout the world. After the earthquake in Aquila, Italy, and after the recent earthquake in Indonesia, many brothers asked how they could help. Given the news of frequent bombings and shootings in Pakistan, I am often asked about the situation of our brothers there. Two weeks ago, I conducted an economic visitation of the Vice Province of Pakistan so I was able to see the situation for myself.

An early Capuchin church in SialkotThe Vice Province of Pakistan had its beginnings over 150 years ago when the British Army invited Capuchins to serve as military chaplains in India. The original Italian missionaries were soon replaced by friars from France. Later, in the 1880’s, the French Capuchins were replaced by friars from Belgium. Today there are about 40 friars in the Vice Province, of whom three are from Belgium while the rest are Pakistanis. They are involved primarily in parochial ministry, although they also run a few schools.

Although priests and religious have rarely been specifically targeted by extremists in Pakistan, they share the plight of all Pakistanis. A bomb planted by a terrorist group outside a police training center last March blew out the windows and splintered several doors in one of the friaries in Lahore. Beyond the dangers caused by frequent bomb blasts and gun battles between the military and the extremists, the friars share additional difficulties with the rest of the Christian community in the country. Christians account for only 3% of the population in Pakistan, and they are often looked upon as outsiders. Various attempts to “Islamicize” the country have made their situation even more perilous. Officially, Christians (as all minorities) are tolerated and even protected. Clearly, however, minority groups do not enjoy equal rights. The clearest example of this disparity is the country’s blasphemy laws. The effects of these laws was made clear in a recent case.

In one of the villages where the friars minister, a young Christian man befriended a Muslim girl. There was nothing unusual in this since interreligious marriages are not uncommon in Pakistan. At some point, the relationship was broken off, which apparently displeased the parents of the girl. They exacted their revenge by accusing him of blasphemy. The local police arrested the young man, and threw him into a jail cell with a group of Muslim prisoners. These prisoners began to beat the young man mercilessly. He was then taken to a solitary cell, where the police continued to torture him. Eventually, they strangled him to death. According to the official police report, the young man hung himself, but the autopsy clearly showed marks that were inconsistent with hanging. Despite clear evidence of police brutality leading to death, nothing will be done to discipline them. Another false accusation of blasphemy in Gorja, Pakistan, culminated with a mob torching the houses of several Christian families. Such cases are common enough that even some Muslims are calling for the abolition of blasphemy laws.

The unequal treatment of Christians is also seen in employment opportunities. Christians are often trapped in low-paying jobs, with few opportunities for advancement. Christian children are treated with such contempt in the public schools that many will not attend school at all unless there is a Catholic school nearby. In this way, the cycle of poverty is continued.

The Pakistani Vice Provincial CouncilWhile the situation may seem bleak, our brothers in Pakistan are working diligently to improve the lives of Christians in the country. One of the brothers works extensively in the area of interreligious dialogue. It is a work that requires great patience since progress comes in small, slow steps. The brothers have also opened many schools, both in the cities and in the villages. Through education, they are slowly improving the lives of the poor and helping to eradicate an extremism that preys on ignorance. Through their work in the parishes, they help the parishioners to strengthen the sense of community and interdependence among the Catholic community. One might say that the primary ministry of the Vice Province is one of providing hope to the people of Pakistan.

01 October 2009

Take the St. Francis Pledge

Weekly re:Cap, a bulletin of the Saint Joseph (Calvary) Province in the United States, pointed out the website of The Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, where you can take the “St. Francis Pledge” to care for creation and the poor. The website is worth a look, and the initiative is a worthy one. I took the pledge.

30 September 2009

Know your SoG's

'Fuoco d'Amore' by Emilio Nembrini. www.fratommaso.eu/quadri/
The vice postulator of the cause for canonization of the Servant of God Thomas Acerbis of Olera, a Capuchin of the Venice Province, recently asked me to assist him in locating an article about the friar written in 1960. Fortunately, the Order's Central Library in Rome had the issue of Round Table of Franciscan Research containing the article so I was able to procur it without much difficulty. Through the semi-miracle of scanners and optical character recognition software, I was able to digitize it. The OCR software, however, insisted on recognizing every fly speck and stray bit of ink as a letter so producing a readable document still took several hours of labor on my part <insert sighing sounds here>.

So as to maximize the return on my efforts, I offer the finished product here for the enjoyment of my readers. Recall that this was written before Vatican Council II so some of the terminology (especially in reference to our separated brethren) and the sentiments expressed can be a bit jarring.

Note that while the author of the article spells Thomas' surname as "Acerbi", nearly everyone else spells it "Acerbis". An Internet search turned up over 9,000 hits on "Tommaso Acerbis", including the official website for his cause for canonization. Unfortunately, there seems to be very little published about him in English.

