On Sacred Ground

Aug. 5-18, 2004
On Sacred Ground
By Friar Phil Kelly, OFM Conv./ SUN contributing writer
Franciscan Friars Gather to Meet, Pray and Face the Future

What do people do when faced with diminishing numbers, new circumstances and what can appear to be impossible challenges? How do they deal with polarization, increased violence, and scandal? Franciscans do what Saint Francis told them to do, to gather, talk to each other and pray.

The Conventual Franciscans were established in Syracuse, N.Y. more than 150 years ago. They came from Germany to minister to the salt workers of Syracuse and from there spread out all over the U.S. and Canada, to Latin America, to Africa, and to the Orient. Today, they can be found ministering in many communities in a variety of capacities including parish ministry at St. Francis Parish in Bridgeport, St. Mary’s Parish in Minoa and the Church of the Assumption in Syracuse. In addition the friars are involved in the Assisi Project, mall ministry at the Franciscan Place in the Carousel Mall, the L’Arche Home, Franciscorp,hospital ministry, teaching and campus ministry at Syracuse University. But what of that original community? How have the years dealt with that first foundation?

Franciscans divide themselves into provinces, and Immaculate Conception Province is the original organization founded by those early friars. Within a very few years there were two provinces, then three, soon four, and then five. Members went to Costa Rica, Brazil, Zambia, Ghana, and Japan. But it has not been all continual growth and expansion. While the Lord and his Troubadour looked kindly on the life and times of the friars, there have also been times of pain, loss and confusion.

Friars are no different from any other segment of society. They go through periods of daring dreams, expansion, optimism; the same men experience periods of rapid change, diminishment and contraction. This is one of those periods of contraction. At the “high water mark” the Province numbered over 350 friars. These were the periods of 20 young men in novitiate, of seminaries which could not hold the number of eager men studying for the priesthood. These buildings have emptied and have been sold or turned to other uses.

What to do? They go back to the spirit of Saint Francis and search for direction through study, dialogue and prayer. The experience was named “On Sacred Ground” and was held at Mount Alvernia Retreat Center in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. from June 28 to July 9, 2004. Some 75 friars came together from Canada, from all over the U.S., from Costa Rica and from Italy. They ranged in age from 23 to 87, from over 70 years in vows to those who had not taken vows yet. The theme “On Sacred Ground” was taken from the experience of Moses when he came upon the burning bush in the desert and God spoke to him and before God gave him a message God told him to remove his sandals because he was standing “on holy ground” before his God. That was the central metaphor which formed the context of the two weeks. The questions before the friars were the following: How to live in a world of diversity, changing mores and increasing violence? How to exercise leadership in such a world? How to live in a world of increasing diversity, diversity in community and in ministry?

Over a year ago the friars engaged David B. Couturier, OFM Cap., to design the program and act as spiritual director. He worked with a team of friars who created a framework in which the above elements were brought to the minds of the friars through the wisdom of international experts, intensive group discussion, liturgy and private prayer and reflection. Gil Baille spoke of the post-modern world where the traditional approaches to ministry are not accepted very well any more and challenged the group to engage in a Gospel paradigm, which is ever old and ever new.

Donna Markham explored the types of leadership such a world requires. It is based on traditional Franciscan values, but she warned of the danger of refusal to adapt and let go of traditional forms of being a leader in the new millennium. Gary Riebe-Estrella invited the friars to examine the cultural assumptions, which under gird many facets of religious life in an increasingly multi-cultural world, and the implications of the friars’ lives together.

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