‘First Love’ has the last word! – Final Message of the Minister General

The closing session of the Plenary Council of the Franciscan Order, held this month of June, in Nairobi, Kenya, heard Br. Michael Perry, Minister General, urging the friars to return to their first love.

He based his concluding reflections on the theme of the gathering, which comes from the Book of Revelation (Rev. 2:2-5)

We are called to return to our original passion, and to listen to the Spirit with that passion,” Br. Michael said. “I believe that the desire to become passionate listeners has been demonstrated by you, the members of the Plenary Council, throughout our deliberations and discernment,” he added.

The 17-day meeting began with an active listening of reports from each of the different OFM Conferences. The delegates then brought this experience to prayer, discernment, and dialogue. From this process emerged some proposals for the General Definitory to consider for inclusion in a final document to be written in the coming months.

The Minister General explained that a return to our first love does not mean indulging in nostalgia. He went on to say that this love must bring “passion to our engagement with our brothers, the Church, and the world.”

Br. Michael challenged the friars, saying that the biblical invitation to return to our ‘first love’ must also be expressed in our manner of thinking and acting with regard to the human and financial resources of which we are only stewards.

The full text of his message follows:

 

 

Return to your First Love”

The Call of the Plenary Council to Renew and Revitalize our Lives

In the Midst of a Constantly Changing World

 

My dear brothers, we are fast approaching the end of the 2018 Plenary Council. I hope that each of you have experienced a deepening sense of belonging to the one universal fraternity of the Order. Through the Conference reports, our small and large group liturgical celebrations, our recreation times, our meals, and most especially through the ‘World Café’ methodology/process at small tables, we have had a unique opportunity to get to know more about each other, more about the life of friars in distinct regions or Conferences of the Order, more about the challenges facing the world, the church, the natural environment, and the Order. What has become clear is that despite some very particular or contextual differences, there is a great deal that actually unites us both in terms of fundamental identity but also in terms of specific restrictions and challenges that we face to a greater or lesser extent in all of our entities.

 

World Café and the Opening of the Franciscan mind and heart

You will recall that before engaging in the “World Café” process, some Council Members expressed their reservations. Many of us have been trained in systems that are fundamentally ‘deductive’ in terms of analysis of reality and problem-solving. The World Café model, on the contrary, is a primarily ‘inductive’ methodology. It begins with human reality, with ‘what is’, and then slowly, through a process of brainstorming, begins to draw out trends and/or common elements that can help give shape to both identity and action.  A deductive process begins with some hard and fast hypotheses about God, church, religious life, human action, the way the world works, in short, ‘identity’ that is somehow ‘known’ and ‘shared’, and then moves to an analysis so as to confirm and/or correct and reshape our hypothesis. In the end, what is produced through deductive reasoning is a clear, neat, vision of who we are, where we are going, and how we are going to get there. While some of these elements might appear in the work we have undertaken these days, there remains a certain amount of ‘messiness’ and incompleteness expressed in the formulations of each of the seven themes we have discussed at this Plenary Chapter. This is to be expected of the inductive process that we chose to engage in and, in fact, we foresaw that the PCO would not produce a final document but would generate the substance of a document that would be written afterwards, in the fashion of a Post-Synodal document.

 

Incarnation is a messy affair

One of the strongest metaphors presented in Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation on the identity and role of the Church in the world today is found in paragraph 49 of Evangelii gaudium:

“Here I repeat for the entire Church what I have often said to the priests and laity of Buenos Aires: I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures (EG, 49).

Since the time of the Second Vatican Council, the Order of Friars Minor has dedicated resources, General Chapters and Plenary Councils to the pursuit of ‘nailing down’ and claiming possession of a clear, fixed, and useful definition of identity, of what it means to be a Friar Minor in the midst of a world and a cosmos that are changing at an ever-increasing rate. These accelerating changes sometimes leave in their wake a growing sense of loss, spiritual and psychological dislocation, and powerlessness. This fundamental challenge to human, Christian, and Franciscan identity has been reported to this Plenary body by several World Café groups. But a world of change also needs the challenge that comes from our human, Christian, and Franciscan identity. It should come as no surprise that we Friars Minor, like most of humanity, are searching for what several missiologists once described as a process of identifying and reclaiming “constants in contexts.” I believe that we can say that these “constants” are those elements we hold to be true, unchanging, permanent, not subject to the pressures of changes taking place in the scientific, social or natural environments:

(1) deep and abiding relationship with God;

(2) commitment to Gospel fraternity/brotherhood;

(3) commitment to living among and working with brothers and sisters who are poor, excluded, marginalized;

(4) the pursuit of a spirituality of itineracy in service to the evangelizing mission of the Church; and

(5) a desire to be open to ongoing formation and conversion of mind and heart.

(the Five Priorities of the Order).

