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Franciscans in the Church

February 27, 2011:

Franciscans In the Church


My observations on our theme,  Franciscans in the Church,  grow out of my experience of service within the Capuchin brotherhood on the Provincial and International level over a thirty-five year period between 1971 and 2006.       I served as Provincial Minister of Central Canada from 1971 - 1977 and 1989 - 1994.  Between these two periods of service to my Province, I served as English-speaking  General Councillor from  1980 - 1988.  Finally,  I served as General Minister or our Order from 1994 - 2006.  

The most important event during my first period of service on the General Council of our Order  was the General Chapter of 1982 which revised our Constitutions.  This revision was characterized by the effort to re-discover and redefine the brother/sister (fraternal) charism of the Order by situating this charism within the communion ecclesiology of the Church.   

            --          The Church, the instrument of salvation and union with God and among people, appears as the people of God making a pilgrimage in the world. Established by Christ in a communion of life, charity and truth, it is enriched by the Holy Spirit with a multitude of gifts or charisms useful for the renewal and further building up of the same Church.(8.1)

--          Saint Francis, inspired by God, initiated a gospel form of life that he called a brotherhood according to the example of the life of Christ and his disciples.  We who profess this form of life, therefore, truly constitute an Order of brothers.  (83. 5-6)

--          By reason of the same vocation the brothers are equal. For this reason, according to the Rule, Testament and earliest custom of the Capuchins, let all of us without distinction be called brothers.


--          Since we are an Order of brothers, according to the will of Saint Francis and the genuine Capuchin tradition, any brother in perpetual vows may assume any office or position excepting those that flow from Sacred Orders; if there is a question of superiors, a minimum of three years after perpetual profession is required for validity.  (115.6)

The early efforts to implement the new Constitutions were driven by two inter-connected concerns:

An effort to re-establish and reclaim the fraternal structure of the Order:   Particularly in the those regions outside of Europe where the Order was established as a result of missionary activity,  fraternal structures were weak.   Fraternal life was overshadowed by the demands of apostolic activity, particularly priestly apostolic activity.  In many regions, fraternity had been reduced to “good brotherly feelings” between the members.  Some Provinces had created “regional fraternities”, lumping brothers, isolated by ministry, into so-called regional fraternities wherein the fraternal life of the Order was totally conditioned by priestly ministry, undermining and devaluing the witness of fraternal evangelical life .

The need to address clericalism within the Order:   This was not particularly a question of clerical privilege – although that was present – it was rather the fact that clerical ministry had totally subsumed into itself every other charism, reducing all other charisms – fraternal charism, lay charisms and our Franciscan religious charism as such –  to supportive roles.    “I am a priest to save the world – I am a Capuchin Franciscan to save my soul!”   This point was addressed in 1996 at  an International Congress was celebrated with the theme: “Lay Expressions of the Capuchin Vocation.”  

“Traditionally, Capuchin cleric brothers have been preachers and confessors, Capuchin lay brothers have been questors and porters and involved in fraternal services. While the Order deeply values the preachers and confessors of our Order, the “image” of the Capuchin cleric has developed far beyond these traditional roles.   This development has occurred, not because of a new “definition”  of the Capuchin cleric, but rather in response to the needs of the church and society. ... We are also conscious that the needs of the church and society invite such an evolution in the role of our lay brothers as agents of gospel love in the world.”     (Circular Letter 6, parag. 3.2)

The flash-point in this evolution was the right of the Order to elect or appoint lay members to offices in the Order.           

My twenty years of service within the international Order  coincided with the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.   I began my service as General Minister in June 1994.  In October of that year I was appointed a member of the Synod on Consecrated Life.  In the following years I also participated in the Continental Synods of America and Oceania  convoked by Pope John Paul II in preparation for the millennium.   These Synods – particularly the Synod on Consecrated Life –  and the subsequent writings of Pope John Paul II, caused me to see the “fraternal identity” of the Franciscan Order in a new and expanded light.  