01 September 2009

A Different Kind of Evangelization

Throughout the area of my primary responsibility—North American, Australia and Guam—the main arena of evangelization is the parish. True, the brothers minister in many other ways, including schools, hospitals, prisons, homeless shelters and countless others. The pillars of ministry in each jurisdiction, however, tend to be the parishes. There is a good argument for keeping it this way; parishes tend to be the focus of Catholic life in these areas. They are much more than just a place to attend Mass on Sunday. They serve as places to build community and to provide outlets for service to the wider society. A well-run parish can support and expand a jurisdiction’s ministry beyond what its brothers could accomplish alone.

Laying the foundation stone for an addition to the school in LucknowAssisting Br John Antony with the visitation of the Province of Saint Fidelis in north India at the end of July and the beginning of August, I saw a very different model in action. Saint Fidelis is a very large province begins just to the east of New Delhi and continues beyond the eastern shore of India to include the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Traveling separately, it took John Antony and I ten days to complete the visitation, usually spending no more than one day in each friary and sometimes traveling as many as twelve hours from one friary to the next.

The Capuchin presence in this area of India goes back to at least the early part of the 18th century when the mission was entrusted to the Order by Propaganda Fide. By the mid-twentieth century, Indian laws concerning missionaries made it difficult to continue the mission so most of the parishes and friaries were handed over to local clergy. Indian friars, however, maintained a small presence, and in 1972 the Province of Karnataka-Goa-Maharashtra accepted the territory as its mission. Since then, the jurisdiction has grown into an autonomous province of about 120 friars.

Evangelization in this area of India has always been a difficult proposition. Despite the hard work of friars from France, Italy, Canada, Belgium and the United States over several centuries, Catholics remained a very small minority. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, where the Indian friars first concentrated their efforts, the largest Capuchin parishes have around 200 families. As a way to expand their evangelical efforts, the friars began opening schools. Today, the Province runs about six schools and is in the process of opening others. The schools are open to all students regardless of religion, and offer education from pre-school through grade 12. Each school has an enrollment of around 3000 students with a waiting list that is often exceeds the number of students. The principal of one school told me that they recently had sixty applications for ten openings. These schools allow the brothers to bring the Gospel to bear on the morals and ethics of their society.

Beyond the evangelical impact of the schools, what I found most amazing were the determination the brothers showed and the sacrifices they made to establish the schools. They often began by teaching students under the trees. Then, when they had collected enough in fees, they built one room for the school. As they collected more, they added additional rooms until the whole school was built. Often, the brothers themselves barely had a roof over their heads until the construction of the school was finished. Br Julian Crasta did much of the planning for the schools and supervised their construction, which saved a great deal of money. Rarely did they seek funding for the schools from external sources. Thanks to careful management, most of the schools are not only self-supporting, but provide support for the Province, subsidize their schools in poorer areas and make seed money available to start new schools.

The brothers are quite proud of their schools, and justifiably so. They are proof of how the Order can evangelize even in difficult situations through creative thinking, a sense of mission and a willingness to sacrifice.

24 July 2009

How hot was it?

Guess how hot it is in Rome today:
A. Hot
B. Very hot
C. #!@+&%£ hot

If you guessed "hotter than C", you are correct.

The offending device. It works whenever its picture is being taken.Only a few offices in the Generalate have A/C so most of us have to make do with a fan. I have a nice, black fan that was left by my predecessor in office. It is very nice to look at. It works well, except, that is, when it is hot. A couple of weeks ago on what was the hottest, most humid night of the year so far, I took the fan into my bedroom, plugged it in, turned it on and ... nothing. The extreme heat must have affected my brain because something made me think I could fix it on the spot. Fixing it involved first removing the six small screws holding the fan guard in place. The only screwdrivers I had available were the kind you use for eyeglasses and small appliances, but I was undeterred. For such small screws, they sure were tenacious! By the time I had unscrewed/cursed/yanked (pick one) the sixth one, I was drenched in perspiration. Now all I had to do was unscrew another dilly-dally, take off the whatchamacallit and finally remove the thingamabob. Now the important part—I put my hands on my hips, stared at the pieces and said, "Hmmm". Next, I tapped a few pieces with my finger, then started to put it all back together. When it came time to put the fan guard back on, I could see those six small screws defiantly mocking me so I decided to deal with them the next day. I plugged it in, turned it on, gave the blades a few whirls with my finger (DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, BOYS AND GIRLS!) and it finally began to work on its own. It did, however, voice its displeasure about having to work in such miserable conditions by emitting various shrieks and groans throughout the night.

Since that night, the fan has continued to operate admirably. Until last night, the second hottest night of the year. I was awakened several times during the night by its plaintive cries. Tonight promises to be even hotter. Will this be the night of the definitive sciopero?

