17 January 2023

Building Community as Franciscan Friars

Unanimous. At our Custody Chapter last October, the friars voted in unison to adopt the Fraternal Life Project for all our communities. This was a dream come true for me, as I feel that my call as Custos is to strengthen the bonds of brotherhood by the grace of God. From this lived authentic relationship with one another, we can strengthen the way we reach out and serve God’s people and creation.

The inspiration for fraternity comes of course from St Francis of Assisi. In his Testament, which he dictated before he died, Francis said, “the Lord gave me some brothers”, thereby making the point that his radical way of life includes living and serving with brothers – brothers not of his choosing, but “given” by the Lord.

A Franciscan document on building fraternity entitled “You Are All Brothers” (2004) states, “to say that the brother is a present from the Lord, is to say that the brother is not without purpose, is not cost effective or productive, or functional or negotiable. The friars are to love the brothers more than a mother loves her own son or daughter. So the friars are there to give birth to other friars.”

This is a very profound insight of Francis: that being a brother to one another is to give birth, to give life to brothers.

The document says this form of fraternity is “to proclaim that the centre of all is in the interpersonal relationship of the friars among themselves. It is to underline that the friars are brothers if they have relationships amongst themselves and in the measure that they have them. It is to state that reciprocity is the constitutive principle of the fraternity, understood as relationship between brothers”.

In simple terms, a Franciscan Friar who is not committed to relationships with other friars in community is not a true Franciscan Friar.

However, this brotherhood is not an end in itself. The long-held motto of the worldwide Franciscan Order is “fraternity-in-mission”. This means that this bond of brotherly love is meant for mission. When we go forth on our missions, we do so by the spirit of our brotherhood, by the way we love, forgive, connect, empower, purify and attune.

In the last decade, an adjective – “contemplative” – was added to this motto. This emphasis reminds us that without God, we are nothing. If there is no vertical connection with God through contemplation, then there will not be any authentic and graced internal connection amongst brothers, nor will there be a horizontal connection with the people we serve. This contemplative dimension echoes the top priority of the Franciscan Order – prayer and devotion. As St Francis told St Anthony of Padua, “it is wonderful that you are teaching the brothers theology of this kind, but never extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotion”.

Reviewing the trajectory of the life and history of our Custody, and discerning where the Lord is prompting us to journey forth, we have seen the signs and connected the dots and we feel compelled to go back to basics – relationship with God and fraternity.

As the document “You Are All Brothers” beautifully says, “Fraternity is our way of being in the world and in the Church.” The Franciscan life does not exist except as fraternity; our vocation is to be brothers; and our basic law is that of love. On the other hand, the basis of our fraternal life consists of opening ourselves up, of comparing ourselves, of accepting ourselves and of dialogue; these are instruments for enlightening, strengthening and putting our common gospel project into action; these are the conditions for the birth of new motivations that would stimulate creativity and help us to recover confidence in ourselves and in others.

“Gift and task, the fraternity is received but is also constructed. Divine call and human reality. As a divine call, fraternity is fed on prayer, listening to the Word, the Eucharist, pardon and reconciliation. As a human reality, the fraternity has its own laws, demands and means; authentic relationships, familiarity, friendship, joviality, courtesy, service …”

So, as we receive the wonderful gift of brothers from the Lord, we need to work at building relationships with our brother friars. This requires structures and plans, which is essentially what
the Fraternal Life Project is. In practical terms, the Fraternal Life Project is simply discerning and deciding together how and when we pray and eat together, how we celebrate brotherhood in our recreation times, how we intend to share struggles and dreams in the midst of discussing finances and maintenance issues etc. It is very basically drafting our fraternal hope into concrete plans and then from time to time, evaluating the plan and discerning refinements.

We ask for your prayers as we work at building fraternity with all our brothers. In this New Year, let us unanimously commit ourselves to relationships – with God, with fraternity-family, with all around us!

OFM Custos,

Custody of St Anthony


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