PROFILE OF THE ASSISTANT OF THE OFS FRATERNITIES
Carl Schafer OFM
The Seminar will necessarily treat of some juridical aspects of spiritual assistance but not as much as in our seminar last year. Our attention will be drawn also to some pastoral aspects, which necessarily involve the Assistant as a person and make demands on his personality. In the first place, he is to be "suitable" (Rule 26). When appointing Assistants, priority is to be given to "the witness of life and to the capacity to communicate Franciscan spirituality" (cf. Stats.Assist. 8).
I would like to concentrate now on personal aspects of the friar Spiritual Assistant, who is the subject of this seminar. What I’ll say now applies to the Spiritual Assistant at every level of SFO Fraternity, and almost entirely to non-friar Assistants as well.
The main principle of spiritual assistance is indicated as "life-giving union with one another" (Rule 1) in the Franciscan Family. Spiritual assistance is "a fundamental element of communion" (Gen.Const. 89.1). This communion fostered by the Assistant brings about a sharing of life with one another so that the friars share their Franciscan life with the Secular Franciscans and vice versa, and every member of the OFS Fraternity identifies with all the others. The Assistant has an important part in bringing that about.
The keynote of this seminar is: What sort of person must the Assistant be in order to foster such "life-giving union" and "communion"? What sort of person can be fully involved, interested and committed to the Secular Franciscan Order, but at the same time refrain from intervening in inappropriate ways? The Handbook should help us there. What kind of person can function collegially, that is, work in a team, not just as an individual, however brilliant and outstanding. Who can work through dialogue rather than by imposing himself on the other Assistants or on the Secular Franciscans?
PROFILE OF THE ASSISTANT ... WHO IS HE?
It is quite a difficult and a delicate task to trace the profile of the "suitable"Assistant of the Secular Franciscan Order. No one is perfect or ideal. One naturally brings his own personality into every activity. However, let us attempt to outline certain traits of his portrait. No one responds totally to the profile; just think of the portrait of the perfect Friar Minor! Francis drew on the best qualities of ten friars (cf. Mirror of Perfection, 85) . However, this profile may help us all to improve our manner of living this fraternal service.
The term "Assistant" replaces the term "Director", which needs to be expunged from our thinking, speaking and acting. However, not everyone is satisfied with the term "Assistant". Some within the OFS underscore its ambiguity: "Who needs ‘to be assisted’?" However, it seems to be the least unsuitable term, especially if we put aside every shade of condescension and try to consider the term in its Latin derivation: "adsistere", which means "to stand beside", "to help", not far from the idea "to accompany".
Someone very human
This means someone in touch with real-life situations, someone able to perceive what makes up the life of a man, of a woman, of a couple in this world. Not only is he not indifferent towards the realities of human life, but he always wants to face up to them, to see them better still and to grapple with them. Being celibate religious, our experience is not theirs, and we will have to be modest in front of what will always remain relatively unknown and not easily accessible to us.
He is aware of his limitations, and this allows him to understand others better. Here discretion proves to be an indispensable quality, which goes hand in hand with respect for others.
He is no stranger to human suffering. He recognizes the desire to live and the joy in living of those whose lives he shares.
Witness of the faith
Everyone expects him to be a man of faith, close to created realities, sensitive to the different ways of living the Faith and of expressing it. However, faith-sharing doesn’t come easily to many of us.
He allows indwelling grace to show through him in his own way. In a spirit of gospel freedom, he shares with his brothers and sisters his convictions, searching, doubts and struggles. Every Assistant can attest that, while accompanying a Fraternity, he has been affirmed and enlightened in his faith by the attentive and kind presence of one or other member.
Without being the exclusive Franciscan model that everyone concentrates on, he too, for his part, is a witness and guarantor of the Franciscan charism, with its particular gospel emphases: a sense of giving freely, attention to those most in need, service of peace, attachment to the Church.
He discovers each one's gifts, and helps the group to discover them, thus favouring mutual acknowledgement.
II. HIS PRESENCE WITHIN THE GROUP
The Assistant's position within a group follows essentially on these three characteristics. Since he is very human, a witness to the Faith and Franciscan, what the majority expects of him - implicitly or explicitly, some clearly, others unconsciously - is the strong presence of one who is truly a brother, who lives his Faith in the family of Saint Francis.