19 July 2009

The Big Apple and Beyond

It has been almost two months since I finished the visitation of the St. Mary's Province (New York/New England) Province, but I am only now getting around to writing about it. I could use the usual excuse of being busy, which would, after all, be partially true. In this case, however, it is probably more true to say that I needed the time to reflect—to step away from the trees in order to see the forest.

The visitation started in White Plains, moved to Patchoque, then Brooklyn, then Manhattan. After visiting the three friaries in Manhattan, I moved slowly northward into upstate New York then through New England until reaching Portland, Maine. From there, I traveled southward again, stopping at the friaries I missed on the northward journey, until arriving back in White Plains. The travel itself was an education for me. I'd been in the St. Mary's Province many times before, but only in New York City or its environs. As such, I associated the Province with New York City and big city ministry. The reality, I learned, is much more multi-faceted. The Province is present not only in the megalopolis of New York, but in the small town of Rutland, Vermont, and even in the beautiful, pastoral setting of Interlaken, New Interlaken FriaryYork. Parishes form the cornerstone of the Province's ministry, but this doesn't mean there is no ministerial variety. First of all, each parish has its own character and presents its own challenges. Secondly, the Province's friars are involved in many ministries outside the parish—as hospital chaplains, prison chaplains, campus ministers, adoption agencies, and ministry to immigrants, to name a few.

I do not think I was alone in associating the Province with New York City; about half the world's Capuchins have passed through St. John's Friary in Manhattan at one time or another, and those who haven't visited yet want to New York City may be the most frequented Capuchin pilgrimage site after Rome and Assisi! I was struck during the visitation of the service that the Province provides to the international Order. The Province not only provides hospitality to friars who are visiting or studying in New York, but its provincial offices provides many services for the General Curia, for Capuchin Friars International, and for various provinces in other parts of the world that need a point of reference in the United States. The Province provides important support for Franciscans International. It was a driving force behind the NAPCC's support for our African jurisdictions, and it has continued to support projects in Africa and Latin America. The Province does all this despite having to support two missions of its own: the Vice Province of Marianna Islands-Hawaii and the Custody of Japan.

Another thing that struck me as I traveled around the Province was the positive attitude of the friars. The vast majority of the friars are working hard—even those who have longed surpassed "retirement" age&mash;and they are joyfully trying to live according the form of life they professed. Many of them attributed the positive atmosphere in the Province to the quality and quantity of vocations it has received in recent years. Bro. Tim Jones has done such an excellent job at promoting vocations that some friars openly wondered if he was producing them in a lab in his basement (I call dibs on the movie rights for The Boys from Brooklyn). Seriously, however, Bro. Tim rightly pointed out that vocation promotion cannot be the work of one person, and if the Province has been successful in its promotion it is because of the involvement of all the friars.

The problem with blogging about visitations is knowing where to stop. There were many other revelations for me during my time in the St. Mary's Province, but, like its patron, I will "meditate on them in [my] heart."

13 July 2009

Meeting with ASMEN

The meeting with the Capuchin Conference of the Near East (ASMEN)concluded the General Definitory's meetings with each of the Order's thirteen conferences. The meeting took place in the General Curia on June 15-16. The name of the Conference is a little misleading because it comprises jurisdictions that are not, strictly speaking, in the Near East. Currently, the Conference comprises the Domus Praesentiae of Jerusalem, the Provincial Delegation of Greece, the Custody of Turkey, the Vice Province of Pakistan, the General Vice Province of Arabia and the General Vice Province of the Near East (Lebanon and Syria). There are a little over 300 friars in the Conference.

As in the case of CECOC, it is not easy to summarize the situation of this Conference. Some of these jurisdictions, most notably Jerusalem and Arabia, are purely missionary, in the sense that there are no expectations for local vocations. The possibility to operate freely and openly differs substantially among jurisdictions in this Conference. The one thing they all have in common, however, is that they live on the "fringe" of Catholicism. They are minorities in societies that are majority Muslim, Jewish or Orthodox. While that makes life challenging for the friars, it also offers opportunities to evangelize truly as minors. Our brothers in this Conference are, in a sense, living Francis' dream to preach the Gospel among the Saracens. Far from shrinking from the challenge or being discouraged by the apparent lack of results, the ministers of this area exhibited real enthusiasm. Listening to their experiences, I wondered how one could measure his success in such an environment, or if he could at all. I then wondered if I could live in a place where the only measure of success was one's faithfulness to the Gospel and the Rule. I have not been able to answer that question, but I do know that I am edified by my brothers who have accepted the challenge.

