Anyone who attended St. Joe’s long enough to endure one reading of the rule book from the dark ages will remember that we were admonished “to respect the brothers, but unnecessary conversation with them is forbidden.” Today, mercifully, we understand vows—and the formative quest for vows—to be the glue that holds us all together in our joint history. Just today I had a delightful Zoom call with a novitiate classmate I had not seen in 53 years. We were together only in novitiate as he pursued his specialized college studies in another part of the country, but it was amazing how we could fill in the blanks of our memory banks. He and I are both “alumni” of the Order, a safe word for those who left after profession.
To varying degrees, a lot of us who studied together on Aroma Hill and later in other formation houses as priest or brother candidates still carry an affection for the Franciscan brotherhood known corporately as Holy Name Province. This is not universally true; some of you have privately revealed to me your painful experiences with the Provincial administration that contributed to your parting ways. In fact, my own departure in 1989 was an acrimonious episode that scarred my relationship with the province for a time. However, in my own case I like to think I have sorted out the wheat from the weeds. For that reason, I was surprised that the 50th anniversary of my solemn vows was a more spiritual/psychological event than I anticipated, proof to me that the life of the brotherhood overall had more impact on my lifespan than I realized.
To understand my mixed feelings on this anniversary, I think back to March 2001, when my stepson Danny was killed by a drunk driver at the age of twenty-six. I was living in central Florida where I had previously worked as a priest-friar and later as a diocesan priest. At Danny’s funeral I was moved that several my diocesan priest colleagues, including the bishop, attended the funeral. One of them whispered to me, “we sure miss you.” Another said, “boy, we could sure use you now.” It has occurred to me gradually over the years that my absence from the priesthood and the Franciscan brotherhood is a loss to them as well as to me, but particularly so on this anniversary of solemn vows.
Do not get me wrong. I will be seventy-five next time around, and very happily married. Our silver anniversary will be in October 2023, as we married at the age of fifty. To quote Matthew 7:20 “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them;” I can say that sacramental marriage has brought out the best in me and focused me into Gospel living more intensely than any other community experience of my life. As we sit on our back porch after the cooling afternoon thunderstorms of Central Florida, Margaret and I talk with each other about the need to cultivate a spirituality around the loneliness of aging. For unless we are both blown away in the same Florida hurricane, one of us will survive the other, and as our only son has passed away, we know that one of us will tread the deeper regions of seniority alone. My spiritual reading of recent weeks has taken me down the road to Thomas Merton’s hermitage where he lived out his last years at a distance from the monastery, as a monk-hermit. That Merton thrived and found God alone in the quiet of wooded contemplation--and a most interesting array of letters from young people in the 1960’s who were discovering him for the first time--is very comforting. [See Merton’s The Road to Joy: Letters to New and Old Friends, 1989].
I can remember, as I was preparing to enter Callicoon, my mother’s strong belief that joining the Franciscans would insure me a happy and healthy retirement and old age. She had seen or known many diocesan priests who died lonely, or broke, or alcoholic, or senile. She would talk about an old priest in our parish rectory before I was born who was routinely scouted up by the Buffalo police for wandering the streets at night in his pajamas. She had the idea that the Franciscans took care of their own and for the most part she was not wrong about this. In fairness, this was not her main reason for putting me on the Erie-Lackawanna train for Callicoon, but the expectation was there, and I respect her concern for my well-being in the long-distant future.
When I was solemnly professed in 1972, I wasn’t thinking much about retirement. I was two years away from ordination to the priesthood, the end game. My best recollection of those days was the thought that I would always be a Franciscan priest, an identity that I associated with kind confessors and a variety of person-oriented ministries. I should have reflected on the interpersonal significance of the vows more intensely. Many of my classmates—some of us together for ten years—left the brotherhood on the eve of the 30-day solemn vow retreat in Rye Beach, New Hampshire. On the Saturday night before the trip to New Hampshire, I was packing to go when my longtime friend David Lingelbach stopped by my room to talk. He looked at my suitcase and said, “Are you really going to go through with this?” To this day I am not certain if he was asking about my disposition or his. Or both, most likely. I believe he knew me better than anyone else in my class—he was extraordinarily insightful--and perhaps he saw my vulnerabilities—a headstrong independence, insecurity, and a deep-seated need for marital intimacy--that I would not see for another two decades.
There is the thought that runs through my mind of how challenging the present times are for the friars I left behind when I left Holy Name Province in 1988, when the chickens came home to roost. I read the obituaries as they come out and note that more friars are dying in nursing homes contracted to the Order; the cost of maintaining modern quality senior care facilities is becoming prohibitive for organizations of modest membership, as Holy Name has become over the years. I can imagine that as the number of friars continues to decrease, even the older flagship communities are becoming quiet enclaves instead of the boisterous friary rec rooms I recall as a cleric studying summers at St. Bonaventure University in the early 1970’s.
The friars my age and older are facing the normal uncertainties of seniority, but on top of that Holy Name Province is consolidating with a half dozen other Franciscan provinces in the United States. Change is always hard, and not only for seniors. I remember coming to Washington from Florida in 1982 or thereabouts for a moral theology workshop at Catholic University, and I stopped at Holy Name College to pay respects to old friends. I first encountered Cassian Corcoran in the foyer, and Corky immediately pulled me into a parlor. “Oh Tommy, this move [the sale of Holy Name College to Howard University] is a big mistake, I’m afraid. What do you think?” Today I looked up Corky’s obituary in the Provincial site. It runs to only 326 words. Give me a day or two and I could write five thousand words about this dedicated and colorful friar who tore up his lecture notes each year so he could begin fresh with his next classes. Or on my ordination day, during the reception in the Holy Name College courtyard, when he came up to me, very distraught. “They are putting out their cigars in my elephants’ ears plants.”
[Another story, lost now to history: Thomas Merton and I both applied to St. Joe’s in Callicoon. I got in, and he did not.]
Reading through the friar obituaries left me with the impression that many precious memories and accomplishments of Holy Name friars and candidates are receding in the rearview mirror. In one of his last letters, to a graduate student drafting a paper on his poetry, Merton himself admitted an ambivalence about aging. After explaining to the student that he had become a monk and a hermit to become a “nobody” for Christ, he nonetheless expressed his pleasure that his poems would be remembered. “Maybe they’ll do some good.” As the friars of Holy Name Province continue to withdraw from the ministries where “they did some good,” there are fewer opportunities to celebrate or commemorate their triumphs, particularly as the corporate province enfolds with a half-dozen others. This process is hardly unique to Franciscans; men’s and particularly women’s communities have been divesting and rearranging for years. But each community must absorb the challenge from its own experiences.
Last Saturday night my wife and I attended Mass in the former Franciscan church that I built 35 years ago. Today it is staffed by the Vocationist Fathers for the Diocese of Orlando. I told her later in the car that “all the good things I did in my lifetime as a pastor will be forgotten, if they haven’t been already. But my mistakes will live on for centuries because they are set in concrete.” I was being flip, of course, but it is true that watching the pieces of a long-life dissolve into the mists of history can be unnerving without the redeeming feature of divine wisdom. One thing about the friars: that vow of poverty, when lived well, has focused the energies of the best of my old brethren into eschewing the accomplishments of brick and mortar for the mending of hearts and the building of hope among the poor in body and spirit. “Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” [Matthew 6:4] For all the things that were done for me in secret by the friars I have known, I am most grateful. I just wish I had been a better brother and told you while I was with you. But I can pass on your goodness in my remaining time.