ESC Hosts Inter-Franciscan Vocation Directors Mega-Conference

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida, USA – “Religious life ‘is not over’! It is only now beginning! Go out and announce this message of joy, hope, transfiguration and transformation!”

It was with these words of enthusiasm that Br. Michael Perry, OFM, Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor, encouraged friars participating in the 2016 Franciscan Mega-Conference for Vocations, titled “Lesser Brothers on a Vocation Journey of Mercy,” to renew their commitment to religious vocation and to share the joy it brings to a new generation. His message of hope and passion for the Gospel way of life, as exhibited by St. Francis and his brothers, was a welcome start to what has become an important event in the life of the English-speaking communities of the three branches of the Franciscan First Order (OFMs, Capuchins, and Conventuals), the Brothers of Brooklyn, and the Friars of the Renewal.

Every two to three years, the vocation directors from across the English-speaking Franciscan family come together for the Franciscan Mega-Conference for Vocations. The role of host rotates among the three branches of the First Order. This year, the vocation directors of the English-speaking Conference of the Order of Friars Minor hosted the conference with our brothers at St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg. The conference took place from September 6 to 10, and was organized by the leadership team for the ESC/OFM Vocation Directors Committee: Br. Basil Valente, OFM, of Holy Name Province (USA), president; Br. Eric Pilarcik, OFM, of St. Barbara Province (USA), vice president; and Br. Luis Aponte-Merced, OFM, of St. John the Baptist Province (USA), secretary/treasurer.

Thirty-four friars representing 20 provinces from the United States, Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, and Lithuania participated in the mega-conference. Br. Michael gave the keynote speech, focusing on the core unity among the various Franciscan orders and the rich opportunities for growth offered by collaboration. Two featured talks followed. Br. Daniel Horan, OFM, of Holy Name Province, discussed social media as an avenue for vocational outreach, encouraging friars to engage not only candidates but also each other through social media platforms to foster the “culture of encounter” proposed by Pope Francis.

Br. Moises Gutierrez, OFM, of Sacred Heart Province, gave the final talk of the conference, discussing “the valuable reality of diversity” among candidates and fraternities. He highlighted the richness offered by actively integrating the heritages of individual friars into the greater friar community. By celebrating the unique blessings of each friar and their culture together as a fraternity, Br. Moises said, provinces and communities can begin to build a common, inclusive spirit where all are truly welcome in the truest sense of Franciscan hospitality.

Each day began with Mass and ended with evening prayer, celebrated with the friar community of St. Anthony Friary. The conference participants took time to discuss the topic of the day after each talk in small groups before reconvening as a single group for a question and answer session with the speaker. The late afternoons and evenings were free for attendees to pray, to enjoy fraternal time together and to explore the city of St. Petersburg.

As a symbol of his encouragement, Br. Michael presented the leadership team with Tau crosses from Assisi, blessed by Pope Francis before his departure from Rome, to present to the mega-conference participants. Brothers Basil, Eric, and Luis presented the Tau crosses to the friars in a ceremony after the celebratory Mass in honor of the feast of the Nativity of Mary.

“It was a very moving moment,” said Br. Basil, “to not only receive such a special gift from the Minister General, but to have the opportunity to share those gifts with all the brothers involved in the mega-conference. To be united in such a personal and special way with our brothers from the Conventual and Capuchin provinces, and with the Brothers of Brooklyn and the Friars of the Renewal, remains a particularly poignant blessing.” Br. Jeffrey Jordan, OFM, a friar based at the Potificia Università Antonianum, observed that “the Tau cross, given to each participant by Br. Michael, unifies us as one global Franciscan family, regardless of the color or shape of our habits. It is in this spirit of Franciscan unity that captures the spirit of the conference.”