He is not "the" leader nor is he the head man
The Secular Franciscan Order, part of the great movement of lay awareness initiated by the Second Vatican Council, has taken note of this new reality, which nevertheless is far from having passed into the life of each Franciscan group. So it is necessary that the Assistant have his place within the Fraternity and its Council. He is not a member of the secular Fraternity, but he is a member of the Fraternity Council and Executive, and should give his full attention to the meetings.
One of the things that the Gospel insists upon and to which the Assistant must bear witness is the refusal to exercise power and domination, a refusal so dear to Francis.
He is a spiritual animator but not the only one
If the Assistant has the quality of being a good group animator, he will be able to help one or other member of the Fraternity to acquire this gift and the necessary techniques. But it is not for him to monopolize this role. Animation could be on a rotating basis, being assigned now to one, now to another, with the Assistant taking his turn along with the rest, without pre-eminence. It helps greatly if he knows something of group dynamics and about training leaders.
A group animator is, indeed, led to arbitrate certain decisions during stormy sessions or controversies; however, it would be regrettable for all if the Assistant had always to make these judgments. He is rightfully a full member of a discussion, with his own weight and personality, also with his particular experience, but he is not to be the one who cuts off discussion and makes a decision.
It should be noted, however, that in certain situations the Assistant can be called on to fill a vacancy. A few examples will suffice to illustrate this point:
* When a new group gets together, created as though "from nothing". Thus, in a small town, a couple who have received an inquiry can find themselves, all at once, the pivot of a group of ten or a dozen persons wanting to know about this way of life and to share in it. If need be, this couple will be happy to appeal to an Assistant who knows how to get the group started.
* In other cases, he himself will have to be the initiator to create a new group, or to favour the separation of a group that has become too numerous, into two groups which will be able to welcome new members.
In a more traditional type of fraternity, he will try to make the whole fraternity progressively more open, e.g., open to having new members, open to a more suitable place or time for meeting. It goes without saying that this cannot take place unless the Assistant is convinced of the solid grounds of this wider openness.
But sometimes a "catalyst"
While being true to himself, especially in the awareness of his limitations, the Assistant is occasionally led to play the role of a "catalyst".
In the first place, at the moment when "people are no longer listening", he can foster dialogue between two persons who are at loggerheads. In a lively Fraternity, confrontations are not rare; they can become enriching insofar as, eventually, each makes the effort to meet more than half-way the one with whom he is in disagreement. The Assistant can favour this meeting, and he is sometimes the only one who can do so.
Again, it sometimes happens that there is no lack of brain-stormers within a group, but that they cannot put their ideas into practice. Something was settled, but nothing has changed; or something was debated, but no decision was reached. At this moment, a wide-awake Assistant will know, perhaps by a discreet intervention, how to crystallize what everyone has at heart and direct them to action.
More a "counsellor"
Because of his particular formation, the Assistant often risks being considered an expert in theology and Franciscanism. However, more and more lay people are acquiring biblical, theological and Franciscan competence. So then it does not seem that this role within a Franciscan group should revert as a priority to the Assistant. If he must retain it, he should realize that he is filling a vacancy from which he cannot and ought not shy away, but that an equivalent mission could be carried out by another member of the group.
What everyone expects of him is that he direct the interior eye of each one towards that which is perhaps more in keeping with the gospel and the Franciscan spirit. At the right moment, he will know how to indicate the course that can be taken to delve more deeply into the question under discussion or to shed more light on it.
Or, more exactly, one who helps to "see clearly", to discern
But what advice should he give? When important difficulties must be faced, who dares to give advice?
Rather than be lavish with advice, the Assistant can provide efficacious help for discerning choices and for a better view of the situation. His role could be that of fixing the spotlight on a dark area. More easily than any of the other brothers and sisters, he can draw attention to a sensitive point or to a Franciscan emphasis that has somewhat been forgotten. This can become a major mission for him.
This role of the Assistant goes far beyond the time of the meetings and of group gatherings. Of necessity, he brings the cares of each one before the Lord and, in various circumstances, he will be questioned by one or another in particular. There again, he will have to remember that he is the one who can become the revealer of God to the extent that he knows how to keep in the background and abandon his own personal views, to permit others to discover God's "plan".
Above all, a brother
This reality, to be really lived, presupposes that the members of the Fraternity and the friar Assistant have gradually, over a period of time and through shared experiences, been able to establish a relationship of great simplicity. In so far as the Assistant can allow himself discreetly to practise fraternal correction, it is desirable that his brothers and sisters be capable of practising the same in his regard, as a reciprocal service.