24 December 2013

Christmas 2013

“We therefore celebrate Christmas contemplating Mary and Joseph: Mary, the woman full of grace who had the courage to entrust herself totally to God's word; Joseph, the faithful and just man who preferred to believe in the Lord instead of listening to the voices of doubt and human pride. With them, we walk together towards Bethlehem”.
(Pope Francis, Angelus of 23 December 2013)

To all my fellow travelers on the road to Bethlehem, I wish you a blessed Christmas.

03 December 2013

The Wraps Are (partially) Off

Rooftop view of the Generalate's courtyard
It is a good sign when the scaffolding starts to come down! This photograph of the General Curia in Via Piemonte was taken at the end of November. Note the new windows and shutters on the top floor. By the time you read this, most of the windows on the first floor (for American readers, that would be the second floor) will also be installed. Except for the fixtures, the bulk of the plumbing and electrical work is done. The tile floors have been laid everywhere except the ground floor and the basement. In other words, the place is beginning to look habitable again.

Currently, most of the work is concentrated on the ground floor and basement, where there is still much work to do. Even there, however, things are beginning to take shape. It is not unusual these days to have around 80 workers on site who, between the main contractors and the subcontractors, might be working for a dozen different companies. As you can imagine, it takes a great amount of coordination just to keep the workers from tripping over themselves. Thankfully, we have a very attentive and competent project manager, not to mention a very serious, exacting manager of safety.

During the course of the work, it was discovered that one of our two connections to the city sewer had collapsed at some time in the past. Repairs can only be started once all the scaffolding has been removed from that area. It is difficult to estimate how much time it will take to repair the line, but the contractor hopes they can begin the work in early 2014.

We are still hopeful that we can begin moving back to Via Piemonte in late June or early July 2014.

29 October 2013

NAPCC meeting

The Provincial Ministers and Provincial Vicars of the North American-Pacific Capuchin Conference met for its semiannual meeting from October 17 to October 19 at the Franciscan Retreat Centre in Mono Mills, Ontario, Canada. The hospitality of the Friars Minor who manage the centre, combined with the serenity and beauty of the Ontario countryside contributed to making the meeting both productive and enjoyable.

It has become normal for the Conferences two interprovincial formation programs—the novitiate and the two-month Interprovincial Postulancy Program—to occupy a large part of the agenda, and this time was no exception. It was very clear from the discussions that the provincial councils of all the Conference's jurisdictions take their responsibility for the formation of their friars very seriously.

Here are a few of the items I found most interesting.
  • There is a new website under development that will be a central repository for documents that could be of use to all the Conference's formation directors. Since many potential vocation contacts happen upon this site as well, the home page will contain vocational material and contact information for all the Conference's jurisdictions.
  • We discussed ways to increase the Capuchin "footprint" in North America through projects of international fraternal collaboration. A committee was formed to develop this further.
  • The Conference's directors of formation held a conversation about ways to promote the Franciscan intellectual tradition through courses on Franciscan philosophers and theologians. Given the limited number of students that take advantage of such specialized courses, it has become difficult to maintain Franciscan institutes of higher learning in the Anglophone world. Offering these courses online, however, could be a viable solution.
  • There was a substantial discussion around the Interprovincial Postulancy Program (IPP). While some question whether the two months used by the IPP couldn't be more profitably spent in the regular postulancy programs, others strongly support the program. Based on the experience of the NAPCC, in fact, other parts of the world that have a common novitiate for several provinces are considering the institution of an IPP. 

01 August 2013

In the land of "Karibu"

If you spend any time at all in Tanzania and never learn the word "Karibu", it probably means you are dead. Karibu, which is Swahili for "welcome", is the first word you hear as your plane is landing, the first word you see when stepping into the airport, and probably the most commonly used word in the Swahili language. You hear it dozens of times every day.

I certainly felt most welcomed when I attended a conference for the Capuchin lay brothers of Tanzania held from Tuesday, July 9 until Friday, July 12, 2013 at the Order's beautiful Mbagala Spiritual Centre just outside Dar es Salaam. The conference was an opportunity for the brothers to discuss their life, activities, and roles within the Province, the Order and the local church.