Meeting with CECOC

Loreto Shrine and friaryFrom June 9 to 11, the General Definitory met with the members of the Capuchin Conference of Central and Eastern Europe (CECOC). The meeting took place in the beautiful city of Prague, in the Czech Republic.

In contrast to the situations in CIMPCap and CIC, with whom we met immediately prior to this meeting, it is difficult find a synoptic way to characterize the Conference since the situations in its various jurisdictions vary greatly. For instance, some jurisdictions have many vocations while others have very few. The pace of societal change is also different from country to country. Nonetheless, it is possible to find a few common elements that link many, if not all of the Conference's jurisdictions.

First, many of the jurisdictions share a history of suppression and oppression, having lived under more or less hostile Communist regimes. Many of these regimes maintained control by effectively using its citizens to spy on one another, which bred a certain form of innate mistrust among members of the society that has not completely disappeared. As a result, the basic sense of trust that is so important to fraternal relationships is difficult to establish. The problem often manifests itself in the inability to live serenely in a community or to accept authority.

The crumbling of the Communist regimes across central and eastern Europe allowed the Capuchin Order to operate freely and openly, but it also brought with it a new set of challenges. While many rejoiced in their new-found liberty, that liberty was not slow to degenerate in license. Thus, many jurisdictions that experienced a burst of vocations in the immediate aftermath of freedom, are now seeing vocations fall as young people become more materialistic and disinterested in the Church. In addition, the young men who ask to join the Order come with widely varying degrees of faith background, which creates an additional challenge for the jurisdictions' formation personnel.

Another result of the fall of Communism was the restitution of many of the friaries that had been taken away from the religious congregations. This was only right and just, but it has also been a mixed blessing. Some jurisdictions now find themselves saddled with structures that are much larger than present needs dictate, and which are financially difficult to maintain. This, at least, is one issue that they have in common with the Capuchins in the rest of Europe. The challenge everywhere is to find the correct balance between the preservation of meaningful connections with our past and the wise use of our limited financial resources.

I would be remiss if I did not say a word about the excellent hospitality of our Czech hosts. The meeting was held at the recently-restored friary adjacent to the Loreto Shrine in Prague, which was the first friary to be given back to the Capuchins of that jurisdiction. The picture above was taken from the front of the Loreto Shrine with the friary in the background. It is a beautiful friary in a beautiful city. [In the interest of full disclosure: my great grandparents emigrated from Moravia, then part of the Austrian Empire. If you wish to split hairs, Prague is in Bohemia, but that is close enough for me.]

P.S. Someone suggested that the building pictured below may have been at one time used as a novitiate (enlarge the photo by clicking on it, then find the clues for this assertion).
A former Capuchin novitiate?

18 June 2009

Hey, brother, would you like to be a bishop?

This just in from the Union of Superiors General (USG)...

"Two persons posing as Cardinals (Ruini / Bertone) from the Vatican approached our members in three different countries. The phone and email contacts were made 'sub secreto pontificio', each time denying the person permission to speak with the Superior General. Vague references were often made to urgent meetings with Pope Benedict, just hours earlier.

"Ostensibly, the 'cardinal's' request was made for one member to consider an appointment as a bishop in his own country. He in turn was referred to another senior member in another country, who had been asked by the 'cardinal' to urge him to accept the nomination. Overtures to build a formation fund as compensation to the province were offered by the 'Vatican Official'

"In a later phone conversation, requests were made for bank account information. Eventually the nominee for bishop was asked to come to Singapore to meet with the 'cardinal' in person, and incidentally bring along a large sum of money.

"The phony 'Cardinals' had enough ecclesiastical information and jargon to sound initially credible to the persons called. When, however, bank accounts and money were mentioned, suspicions arose.

"Thankfully no transfer of money took place. However, in retrospect these extortionists are rather bold and well-informed. They may currently be trying something similar with other groups.

"I advise Superiors General to post alerts to members of their staff and provincials to be on watch for similar fraud and extortion schemes to may be going on."

Forewarned is forearmed! Apologies to all those who bought non-refundable tickets to Singapore for not bringing this to your attention sooner!

11 June 2009

Meeting with the CIC

After an adventurous day of travel—our first flight was delayed, causing us to miss our connection in Frankfurt—the General Definitory arrived in Spain on 4 June to begin its meeting with the Iberian Capuchin Conference. The meeting took place in Alcalá, birthplace and burial place of the Franciscan Saint Diego (who, by the way, was an early example of a lay brother who served as guardian of his friary).

The Iberian Capuchin Conference (CIC) includes the five provinces of Spain and the Province of Portugal. The major topic of discussion was the planned merger of four of the five provinces of Spain into a new Spanish province. The provinces have worked very hard at organizing the merger, and their efforts exceeded our expectations. Rather than approaching the process with resignation, they showed great enthusiasm for the project, and see it as a way to revitalize our presence in Spain.

