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franciscan - May 2004

The Society of Saint Francis, 2004

Minister's letter

Brother Samuel SSF Minister Provincial of the First Order Brothers, European Province, writes: 

We are becoming used to the idea that religious communities are 'struggling'.  Reduced vocations and ageing members seem to be the norm for the majority of communities, and the First Order of SSF is no exception.  While it's not the topic of every conversation, it's there in the back of our minds - a nagging anxiety that this is the way things are going.  Religious Life is on the way out. 

I'm not so sure.  My scepticism is based on what I've seen of our Franciscan brothers in the Pacific Islands, growing in numbers and in confidence.  It arises from what we've heard from Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America - of Anglican Franciscan life springing up, self-igniting as it were.  And, if it's argued that these are in 'developing situations' rather than in the tired old world of western culture, then I would point to the flourishing ecumenical monastery at Bose in northern Italy which some of us visited in February.  I would talk about the Monastic Family Fraternity of Jesus in Florence and south of Rome where contemplative prayer is combined with active ministry among the most marginal.  I would tell of The Order of Mission based in a rapidly growing new church in Sheffield.  There are many other examples.

The fact is that Religious Life is in a process of renewal and transformation - in a big way.  The Holy Spirit is at work and new forms of life are emerging just as they have always done throughout the history of the Church.  While there is no 'key to success' in this process there are a few threads which seem to run through what's happening.  The first is an engagement with the scriptures.  Avoiding biblical fundamentalism on the one hand and a dry intellectualism on the other there is a rediscovery of the monastic practice of lectio divina - reading, reflecting on and praying the scriptures, both individually and corporately, under the guidance of the Spirit.  This is what we saw at Bose and heard about from communities elsewhere.

A second thread is a return to the tradition; not just to the 'charism of the founder' as we were encouraged to seek out a generation ago, but to the accumulated wisdom of religious life as lived by the fathers and mothers, the brothers and sisters in eastern and western churches over the centuries.  I find it fascinating that Christians belonging to a burgeoning charismatic-evangelical church should be led to take on promises of simplicity, purity and accountability - sounds familiar?

A third common thread in this renewal is the willingness of communities to think and act creatively and imaginatively both about patterns of life and prayer and also about work and ministry.  One of the exciting things about the new Franciscan communities in Brazil is that they are not copying our SSF structures but are trying to find their own way of being brothers and sisters in the Franciscan tradition.

So are we on the way out?  I don't think so. f


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