Monday, August 5, 2013

Franciscans of the Immaculate

Cardinal Burke with several Franciscan Friars
of the Immaculate
I came to know the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Immaculate during the more recent time I was living in Rome  between 2001 and 2008.   The friars were given custody of a small Church just as you cross the bridge at Traspontina to go to the Vatican.  You see the friars and the sisters in their blue habits everywhere in Rome.  Well, not everywhere.  You don’t see them in restaurants or bars or hotel lobbies—but everywhere else.  They are lovely people, always kind and welcoming.  
Their order started as a movement within the Conventual Franciscan Order (OFM Conv.).  The Conventuals were the “unreformed” branch of St. Francis’ Order as compared to the Friars Minor (OFM) who were comprised of a number of Reform Movements in the Franciscans that Pope Leo X separated out from the Conventuals in 1517 in order to foster their reformed ideal of returning to Francis’ ideals of poverty.  In 1896 Pope Leo XIII united these various discalced reformed Franciscans into the Friars Minor, the “Brown Franciscans.”  The Conventuals were often known as the “Black Franciscans” for their Black habits.  The black habits, because of the dyes required for the cloth, were considered to be given more to luxury and a less austere life than the “Brown” Franciscans, but having frequently dined (and drank) with the OFM’s. I think that claim about the Black Franciscans being given to luxury was mostly Brown Franciscan publicity material.  Trust me, the Brown Franciscans enjoy life and not at its most simple.  I must admit that I have always preferred the Brown Franciscans but that is because I knew them growing up and they are a great group of guys and do some really fine work in their parishes, retreat centers, Colleges and Universities, and other ministries.  Their Church on 31st Street in New York and their Arch Street Church in Boston are real beacons of faith in those cities.  They also have custody of the Shrines in the Holy Land and I have always found a warm welcome there when I have been on pilgrimage.  I don’t begrudge them their single malts or aged beef. 
The Conventuals also do fine work and after Vatican II there were a lot of rumblings among the Conventuals about the need to return to Francis’ ideals.   Many of the Conventuals went back to a habit of rougher grey cloth, the original color of the Franciscan habit—the color of undyed wool.  Nevertheless, I remember one time visiting the Conventuals at the Sacro Convento in Assisi—the Church and monastery that mark the site of Francis’ burial.  It is a moving place to go and I have been there often.  I was standing in the courtyard with several friars and a large tanker truck pulled in and began discharging its contents into an underground storage tank.  I asked the friars if that was the heating oil for the winter.  Embarrassed, they replied no, it was their wine being delivered!  I had never seen wine coming in a tanker truck before!!!   At least you know that it would be the vin ordinaire and not a vintage.  In the same Sacro Convento, the story goes, Pope John was being shown around when he took that memorable trip to Assisi in 1962—the first time the Pope had left Rome in over a century.  Of course when the Pope comes everyone is always anxious to impress him and the Pope was being taken through the ancient monastery with the many treasures that had been left as gifts at Francis’ tomb.  Brought into one particularly sumptuous parlor, John has been said to have exclaimed: “Don’t tell me, I know this one—this is the room where Lady Poverty died.”  I am sure that Francis would have seen the Lady Poverty soon followed him to the grave but then Francis, while a saint, had been given to extremes.  Naked to follow the Naked Christ—a beautiful ideal but charity is the greatest gift of all and my experience is that the Franciscans, of whatever stripe, are greatly given to charity.   Well, no, I do have one exception to that rule and he is rather famous—but that is for another posting. 
Well, by and large, the Franciscans in all their branches have taken Vatican II and its call to return to the charism of the founder seriously.  In 1970 a group of Conventuals in the Naples region of Italy, inspired by Saint Maximilian Kolbe, a Conventual Franciscan who gave his life for another prisoner at Auschwitz,  and Saint Maximilian’s devotion to the Immaculate Conception, began a reform in their monastery at Frigento.   Their goal was to lead a Marian life—that is a life in imitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.   Fathers Stefano Maria Manelli and Gabriel Maria Pellettieri were the leaders of this movement. 
For reasons that I cannot discover, 30 friars at Frigento and in the Philippines separated themselves from the Conventual Franciscans and started a new congregation of diocesan right (under the local bishop) in 1990.  A sisterhood for women desiring to lead this Franciscan/Marian/Kolbe way of life was established about the same time.  in 1998 these  two communities were made “of pontifical right”—that is responsible to the Holy See, not the local bishop. 
This new Congregation—technically they are not an “Order,” but a “Congregation” (only the communities founded in the Middle Ages such as the Augustinians, Dominicans, Carmelites, Franciscans are Orders; groups founded later—even if they are tied to one of the ancient Orders—are Societies or Congregations)—has found a strong appeal among arch-conservative factions of the faithful.  This is probably due to a number of factors—their strong Marian emphasis, their traditional habit, their ties to Saint Maximilian Kolbe among other reasons.  They seem to be a sound group of religious who are conservative but not off the wall.  A sign of their health is that after forty years they only number about 400 friars and 400 sisters.  This is a good growth rate, a healthy growth rate, but it shows that they are making wise selections in their membership and not open to every nut case who comes along as some of the neo-trad sisterhoods.  Several religious order vocation directors have told me that they turn down nine out of ten applicants because the candidates are not psychologically or spiritually balanced.  Unfortunately, these directors have told me, some of these candidates then apply to dioceses and are accepted to be diocesan priests.  It is obvious that the Franciscans of the Immaculate must be exercising some discretion in their recruiting to have a slow but very steady rate of vocations.  It also says that their formation program must be very sound.
I am not sure what provoked this dispute among them over which Rite to follow in the Mass but an exclusive use of the Tridentine Rite would probably be disastrous both for their ties with the laity and for vocations.  It seems that only between 2 and 4 percent of practicing Catholics are interested in returning to the pre-conciliar rites.  For the Franciscans of the Immaculate to give themselves entirely, or even predominately to these rites would cut off vocations and benefactors.  And while one has no idea how Saint Maximilian Kolbe would feel about the new rites had he lived to see them, they certainly embody the spirit of Saint Francis who was interested in how to evangelize those on the margins of the Church and used many popular techniques, new and innovative to his day, to bring the faith to them.    

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