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.