The Province of Catalonia, which is not currently participating in the merger process, is hoping to find new energy by welcoming a few friars from the Province of Sardinia. Eventually, both Catalonia and Portugal may join the new Spanish Province.

03 June 2009

Meeting with CIMPCap

Santissimo Redentor
Posted by Picasa
The other members of the General Definitory and I have just completed our meeting with the Italian Conference of Capuchin Provincial Ministers (CIMPCap). The meeting was held in Venice at the Friary of Our Most Holy Redeemer, which is attached to the shrine (pictured here) of the same name. The shrine, I seem to remember, was built as a thanksgiving offering by the people of Venice for having been spared from the worst of the Black Death that ravaged much of Italy.

The Capuchin Conference in Italy is the largest in the Order, with between 2,220 and 2,400 friars, depending on how you count them. While Capuchins are still quite numerous in Italy, their number has fallen significantly in recent years. Part of the reason for the decline can be found in the secularization that has taken root in Italian society, a factor that it has in common with the other western European conferences and with the NAPCC. Because of this numerical decline, provinces in Italy are facing many of the same struggles that face provinces in the NAPCC: the need to close friaries and withdraw from ministries that are no longer sustainable, the difficulty of finding an adequate number of friars to be guardians, formation directors, pastors, etc. and the difficulty of finding sufficient income with a dwindling workforce, among others.

In other ways, the experience of the Italian provinces is different from that of the provinces in the NAPCC. For one thing, the friaries that the Capuchins are closing in Italy are often almost 500 years old, and are sometimes one of the town's major landmarks. Understandably, such a closure is traumatic both for the friars and for the people they served. Another important difference is that, while vocations are increasing in many parts of the NAPCC, they have not picked up in Italy. The Italian Conference had roughly the same number of novices this year as the NAPCC (around 15), even though there are four times as many friars in CIMPCap than in the NAPCC.

Despite the obvious challenges facing our brothers in Italy, they are looking to the future with hope. The painful process of downsizing is being looked at as a chance to return to the essentials of our life. Rather than merely continuing to do what they have always done, the provinces in Italy are looking for new ways of serving the poor with a spirit of minority. Rather than giving up in the face of their difficulties, they are working to recapture the spirit that once led them to be called, "Brothers of the people."

27 April 2009

International Chapter of Mats

From Wednesday to Saturday of Easter week 2009, around 1800 Franciscans of various types converged on Assisi for the International Chapter of Mats. It was, we were told, the first of its kind. The Chapter was convoked by the four General Ministers of the Franciscan First Orders and the Third Order Regular in order to celebrate the 8th Centenary of the approval of the first Rule of Francis. While the bulk of the participants were Friars Minor, Conventuals, Capuchins and TOR’s, there were representatives of the Secular Franciscan Order and of other religious congregations of Franciscan inspiration (including, for example, the Friars of the Renewal). Our sisters of the Second Order were united with us in prayer; their sole visible representative was Sister Angela Emanuela Scandella, Abbess of the Poor Clare monastery in Foligno, who spoke to us during Friday’s morning prayer. Most of the planning for the Chapter was entrusted to the respective Italian conferences of the orders involved.

It is difficult to categorize the event; it was part retreat, part workshop, part pep rally. After the opening welcomes and introductions on Wednesday afternoon, Br. Raniero Cantalamessa gave the keynote address. Personally, I thought his talk was the highlight of the week. He challenged the whole of the Franciscan family to return to the three P’s of our origins: preaching, poverty and prayer. One line in particular piqued my imagination, which I will paraphrase as follows: “We are better at being pastors than fishermen. We work well with the flock of the saved, but have abandoned the task of bringing the lost sheep back to the flock.” He challenged all Franciscans to take up the mission of ministering to unbelievers and the unchurched. Hopefully, the text of his talk will eventually be made available in English.

Thursday was dedicated to the theme of Witness. After morning prayer in the assembly tent, there were talks by the former General Ministers of the First Orders: Bishop John Corriveau, OFMCap, Archbishop Agostino Gardin, OFM Conv, and Brother Giacomo Bini, OFM. The afternoon’s program consisted of a series of five short video presentations on various aspects of the Franciscan presence around the world. Each video featured a different member of the Franciscan family, and was followed by a discussion. The first video featured a young Italian Capuchin working as a missionary in the Amazon region of Brazil. That was followed by a video about the communications ministry of the Conventuals who produce the magazine Messaggero di Sant’Antonio. Thirdly, there was video featuring the work of the Third Order Regular friars at Steubenville University and Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania. The presence of the Secular Franciscan Order throughout the world was the subject of the fourth video. The last video was about the work of interfaith dialogue by the Friars Minor in the Holy Land. A prominent Italian television journalist posed a series of questions to a representative of each of the five Orders after each video. I thought the journalist did a good job of picking up on important elements of each video for further discussion.

