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franciscan - May 1996

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1996

Sharing the Franciscan Way

Some Franciscan Tertiaries share their search

In response to the Third Order Chapter’s invitation to consider mission, the Tertiary group in South Gloucestershire devoted some time to this issue. Some had been on parish missions with the First Order and reported that such events certainly strengthened, enthused and informed the faithful regulars, but felt they did little beyond the small fringe of the Church. As ever, new ways of evangelising were mentioned, which prompted the question, ‘Can our Franciscan family come up with mission ideas to meet the times, as they are a-changing?’

The Church Pastoral Aid Society’s four three-day events, spread over two years was mentioned, but it was the Alpha Course and its well-documented effectiveness in bringing new and fringe people to faith which was foremost in people’s minds. One member had had experience of the warm fellowship of the Roman Catholic Catechumenate Movement in the United States, which is having a powerful effect.

We fed back these considerations to the Third Order Committee on Mission; Elisabeth Stirling replied encouraging us to develop our ideas more concretely, whilst reminding us that there were others working on modifications or alternatives to the Alpha Course. This got us thinking: was it really an alternative Alpha that we Franciscans should create or was it something much wider? In a subsequent discussion with Brother Bernard (at that time, vice-Chairman of the Board of Mission), three issues emerged:

First, whom would we be seeking to involve?
Second, were we more interested in content or process?
Third, where do we stand in the experience > content versus content > experience debate?

Whom do we seek to involve?

If it is mission we are involved in, what is the Franciscan mode? Francis, above all, met people where they were. In the story of Brother Leper, Francis came down from his high horse into the ditch to lift up the leper, kiss him and call him brother. This is a clear reflection of the incarnate Christ kissing our humanity by coming among us, and it is a powerful image. But Francis also came to people in the market place, in their homes, in cathedrals, in their crusading armies and, even through the iron curtain, to the tents of the Sultan in the midst of the Moslem forces. It began with relationship, friendship, respect, trust, being alongside, not above. At the same time, Francis’s writings, rooted in the gospels and in the teaching of the Church, show that he had a strong orthodox message about sin and penance, gospel and grace, and Church and sacraments. These were at the centre of his understanding of belonging and individuality, and of knowing and doing.

In all sorts of way, by vocation and by necessity, Franciscans today are alongside people, many of whom are alienated or indifferent to the Church. They recognise that many such people are anxious to address questions about meaning, purpose and direction. These questions apply not just to themselves, but also to those to whom they relate, often in a puzzling and distressing way, and to our society in its post-modernist vacuum. And also, how do these questions of meaning, purpose and direction apply to the world with its injustices in distribution of goods, its ecological minefields and its bewildered cynicism and angst?

For all that, few of these people are going to turn to a ‘Francis Course’ unless some need or some attraction draws them. All the research shows that only if Church-committed people believe in a Church activity - and find that it works for them - are they comfortable in inviting others to it. So could we come up with a module, course or activity which Church people feel they own and are so excited about that they will want to draw in those beyond the Church community? This insight has long been acknowledged in Franciscan parish mission work, and we know that the open house meetings, where we ask churchgoers to invite neighbours and friends to a one-off, free discussion are effective. Bernard reminded us of a recent mission where, in the Arts Centre Theatre, there was a very good bar, and people did stay on to talk after the visual, musical and verbal presentations. However, although these presentations were aimed at the non-churched, few - other than reluctant spouses or hopeful fiancés - came along. Somehow, this strategy for reaching beyond the Church did not bring in the outsiders.

Yet this ‘reaching beyond’ ingredient needs to stay prominent in mission strategy. Do we not, therefore, need to rethink how reaching out can be achieved effectively in the present climate? One of the main problems of our time is a lack of knowledge of Christian fundamentals, not only in society in general but also within the Church community itself. It has been said that we have moved, in the last thirty years or so, from ‘Is it true?’ to ‘Does it work?’ to ‘Does it feel right?’, and certainly today’s marketing processes give great emphasis to packaging and advertising. ‘The medium is the message’ has been a catch phrase in Christian circles, begging the question: what is the message we have to share?

Content and Process

The Alpha course has a very clear conceptual message: who was Jesus?; why did he die?; what must I do? All get sharp, snappy answers with Biblical references. But is it that which sells Alpha in our society or is it the medium - that is, the friendship, the meal, the lively modern address or video, the coffee and question-time, the away-day or weekend and the rest of the carefully-devised process? This raises two thorny questions.

First, what is essential in our Franciscan message?:
- the sacramental nature of the world as an icon of God’s glory, shown supremely in Jesus;
- the Eucharist, with its taking, blessing, breaking and giving;
- the living this out as the body of Christ dispersed among the people around us.

Second, what sort of process are we looking for?:
- a twelve-to-fourteen week parish course, preceded by a simple meal, with live or media presentations followed by a question time, and including a weekend away (the Alpha process);
- a series of modules for parish weekends dealing with such issues as living in a sacramental universe, and the Eucharist as the pattern for living, and the Church as the body of Christ in the world, and the place of prayer;
- patterns for one-off events, such as parish retreats and quiet days;
- other processes altogether.

Experience first or Teaching first?

We need - and would welcome - feedback from our readers in order to develop these ideas. One of the big issues addressed by contemporary education theories is: should we begin with our life experience and work back to Christian doctrine or the other way around? Now that we can no longer assume that people are familiar with Christian basics, formal instruction may be a necessary preliminary. But unless people can see that it ties in with other experience, why should they want to know about such things? Courses and programmes already in use offer various mixes of experience and content which amount to little more or less than the classical circular pattern of ‘act > reflect > decide > act’.

Mission programmes need to discover where each person’s starting point is, if they are to involve them. We Franciscans need to sharpen our understanding of the content of our faith and find appropriate ways to share it with our generation. In the end, the mystery of God is beyond knowledge, except through the disclosing work of the Spirit who shows us Jesus Christ, God incarnate. We shall never get God taped. Francis said, “Some read the gospels to be esteemed for knowledge. We read the gospels to do them.”

We began with our response to the challenge which was made to the Third Order about mission. In that response, we have a vision of all three Orders working together, along with our other readers, producing material which can help us, our parishes and beyond to gain confidence and energy for sharing the faith. There is room for imagination and initiative. We are depending on you to contribute your ideas and comments. Please write to:
Brother Bernard SSF, 10 Halcrow Street, London E1 2EP
who has said he would be happy to hear from you. Our Franciscan fellowship is a rich tapestry of experience and ideas, and what we create together could be life-giving
. f

 

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