A number of writings about the history of religious life highlighted the manner in which the older religious charisms were able to adapt to the changing ecclesiologies of the Church.  This caused me to look at the recent history of the Capuchins from a new viewpoint.  I noted that in the century and a half preceding Vatican II, the Capuchin Order went through a major expansion both numerically and territorially, becoming a truly international movement within the Church.  It did so by adapting its traditional structure and spirituality to the “missionary” energy of the Church.  The Church of this era generally described itself as “a perfect society leading souls to God”.  This was complemented by an ascetical spirituality emphasizing personal perfection.   This led me to the conviction that the Order must not only create a “structure of communion”, but it must re-envision  its spirituality  within the theology of communion, the new “energy field” of the Church if it was to truly participate in the new evangelization of the world.   In my mind, this is a crucial point.   A spirituality is an identity in action.  A “fraternal or communal” identity cannot be sustained and cannot be expressed in action by an exclusively ascetical spirituality. This was forcefully confirmed by John Paul II in Novo Millennium Ineunte wherein he challenges the Church to become “the home and school of communion” for the world (n.43) and, more importantly, challenges the Church to develop a “Spirituality of Communion”.  His statement is particularly forceful:

“unless we follow this spiritual path, external structures of communion will serve very little purpose. They would become mechanisms without a soul, "masks" of communion rather than its means of expression and growth.” (43)

The first serious effort to envision Franciscan spirituality though the prism of communion centred on evangelical poverty with  the convocation of the Sixth Plenary Council of the Order in September 1998 entitled: “Living Poverty in Fraternity”.   This Council remained amazingly focused on the communal dimensions of evangelical poverty.   It gave rise to an effort to create a “fraternal economy” wherein human security would be based on a solidarity founded on  “fraternal relationships” rather than the amassing of wealth.   The “fraternal economy”  was founded upon a number of concrete choices for solidarity, including:

                                    --          participation or co-responsibility;

                                    --          transparency or accountability;

                                    --          equity;

                                    --          subsidiarity;

                                    --          austerity (economic as opposed to ascetic)

This was followed in 2004 by the Seventh Plenary Council.   Our fraternal life in minority: as pilgrims and strangers in this world serving the Lord in poverty and humility.     This Plenary Council sought to do for the core value of minority what the Sixth Plenary Council effected for evangelical poverty.    It looked at minority,  the virtue of humility, through the prism of communion.    Francis chose humility as the chief characteristic of his brotherhood because humility characterizes the self-revelation of God:

Though he [Christ Jesus] was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness “ (Phil 2:6-7).

                       Following Bonaventure, the Plenary Council saw humility as a heart open to relationship.  The Plenary Council recognized that every human relationship involves the exercise of power because every relationship is assymetrical.  Power enters into every human relationship.  Therefore, Franciscan minority is not the renunciation of power.  Rather, minority, humility foregoes that power which dominates and seeks to identify and embrace that power which fosters relationship.     The Sixth Plenary Council had immediate effect because economic choices are immediate and concrete.   The Seventh Plenary Council lacked such immediate concrete choices.  However, it has the strongest potential to redefine the Franciscan presence in the world.

Three Congresses attempted to flesh out the implications of evangelical poverty and minority in the world:

                        --          “Fraternity and Ethnicity”, celebrated in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in February 2003;

                        --          “Peacemakers through Inter-Religious Dialogue”, celebrated in Nagahuta, Indonesia in March 2004;

                        --          “Gospel Brotherhood, Economic Justice and the Eradication of Poverty” celebrated in Porto Allegre, Brazil in March 2006.

Since I left the service of our Order in 2006, I have been drawn to a reflection on Trinitarian theology since the source and foundation for communion in the world is to be found in the mystery of the Trinity.    I have discovered that Francis had a profound Trinitarian spirituality and that Bonaventure’s Trinitarian theology was deeply influenced by the spiritual experience of Francis.   Grounded in Trinitarian theology, I believe that  Franciscan spirituality  has much to offer to the Church and the world today.  A few scattered examples:

