ROLE OF THE ASSISTANT IN THE MEETING
Helen Jarick, National Councillor SFO - Oceania
As a Secular Franciscan, looking around this room today, seeing representatives of all our Spiritual Assistants, I am reminded of the words of St. Peter, "Master, how good it is that we are here!" There is no doubt that, in organising this Seminar, considerable thought was given in choosing the presenters. However, I suspect had my full history been available, someone else could well be speaking to you today.
Over twenty years ago, my husband was invited to the SFO meetings at Mt. Alverna, Wahroonga, by a charming Irishman, who was discerning whether or not to join the SFO. They did attended meetings at Mt. Alverna, but soon decided to stop first at the local pub on their way home from work, at which point I was invited along to pick them up (purely as a driver), but ended up staying for the meeting rather than having to return again to collect them later. The Holy Spirit works in strange ways, because neither one of them was professed and, here I am currently serving on both the National and Regional Executives.
In reflecting on the various Spiritual Assistants who have been part of my Franciscan journey, I realised that the first left the Order, the next left Australia, several have died and, when I eventually moved to the Conventual parish in Kellyville, Fr. Maximilian Bolobanski left for Bulgaria and the Fraternity ceased to meet! To be honest, this did take a number of years, during which Fr. Gabriel Doheny accepted the position of Spiritual Assistant, attended two meetings, and then moved to Melbourne. The fact that he is now Custos General of the Order in Australia does serve as some consolation.
My entrance into the Order was shortly after what was then referred to as "the new Rule", now celebrating 25 years since its approval. At that time, Spiritual Assistants were friars, very much "Spiritual Directors" and our meetings were entirely different to what they are today. Some years ago, Fr. Matthias Murphy OFM Cap., gave an excellent talk, in which he questioned whether or not the SFO was a "cosy club". In those days, our Fraternity meetings certainly were. It was so relaxing to attend a meeting where Father gave us a talk, to which we all listened avidly. There was some general business and spiritual reading, that was followed by discussion, but (hard as it is to believe these days) I cannot remember ever saying a word.
Life in every aspect is very different to what it was in 1978, but, although the tide may be different, it is important that all members of the SFO recognise that our Spiritual Assistant remains a very much valued and necessary member of each Fraternity. Still, the change has been slow and at times difficult. As recently as 1996, Fr. Carl Schafer addressed this in an article for CIOFS under the title, "Director or Assistant?", in which he pointed out the problems that existed when a Spiritual Assistant still assumed the role of Director of the Third Order rather than Assistant to the SFO.
The problem was not only with the Assistants. This confusion extended to the SFO Fraternities who failed to appreciate the vital role of the Assistant. I recall attending a meeting in the early 1990's when a newly appointed Spiritual Assistant had prepared a reflection to share, but was told, "No, Father, as Spiritual Assistant you don't have an active role in the Fraternity", and was forced to sit down, notes in hand. On another occasion, at which I was a visitor to the meeting, less than five minutes before conclusion, the Minister turned to the Spiritual Assistant and said, "Do you have anything to add before the closing prayer?" On both occasions, when approached, the Ministers' comments were that, since the Rule, the Spiritual Assistant was not an active member of the Fraternity, but a representative of St. Francis. We may just as well have had a plaster statue of St. Francis sitting in the corner. Even today, I cringe at the memory.
To use the words of an old Cat Stevens song "We've come a long way", so that, hopefully, in 2003 these problems have ceased to exist, and we all understand the importance of each member of our Fraternity, including the Spiritual Assistant, and the integral role and pastoral care he or she provides.
As you are all aware, the Conference of General Ministers of the Franciscan First Order and the TOR has approved Statutes for Spiritual and Pastoral Assistance to the Secular Franciscan Order. It is encouraging to read, in Article 2.3: "The purpose of spiritual assistance is to foster communion within the Church and with the Franciscan Family through witness and sharing of Franciscan spirituality, to cooperate in initial and ongoing formation of secular Franciscans, and to express the fraternal affection of the religious towards the SFO."
While this is particularly directed towards Spiritual Assistants, the same should apply to us all. We share our Franciscan vocation as well as the responsibility to assist and cooperate in formation, rather than leave this to an individual Formator. Fraternal affection towards all members is essential to the life of any Fraternity. Obviously, meetings are now conducted by fraternity Ministers. Decisions are made by the Council, but the Spiritual Assistant plays a vital part in animating the Fraternity. As an example, I refer to St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians: "We are simply God's servants, by whom you were led to believe. Each one of us does the work which the Lord gave him to do: I planted the seed, Apollos watered the plant, but it was God who made the plant grow". St. Paul concludes: "For we are partners working together for God, and you are God's field".
We come to our meetings as brothers and sisters to listen to the words of the Gospel and St. Francis, participate in discussion and express our opinions. The presence and sharing of our Spiritual Assistant enhances these discussions and will often assist our understanding of what we have read. Dialogue will always be a vital part of every SFO meeting.
No doubt, Fr. Tony will share with you our experience in inviting members of our parish to information evenings, so that we may once again have an active Fraternity in Kellyville. We hope in time to extend this to other parishes in our area. Without his enthusiasm, our group would never have got underway, but now we are meeting regularly and are ready to receive five candidates, while others have expressed interest and will hopefully join us soon. We do this together, with both Fr. Tony and myself doing the same readings and answering the questions, obviously allowing each of us to share the journey, presenting us with the opportunity to start once more, as Francis had suggested to his followers.
However, rather than quote Francis or scripture, I would like to conclude with what, to me is appropriate at Kellyville and, hopefully, may be to others. At the beginning of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien writes, "That which was once thought to have been lost, has now been found".
May we all, as brothers and sisters in Francis and Clare, never cease to travel forward in our journey - together.