Franciscans live meaningful lives as relevant now as 800 years ago

By Franciscan Father Dominic Monti

Earlier this year, the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province took an unusual route in reaching out to young adult men about considering a life of prayer and spiritual service in our Cath­olic faith community.
With our Manhattan provincial headquarters a virtual stone’s throw away from a subway stop, the friars decided to sponsor an advertisement aimed at New York City subway riders that boldly asked: “Day Shift, Night Shift — How about a Life Shift?”
The question itself, the location where it was posed, and the uncertain economic climate we live in all created an opportunity for those seeing the ad to reflect upon the purpose of their individual lives and the possibility to do something more meaningful and rewarding in serving God and others.
The ad’s uniqueness led to stories on CNN and National Public Radio; newspapers like the New York Post also took notice.
As Franciscans, we know making a life shift can be a very risky endeavor. We have our own history of taking risks to fulfill our mission to be “heralds of the Gospel in the midst of society.”
This history began eight centuries ago in 1209 when a dozen shabbily dressed men gained entry to the Papal Court. To gain an audience with the pope was no easy feat — especially for such an insignificant group. But these men and their calling were different.
Led by a young man named Francis from the town of Assisi, these men were seeking the approval of Pope Innocent III to lead a radical life according to the pattern of the Gospel. The pope granted their petition and thus officially launched what has become the largest and most popular religious movement in all of Catholic history.
To this day, St. Francis of Assisi continues to captivate and inspire countless Christians and non-Christians alike, especially as the patron saint of animals, the environment and peace, families, merchants, against dying alone and even the state of Colorado.
But what exactly did Francis mean by “living according to the pattern of the Gospel?” How is that relevant and why is it risky in 2009?
For starters, this life demands doing penance — not in the sense of performing one or other acts of self-denial, but radically renouncing a life in the world based on self-interest and re-orienting oneself toward the values of the reign of God.
Francis and his brothers abandoned all their possessions, deliberately choosing “to follow the humility and poverty of our Lord, Jesus Christ” by becoming “lesser ones, subject to all.”
They believed, by making this choice, they could more easily open their hearts to God and one other, thus creating a new type of belonging, a brotherhood of mutual care based on Gospel values.
Franciscan scholar David Flood said, “they left the world to get closer to people.” By being unencumbered from typical status-seeking entanglements, friars are in a position to freely attend to the lesser ones of society and can call on others to change their lives.
Franciscan priests and brothers live the Gospel today as preachers, confessors, teachers, pastors and workers in various ministries, while helping the poor and the marginalized of society in such important areas as peace and social justice, education, healthcare and immigration.
They do not abandon the world but instead plunge into it in a modern way. You can see this on the streets of Manhattan every morning when the friars host the longest running daily breadline in the United States.
The challenge as we begin the next 800 years is to continue to find new ways within modern society to share Christ’s love as proclaimed through the Gospel and to foster a deeper relationship for individuals with God and each other.
One way may be found on the inside wall of a subway car.
Franciscan Father Monti is vicar provincial for Holy Name Province, which serves South Carolina in sponsoring St. Mary of the Angels Church in Anderson, St. Martin de Porres in Columbia and St. Anthony of Padua in Greenville.