Br Wolfgang addresses the brothers
The Capuchin Province of Tanzania has a unique history, which made this opportunity especially interesting for me. When the Province of Switzerland founded the Tanzanian mission in the early 1920's, the Apostolic Vicar, who was a Capuchin, would not allow the Capuchins to ordain any of the local vocations since he thought it would be detrimental to the growth of the local secular clergy. As a result, the Province, especially in its early years, had a high percentage of lay brothers. Even today, despite the fact that the Province has been ordaining local vocations at least since the 1960's, almost half of the perpetually professed members of the Province are lay friars. In the Capuchin Order as a whole, lay brothers make up about 20% of the perpetually professed friars. One of the concerns voiced during the workshop was their dwindling number. I pointed out to them that there were more lay brothers in the room than there were friars in my province so it was strange for me to hear them talk about their small numbers.

With Br John Sulle, one of my able interpreters
Despite its unique culture and history, the lay brothers in Tanzania have many of the same concerns as in other parts of the world. Besides their concern for the decreasing number of candidates who choose the lay expression of our vocation and the numbers that have left the Order, the brothers also discussed issues of work and formation. We were blessed by the presence of our brother Archbishop Thaddeus Ruwa'ichi on the first evening of the conference. His presentation laid the foundation for the rest of the week by situating it within the context of our religious life, our Franciscan vocation and the current situation of the world. Wolfgang Pisa, Provincial Minister of Tanzania, was present during the whole week and spoke on Wednesday morning about the need to safeguard our charism. In my presentation, I attempted to present a picture of the global situation of lay brothers in the Order. Five of the brothers in attendance gave presentations on topics of the apostolate and witness of the brothers, the division of responsibilities in the Province, and the future outlook.

It was an enjoyable week, but most of all a productive one. I hope one day to hear again the words, "Karibu in Tanzania!"

27 June 2013

New Ministers Meet to Learn

A new minister enlarging his horizons
We are at the midway point of the annual New Ministers Meeting, at which the provincial ministers, vice provincial ministers and custodes elected during the past year are presented with information that will help them carry out their service of authority. There are thirty-two ministers participating in this year's meeting; this is larger than usual since the last meeting was held in January 2012. As usual, the meeting is being held in the Order's formation center in Frascati. So far the discussions have been lively and positive.

08 June 2013

Chapters in a Franciscan Moment

The 2013 Chapter season  has come to an end for me. I presided at the Chapter of the Mid-America (Saint Conrad) Province held on April 1-5 and at the Chapter of the Province of Central Canada (Mary, Mother of the Good Shepherd) on May 13-16. Br. Mauro presided at the Chapter of the Pennsylvania (Saint Augustine) Province on May 27-31, but I attended that one, as well. A common thread running through all three chapters was an emphasis on new life and a desire to respond to the Church’s call for a new evangelization.

Chapter of the Province of Mid-America

The chapter of the Mid-America Province specifically focused on the topic of the new evangelization, and the brothers began preparing for it a year in advance through study and discussions in local chapters. They were asked to read and discuss a talk given by Br Raniero Cantalamessa entitled, “The Contribution of Franciscan Spirituality to the New Evangelization,” and an article by Br Martin Pable entitled, “Gearing Up For the New Evangelization.”

Bishop David Ricken, Bishop of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Chairman of the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, addressed the Chapter of the Mid-America Province. Bishop Ricken, by the way, is a product of Capuchin formation, having attended Saint Francis Minor Seminary in Victoria, Kansas—the very site where the Chapter was held. He first presented the Committee’s statement, “Disciples Called to Witness,” then went on to show how Capuchins are ideally suited to evangelize in this “Franciscan moment” the Church is living through. He spoke of Saint Francis as an icon of Christ, the herald of the Gospel and the model of the new evangelization. The other keynote address was given by Fr. Felix Medina, priest of the Archdiocese of Denver and member of the Neocatechumenal Way. The point of his presentation was to demonstrate one way the Church’s call for a new evangelization is being put into practice. While no resolutions or recommendations were passed by the Chapter, the new provincial council hopes to make tangible some of the ideas discussed during the Chapter.

Chapter of the Province of Central Canada

While there was no theme per se for the Chapter of the Province of Central Canada, much of the discussion and several of the decisions it made centered on revitalizing the Province’s fraternities and becoming more effective ministers in today’s society. Central Canada is the smallest province in the Order in terms of membership, which poses a unique set of challenges. It is difficult, for instance, to find a proper balance between being sufficiently wide-spread to attract vocations and maintaining viable fraternal life. The Province has traditionally met this challenge, in part, by receiving help in the form of International Fraternal Collaboration. The Chapter passed several recommendations that would see the Province expand to new geographical areas of Canada and new areas of ministry.