The theme of Friday’s events was Penance and Fasting. The day began with morning prayer in the Basilica of St. Clare. The Basilica, of course, does not have the capacity to seat 1800 people so more than half of the participants had to stand for the whole period of prayer. After the reading, Sister Angela Emanuela Scandella gave us a thirty-minute homily. It was a good start for a day dedicated to penance, especially for those who could not understand Italian or who could not hear her clearly. After morning prayer, we were invited to find a quiet place in one of the Franciscan sites around Assisi where we could pray and meditate. You do the math: 1800 friars divided by 10 sites does not exactly equal peace and quiet. I chose to walk up to the Carceri on the theory that few others would want to walk 2.5 miles to pray. I was right! The rest went by car. On the way up, I was passed by carloads and vanloads of brown, black and gray habits. By the time I arrived, red-faced and out of breath, the place was crawling with tourists and friars. After catching my breath, I caught a ride back down to Assisi and walked over to the church of Saint Mary Major, and found it was nearly empty. Saint Mary Major, by the way, is next to the Bishop’s residence, where Francis gave his clothing back to his father and entrusted himself totally to the Father. More to the point here, it is about a hundred yards away—downhill—from where we prayed morning prayer. So much for my theories!

The next scheduled event, at three o’clock in the afternoon, was the procession from the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli to the Basilica of Saint Francis. Along the way, we prayed psalms, sang, and got acquainted with some of the other participants. Upon reaching the Basilica, we processed down to the tomb of Saint Francis and received a copy of the Rule from the hands of the three First Order General Ministers. Exiting from the other end of the tomb chapel, we came out into the piazza beside the lower basilica, where a Mass was celebrated to conclude the day’s events.

Saturday morning, we all headed by car, van or bus to Castel Gandolfo for an audience with the Pope Benedict XVI. Originally, the plan was to hold the audience at the Vatican, but the Holy Father decided to spend Easter week at Castel Gandolfo to rest up from the previous week’s exertions. Unfortunately, the courtyard at Castel Gandolfo was not large enough to hold all the participants so some had to remain in the piazza outside the building. After Pope Benedict addressed the assembly, the three General Ministers of the First Order renewed their vows to the Holy Father in the name of all the friars of their Orders. It was a moving moment. Then the Pope tossed commemorative t-shirts into the crowd. Okay, I’m just kidding about that last part. Thus ended the first International Chapter of Mats.

If one were to judge the event solely on the basis of the number of participants, it was quite successful. The organizers originally planned for about 2000 participants. Early registrations were running behind expectations, but last-minute registrations brought the number close to the target. Will there ever be another International (and inter-obediential) Chapter of Mats? In informal conversations with several of the participants, it seems that the experience was well-received, and many wanted to see it repeated. Whether others shared this sentiment will become clear when and if we ever receive the results of the evaluation that everyone was asked to complete at the end of the event. Considering the number of participants and the fact that it was the first event of its kind, it came off fairly well.

If there is a second Chapter of Mats, I think a few changes would be in order. First, the number of participants should be reduced to around 1200. None of the venues was large enough for 1800 people. I cannot imagine how Francis managed to hold a Chapter of Mats with 5000 friars without the benefit of microphones and Jumbotrons! Secondly, more attention needs to be given to translation. This year, arrangements had been made to have simultaneous translation of the talks into English, Spanish and Polish. Noticeably absent was a translator for Italian. It was assumed by the organizers that all the talks would be given in Italian—to the surprise of some of the speakers who were not Italian. There was only one translator for each of the three languages, which meant that they sometimes worked three hours straight without a break. No wonder, therefore, that the quality of the translations was not always top notch. No arrangements were made for translation during the liturgies. If you didn’t understand Italian, all you heard during the homilies was “blah blah blah” for 20 minutes or so (if it is any consolation, those of us who do understand Italian sometimes heard the same thing). There were several other things that I would have done differently, but all things considered, the organizers did a superb job. They deserve thanks and congratulations for pulling off a very large, complex event.

In the end, maybe the symbolism of the event is what mattered most: that the sons and daughters of Saint Francis could come together to celebrate together our common beginning. Given our histories, that’s not such a small thing, after all.

19 March 2009


The former Vice Provinces of Mexico and Texas, both entrusted to the Province of Navarre (Spain), were combined into a single vice province on 3 March 2009. Since the Vice Province of Texas was a part of the NAPCC, I was invited to the ceremony in Mexico City establishing the new Vice Province of Mexico-Texas (can I call it the "Tex-Mex Vice Province", please, please, please, pretty please?! Can I, can I, can I?!). You can read about the ceremony and the visit of the General Minister to the Vice Province on Br Carlos Novoa's blog. If you can't read Spanish, you can look at the pretty pictures!

