ROLE OF THE ASSISTANT IN THE MEETING
Anthony Fox OFMConv, National Assistant SFO - Oceania
I come to you today as the new kid on the block as I have not been a spiritual Assistant very long, as national, regional and local. I present these humble thoughts to many of you who have many years of experience and insight and to those who are also new. I hope that I can provide some ideas to take back to your fraternities. This will be a learning experience together.
As friars and religious, we bring to the local Fraternity the common lived experience of the Franciscan way of life. We attend the meetings to hear from the seculars their lived experience as they strive in the world out there, and so give powerful witness as lay men and women in the Church. St. Francis and St. Clare are our common models for living practically the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The new rule of the SFO has changed for the better the role of the spiritual Assistant, from Director of a Fraternity to a sharer in the common Franciscan life. We all, like Francis and Clare, seek continual conversion, and so we genuinely seek to deepen our faith, hope and charity as we move towards God. As spiritual Assistants, we, like Francis, have to ask the question he asked: "Lord, what do you want me to do?" The response came: "Go, repair my Church, which as you see is falling into ruins."
All Franciscans are called to repair the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church
is the people of God and, in a concrete sense, the Church on the local level for
us is the fraternity or the fraternities we serve.
The work of the spiritual Assistant is a call to service. The Church is ourselves, Christ united with his members. We are both the glory and the shame of the Church. As Franciscan religious and seculars, we are constantly called to conversion. We are all in this together, allowing God to reform and purify us in our meeting together.
Francis's prayer before the crucifix can open our hearts to the challenge to accept the call to conversion and to be the repairers we are meant to be: "Most high, glorious Lord, enlighten the darkness of my mind, and give me proper faith, firm hope and perfect charity with wisdom and perception, O Lord, so that I may do you holy and true command."
All of us in our profession, whether vowed or promised, have said yes to the opening words of our Rule: "to live the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ." The spiritual Assistant is to give guidance to the seculars in recognising that the gospel is not primarily a set of rules or just texts from scripture but it is about the person of and the relationship with Jesus Christ. It is the witness of living Jesus Christ in our personal lives. We are to assist the seculars in coming to know Jesus so that he becomes the centre and summit of one's life.
The spiritual Assistant needs to share the highlights of our Franciscan heritage and assist with the practical living of the presence of Jesus and our Christian faith in the world. Francis emphasized a spirit of intimacy with the Lord, a spirit of brotherly love, a spirit of service towards all, a spirit of simplicity and a constant change of heart. We constantly need to remind our fraternities of the threefold living of the secular Franciscan way of life:
1) a secular needs to live a life of holiness that is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.
2) gives other people both within and without the Church good example.
3) makes visible for others the Lord's offer of salvation. We must never
forget to remind our fraternities that it is the Holy Spirit who has given us
the gift of our call and the uniqueness of our charism.
The call was given to each of us at baptism and was strengthened at confirmation. We are constantly nourished through the Eucharist and called to penance and reconciliation. Living the holy gospel in the spirit of St. Francis according to each one's state in life and together with all other Franciscans is a response in faith to the call of the Holy Spirit.
It is important to animate among the members of the Fraternity the richness of our charism and the uniqueness of the secular Franciscan vocation. Without the Secular Franciscan Order, the special gift of Francis to the Church would be incomplete. As a spiritual Assistant, I have come to realize how vibrant the SFO can be, and I believe we cannot emphasize this enough, especially among the friars. I would like to see the SFO have more prominence in the wider Church, as it is the best-kept secret in the world and in the Church.
We need to encourage our Fraternities to manifest in a tangible way what Jesus would do, and to demonstrate it to the whole of humanity. This means bringing peace to people and drawing them to God by the lived reality of the gospel. This is the secular Franciscan mission, way of life, vocation. Our role as spiritual Assistants is to give ongoing formation. However, this is not accomplished quickly. It goes without saying that a member of the SFO has to be attracted to the same things that attracted Francis. The SFO is not a sodality, a prayer group, a discussion on faith group, or a pious organization. It is a lived reality. The ideals of St. Francis must speak to our hearts and resonate with us. Within the fraternity, all should be helping one another to grow closer to God in prayer, that allows the individual member to come to an awareness of what is the right thing and wrong thing to do in life.
