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franciscan - January 1997

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1996

Why They Left

By Brother Michael SSF

On my desk is a group photograph. It has been there ever since it was taken in January 1969. It shows the novices and postulants gathered at Hilfield for their first conference after I became Minister Provincial. Of the twenty-seven brothers, twelve remained in the Society, of which six have died. What happened to the others? Why did they leave?

There are also four sisters in the picture, of whom one died, one is in the USA, and the other two left. It was, at that time, a daring innovation to have them there at all! But I shall not be so presumptuous as to say why the sisters left for the dynamics of men’s and women’s communities, despite similarities, are different.

Perhaps I should start to answer our question by reminding you of the process by which a man becomes a brother. It can take a long time – up to ten years – for a brother is not fully a member until he is Life Professed. There are three stages leading to that commitment, during all of which he is free to leave.

First, he is admitted as a postulant, a period of up to a year, to accustom him to our way of life. When thought ready, the Novice Guardian recommends him to the Minister to become a Novice, under a vow of Obedience. During that time, as in the postulancy, he is free to leave.

After three years as a novice, he is professed, formally taking the three vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. The intention is for life but this too must have a period of testing, between three and seven years, according to the needs of the individual.

Then come the Life Vows, a solemn commitment in the presence of the Bishop Protector, the vows taken for the rest of the brother’s life. This is obviously a very serious decision, but even from these vows there can be dispensation but it requires the express permission of the Archbishop of Canterbury, after authority has been given by the Community Chapter and the Bishop Protector. This is allowed for by a phrase used in the ceremony when the vows are taken: “unless for reasons hidden in the will of God you are released from your vows by it lawful authorities.”

This is no ‘escape clause’: it acknowledges that there can be developments in the spiritual life which lead to changes in all aspects of a brother’s life, something brought home to me last year, when one of the 1969 group of novices was released from his vows in March and married in September, after nearly thirty years in the Society! Attitudes to such a development have changed. Years ago, it would have been seen as shameful and a betrayal of Religious Life. Now there is much more understanding and, at Franciscan gatherings, there is often a sprinkling of ex-brothers with their wives or partners and children, knowing that they did the right thing in leaving.

From time to time, there are those too who look back and wonder whether it was a mistake. Certainly, time in the Society is acknowledged as leaving an indelible mark on all the men and women who join it.

So why did they leave? In the postulancy and noviciate, the withdrawal is not usually so much to do with the vows, but more the question of living in a close-knit community. There can be a romantic illusion of liberty and freedom, an opportunity for prayer, a shared enthusiasm, an identity of purpose which makes the enforced rules, use of time and common life an adventure. It wears off. Learning to live with the eccentricities of others, to endure what begins to appear as trivial and inhibiting restrictions, is another matter and can lead to disillusionment.

The progress of each novice is carefully monitored to see if he has a true vocation and whether it fits with SSF’s vision. Sometimes as a result novices are asked or guided to leave. Only after much heart-searching will a Novice Guardian recommend that a novice is not suitable, but it does happen.

Those who leave at a later stage, after first profession, often have more complex reasons. The very act of taking vows with a life intention can be a catalyst to realising that the life of a friar is not for them. There was a time (despite what was said to the contrary) when vows could be a restriction on emotional growth. Obedience meant you did what you were told, without question. Now the freedom to question and be markedly part of decision-making has changed all that. There was a time too when money and finance were never discussed. That is now different and the Vow of Poverty is given much wider terms of reference. The same is true of sexuality in all its aspects. Once it was suppressed; now celibacy is discussed with an openness which is entirely new.

Taking vows today therefore can encourage, rather than inhibit, areas of personal growth. They emphasise them in a way not experienced before. It is increasingly difficult to use Religious Life as a path of avoidance, as in years gone by. Being challenged in the context of a group living together can mean a brother grows out of what he thought was his vocation. Many leave to marry or explore relationships. Others desire the chance to manage their own resources, whilst another group discover a new rôle – as a social worker or parish priest – which he feels he can fulfil outside the structures of obedience. He needs to make his decisions individually rather than as part of a group.

Those who are dispensed from Life Vows are fewer in number and follow no fixed pattern. Some might be thought to have a ‘mid-life crisis’, but this is too easy a description. There can be, however, a turning-point in their lives: “too late to turn back, too fearful to go on”, a spiritual and emotional crisis related to physical and emotional change. It can be a crucial stage of growth and those who have the courage find new life beyond it.

For some, it is because they feel the community has changed and, though we would like to think that the Franciscan spirit of the community remains the same, there have been changes in our Rule and Constitution. So they say: ‘This is not the community I joined’. They leave in some pain, for them and us, in relation to constitutional changes or radical rethinking of the Society’s life. This was particularly true in the 1960’s when changes were dramatic and far-reaching. For some, the change in old structures and ways of life and prayer laid bare the roots of their beliefs. In trying to adjust, they lost their faith, or their vocations to SSF.

And when they have left, what do they do? The answer is rather reassuring. The majority go into ‘caring’ professions: the probation service, nursing, counselling, hospices, teaching, the ordained ministry. There are former brothers and sisters caring for people with AIDS, teaching the deaf, helping the severely handicapped, and so on. It reflects a contribution made by the Society to the Church and the world. In the economy of God, nothing is lost. §


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