Taking advantage of some otherwise free time before and after the ceremony, I visited the mission of the Western America Province in the northern part of Mexico. I was accompanied most of the time by Br Matt Elshoff, Provincial Minister of the Western America Province. We met at the Dallas airport on Ash Wednesday and boarded a flight to Chihuahua, where we were met by Br Michael Ronayne. Our first stop was the monastery of the Capuchin Poor Clares in Chihuahua. I am not sure of the exact number of Capuchin Poor Clares in Mexico, but it is in the thousands. The sisters there were kind enough to give us something to eat and drink (even though we were not hungry or thirsty), and to show us around the monastery.

Leaving the monastery, we started our five-hour drive to Tres Ojitos, a small village nestled in a broad valley of the Sierra Madre mountains. Just before reaching Tres Ojitos, we stopped to visit the Capuchin Poor Clares in Ciudad Madera. This is one of the newer monasteries in Mexico; in fact, it is still under construction. The sisters gave us a warm welcome and enjoined a bit of food and drink on us. Afterward, we continued down the highway for a few hundred meters before turning down a dirt road for the 10 km drive to Tres Ojitos.

The friary in Tres Ojitos was built as a vocational training center by the Augustinian friars who once ministered there. Since receiving it from the bishop, the Capuchins have added a chapel and a couple of other buildings. It now serves as the novitiate for the northern Mexico mission, and until a few years ago, the Vice Province of Mexico also sent its novices here. At present, there are four novices. It's isolation makes it a wonderful spot for a contemplative lifestyle, yet there are plenty of ministerial opportunities in nearby Madera and the surrounding villages.

Mass at San Juan de los PimasNext on our itinerary was Yecora, about an eight-hour drive from Tres Ojitos. This was the first friary of California's mission in Mexico. Besides David Beaumont, two friars of the Goa, India, Vice Province—Vincent and John Thomas—conduct a wide-ranging ministry from here. Not only do they conduct pastoral ministry in Yecora itself and several missions within a two-hour radius, but they provide many social services to The Beaumont-mobile limousinethe local population. They have an especially important ministry to the Pima and Yaqui Indians, for which the friars have received national recognition. For the two days we spent in Yecora, Matt and I were taken in the luxurious "Beaumont-mobile" to visit several of the outlying missions.

S. Veronica Giuliani Formation HouseFrom Yecora, Matt and I traveled another five hours to Hermosillo, where we caught a morning flight to Mexico City and the unification celebration. After the ceremony, Matt and I were able to visit the Saint Veronica Giuliani Formation House, a large structure dedicated to the education and formation of the Capuchin Poor Clares of Mexico. Currently, almost 100 sisters are living there—30 in the two-year theology program and the rest in ongoing formation courses.

Local Chapter in MonterreyThe day after the ceremony, we flew to Monterrey to conclude our visit of the mission. Padre Pio Friary in Monterrey is the newest of the mission's houses (although one is now under construction in Durango). The friary houses the postnovitiate program and the philosophate/theologate program. As in each of the other houses, Matt and I conducted a house chapter at the end of our visit. Before saying my farewells to the friars in Monterrey and to Mexico, I took a personal day to visit the city of Monterrey (a worthwhile destination!) and to smell the flowers.
Corazon espinado, Monterrey
Wildflower, Monterrey
Wildflowers, Monterrey

17 March 2009

Chapter of the General Vice Province of Kenya

In early February, I presided at the Chapter of the General Vice Province of Kenya, which was held at the Rosa Mystica Spiritual Centre in Nairobi. Normally, this would not be one of my responsibilities; either the General Minister or the General Definitor for Africa would preside at these chapters. With the nomination of Brother Vicente Kiaziku as Bishop of Mbanza-Congo, however, other arrangements had to be made this time. Happily, the lot fell to me. The chance to see Kenya was something of a dream come true for me.

This was only my second time in Africa, the first being for the meeting in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, last November with the two African Capuchin Conferences. I expected tropical temperatures and humidity, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that due to Nairobi's altitude (almost 1,700 meters or 5,500 feet), its climate is much like my province's home city of Denver, Colorado. The days were warm and sunny, and the nights were pleasantly cool. Another stereotype bites the dust!

The Chapter itself was a great experience. The 37 friar-delegates enthusiastically participated in the business of the Chapter. There were lively debates about formation programs, ministries, the organization of fraternities and ways to improve the Vice Province's economic self-sufficiency. The atmosphere was in sharp contrast with most of the chapters I have attended, where the level of enthusiasm is, shall we say, more contained. This was also the first chapter I have attended in which all five members of the new Council were elected on the first ballot. I gave myself credit, but I'm sure the Spirit had something to do with it, as well.