Chapter of the Pennsylvania Province

Archbishop Chaput addresses the Chapter
The Pennsylvania Province also took “New Evangelization” as the theme of its Chapter, and began preparing a year ago with several local chapters on the topic. Three speakers presented various facets of what a new evangelization meant for the Capuchin Order in the United States today. Mr. John Allen, writer from the National Catholic Reporter, vaticanista for CNN and author of nine books on the Catholic Church, spoke of three megatrends in the Catholic Church that affect its evangelization efforts: the globalization of the Church, the rise of “evangelical Catholicism”, and a new tribalism. Although updated with new references and statistics, these points were taken from his book, The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church (find it here on Amazon.com). He also spoke about this being a “Franciscan moment” in the Church, and how the Capuchin Order is well-suited for the task of evangelization today. The parallels between his talk and that of Bishop Ricken in the Mid-America Province were uncanny. Our brother, Cardinal Sean O’Malley spoke about his work among the poor immigrants in Washington, D.C., during his early years in the Order, and encouraged the brothers to make service of the poor a part of its evangelization. Another of our brother bishops, Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, spoke about the need for us to be heralds of the truth in today’s society, even if the message is inconvenient and unpopular. He also talked about the need for more creative approaches to evangelization. For a more detailed report on these last two talks, I refer you to John Allen’s article: An Afternoon with America's Capuchin Heavyweights. The Chapter charged the new provincial council with finding ways to put into practice the ideas expressed in these talks and subsequent discussions.

A final word

My impression after attending these three chapters is that the spirit of the brothers in North America is much different than it was six years ago when I presided at my first chapters. Whereas six years ago the prevalent tone seemed to be doom and gloom, now there is a greater sense of hopefulness. The talk is about living and adapting to the changes that are taking place in the Church and the world, about starting afresh. In reality, most provinces in North America are still getting smaller (Pennsylvania may be the exception), but all the provinces are getting some vocations and this has breathed new life into the Order. Most provinces have also gone through the difficult process of giving up cherished ministries and houses in order to create viable, vital fraternities. While the process was painful at the time, it provided the necessary space for new initiatives. While the average age of the provinces has increased over the last six years, there is a new energy and a new willingness to grasp this “Franciscan moment” of the Church.

24 March 2013

"Let us protect Christ in our lives..."

Our General Minister, Br Mauro Jöhri, and most of the general councilors attended the Installation Mass of Pope Francis on Tuesday, 19 March 2013. Despite having spent a total of nearly seventeen years in Rome, I have never had this opportunity before since I was living in the United States when Pope Benedict XVI was installed. It was an experience I will not soon forget.

Pope Francis greets the pilgrims in St Peter Square
It was a beautiful, sunny day in Rome, seemingly tailor-made for the Mass in St Peter Square. A large number of pilgrims (between 100,000 and 300,000 depending on the source) from around the world were on hand to greet and pray with their Holy Father. Applause and cheers of "Viva il Papa!" erupted when he appeared in the open Popemobile. He rode through the entire square, as if he wished to greet each pilgrim personally, and he descended a few times to greet the disabled. The atmosphere was electric.

The Installation Mass coincided with the feast of St Joseph so the Pope took the occasion to wish his predecessor a happy feast day. The Pope's homily, delivered from the ambo, centered on the tenderness of St Joseph, who was the protector of Jesus and Mary. He called on all Christians to imitate the example of St Joseph: "Let us protect Christ in our lives, so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation!" He then added that being a protector means "protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us."

The Installation Mass is also a political event since it marks the inauguration of the head of the Holy See so there were many ambassadors and representatives of the nations on hand. Pope Francis also directed a message toward them: "let us be 'protectors' of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment. Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world!"

17 March 2013

First Angelus of Pope Francis

Several of the brothers attended the first Angelus blessing of Pope Francis this morning. Saint Peter Square, as you can well imagine, was packed. We arrived around 10:30 and the square was already half full. 
The Pope commented briefly on today's Gospel, reminding us that God's mercy is infinite. He spoke simply, but forcefully, and he even threw in a bit of spontaneous humor. When he quoted from a book of Cardinal Walter Kasper that he recently read, he added, "Don't think that I'm just trying to give free advertising to my Cardinals!" He also recounted a conversation with an eighty year-old lady in Argentina about sin and forgiveness, which ended with him asking her whether she had by any chance attended the Gregorian University in Rome.

