On or around April 16th, professed members of the Order of Friars Minor renew their vows and commitment to live life according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It was on this day, 807 years ago, that St. Francis of Assisi and his brothers received approval of their forma vitae from Pope Innocent III. 1209 is a long time ago and many things have changed since then (within our world, our Church, and our Order), but Francis’s original vision and intuition is alive and well. Today during Vespers, five of my brothers in formation and I renewed our simple vows, undertaking to live another year of poverty, chastity, and obedience as we continue our discernment into this way of life. Seven of our solemnly professed friars renewed their vows as well. And we were blessed to have five of our postulant brothers in attendance.
When I was preparing for the renewal of my vows, I began to consider what each of these vows have meant to me since I moved on from the novitiate. I realized that while I wrote reflections on the vows of poverty and chastity, I haven’t spent as much time processing the vow of obedience. For me, bullish and headstrong, this is perhaps the vow that I constantly struggle with the most. How does one live this life, live the vows, and live minority with integrity if one does not strive towards humility and self-sacrifice? And yet, how does one live one’s life faithfully, if one does not listen to that quiet inner voice? And then, what about doubt? It is a paradox and a path only successfully navigated with God’s grace.
And yet, as difficult as it often times is for me, I have tried my best to embrace the formation process with openness, engagement, and joy. When I say “openness, engagement, and joy,” I do not mean that my responses to every community requirement or fraternal relationship have always been happy, positive, or even necessarily gentle. For me, openness, engagement, and joy comprise an approach, a disposition, towards this process of formation that is manifested in a readiness to take part and contribute, a decision to be present, and to trust in the efficacy and purpose of the program as an integral part of Franciscan formation. I do not see this approach as precluding one from expressing criticism, dissent, or even dissatisfaction. On the contrary, to be fully engaged and obedient to the formation process, one has a responsibility to reflect on, analyze, and respond to one’s experience, as well as to articulate and ensure that one’s needs are met.
For me, the genius of St. Francis and St. Clare’s approaches to obedience to the Church is that they were entirely, confidently rooted in the Gospel and in living an evangelical life as revealed to them by the Beloved. Their obedience to the Church was manifested in the living out of their visions with authenticity and integrity, in loving relationship with the Church, and not outside of it. Francis and Clare asserted the Catholicity of their visions, not through their complicity with the established authorities of the day or their unquestioning observation of the dictates of the hierarchy, but through obedience and faithfulness to the vision and way of life that “the Most High Himself revealed to me”. It is my belief that the papal approbation of 1209 did not give Francis and his brothers the permission they needed to live life according to the Gospel, as they were already doing that for some years before they sought permission from the Magisterium; rather, it merely tied them in relationship to the wider Church.
Thus, Francis and Clare became effective agents of change within the Church by proposing an alternate vision of obedience, a vision that was confidently rooted in Christ, that eschewed the traditional understanding of hierarchy (as was represented by the monastic model), and that was resolutely expressed in the familial language of love and kinship. It was a life of mercy. In a way, their vision has major relevance for what is happening in our Church today. One need only reflect on the current tensions regarding law and mercy, as can be seen in people’s reactions to Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia.
As I look forward to another year as a professed friar, I want to give God thanks for the many blessings that this life has offered, for the brothers who have supported me and challenged me, and for the conflicts and difficulties that, although often unpleasant, have proven to be fertile, sacred ground for growth.
Please pray for me.