The secular world in which we live envisions freedom almost exclusively in terms of autonomy, the right of the individual person to autonomously choose.  Franciscan Minority,  flowing from Trinitarian theology, invites us to reconsider the meaning of human freedom.  Our Trinitarian God – Father, Son and Spirit – is relational by nature.  Our Trinitarian God has been described as “a free communion of persons without domination and without subordination.”   The Father does not “control” and “dominate”  the Son and Holy Spirit!    Furthermore, there is no subordination in God!   In the mystery of the Trinity, as perfectly as the Father is Father, so perfectly is the Son, Son.  The freedom of God is not found in autonomy, but in  the mystery of Relationship-Without- Subordination.   “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:27)”   We were not created in the image of a solitary, paternalistic, isolated and autonomous God.  We were created in the image of a personal, relational and Trinitarian God.    We image God only insofar as we live in relationship.    Perfect autonomy is not freedom, it is only isolation!   That is the meaning of the “nakedness” of Adam and Eve.  They attempted to seize freedom by identifying  “image of God” with autonomy.   They discovered only their “nakedness”, their exposure, their isolation within creation (cf. Gen. 3:10)!  God is perfect freedom because God is the perfection of Relationship!    We image God’s freedom only in relationship.

A new understanding of “freedom-in-relationship” re-envisions the abortion debate which has been mired in  tired slogans  – “Right to Life” and “Freedom of Choice” – for the past forty years or more.   What happens when we look at pregnancy from the perspective of persons created in the image of our Triune, Relational God?   It means that the mother and her unborn child are to image a “communion of persons without domination and without subordination”.    There can be no “competition” between the dignity of the mother and the life of the child!   The choice to terminate the pregnancy without regard to the welfare of the unborn child is an act of domination and subordination.   Should the woman unilaterally choose to snap the umbilical cord, she does not experience life-giving freedom but isolation and lifeless autonomy.    However, a  “communion of persons without domination and without subordination” also  means that we would  be  wrong to champion the right to life of the unborn child without regard to the consequences for the mother.  There can be no “competition” between the dignity of the mother and the life of the child!   This challenges the Church and our society to create a culture of life which sustains and supports this delicate and fundamental relationship.   A culture of life must  provide the physical, material, psychological and spiritual supports which will sustain and accompany a woman as she embraces the life of her child as the most precious expression of her freedom and her personhood.    When we regard a pregnant woman and the child of her womb as the image of God, “a communion of persons without domination and without subordination”, we are challenged to look at the abortion debate through a new and life-giving lens.

Our Trinitarian God – Father, Son and Spirit – calls us into a new and respectful relationship with creation.   Francis  saw that God, assuming humanity in Jesus Christ, has established a bond of unity with all creatures and  the entire universe.  St. Bonaventure, looking at creation with a similar vision of faith,  saw creation as a river erupting from the spring Trinitarian love.  It is a love which explodes into thousands and millions of forms in the universe.   St. Bonaventure speaks of the “Book of Creation” wherein we can read the “Divine Love Story”  somewhat as we read the story of God’s love in the Scriptures.    Bonventure taught that the river of creation which flowed forth from a God of infinite and creative love would find its ultimate fulfilment only in its return to God.    As the only creatures endowed with intellect and will, Bonaventure said that we humans have our crucial role to play in leading creation back to God.  In Caritas in Veritate,   Pope Benedict XVI echoes Bonaventure by calling us to embrace “gratuitousness” as a lens to view creation as well as an essential dimension of our economic activity.

Today, we  speak of “Faith in the Public Square”.  Most often this refers to the Christian responsibility to ensure that our faith perspectives  shape public policy.  However, there is another dimension to the “public square” demanding a response which I believe is particularly suited to our Franciscan spirituality of communion.  This was outlined by David Couturier (“Franciscans and the Financial Crisis: What we can do to Help,” Franciscan Action Network White Papers (2009), pp. 4 - 5) in the following statement:

.                       “Fewer and fewer well-off Americans are relying on the public services, civic organizations, and community structures that everyone else must depend on.  Living in gated communities, playing at private clubs, designing their own recreational venues, the well-off in America have simply ‘privatized’ their family’s educational and security needs.  Instead of relying on and sharing the burden of public education, community libraries, and public transportation, they have simply left the ‘public square’, withdrawn from community action, and become more and more isolated from the public parks, public works, and common wealth we all depend on to make American democracy work well for all of us.”

Not only are they withdrawing from the public square, they are undermining confidence in the public square.   Paradoxically, the middle class, whose prosperity and whose very existence as middle class was shaped by the public square, by and large embrace this skepticism regarding the efficacy of the public square in health care, pensions, immigration reform and the relief of poverty.  

