The Future of the Franciscans

An excerpt from an article published in the February 2016 issue of St. Anthony Messenger
by John Feister
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Father Michael Perry, OFM, general minister of the friars until at least 2021, has a vision of the future of the Franciscans. His vision is coming from the founder: “It’s clear from the beginning, where Francis prays before the crucifix: ‘Lord, what is it that you will for me to do? What is it that I’m supposed to do with my life?’ And eventually that prayer expanded to the brothers: ‘What are we supposed to do in the world today?’” That’s the big question now, says Brother Michael: “How do we get ourselves energized, pick up, and get moving again?”

What does this mean practically? Immediately on the horizon is a change in the way the friars are organized worldwide. In short, Franciscans support each other through a system of provinces and some other, smaller entities. When a province grows to be too large, a new one is formed. The opposite is true in some places, and will be happening in Europe and North America as the Church continues to undergo changes. There are seven provinces in the United States. Each province has a history with the local Church and lots of relationships, so making changes won’t be easy.

There are bigger structures, too. Over the centuries, the Franciscan movement split into rival factions, for reasons that have little to do with today. The four major branches of the tree that include priests and brothers— the OFMs, the OFM Conventuals, the OFM Capuchins, and the Third Order Regular (TOR)—are finding new ways to work together.

Where will we be in 50 years? “Well, in three years, I hope we’re going to have one unified Franciscan university in Rome.” Clearly, 50 years isn’t the issue. The university will be jointly operated by Capuchins, OFMs, TORs, and Conventuals. “We’re moving in that direction, and I think we will be there.” He hopes, with certainty, it seems, that within three years even other forms of cooperation will take form.

He takes it even a step further. Later this year will be the 800th anniversary of the Feast of Pardon, Francis’ appeal to Pope Honorius III to allow an indulgence for pilgrims visiting the Portiuncula chapel, where the order started, in Assisi. The Franciscans, he says, all three of these branches in the First Order, are “going to spend time seeking the way of forgiveness for the ways we’ve hurt each other historically throughout the centuries.” The following year, 2017, marks the 500th year since the act that divided OFMs and Conventuals : “We’re going to see in what way we can heal, do a rereading of that history, and what can we do, again, to heal any wounds and to see about the possibility of a future where we are reunited together.” And there’s more in 2018, the proposal of joint mission projects.

It all points in one direction, to a new vision. One can see how a dreamer of big ideas got to the place he is today: “I think of the future; there’s a potential that God is going to bring us back—the Franciscan men’s orders—back together into one unified movement.” Clearly, others are dreaming with him.