Three ways my community makes me the priest I am
Image: FATHER Jim Kent, O.F.M., Conv. with Father Bernie Zajdel, O.F.M., Conv. “We have vowed to live quite purposefully in poverty, chastity, and obedience and therefore live amid the rewards and challenges of that life.”
I WAS ORDAINED a priest in 1991 with a host of family, friends, and Franciscan friars in attendance. It was a wonderful and Spirit-filled occasion. It’s worth noting, however, that a year earlier I had professed solemn vows to be a Conventual Franciscan for the rest of my life in the presence of those same family, friends, and friars. That chronology is important because it means I was a Franciscan before I was a priest.
While there is only one priesthood rooted in Jesus Christ, there are various manifestations of that priesthood. For me, being a Franciscan cannot help but affect the way I am a priest. It’s in my blood and frames the lens through which I see the world.
Part of that comes from specific elements of Franciscan life and part from my own spiritual DNA. Through my Franciscan formation I have embraced quite clearly the path God has called me to and the way in which I am to live my life. The charism of Saint Francis of Assisi is at the heart of who I am as a person, and that affects how I pray, minister, and witness to the gospel. It also colors the way I am a priest to others.
First, I am the priest I am because I live in community with other Franciscans. Some are friar-priests, some friar-brothers. This relational element, which includes ordained and nonordained, gives me a daily experience of living not only with other people but also with my professed brothers. We have vowed to live quite purposefully in poverty, chastity, and obedience and therefore live amid the rewards and challenges of that life. That literally impacts my prayer and preaching and how I see myself as a minister of the gospel.
One of the features of our Franciscan life is common prayer. While we all have our own private prayers and devotions, we celebrate the Liturgy of Hours together (a series of Psalm-based prayers recited at regular times during the day), and that is crucial. The rhythm of Morning and Evening Prayer together reminds us of our common commitment to God and each other.
It is also a discipline that, with all the demands of ministry, draws us together and keeps us focused on God. Even though those of us who are priests have various Mass duties, we also have regular celebrations of the Eucharist only among the friars. The Eucharist was extremely important to Saint Francis, and we find it invaluable to celebrate this sacrament together.
|FATHER Jim Kent, O.F.M. Conv. presides at Mass.|
Places to go
Second, I am the priest I am because as a Franciscan I have had the opportunity to serve the church in a variety of ministries and places. I have served in parish ministry, in youth and young adult ministry, as director of a retreat and spirituality center, as vocation director, and currently in community administration. I have been greatly blessed to have these experiences because what I have learned in each of these ministries has enriched the others.
I currently live with nine other friars who minister in a parish, a retreat setting, a hospital, a nursing home, and a soup kitchen. One is recovering from serious medical issues; another is retired from full-time work but volunteers with the poor and brings the sacraments to cloistered nuns. One was a high school teacher for many years; another spent a long time as a missionary in Africa. All their experiences inform the priest I am.
As a member of a religious congregation, I know friar-priests who have spent their entire lives in parish ministry but never in one diocese or even in one region of the country. Father Wilfred has been a pastor in Chicago and in coastal Georgia. Father Tom has served in parish ministry in Minnesota, New Mexico, and Costa Rica. Experiencing the universal church beyond the boundaries of one diocese or across international borders adds a depth to our service as pastors. It also helps us all be connected to our brothers and sisters in Christ across the country and throughout the world.
Being a member of a religious order that has friars spread around the globe has afforded me opportunities to celebrate the sacraments from Argentina to Zambia, from Italy to India, from Denmark to Poland to Honduras. To hear the gospel proclaimed in so many languages, to give and receive the Body and Blood of Christ in so many lands, certainly gives my priesthood a depth and breadth beyond compare.
To lead is to serve
A third way being in a religious community affects the way I am a priest is the Franciscan approach to governance and authority. Unlike diocesan priests who are accountable to a bishop appointed by the Holy See, Franciscan friars elect their leaders, whether it’s the regional leader or the person who heads the worldwide congregation. Because we live in such a brotherhood, our leaders are pretty well known to us, especially at the regional, or province, level.
That we have a say in who will govern us is important. It opens avenues of dialogue and input. Saint Francis admonished the friars that those in leadership were to be their servants: Thus we call our province leader the “minister provincial.” The vow to obedience comes from the Latin root of that word, which means “to listen.” This listening is a two-way street, first to the one in leadership and ultimately to the individual friar.
The role of leadership is also a gift to the members and one that is time-limited. While a diocesan bishop is ordained a bishop for life, our leaders only serve for a certain length of time. A friar might be elected to serve for one to three terms, but eventually he will leave office and return to the ordinary body of friars.
I am currently the minister provincial of my province and am provincial to those who at one time were my provincials, including Father Wayne, into whose hands I professed my final solemn vows. I believe that deepens our fraternal relationship not simply in a democratic but in a very human way. Being a priest within these kinds of structures that are built upon a foundation of service always points me to the humility and other-centeredness of Christ.
I am a Franciscan and a priest. God’s call for me would have it no other way.
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