A statement by Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate helps us to shape a particular Franciscan perspective pertaining to the public square:

                        Love comes down to us from the Son.  It is creative love,  through which we have our being; it is redemptive love, through which we recreated. ... As theobjects of God’s love, men and women become subjects of charity, they are called to make themselves instruments of grace, so as to pour forth God’s charity and to weave networks of charity.” (CV, 5)

It is not sufficient for a Franciscan to criticize the public square, our charism calls us to build the public square by weaving networks of charity – other-centred relationships.

Our Franciscan understanding of evangelical poverty is also a gift to the world.  Again,   Pope Benedict XVI helps to frame our attitudes:

“As society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbours but does not make us brothers.  Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity. This originates in a transcendent vocation from God the Father, who loves us first, teaching us through the Son what fraternal charity is.” (CV, 19)

It is our Christian vocation, our Franciscan calling, to add the quality of brother/sisterhood to all human endeavours, including the economy.  Benedict XVI’s embrace of “gift” and “gratuitousness” as elements of the world economy fit well with our Franciscan tradition.           

The efficiency of the global economy is built upon the concentration of power and the triumph of competition. This applies primarily to economic relationships. However, it produces a mentality and attitudes which go far beyond the world of economics – one which affects all areas of human life and relationships. Consequently, the approach to life nourished by the global economy rarely produces unity and communion.   We live in a world of ever increasing wealth joined to ever increasing insecurity.  Global economic forces and the philosophies that direct them promote insecurity and violence.   Poverty was “privatized” in the rich northern world in the 1950's when the “working poor” disappeared and was replaced by  groups of individuals who fell through the social nets.   In the closing decades of the 2nd millennium violence has been  privatized.   Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the real threat to world peace is no longer the struggle between global economic and social systems.  Rather, those individuals and isolated groups who feel alienated, excluded and left out of the global economy respond with acts of violence and terrorism leading to the de-stabilization of all of human society.

The negative effects of globalization also have the potential to create another form of violence, namely, to undermine and erode the social contract which has been the source of social peace in economically-developed countries such as United States and Canada since the 1950's.   Robert B. Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California (Berkeley),  writing in the New York Times on September 3, 2010 (“How to End the Great Recession”), gives us a snap-shot of just such an erosion of the social contract: 

“The median male worker earns less today, adjusted for inflation, that he did 30 years ago. ... The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty examined tax returns from 1913 to 2008.  They discovered an interesting pattern.  In the late 1970's, the richest 1 percent of American families took in about 9 percent of the nation’s total income; by 2007, the top percentage took in 23.5 percent of total income.”

These are American statistics.  However,  they are  mirrored in Canada.

This has the potential of undermining and eroding the social contract which has been at the heart of societies since the Great Depression.  Why?  The secularized world in which we live inevitably seeks solutions for every issue in  the triumph and protection of the autonomous individual.   This inevitably protects the rich in a disproportional way.   Political pressure mounts to protect the privileges of the few against the increasingly unseen or unrecognized needs of the many and  the gap between the rich and poor increases.    The gulf created by globalization widens the misunderstanding and mistrust between groups in the inevitable competition and aggressive drive for profits.    Global economic forces are making us more anxious and less relational!    If the challenges of the great depression of the 1930's caused us to build the social nets of the 1950's, our contemporary secular mentality risks permitting   the recent economic meltdown to  drive us further apart asindividuals and allowing  favoured groups to secure their economic advantage for generations to come.    This “privilege by privatization”, if it continues, will end  our social contract.

How can we champion in  our faith-communities and in the Public Square a new basis for human security founded on human solidarity  rooted in the gospel rather than a security founded almost exclusively on individual wealth and privilege?  I believe that the Church  indicates a direction in the  principle of solidarity.   In his Encyclical, Sollicitudo rei socialis, Pope John Paul II defined solidarity as a moral and Christian virtue. As a moral virtue,  he says, solidarity  “is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good”. (SRS, 38)  This moral virtue “helps us to see the ‘other’ - whether a person, people or nation - ... on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.” (SRS, 39)   As a Christian virtue, solidarity sees that “one’s neighbor is ... the living image of God ... [who] must be loved ... with the same love with which the Lord loves him or her.” (SRS, 40)     This was stated in other words by Francis of Assisi almost eight hundred years earlier in his “theology of begging” which can be found in his Earlier Rule.  Like John Paul II, Francis stresses that we were all created in the image of the one God and we are all redeemed by the blood of the one Christ.   But, where John Paul II concludes we must take responsibility for one another – Francis proclaims that we have a right to depend upon one another.  Putting the two together, we have the vision of an interdependent world – a Christian view of globalization!

