Eight years ago, when Barack Obama was sworn in for his first term, I was in my novitiate year. It was the day of the week when our group of novices helped out at St. Francis Inn in Philadelphia. We were a small group, just three novices, two Canadians and one American. All of us made solemn vows, though, which must count for something. My duty that day had been to drive the truck to pick up food donations from various businesses, and I had returned to the Inn just before noon. I stayed in the cab, with the radio on, waiting to hear the historic words with which Barack Obama began his presidency. My hope had been that this would be the beginning of a new period of national unity in the United States.
I had lived in the US in the 1990s, long before becoming a Franciscan, and I had lived a very good life with all the comforts of the educated and ambitious middle class. When I returned in 2008 to begin my life as a Franciscan, circumstances were very different. Our neighborhood in Wilmington, DE, was nowhere near as bad as the stories that I had been told, but it was a difficult neighborhood, with crime, chaos, and poverty. Our neighbors had few opportunities to experience success in their lives. I thought that the US were like two separate countries that had very little in common other than existing, for a reason long since forgotten, in the same geographic space. This has yet to change. Building community across social divisions remains one of the major challenge of our time.
Francis’s First Chapel
One such experiment in building community is the one begun by St. Francis. A big part of it was the Porziuncola chapel, which is a small chapel on a little bit of land given to St. Francis and his brothers so that they had a place to gather for prayer. It was one of Francis’s favorite places, and it was the place to which he returned when his end was near and where Sister Bodily Death would embrace him. Porziuncola means little portion, or the little portion of land on which began the life of the Franciscan community. Today, a grand basilica, Our Lady of the Angels, has been build to surround this humble plot and its chapel. But the basilica is just a frame. Anybody walking into it knows that is nothing more but a frame to hold this chapel. The grandeur of the basilica merely points to what is important: the small and humble gathering place for a small community of people who are devoted to living the Gospel.
One of my happy duties is to assist Secular Franciscan communities in the West Coast region of British Columbia. The most recent one that I visited is called “The Little Portion,” in remembrance of the beginnings of the Franciscan movement. They meet in our friary in Victoria.
What they are may sound like a social club, or just another group in the parish community. But this comparison does not capture their identity. The Secular Franciscans are an Order in the church, or an approved form of life. Commitment to them is meant to be a life-long commitment, and it is meant as a sign of one’s own commitment to living the Gospel by following the example of St. Francis. This is really quite something, if one thinks about it. They do not only make a personal commitment to follow their faith, but they commit to doing so in community, without being in charge of the way this community is going to develop over time.
Commitment to Fraternity—Not just in Theory
If we are realistic about our limitations, then we ought to see that calling everyone one’s brother is not so very different from calling nobody one’s brother. Those who love humanity as a whole love humanity in the abstract, which really means that they do not love humanity at all. So we must accept our place and do what we can within its confines. Ours is only a little portion, and we must trust in God for all else. Secular Franciscans, by committing to a small band of brothers and sisters, by living on their little portion, give a true witness to their love of humanity. I hope that they persevere, all of them, and that they communities continue to grow and to prosper. The Secular Franciscan Order is an essential part in the life of the Church, and they have much to contribute when it comes to building communities among the faithful. I very much hope that I can be of assistance to them.
Lastly, a picture of two of their ministers, without whom no community could function. Roger leads the local fraternity, and Jewel is regional minister for the BC Coastal region. We owe much to people like them who work towards building community in the Church, for the benefit of everyone.