Meeting God in the city

By Father Linh Hoang, O.F.M. A young man discovered his vocation by immersing himself in the pillars of Franciscan spirituality—starting with a sense of place in a beloved city.

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Image: Franciscan father Mike Duffy, O.F.M. visits a guest at the St. Francis Inn soup kitchen in Philadelphia. Hospitality is of great importance to Franciscans.

I MOVED TO New York City from Topeka, Kansas in 2000 to pursue my doctorate in theology at Fordham University. It was going to be my first time living in New York. Though I had been in Chicago a few years earlier and so big cities did not intimidate me, I would come to learn there is definitely something quite different about NYC. The people, the traffic, the buildings, and the massive public transportation system created a web of human interactions that can be overwhelming to the uninitiated. Constant activity keeps the city beating at all hours of the day and night. There is hardly a place where one will not run into another person. It was a city unlike any other I had visited, where all my senses were stirred. It was also the place where I discerned my religious vocation.

That may sound strange to some people that a secular city can have such a spiritual influence, but it was very fitting because a sense of place is an important dimension of Franciscan spirituality. Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), founder of the Franciscans, was influenced by the places where he lived, including natural areas such as a mountaintop and the lush pastoral lands of Italy. In fact Franciscans have three cornerstones to their spirituality:
• Place as created and lived
• Hospitality practiced in fraternity
• Living the gospel through prayer and action

Joliet Franciscan Sister Dolores Zemont, O.S.F. distributes the Eucharist. Gospel living through prayer and action is a key part of Franciscan spirituality.
Joliet Franciscan Sister Dolores Zemont, O.S.F. distributes the Eucharist. Gospel living through prayer and action is a key part of Franciscan spirituality.
A sense of place
For me the city exudes humanity from its worst to the best examples of care and kindness. The city holds both secular institutions as well as religious locations. They are built next to one another and in some cases they have impacted one another. The city was where I met the Franciscan friars of the Holy Name Province living and ministering in mid-town Manhattan. From my initial meeting to my eventual entrance into formation and then final profession, I was convinced that a place really has an impact on a religious discernment.

For many years I had wanted to be a priest. I had studied for a diocese and also with another religious community. Those attempts, however, did not lead me to a full commitment but left me searching for something else. Being thrust into the concrete jungle of New York filled with people really opened my eyes to a living gospel and a renewed interest in my vocational commitment.

During the summer of 2000 I visited St. Francis of Assisi Church on 31st Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. It sits snugly between Penn Station, Madison Square Garden, and the Empire State Building, and the foot traffic is constant. Some people choose to go in. Once inside you find an oasis away from the noisy city. That was where I found myself during my first visit, just taking in the quiet of the inside and reflecting on its contrast from the bustle outside.

Hospitality practiced in fraternity
I returned later to speak to one of the friars, Brother Nathaniel. My visit with him was a wonderful experience of hospitality. I remembered that the first place he ushered me into was the kitchen; I would come to learn that the kitchen was the favorite place of the friars to welcome everyone. This hospitality is to help make people feel comfortable and give them something to quench their thirst and fill their stomachs.

Father Linh Hoang, O.F.M. teaches at Siena College in Loudonville, New York.
Father Linh Hoang, O.F.M. teaches at Siena College in Loudonville, New York.
This hospitality also extended beyond the kitchen and into every aspect of their life. I was accepted and entered the province in 2002 after my classes were done at Fordham. Those of us in formation would visit the various houses of the province along the East Coast. At each we would be warmly welcomed. I felt that it was part of being a religious brother. I would learn this hospitality and make it part of being a Franciscan myself, and I have experienced it from friars in the United States as well as across the world I have had the privilege to visit.

Hospitality-in-fraternity means living with vowed members but it also extends to the larger human community—people religious work with, minister with, and encounter daily. Hospitality-in-fraternity means embracing all people as brothers and sisters. Everyone wants to be more than only recognized. Franciscan hospitality means feeling the yearning of all people to be accepted and welcomed into a spirit larger than them.

I live now in the largest house in my province at Siena College two hours outside of New York City. I was sent there after my doctoral work to teach in the religious studies department. We are in the middle of all the events and intrigue involved in college life. This place affords me the opportunity to live among the brothers as well as the larger college campus. I chose to do both, which gives me time with the brothers and time with students, faculty, and staff. I do not see it as two separate places but rather one with different experiences. Being at Siena has provided me the proximity to visit the city as often as I would like, and I take the opportunity as much as I can because it was the first place of my Franciscan vocation.

Sister Annette Kurey, O.S.F. of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity in Manitowoc, Wisconsin helps a summer camper with her prayer beads.
Sister Annette Kurey, O.S.F. of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity in Manitowoc, Wisconsin helps a summer camper with her prayer beads.
The gospel in prayer and action
Living the gospel message that is grounded in knowing the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and living hospitality-in-fraternity nourished my vocation. It is Jesus’ story I continue to live out in a different expression through an urban city. From the beginning of their formation the friars are encouraged to continue to read and learn more about the gospels. It was the gospels that really moved Saint Francis of Assisi to live fully as a religious brother.

My prayer life consists in the Divine Office with the community and also making time for personal prayer. That I do through quiet contemplation as well as spiritual reading. The prayer times provide the nourishment I need to live with my brothers as well as to work with other people. It is a very necessary part of my religious life because it weaves into perspective the dwelling-in-place and the hospitality-in-fraternity aspects that are now made clearer.

Walking in place
My Franciscan spirituality blossomed in an unexpected place—the bustling city of New York—and in the warm hospitality of the friars, the solace of a quiet church building, and in living out the gospel message. The uniqueness of a Franciscan spirituality is to live in and bring the gospel message to the people in a certain place. That may sound contrary because Franciscans are considered to be “itinerant,” on the move, but is it not because as itinerants we learn to create a space where God can dwell and where we can preach the message of God’s love?
Father Linh Hoang, O.F.M. Father Linh Hoang, O.F.M. is a member of the Franciscan Friars, Holy Name Province. He is an associate professor of religious studies at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y. where he also lives in student housing as a friar-in-residence.

2015 © TrueQuest Communications

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