The SFO, with the new Rule, has undergone much change from my time as a member of the SFO, when I was the youngest member at 17, the second youngest being 58. The spiritual Director who was a friar conducted the meeting. There was not much room for dialogue, but there was lovely conversation over the homemade scones, fresh cream and homemade jam, lamingtons, and a nice brewed cup of tea.
We are now sent to serve the Fraternities and appointed to be prophetic. We are to have a fraternal, pastoral, canonical and prophetic role. We are to foster the spiritual growth of the members. We are to keep the fraternity centred on Jesus Christ. We are to act as official witnesses of the Church at receptions and professions, since these are public and ecclesial acts. We also have a prophetic role to pray.
The heart of the Rule and spirituality of the SFO is contained in one simple sentence: "the secular Franciscans should devote themselves to careful reading of the gospel, going from the gospel to life and from life to the gospel" (Art. 4). What the Rule doesn't say is how the seculars are to do this in their everyday life. Who is to show them the way? This is the purpose the Spiritual Assistant, to give and to communicate to the members of the Fraternity the meaning of God's revelation and its relevance within their own lives. We need to be well prepared before we attend the Fraternity meeting. We need to challenge the members to be prophets themselves. A prophet is one who bears personal witness to the truth.
Francis' vision is ours, which is word and reality. The spiritual Assistant also needs to be the voice of conscience among seculars, reminding them that the Rule calls them "to build a more fraternal and evangelical world so that the kingdom of God may be brought about more effectively" (Art. 14). We need to be able to put Christ into focus. The SFO needs to be given the knowledge of how to be prophets themselves, and how to meet each day with the Scriptures in one hand and the Sydney Morning Herald in the other.
As a spiritual Assistant to a newly formed Fraternity, I have needed a greater sensitivity to each member's individual formation journey. We have some former members returning. We have one person who was a member in the UK thirty years ago, and we have some who are brand new, who responded to the promotion drive we had in the parish.
I need to recognize that each person's vocational journey and even initial discernment has both unique and shared aspects to it. We are making this journey together and we are not in a hurry as we recognize the seriousness and permanency of a lifelong commitment to live the gospel according to the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order.
One of my concerns and aspirations is how to make the best kept secret attractive to the young. Having spent a significant time in Assisi at the Basilica and seeing the young people come there in their thousands was a challenge to me as to how we attract young people to the Franciscan lifestyle as an alternative to their lifestyle choices.
I found in Assisi, and I believe it to be the same in Australia, that young people are yearning and searching for their call in life, but are not necessarily attracted to the priesthood and religious life. Their vocation is baptismal, that is, Christian and secular, which could have a Franciscan emphasis. We have diversity in our Franciscan vocations, but together we form an enormous Franciscan family. All vocations come from God, are holy and lead to holiness.
The late Pope Paul VI wrote prophetic words in his Evangelii nuntiandi in 1995, which I believe are more relevant today than when they were penned: "Lay people, whose particular vocation places them in the midst of the world and in charge of the most varied temporal tasks, must be for this very reason exercise a special form of evangelization. Their primary and immediate task is to put to use every Christian and evangelical possibility latent but already present and active in the affairs of the world. Their own field of evangelising activity is the vast and complicated world of politics, society and economics, but also the world of culture, of the sciences, and arts, of international life, of the mass media. It also includes other realities which are open to evangelization, such as love, family, the education of children and adolescents, professional work and suffering" (EN 70).
The recognition of the responsibility that belongs to the seculars should not turn into a passive attitude, on the part of the spiritual Assistants, of "leave it to them", but it should lead to an active attitude: to promote the secular vocation and co-operate with the seculars so that they will realize their proper mission.
I look forward to the growth of Fraternity, and I am humbled to assist in bringing Franciscan men and women to go from gospel to life and from life to the gospel. The way of living the gospel of Jesus Christ which Francis of Assisi chose to live out and observe, because of his call from God, and the way Franciscans down through the ages have chosen to continue, is now kept alive and made concrete in the three branches of the Franciscan family. Let us be grateful that we share this journey together.