I believe that the “fraternal economy”  – established on the pillars of  participation or co-responsibility,   transparency or accountability,   equity,   subsidiarity,  austerity (economic as opposed to ascetic)  –     transforms solidarity  from a Christian virtue into an “economic model”,  wherein security is founded on the primacy of human relationships rather than the primacy of wealth.  

A market-driven economy, where competition and economic advantage are the main motivation, creates winners and losers.   An economy which defines security in terms of the amassing of wealth, creates almost by necessity an underclass of the poor.  Pope Benedict XVI alluded to this in his address to British business and academic leaders during his recent visit to Great Britain:         

“...the world has witnessed the vast resources that governments can draw upon to rescue financial institutions deemed 'too big to fail'. Surely the integral human development of the world's peoples is no less important.”  (VIS News, 100918)

As Christians and Franciscans, we must bring another perspective.   The poverty of our world will  be overcome not only by  new technologies but especially by new relationships:    “God is love” (1Jn 4:8):  other-centred relationships bear  within themselves  the life-giving and  transforming power of God.     This is vividly portrayed to us in the encounter between the Prophet Elijah and the widow of Zarephath described to us in the First Book of Kings  (cf. 1 Kings 17:8-24).   A terrible famine grips the land.  The widow is down to the last grains of meal, sufficient only to “prepare  something for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”  (1Kings 17: 12)  Elijah makes what seems to be a self-centred and incredible demand: “... first make me a little cake and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son” (1 Kings 17:12-13). The widow and her son find salvation by reaching out to embrace solidarity with a neighbour: “The jar of  meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail” (1 Kings 17:16).

St. Francis did not change the economic structures of his day.  However, he established a mode of being for himself and his brothers which posited their security, not upon the amassing of wealth, but upon the redeemed relationships which they established among themselves and with the people around them.  It withdrew them from a world of avarice and greed, ambition and competition.    Our concrete choices can have a similar effect on us,  transforming  the virtue of solidarity into a mode of living and acting.  It can have an equally profound effect upon our communities and our world.

Francis teaches us to root work for justice in images and in the language of peace and reconciliation.     “God, to whom we were reconciled through Christ, ... has entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18).  Few Christians have embraced this ministry of reconciliation as fervently as Francis.  Francis’ vision of God and the world impelled him to become an apostle of peace and reconciliation. The service of peace was so fundamental a characteristic of his early brotherhood that Celano described the vocation of Bernard – one of his earliest companions –  as taking up the mission of peace (see 1 Cel 24). Peace was a crusade which Francis believed was revealed to him personally by God: “The Lord revealed a greeting to me, ...‘May the Lord give you peace’ ” (Testament 23). 

This was precisely the message of Pope John Paul II when he addressed the representatives of the religions of the world gathered in Assisi to pray for peace on January 24, 2002:  “No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness” (Pope John Paul II, World Day of Peace message, January 1, 2002, n. 15).    Pope John Paul II  succinctly proclaimed the logic of the Cross. Justice flows from redeemed and restored relationships. This mission of restored relationships must flow from a spirituality of peace:

As you announce peace with your mouth, make sure that greater peace is in your hearts.  Let no one be provoked to anger or scandal through you, but may everyone be drawn to peace, kindness and harmony through your gentleness.  For we have been called to this: to heal the wounded, bind up the broken, and recall the erring” (L3C, XIV, 58).

A spirituality of communion challenges the Franciscan family to embrace the life of the Trinity as the model of our interaction with the world.  Imagine the Trinity as the model of relationship among Franciscans and dictating Franciscan interaction with the world: “a free communion of sisters/brothers without domination or deprivation.”   Such a fraternity would be a source of communion for our multi- ethnic world.  Such a fraternity would  become like a whirlpool drawing all who encounter it into the mystery of Trinitarian Love.