I must also note the great spirit of fraternity during the Chapter. I was made to feel quite at home during my entire stay in the country. I was struck again by the power that lies in our Franciscan vocation: that people from geographical areas and cultural backgrounds as different as mine and the Kenyans could live together as brothers.

I would have liked to stay much longer in Kenya in order to see the Serengeti and the Rift Valley, but that was not possible. I did, however, talk one of the brothers into taking me to see Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa. There I met briefly with a local Pan-African Conciliation Team (PACT) of the Damietta Peace Initiative. I also visited "Bomas of Kenya", a cultural center just outside Nairobi. I made a point of visiting a recreation of a Luo village to see how the ancestors of my current President once lived.

02 January 2009

Capuchins in 2050, part 2

In a previous post, I wrote about two articles* I read recently on world demographic trends and about the implications of those trends for the Capuchin Order. As I wrote in that post, the main focus of the articles was on the financial implications of demographic trends. Since Capuchins are affected by the economics of the society in which they live, these demographic trends will have implications for the Order’s finances, as well.

The basic premise of one of the articles is that demographics have a determining effect on economics. One of the most widely-used indicators of a country’s economic well-being is the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, which measures the amount of wealth produced in a country each year. Citing studies by Jeffrey Williamson, former head of the Harvard economics department, the article “The Pig in the Python…” noted the strong influence demographics have on economic growth. In somewhat oversimplified terms, one can say that there is a positive correlation between a country’s economy and the number of its 40-year-olds. This is so because the years surrounding the age of forty are generally the most productive years of a person’s life, at least in terms of economic output. (It is an oversimplification, however, since it ignores issues such as the distribution of wealth, tax structures, bribery and corruption within the country).

Accepting this basic premise and applying it to the demographic situation presented in my previous post, points to declining wealth in areas such as Europe and, to a lesser extent, North America over the next forty years, whereas in parts of Asia and Africa wealth will gradually increase over the next forty years. This process has already begun. The economic growth of India and China, for instance, is obvious. In recent years, the GDP of each country has grown as a percentage of the world’s total GDP. This growth has come largely at the expense of Japan, which has seen its share of world GDP slip from 18% in 1995 to 8% in 2007. Japan, as I noted in my last post, is in a period of negative population growth. Europe’s share of world GDP fell from 40% to 27% in that same period. The United States, on the other hand, saw its share of world GDP increase from 24% to 26% from 1995 to 2007. Looking forward, however, both the United States and Europe will face greater social spending costs because of its aging population. This in turn will limit their economic growth and cause their share of world GDP to slip even lower.

Under the leadership of Br John Corriveau, the Order set up a Solidarity Fund to support its missionary efforts in poorer areas of the world. The Fund has been instrumental in allowing the Order to bring the Franciscan charism to new areas of the world and to support many of its traditional missions. As of last year, 30% of the money distributed for mission solidarity was supplied by the Fund’s investments. Most of the other 70% came from contributions by the Order’s jurisdictions, mainly in Europe and North America. If, as expected, those countries have fewer economic resources in the future, donations received by our jurisdictions there will also decrease. Fewer donations means fewer financial resources available to the Solidarity Fund. In addition, many of the jurisdictions in Europe and the United States who so far have been able to support their missions without recourse to the Solidarity Fund may have difficulty doing so in the future. This could lead to more requests for financial support in the future, placing increasing pressure on the Fund.

With good management and a disciplined approach, the investments of the Solidarity Fund will continue to grow, thus providing critical, long-term support to the Order’s missions. It seems clear, however, that the growth in its investments will not be able to offset the expected decline in contributions to the Solidarity Fund from the Order’s European and American jurisdictions. We have no reason to panic at this point, but neither can we afford to ignore these “signs of the times”.

This emerging situation is yet another reason for Capuchins throughout the world to review their lives in light of the principles enunciated by the Sixth Plenary Council of the Order. Transparency, participation, equity, subsidiarity, solidarity, austerity and co-responsibility within the Order were never more important than they are now. In particular, we need to re-discover the value of austerity, the “mother of solidarity”. By practicing austerity, brothers in wealthier societies will have more to share with their brothers in need, and brothers in poorer societies will allow more of the available resources to go where they are most needed. The future of the Order’s ability to bring the message of the Gospel to the world depends on the actions we take today.

* The two articles in question are:
Verne Sedlacek, “The Pig in the Python and Other Reports from the Front Lines of Demography,” in Mission Matters. Spring/Summer 2008, pp. 2-7.
Michael Strauss, “World Potrait, by the Numbers,” in Mission Matters. Spring/Summer 2008, pp. 8-13.