What does it mean to be a Franciscan in today’s world?
It has sometimes been said that if you meet a Jesuit, you already have some idea of what the next Jesuit you meet will be like; but if you meet a friar, you can expect the next one you meet to be totally different. Leaving aside the question of whether this is true for the Jesuits, it is certainly the case for the friars.
In keeping with this, every friar would probably answer the above question somewhat differently. What follows are some brief reflections on what it means to me to be a Franciscan. Though the next friar will probably tell you something different, there are some common understandings that I believe we all share.
First and foremost, to be a Franciscan means to attempt to live the gospel (see the quote from the Rule above). Francis himself probably rolled over in his grave when the order first started being called “the Franciscans.” His own title for the community was the “Order of Friars Minor,” which is a literal translation of the Latin fratres minores -- lesser brothers. Francis recognized Jesus as a poor man who lived in solidarity with the poor, disadvantaged, and marginalized. He wanted to imitate the life of Jesus as closely as possible, to live as a brother to all people and indeed to all of creation, as expressed in his magnificent hymn the “Canticle of Brother Sun.”
The friars take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These formidable-sounding promises are actually meant to be liberating, not restrictive-- although they certainly involve living within certain boundaries! Francis thought that poverty meant living literally “without property.” Many friars through the ages have indeed lived poor lives in this sense; and technically, none of us “owns” the things he has -- they all belong to the community. But I think it is fair to say that most friars (myself included) have not lived poverty in anywhere near the way that Francis lived it. For me, poverty is best expressed in trying to live modestly, in not getting attached to or obsessed with material possessions, and most importantly, in attempting to live a life of generous service to others, putting their needs before mine.
Poverty is the vow that always worries me the most when I think of my credibility as a friar. Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by technology, especially electronics. Becoming a friar did not cure me of this interest, and to this day I have quite an impressive arsenal of audio and video equipment. (The friars who trained me always tolerated this . . . I sometimes wonder if they’d have done me a favor by making me get rid of my nice stereo!) The computer age has only increased my technophilia. I am sure that people who see me with all this electronic equipment sometimes say, “This is poverty?” And they have a point.
On the other hand, music and movies have brought a lot of enjoyment into my life, and my interest in the media has helped me to connect with a lot of people, especially my students and the people to whom I preach. In the friary, I have become the unofficial “technological guru,” to whom the friars come with their questions about computers, TVs, VCRs, and stereo systems. I ask myself if living in a bare room or depriving myself of these things will really make me a better friar or a better person, and I think the answer is “no.” At the same time, I always feel a little uncomfortable with having all these electronic devices. It’s probably the ghost of Francis haunting me!
As I said, the most important aspect of poverty for me is its connection to service, particularly service with the poor and marginalized. If there is such a thing as a poverty of time, I have tried to live it, in the sense of making myself available to others and giving up a lot of my privacy. In recent years, I have been privileged to work with some of God’s people in several state prisons in the vicinity of Siena. This has been an incredible experience that has revitalized my life as a friar. I have come to believe that I need to stay connected in some concrete way with God’s “little ones” if I am to live an authentic Franciscan life.
Chastity is perhaps the most formidable vow to talk about these days, given the recent sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic church. I personally do not believe that one should have to live as a celibate in order to be ordained. But celibacy in the context of a religious order like the Franciscans can, I think, be celebrated as an important charism in the church.
Frankly, for me, it was only in the context of being a Franciscan that I thought I could live celibate chastity. When I first met the friars formally on a high school retreat in 1971, I was impressed by their communal life, particularly by the joy that seemed to characterize their life together. A few years earlier, I had decided that priesthood was not for me; but after getting to know the friars I began thinking about it again. The biggest thing that held me back was my continued strong desire to get married and raise a family. To this very day, I feel a sense of loss in never having experienced the kind of intimacy that happily married people have with their spouses, as well as the joys and tribulations of parenthood.
But I can honestly say that whatever I have lost has been more than compensated for in the fulfillment I have experienced in this life. As a celibate, I have slowly learned to nurture other avenues to intimacy, such as friendship. The friars have always had a reputation of being close to the people, and I have found that my ministry has led me into many wonderful relationships with people who love me, support me, and help me to grow -- including the friars themselves, but extending out to every group of people with whom I have ever worked.
