For 27 years of my life I was associated with the Franciscan Order, ten as a student in formation, and seventeen as a solemnly professed friar. Back when I was thirteen in the eighth grade, I received acceptance letters to the seminaries of both the Franciscans (Holy Name Province, based in New York City) and the Diocese of Buffalo. I chose the friars—as much as a 13-year-old can make an intelligent decision about anything—because the Order was presented to me as a way of life that offered endless job opportunities. That was true: there are parts of Bolivia that owe its highways to the energies of a Franciscan philosophy teacher and engineer named “Tex.” I was not cut out to blaze trails on the Altiplano, but the Franciscans offered a very wide range of ministerial opportunities and locations.
Shortly after I entered the seminary in 1962, in fact about a month later, the Council Vatican II opened in Rome, and like most Catholics I did not see how its deliberations would impact me and my Order. One of the Council’s lesser known documents is Perfectae Caritatis (“on perfect love”) promulgated in 1965, on the renewal of religious orders. The Council directed religious orders to revisit the original founding charism and intent of the founders, such that the Franciscans would return to the original life of Francis—who was not a cleric, who believed in a brotherhood of penance for sin, and who chose to live as poor, with only the meager necessity of life.
When I entered the seminary, and for a generation after, the Order consisted primarily of priests living middle class lives (and occasionally above.) It is ironic, looking back, how the missionaries like Tex were respected within the community, because they lived poor lives and made many sacrifices. Gradually, through its three-year general meetings or chapters, my province of the order labored for many years to square the circle of Francis’ simple vision vis-à-vis the complex environment of first-world America and the numerous fraternal and ministerial commitments entrusted to it by many bishops. In many respects, departures and deaths simplified the process some, but gradually every friar had to make a conscious decision about his personal renewal and return to the basic vision of Francis.
I got my wake-up call in the mid-1980’s when, while pastoring in central Florida, I received a call from the governing board of the order informing me that I was its choice as superior of the province’s flagship church and governing center in mid-town Manhattan. To be honest, it was a well-intentioned but poorly informed choice. I remember telling the board via phone conference that I had only been to the motherhouse twice in my life for a grand total of two overnight visits. “Why, I don’t even know where the bathrooms are!” I wailed. To which someone on the board replied, “Well, we can show you the bathrooms.” Eventually the board let me off the hook, but not without cost: I did agree to serve on the personnel board, which meant a monthly flight to NYC for the meetings. [And true to form, for my first meeting I got lost looking for the church coming in from LaGuardia. I stopped at a fire house to ask for help—and the crew had a good laugh because the church was across the street. Later, the friar chaplain of that firehouse would be none other than Father Mychel Judge, the first responder killed at the Towers on 9/11.]
The experience with my order rattled me. I was 37, and I knew that other requests for leadership roles would soon be coming. I liked Florida and my comfortable life here. I was building a church and serving my diocese here as president of the priests’ council. It would be harder and harder to put off the bosses up north. But that raised another question: I was a solemnly professed friar—I had taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience back when I was 24. My order had the right to ask me to move and take new responsibilities; in the spirit of Francis, I had promised my unwavering obedience, among other things, in the manner described in Perfectae Caritatis. To play a prolonged cat-and-mouse game with my order was a significant departure from the intent of the founder.
I can’t say that this full insight came all at once. In fact, it would be another half-dozen years before a very insightful therapist, an Episcopal woman referred by my MD, brought home to me the mental health dangers of living a contradiction. I am grateful to this therapist who provided the Vatican with significant information about my life, with which Rome concurred in its processes of exclaustration (release from vows) and laicization from the priesthood which both took place with dispatch. The fact that I am an introvert with a tendency to think outside the box (determined by psychological testing, where I scored high on the schizophrenic measure) did not get me “off the hook” in terms of the need to craft a new moral/spiritual blue print by which to live and arrange my life. I joke with those who ask that I am more at peace as a “mediocre layman” than as a “lousy friar-priest” but as in all humor there is much truth. Now, twenty years removed from active ministry, my life is arranged around my marriage, my teaching ministries in catechetics, and my second career as a psychotherapist.
Awakening a foundational spirituality has been more of a challenge, though I can honestly say that my understanding of Franciscan spirituality was marginal back in the day of first choices. Oddly, I have gone back to Franciscan sources in later life, but excellent works like Augustine Thompson, O.P., Francis of Assisi: A New Bibliography (2012) have made me realize that my call (or “spiritual gestalt”) is elsewhere. In the light of today’s post, my 2014 review of Thompson’s biography is more self-revelatory than usual.
Paragraph 1699 is an introduction into the treatment of virtuous life and behavior. It speaks from the very basic principle that the life’s vocation of man—his sense of spiritual identity—is intimately bound with the Holy Spirit. This life in the Spirit is bound “by divine charity and human solidarity.” Or, put another way, love of God and love of neighbor. In one sense we of the Christian household are alike in this universal truth. On the other hand, the New Testament writers speak of “charisms” or unique gifts conferred by Baptism and Confirmation; one might call charisms God’s recognition of the complexity of each human being.
Consequently, when we talk of spirituality/morality (as the Catechism does) it is true that there are sins and evils that, objectively speaking, poison the entire pool of human experience. On the other hand, given the open-ended invitation of Christ to live virtuously, as in the Eight Beatitudes, it is also true than everyone seeking God consciously chooses a unique lifestyle of living the Gospel, which is shaped by the natural gifts and wisdom bestowed uniquely upon each person. Each of us, then, hold our basic commitment in our hands (what the theologians call “fundamental option”), struggling to understand it and working to live consistently what we understand ourselves to be. The first step in Catholic morality, then, is understanding the charisms God has bestowed upon us. As in my case, and probably in yours, our vision and our execution stand under the old Reformation phrase semper reformanda, always in need of reform.