At the same time, it has become ever clearer in the course of study of the reports from the thirteen Conferences and from the Holy Land Custody that the contexts in which the living out of these core values take place require a re-thinking of how best to live these central values in a manner that reawakens within us our ‘first love’ but that also requires that we re-invent the specific forms by which we are to live and share these values. We cannot simply keep doing what we are doing as if “old wineskins” will be able to welcome and support the “new wine”. We have only to look that the question of human migration, which is a common phenomenon/problem in all of the Conferences and in the Holy Land. The challenges emerging from new forms of human migration challenge us to invent new responses, flowing from our core commitment as Friars Minor, in order to demonstrate our willingness to welcome and accompany our brothers and sisters in a way that reflects the best of who we are as human beings, disciples of the risen Lord Jesus, followers of St. Francis, and members of the body of Christ, the Church. The same applies to the challenges of responding to youth, to human-induced global climate change, to violence, to the consequences of social media, and to a wide range of other interrelated issues raised in the reports from the Conferences, by the two outside specialists (Dr. Maryann Cusimano Love, Cardinal John Onaiyekan), and through the World Café process.

The ‘constants’ or core values of Franciscan life articulated in the Five Priorities or Seven Plus One Values (Ite, Nuntiate, with inclusion of the dimension of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation) make clear that we cannot run or hide from the challenges that are rushing at us – indeed, that are churning about within us, within our fraternities and Order. Rather, we are called by the Lord Jesus, by St. Francis of Assisi, and by Pope Francis and the Church to embrace these challenges and to recognize within them opportunities for reaffirming our charismatic identity and expressing the fullness of our faith and trust in God, and our belief in God’s presence and image in each and every living creature (“Laudato si’). It is because of this profound belief and trust in God’s presence in the world that we once again express our profound willingness to risk all for the sake of God’s Kingdom, a kingdom of truth, justice, love, freedom, and forgiveness, the “five pillars” of peace

(Pope Paul VI, St. John Paul II).

 

I think it is safe to say that two quite different styles of thinking could be seen in how the Council Members approached the material for reflection. Some felt more comfortable taking as their starting point the “constants” of our identity described above and, using explicitly religious language, making their motivation clear. In this way, actions that otherwise could be interpreted simply as humanitarian interventions not requiring commitment to a specifically Christian vision of the world can be seen as arising from a commitment to these “constants”.  Other Council members felt comfortable using more ‘secular’ terms, approaching the question of identity through analysis of the central themes, all the while implicitly understanding that the reason for our engagement is faith-centered and faithful to these same “constants”. It is a question of whether our faith motivation is implicit or explicit. Neither approach is inherently better than the other so long as the transcendent/trans-historical and the imminent/historical are not separated one from the other. A Franciscan understanding of the event of the incarnation leads to a simultaneous embrace of both Christ and the human person, to the crucified and glorified Christ at San Damiano and the colony of lepers just beyond the human boundaries of Assisi. Love of God and love of all who and what God has created is the fullest response to the invitation of Christ to take up his cross and come and follow him (cf. Mk. 8: 34; Mt. 16: 24; Lk. 14:27). It is here where constants and contexts find their fullest expression, and which, if lived in faith and love, gives rise to what St. Paul describes as the conditions for welcoming the ‘new creation’ that Jesus inaugurates in and through his cross and resurrection (cf. 2 Cor. 5: 17ff: “So for anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation; the old order is gone and a new being is there to see”, Jerusalem Bible translation).

 

From the Plenary Council of the Order to the 2021 General Chapter: Next Steps

The purpose of the Plenary Council, as expressed in the General Constitutions and General Statues, Art. 194, is to provide assistance to the Minister General and his Definitory in governing and inspiring the Order, to encourage deeper relations and communications between the General Curia and the Conferences, and between the Conferences themselves, and to help prepare the next General Chapter. I wish to express the gratitude of the members of the General Definitory, and my own deep gratitude, for the commitment each of you have made to be part of this Plenary Council and to engage fully in the methodology, offering fresh insights and raising important questions about who we are as Friars Minor in the world today, and how we might more fully respond to the double call to love God and to love all who and what God has created in a manner that reflects our deepest values and convictions. You have responded to the requirements of Article 194 of the GGCC in a manner that both inspiring and also challenging. You have raised serious questions about identity and action in the pursuit of generating a sense of clarity of identity and also a sense of evangelical urgency in the face of a world desperately in need of a message of love, mercy, joy, and hope.

