Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas letter to the friars

1. the act or state of travelling from place to place.
2. persons, collectively, whose occupation obliges them to travel constantly.

May the Lord give you peace.

We are entering the season of Christmas, when we celebrate the coming of Christ, Who left his heavenly home to live and move among us. So I want to offer you a few thoughts concerning our ‘movability’.

The Exemplar of itinerancy

One can say that the biggest move of all is the Incarnation. From the heights of heaven the Son of God comes to the lowest places of the earth; from the unlimited life of divinity to finite and fragile humanity. True, He does not lose His divine nature in this ‘self-emptying’; but even in this there is a lesson for us – that we do not lose our true selves when we change our location, whatever else we may lose.

In the Franciscan tradition we contemplate the marvellous humility of God, in that the Lord of heaven and earth is laid in a manger, because there was no place for Him at the inn. Shortly thereafter, His parents had to flee with Him to Egypt. So even from His beginnings, He experienced some of that itinerancy He would model for us during His ministry. "The Son of Man," He said, "has nowhere to lay His head"(Matt 8:20).

Another saying of Jesus is particularly relevant, given our tendency to make the needs of ministry a reason not to move on: 'The people would have kept Him from leaving them; but He said to them, "I must preach the Good News of the Kingdom to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose"'(Luke 4:43).

The experience of itinerancy

As we complete the changes to our fraternities, it is a good time for all of us – whether we have moved or not – to reflect on the place of itinerancy in our Capuchin life. Each one of us has moved from one place to another during his time in the Order – from the novice who’s recently left the postulancy house and expects another move next year, to the old friar who’s moved umpteen times and now just hopes to be left in peace. We’re often told that the three most stressful experiences people can have are bereavement, divorce, and moving house. For us friars, moving house shouldn’t be quite as stressful as for others, because we don’t have so much to take with us. But it’s usually a challenge, nonetheless.

Moving house is an experience of loss: we leave behind friends, established ministries, and familiar surroundings. There’s also the challenge of the new: whether it’s new people, new ministries, or new surroundings. In the particular case of religious life, there’s often the added element that the move is unexpected or unwanted. I, for example, expected to be in Canterbury right now, pursuing Franciscan studies.

Everyone in a friary shares in the effects of itinerancy when brothers come and go. Even if particular individuals don't move, the fraternity moves around them. It’s often remarked that if you change one friar, you change the whole fraternity, the whole dynamic of the relationships in that house. For all of us, then – those who move and those who don’t – the itinerant element of our life involves the challenge of change.

The value of itinerancy

We can appreciate how our movability is of practical value for our ministry, in that it allows us to respond to changing circumstances and to accept new missions at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. I have heard of a friar describing the Capuchins as 'the paratroopers of the Church'. We are dropped into a new situation, do our mission, and then get out again.

PCO VII also linked itinerancy together with our formation in poverty and minority.  "Such a choice [of itinerancy] favours our life in fraternity and offers individual brothers the possibility of personal growth by enabling them to make new relationships and to assume new responsibilities"(PCO VII, 25.). Here, I think, we are coming to the nub of what itinerancy offers us. For just as our exterior poverty is worthless unless it leads to and is animated by that inner poverty we call minority, so physical itinerancy is worthless without an 'inner itinerancy', which is conversion.

"The concept of immovability is not simply physical" – and neither, therefore, is the concept of movability simply physical – "Immovability can be more ingrained in habitual ways of thinking and judging, which often become obstacles to genuine conversion"(PCO VII, 24). My itinerancy, on the other hand, provides opportunities for my conversion, and is (or should be) an expression of my desire for conversion.

The place of itinerancy in Capuchin tradition

The preceding reflections may help to solve a little puzzle about our Capuchin tradition. It is often observed, in the context of discussions about Capuchin itinerancy, that many of our great saints spent the majority of their lives in one place – St. Pio, for example, in San Giovanni di Rotondo, or St. Conrad in Altotting. Yet if the concept of itinerancy is not simply physical, but also and more importantly about walking the path of spiritual conversion, then it is evident these saints were very itinerant.

It’s also true that our saints had a deeply missionary spirit, and one practical upshot of my thoughts is this: I am quite willing to consider requests from any brothers who feel inspired to minister among the more newly-established churches – to go on the missions, in other words. We still have a comparatively high religious/priests-to-laity ratio in our part of the world, so we should be willing to help out our brothers and sisters who are not so richly blessed (Constitutions 176).

The Road goes ever on

I hope these reflections will be of use to you, even if only by prompting your own (and perhaps very different) reflections. Let us all, however, go forward in the grace we have received. This time of Christmas speaks to us of beginnings, so let us begin to serve the Lord, for up till now we have done little or nothing.

May the Babe of Bethlehem be born in you anew.

1 comment:

  1. I just discovered this blog, after just having conversed with a woman who spend half a year amongst Franciscans in Canterbury. We study Theology in Leuven now. Your theme of itinerancy hits close to home. On Christmas I pursued a similar theme on,
    I think you'll appreciate. The blog entry is called "A Song for Strangers".