Br. Michael spent the better part of two days with the conference participants and the friars of St. Anthony Friary, sharing meals and fraternal time. In another powerful moment, the friars extended a united blessing over the Minister General in thanks for his service and support of the friars worldwide and their vocational ministry. “It was yet another sign of our common bond in fraternity, expressed in sincere gratitude for the humble, pastoral and inspiring witness of our Minister General,” said Br. Basil.

At the conclusion of the mega-conference, the friars offered praise for the meeting. “The Franciscan Mega-Conference 2016 was an amazing experience of Franciscan fraternity, showing how very much we have in common as followers of Saint Francis’ way of the Gospel,” said Br. Steven Kropp, OFM Cap. “This conference helped allow us to see and experience our common calling in the midst of our diversity as brothers.”

“The meeting was a great opportunity to come together and see what we have in common, having one founder, and, more importantly, to see how much duplication we have,” said Br. John Bamman, OFM Conv. “It’s great to have support from each other, and the idea of a communion of provinces and orders to pool resources and to be a think-tank to see what’s going on in a global context, it really opens your eyes to a greater vision of people chasing after St. Francis, after the dream.”

“The Mega-Conference was a prime example of how friars ought to pray and live together,” said Br. Patrick Lynch, OFM, vocation director for the Irish Province, who praised the conference for “bringing the friars together to grow in unity, as St. Francis desired.” This sign of unity and fellowship was emphasized by Br. Xavier Meiergerd, CFR. “Our community was very grateful to be invited,” he said. “As our own community continues to grow, we saw this as an opportunity to get to know, and enter into deeper communion with, the other Franciscan orders, and to see what we can learn and how we can benefit from the history and experience of the other orders.”

All three presentations were well received. Br. Damian Novello, OSF, said he appreciated Br. Michael’s highlighting the fact that the friars are, in fact, all brothers to one another. “That comment meant a lot to me, as someone coming from a community of all brothers,” said Br. Damian. “His message that our first vocation is as friars, those who live a Gospel life in fraternity, whatever we do, was very powerful.” Br. Basil agreed, saying that “Br. Michael continues to challenge us to be better at being brothers in fraternity, and brothers in mission, and to never forget that we’re all Franciscan brothers in mission together.”

“I’m most grateful to my brothers Dan Horan and Moises Gutierrez, who also delivered insightful and thought-provoking presentations,” said Br. Basil. “They emphasized opportunities for us to use social media to reach out to potential candidates while owning our diversity and our uniqueness, especially as we work together to bring renewal and fresh impetus to the witness of Franciscanism around the world.”

The participants were also extremely grateful to the friar community at St. Anthony Friary. “Br. Joe Hertel, OFM, and the friars at St. Anthony were exceptionally welcoming,” said Br. Luis Aponte-Merced, OFM. “The hospitality was fantastic – and we are very grateful for their generosity during our stay.” Br. Basil added, “I’m truly grateful to Joe and the friars of St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg, and to Ben Simpson and the Holy Name Province office staff, who extended tremendous generosity to the international friar guests. Quite simply, their outstanding welcome remains one of the most open and Franciscan invitations of hospitality that I’ve ever experienced. I’m so proud to be a friar and a brother minister with these wonderful men.”

Fr. Joe, on behalf of the friars at St. Anthony Friary, said that he was “deeply honored to host the mega-conference. It was a true privilege to join the Minister General and our brother friars from across the Franciscan family in fraternity and discussion.”

A special thanks was given to the ESC/Vocation Directors’ leadership team members for their hard work “while [they] tended to [their] own ministries.” “Hard to do better than this exciting conference,” said Br. Patrick, “thanks to all the coordinators!”

The Capuchin friars, represented by Br. Rafael Anguiano, OFM Cap., Br. Steven Kropp, OFM Cap., and Br. John Russo, OFM Cap., will host the next Franciscan Mega-Conference for Vocations in 2018.

By Benjamin Simpson, administrative coordinator for Holy Name Province Vocation Ministry
Photos by Br. Octavio Duran, OFM