Here is a clip of the end of his appearance (apologies for the poor quality), with an English transcription below:

I chose the patron saint of Italy, Saint Francis of Assisi, for my name. This reinforces my spiritual ties with this country which, as you know, is where my family has its origins. Jesus, however, calls us to belong to a new family - his Church - and to walk together with this family of God in the way of the Gospel. May the Lord bless you and may the Blessed Mother protect you. Never forget: the Lord never tires of forgiving us; it is us who tire of asking for forgiveness.
Have a good Sunday, and a good lunch.

02 March 2013


I am not sure if this is true of other cultures, but Americans are fond of saying how precious freedom is and that they would willingly fight to preserve it.

Listening to the parable of the Prodigal Son in today's Gospel, I reflected on how ready we are, on the other hand, to sell ourselves into slavery—and here I am not talking only about Americans, but about humans in general. The prodigal son was prepared to become his father's slave just so he could get enough to eat. It wasn't difficult for him to make that decision because he was already a slave to the man whose pigs he was forced to feed. Even before that, however, he had willingly become a slave to his own passions. Like so many people, he probably thought that he could break free whenever he wanted, but he discovered that once you surrender your freedom, it is not an easy matter to get it back. In fact, the young man in the story was only freed by the generous, unconditional love of his father.

Our work among the poor and outcast puts us into contact with people who are similarly enslaved to vices and passions. Those who work most closely with these people talk about how difficult it is for them to become free again, even with the assistance provided by us and many others.

As much as we value our freedom, we must also recognize in ourselves a willingness to become enslaved—whether to avarice, lust, self-esteem or a host of other attractions. The tragedy of the prodigal son was that he gave up his freedom for ephemeral pleasures. The beauty of our Christian faith and our Franciscan vocation is that by giving up everything, we win that most precious gift of all, the freedom of a son of God.

09 February 2013

Fourth National Gathering of Capuchin Lay Brothers

This past week, I participated in the annual gathering of Brazilian lay brothers, held in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul – land of the Brazilian gauchos. The group had also invited me in 2011 and, although hobbled by my inability to speak Portuguese, I was happy for the opportunity to affirm our form of life and to see how it is experienced in another part of the world. The welcome I received was as warm as the Brazilian summer.

By way of background, Brazil, with over 1,200 friars, has one of the largest Capuchin presences in the world, exceeded only by Italy and India. Among friars who have been perpetually professed at least six years, the percentage of lay brothers in Brazil is between 16% and 17% (the world average is just under 16%). In many ways, the experiences of lay brothers in Brazil closely matches those of the North America, the area with which I am most familiar. One notable difference, however, is that the average age of the Brazilian brothers is significantly lower.

This was the fourth such meeting held since 2007, and its purpose is to check the progress made on a series of goals set out at that first meeting. About forty friars from all but one of Brazil’s jurisdictions attended this year’s gathering, whose theme was: “Witness, spirituality and prophecy.” Talks by Br Jaime Bettega on “Religious Life and Professional Formation” and by Br Aldir Crocoli on “A Franciscan Perspective and Spirituality of Work” were well received by the group. In addition, a brother from each of the jurisdictions present gave an overview of the ministries and works being done by lay friars. A large percentage are working in “internal” ministries formators, provincial secretaries, or provincial bursars. A growing number of provinces have a lay brother on the vocation promotion team. I was surprised to hear how many brothers are working in parochial ministries as catechists or as parochial assistants. Some brothers are involved in agricultural work, but with the increasing mechanization of farm work, their number is rapidly falling. Recently, some brothers have begun new ministries, such as a clinic for those infected with HIV/AIDS, chemical dependency counselors or giving assistance to immigrants. Some of these latter ministries, in particular, were made possible by offering the opportunity for specialized training to brothers.

Seeing the joy and dedication with which the lay brothers of Brazil are living their vocation as Capuchin Friars Minor was an uplifting experience that I will not soon forget. Copies of the talks and of the Letter to the Brothers (all in Portuguese) are available here on the website of the Rio Grande do Sul Province.