The General Definitory will begin work immediately upon our return to Rome, re-examining all of the reports from your respective Conferences and the Holy Land Custody. We will review all – and I wish to stress all – of the comments and proposals submitted by each of the World Café tables at each of the different stages of iteration in order to ensure that we do not leave out any new or helpful ideas or insights that might enable the General Definitory to improve our manner of governing and inspiring all of the friars of the Order to aspire to a higher and deeper sense of Gospel life. Following this revision and analysis of the material that we have generated together, it is the intention of the General Definitory to prepare a post-Plenary Council document that will communicate to the friars of the Order the results of our discussions and discernment. It also is quite likely that the General Definitory, drawing on the proposals of the Plenary Council, will propose several Order-wide actions (i.e. response to the reality of migration, to the challenges presented by Laudato Si’ to evangelization and mission, etc.) that will help create a deeper sense of belonging to a worldwide brotherhood capable of engaging the world in a manner that promotes integral human development, the fullness of humanity and the environment fully alive. What those specific actions might be have not yet been determined. This will require further analysis and discernment on our part, based upon the work of this Plenary Council.

 

Responsibility of each Plenary Council Member

The Plenary Council Process does not end with the closing Eucharist and celebrative meal. Just as with the Eucharistic celebration, the call is to take what we have experienced in the sacramental moment – in the Eucharist, and also in the Plenary Council – and to share it with the leadership in all of the Conferences and in the Custody of the Holy Land. Thus, the first level of sharing is with the President of your respective Conference (those not present at the PCO), and with the Provincials, Custodians, and Presidents of Foundations. If there is no immediate plan for a meeting of your Conference following this Plenary Council, I would ask that you prepare a written statement in which you would present something about your experience of the Plenary Council, the process or methodology employed, the ‘results’ of the work of the World Café process, and the final proposed document that will be sent to the General Definitory for the work it must do following the Plenary Council.

One of the greatest weaknesses of the Order is the failure to communicate. If it is helpful, I would suggest that you work with friars from other Conferences in drawing up what you will share with your Conference. It will be essential that you explain the themes that we have discussed, placing them within the context of our charismatic identity as disciples of the risen Lord Jesus, members of the Order and the Church, and responsible members of the human community. Should the General Definitory, following a re-reading of all of the materials of the Plenary Council, propose several concrete Order-wide actions, it will be essential that you become advocates, explaining the reasoning behind any of these actions and promoting the actions as a means for renewing our charismatic identity as members of a Contemplative Fraternity-in-Mission in search of renewed means for the proclaiming of the Gospel within changing contexts, and standing before a world facing many challenges, a world seeking a new reason to hope.

On a more practical level, it will be vital that you work with us in ensuring that the text that will be forwarded by the General Definitory to the Conferences is translated into the languages of the friars of each respective entity. In addition, it might be helpful if you were to work with the Conferences in developing tools for the study of the Plenary Council document and also to develop web and other tools for helping all of the friars to engage in a process that will continue until 2021 and beyond.

Part of the process of the Post-Plenary Council reflections might include not only practical actions (1 or 2) but also practical suggestion on how to engage all of the friars in your Conferences in this ongoing process. We must remind the friars that we are on a journey; itinerancy is not only a means for renewing our lives; it contains the seeds for this very renewal. Without movement –internal/spiritual and external/structural – there will be no conversion. It is that simple.

 

Re-awaking our First Love of God, of the Brothers, and of God’s People and the Created Universe

In conclusion, I would like to return to the biblical text that has served as the leitmotif in the preparation and execution of this 2018 Plenary Council of the Order. I am referring to the Book of Revelation, chapter 2, verses 3-5a. 7:

“You are patient and endure hardship for my cause. Moreover, you do not become discouraged, But, I hold this against you: you have turned aside from your early love. Keep firmly in mind the heights from which you have fallen. Repent, and return to your former deeds…Let him who has ears heed the Spirit’s word to the churches.” (Rev. 2: 3-5a. 7).

I would like to highlight five aspects or elements from this biblical text that I feel are important for our considerations as we prepare to close the second phase of our Plenary Council process.

