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.