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franciscan - September 2001

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2001

Franciscan Studies at Canterbury

By Wayne Martin SSF

Between September and December of last year, our attitude to and experience of living community was challenged in an exciting way. Nine of us, First and Third Order Anglican Franciscans, spent the Michaelmas term studying at the International Franciscan Study Centre in Canterbury. We were not fully aware of what to expect, but were hopeful of good things, and that our horizons might be broadened and commitment deepened.

Saint Francis, who saw the accumulation of books as threatening poverty, nonetheless said, ‘I am pleased that you are teaching sacred theology to the brothers, so long as this kind of study as our Rule has it, does not extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion’ (Letter to Saint Anthony).

At the Study Centre, study, prayer and devotion go hand in hand, inseparably linked and bound together. Students are offered a wide variety of courses, and in one term we were only able to explore a few of these.

Sister Margaret McGrath FMSJ provided us with a fascinating overview of the major events and trends of the Franciscan movement, from the time of Saint Francis to the present. We had not realised that history could be so exciting or so important for understanding present positions and attitudes. We brothers and sisters of SSF were invited to give a presentation of the origins and revival of the Religious life in the Anglican Church, of our own history and present life and apostolate. This was greatly appreciated by the other students, helping to build up understanding and mutual respect.

The course on ‘Bonaventure: the origins of Franciscan theology’ was given by Brother Paul Rout OFM, the distinguished Bonaventure scholar. This helped us to realise the greatness and vastness of Saint Bonaventure’s thought and theology, and his skill at presenting Saint Francis in a new light. The life of Francis is presented as a treatise on mystical theology, with Francis becoming an icon of Christ.

Brother Noel Muscat OFM explored with us the Franciscan sources of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, of which there are many. In a series of fascinating lectures he showed us how these sources and their interaction played a significant rôle in the unfolding of Franciscan history during the Order’s first two centuries.

In a series of contemplative and devotional reflections, Brother Austin McCormack OFM, the English Minister Provincial, helped us to see afresh that the Franciscan spirit is centred on the Incarnation of Christ, manifested in his life, death and resurrection. Prayer, centred on the Word made flesh, overflows with love for our neighbours and all creation.

Brother Seamus Mulholland OFM invited us to explore what it means to be Franciscan today. The Franciscan charism is attractive and challenging. Saint Francis’ message of fraternity with Christ holds out hope to a world so often lacking it.

Throughout the course we were impressed by the sheer professionalism of the lecturers and also by their humility and generosity. We came away equipped with rich resources for many years of Franciscan study and living.

After a short time, our perspective changed from looking inwards, as the nine of us established our temporary community, to looking out around us. Other people from different congregations were looking at us: a meeting was taking place. In some cases, this was the first time that Roman Catholics had encountered Anglican Religious or even realised such Orders existed. Alongside this, however, were many moments of surprise at the similarities between us, in terms of our aspirations and practice. It was through such encounter that we began to see beyond the boundaries of our community. The Society of Saint Francis has its own distinctive identity and history, yet it is also an evolution of the one heritage. Despite the varying charisms that developed, they all derive from Saint Francis who is also the inspiration for growth.

Within the eight hundred years of Franciscan experience, SSF is a very young community. At the time of our initial formation, such expressions of the Christian life within the Anglican Church were treated with caution and sometimes hostility by many people. To this day, there are Anglicans who do not know that the Religious Life is an integral part of our church. This is in contrast with Roman Catholic Christians who are, as a matter of course, more aware and accepting of Religious Life within the church. We Anglican Religious have that experience of evolution to share, to offer as an expression of that living, Franciscan charism. Also, we have much we can learn from awareness of the long, rich evolution of Franciscan congregations within the Roman Catholic Church, especially the stability and continuity that lies at the heart of their structure and experience of church. We hope that our ‘Franciscan adventure’, free of many years of canonical law and custom, has something to offer in return.

In the worldwide Franciscan movement, we stand alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ in the Roman Catholic Church. We are not exactly the same, but neither are we something new. We are an evolution, a constituent part of a whole. For many students from overseas, our presence amongst them was the first time they witnessed that Anglicans claim the same, albeit reformed, catholic, apostolic and sacramental tradition as themselves. Coming together daily and being able to share the offering of the Eucharist but not sharing the communion, highlighted the often painful difference that exists between us. But that difference also calls us to see that as Franciscans we are in a privileged position to be agents of ecumenism. Fraternity means working towards the time when we can all be one.

As well as the opportunity to study, the Canterbury experience provided a place of meeting for the greater mutual understanding and unity between the two communions. A desire for a more perfect unity naturally springs from the shared awareness of what we hold in common, our roots as Franciscans. f


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