  1. This text calls us to passionate listening to the voice of God in our lives, in the Church, the Order, and the world. These are not two words that we usually put together, but this is in fact the call of this Scripture. We are called to return to our original passion, and to listen to the Spirit with that passion. I believe that the desire to become passionate listeners has been demonstrated by you, the members of the Plenary Council, throughout our deliberations and discernment.
  2. This text was not selected to criticize the members of the Council, but rather, as a framework for understanding the challenge we collectively face in animating our global fraternity. As Friars Minor, we anchor ourselves deeply in the Gospel and the example of Jesus. We know, however, that there are brothers who are discouraged, who have questions and doubts about the future of our Order, and perhaps feeling despondent that they – or we — have fallen from “the heights.” Here, this Scripture from Revelation calls us to repent from having turned aside from our early love. This does not mean we should take the course of promoting some nostalgic return to the past. We are not being called to a new type of infatuation, one that promotes an infantile response that will do little to help each of us deepen our faith, our hope, and our capacity to love and to dream. Rather, it invites us to tap into the passion that God has for each one of us, and to bring that passion to our engagement with our brothers, the Church, and the world.
  3. For this type of engagement to be authentic, to be faithful to our call to be Friars Minor, we must also learn anew how to listen to our brothers, listen to one another, listen to the dreams and also the disappointments that each of us bear. Not only must we allow God to lead us to a renewed love of the Trinity, of God in our lives; we also allow God to lead us to a renewed love of our brothers in the Order. We must learn new ways to support them as they travel through dark nights. And we must celebrate the goodness of our life in fraternity, and the gift of each one’s vocation.
  4. Our listening, however, cannot stop with our listening to God and to our brothers in the Order. We must continue to develop new tools and promote within the Order (Order wide, Provinces, Custodies, Foundations, local fraternities) a new spirit of listening to the voice of God speaking in the world, God’s cry rising up from within God’s people and from within God’s created universe. These ‘cries’ may take an explicitly religious form, or they may take the form that some would not recognize as explicitly religious. Because of our faith in God, we believe that the Spirit of God renews the face of the Earth (Psalm 104:30), and that God loves everyone everywhere, and calls all people, all creation to himself. You have brought to this council reports how you have listened to the world, the church, and the Friars. We have shared these, and listened together, in a contemplative way, to what the Spirit is saying in dramatically diverse contexts. Let us continue this practice of passionate listening, listening for the Spirit with passionate hearts. Let us be ambassadors not only of a message but also of a method that promotes mutual listening, discernment, and collective (collaborative) action.
  5. The biblical invitation to return to our ‘first love’, to God and the centrality of the Trinity in our lives, must also enter into our manner of thinking and acting with regards to the human and financial resources that God has provided to us. As the presentation of the General Treasurer indicated, our identity and our values are meant to provide us with a vision of the world that is transparent, just, ethical, guided by principles of solidarity, all the while making use of the instruments that guide proper and intelligent collection, management, and reporting of the resources with which we have been blessed. Thus, the economic and resource aspects of our lives require serious spiritual and practical reflection if we are to demonstrate that we are truly followers of Jesus and St. Francis of Assisi. This most probably will require that we look afresh that the question of the restructuring of our entities and of the Order, letting go of those things – attitudes, practices, and physical structures – that do little to promote a prophetic type of itineracy that is required of us Friars Minor at this particular moment in the history of the world, the Church, and the Order. Will we have the courage to allow our faith vision, and the fruits of our discernment, to lead us to where the Spirit of God is calling us? This must be front and center in our questioning and in our search for more authentic expressions of our charismatic identity. What is holding us back?

 

In conclusion, I wish once again to thank each and every member of the Plenary Council for your active engagement in the preparation and execution of this program of listening and discerning where the Spirit of God is speaking to the Order today. I also wish to thank you for the work you will continue to do to communicate to the leadership and to all of the friars in your respective Conferences and in the CTS the process and contents of our deliberations. Even more important, I wish to thank you for the work you will do to promote an ongoing process of discussion and discernment in order that we might engage every brother of the Order in living more fully the evangelical life to which we have been, and continue to be, called.

A special thanks to all of the support staff that has worked overtime to ensure that our Plenary Council might conduct its affairs in a peaceful and effective manner. I will leave it to the Moderators to list the brothers to whom we owe a great debt of thanks but I wish to thank in a special way the work of our General Secretary of the PCO, Bro. Manuel Curullon, to his Assistant Bro. Tiburce and all of their assistants and to the Translators and Interpreters; to the two Moderators, Bro. Isauro and Bro. Keith; the General Treasurer and Vice-Treasurer of the PCO, Bro. John and Bro. Miro; to the friars responsible for maintaining a smooth and invaluable flow of information from the PCO to the Order, to Bro. Alvin, Bro. Silvio, and Bro. Dexter; and a truly special thanks to the hosting Province of St. Francis, and its Provincial, Bro. Carmelo. We should also recognize and thank the Franciscan Sisters who are responsible for the running of this retreat center. They have loved and cared for us beyond our expectations. Thanks also to Bro. Antonio, General Definitory and Bro. Matteo Giuliani who have worked in the background, analyzing the reports from the Conferences, and structuring the methodology of the PCO.

Finally, I wish to draw upon a reflection of our Holy Father Pope Francis in his Apostolic letter Gaudete et Exsultate, Rejoice and Be Glad, no. 61:

“Jesus clears a way to seeing two faces, that of the Father and that of our brother. He does not give us two more formulas or two more commands. He gives us two faces, or better yet, one alone: the face of God reflected in so many other faces. For in every one of our brothers and sisters, especially the least, the most vulnerable, the defenseless and those in need, God’s very image is found. Indeed, with the scraps of this frail humanity, the Lord will shape his final work of art. For “what endures, what has value in life, what riches do not disappear? Surely these two: the Lord and our neighbor. These two riches do not disappear.”

Brothers, let us begin…