I have come to believe that what faithful celibates have to offer the world, especially to American society, is a reminder that sexual intimacy is not the most important kind of intimacy. Our society is so obsessed with genital sexuality that it can charitably be described as oversexed. We’ve gotten to the point where for many people, sexual activity has become largely divorced from any kind of commitment. People often get to know each other in bed before they even know anything about each other as persons. I find this sad, because it opens the door to people treating one another as objects for their own pleasure. The entertainment industry vigorously promotes this warped approach to sexuality and presents it as normal, implicitly ridiculing those who think that human sexuality is a sacred gift and who believe that exploiting others sexually is a violation of their God-given dignity.
It would be easy for people to look at this aspect of the Franciscan way of life and find it “more curious than significant,” to quote a statement that was once made to a friar. However, a celibate person who is engaged in healthy relationships can provide a powerful and desperately-needed witness to our culture. Celibacy is not a vow to love less -- it is a vow to love just as much as anyone else, but not to focus that love on an exclusive or physical relationship. I hope that as a friar I have been able to show love to people in a way that has been uplifting, supportive and healing, especially to people who have been deeply hurt by others, or who have no one to love them.
In short, celibate chastity is about generously sharing love with the people with whom I live and work, and promoting the idea that the deepest kind of intimacy involves reverencing and respecting others as whole persons, not just exchanging bodily fluids.
Finally, we come to obedience. There was a time when obedience was defined in a very narrow way. Becoming a friar meant that you gave up your own will, and that you regarded the directives of the community’s leaders as the will of God. In those days, I am told, there was little or no negotiation of assignments. You were instructed to report to a certain friary on such-and-such a date, where you would begin to work in that house’s ministry. I know some friars who came to Siena College simply because they got a letter assigning them here to teach a specified subject. There was no such thing as questioning this. You packed your bags and went where you were told. I suspect that there were exceptions, but overall, becoming a friar meant giving up a lot of personal freedom. I even know a friar who missed his own parents’ funerals because he was a missionary in Japan, and the rule was that he could only come home for a visit after a specified number of years, with no exceptions.
Nowadays the situation is much more humane, at least in my province. Assignments are made in consultation with the individual friar, taking into account his talents and his needs. There are still times when a friar may be asked to take an assignment that is not his preference. At these times, he is asked to consider the greater needs of the community. I know many friars who have generously responded to the Province’s call to serve in particular ministries, and most will say that they ended up happier in these assignments than they expected to be. I should add that the friars are always supported in times of a family loss or crisis. Not only are we allowed to go home; we can count on the community to help us through the crisis. I will always remember with gratitude the large number of friars who came to my father’s wake and funeral.
I have come to believe that the vow of obedience does not, and should not, mean blind obedience. Even the most traditional understanding of obedience allowed friars to assert themselves if there was a matter of conscience. There was actually one incident in my Franciscan life where I felt like I was being treated unjustly in the community, and I made the decision to stand up for myself. At the time this was a gut-wrenching decision, and it took me years to work through the guilt. But in retrospect, it saved both my self-respect and my Franciscan vocation.
The word obedience comes from a Latin word that means “to listen.” All Christians are called to listen to God’s word and to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Obedient listening is not just physical hearing; it is paying heed to God’s call, pondering its meaning, and being willing to act on it. Unconditional obedience is owed to God alone, but we also need to listen to each other. In the Catholic Church, we believe that we should listen to our church leaders, but also to the prophetic voices that arise from the faithful. Scripture tells us again and again that God’s voice does not only come to us through those who hold formal positions of office.
The Franciscan vow of obedience is about giving public witness to the importance of listening and responding to God’s call, in whatever form and from whatever source it may come to us. This can be quite counter-cultural in a society that tends to absolutize the will of the individual and reject any kind of external authority. To put it more simply, the vow of obedience expresses our Christian conviction that “it’s not about us.” Being a follower of Jesus means dying to ourselves and living for God.
Fr. Dennis Tamburello, O.F.M.