Noel Muscat OFM
The final document of the Plenary Council of the Franciscan Order, held in Konstancin-Jeziorna, Poland (17-30 November 2013) has been published with the title “New Wine in New Wineskins”, a reference to Mt 9:17. It contains various insights regarding the Order’s quest for renewal during these last decades, and presents some conclusions and decisions taken at the same Plenary Council.
Although the document is meant to be inspirational, it does present some concrete proposals to be implemented in the near future in the Order. These include the revision of structures, the choice and qualities of the General Definitors, and the status of lay brothers in the Order, among other themes. The document has the aim of encouraging the friars to become “new wineskins” in order to be able to be filled with the “new wine” of Gospel renewal in the Order. Taking the three points we have just mentioned, however, it is necessary to question the Order’s real possibility of reaching this evangelical goal.
Revision of structures in the Order. For some decades we have been hearing the term ridimensionamento (re-dimensioning). Many provinces and conferences of the Order have felt the need for a new restructuring as a result of the dwindling number of friars and the new needs of our evangelising ministry. Some solutions have already been proposed or are underway, and they are mentioned in the document. But will this material restructuring be sufficient? When will we come up with a logical explanation as to why our Order has seen one of the most dramatic drops of numbers within its ranks when compared to other religious Orders? Something is going evidently very wrong, since young men are less inclined to join the Franciscan Order, and if they do so, a good percentage of them abandon Franciscan life, sometimes with deep wounds and hard feelings against our religious family. Maybe we can concentrate less on changing structures in continuation, and start thinking about changing our attitudes to Franciscan values. If, for example, restructuring means letting go of the healthy “conventual” structures of Franciscan religious life present for centuries in our Order in favour of some dreamy “prophetic” innovations and experiments, then we are in for a bleak future. A Franciscan fraternity that does not pray the liturgy of the Catholic Church, that does not live, work and minister as a fraternity, that never has a spiritual retreat, that abandons the priestly ministry of preaching and of the confessional, is sadly far away from what true Franciscan renewal on the part of great saints gave to our Order. The lack of knowledge of our history and traditions has sadly eroded our own Franciscan identity.
The qualities of those responsible for the “ministerium fratrum”. The General Minister and his Definitors, the Provincial Minister and his Definitors, certainly need to have some basic qualities to merit their being chosen for such a difficult task. They need to be open-minded, to have a sense of belonging to the entire Order, to favour international fraternities and inculturation in evangelisation. They need to be close to the brothers. So far so good. But what about the need to be authoritative in the right sense? To be capable of applying the Order’s legislation and implementing it? What has happened to collaborative obedience in the Order? What levels of exercise of authority must the Ministers Provincial respect vis-à-vis the authority of the Minister General? And, above all, why is our Order lacking so much the gift of leadership? A glance at our history shows that true reform has occurred only when we had inspirational and strong leaders whose vision was clear. True prophecy does not consist in listening endlessly and never moving forward. True prophecy implies a risk, even the risk of being seen as a failure and becoming unpopular. If friars need to toe the line in our Order, they need to have capable leaders, with foresight and vision, based on the sound tradition of values that we have cherished for centuries.
The status of all brothers in the Order. We are sick and tired of our Order’s insistence upon the “equality” of all brothers and the possibility of becoming a “mixed” Institute and not a “clerical” one. In the meantime, the number of lay brothers in the Order has not only dwindled, but there are evident signs of frustration as many lay brothers strive to attain the priestly ministry. Why has this happened? My inkling is that we have done a disservice to the noble vocation of lay brothers in the Order by insisting upon rights and duties that are secondary, if not irrelevant, to the genuine call of a Franciscan. Again, we are proving ignorant of our Order’s history. Why is it that the majority of canonised saints were lay brothers? Simply because they were left to live their vocation to holiness in their specific identity as lay brothers. What is wrong about being a “clerical” Order? What good have we gained from abandoning parish ministry? Why have we retreated to the large anonymous cities and abandoned the small fraternities in the countryside from where the majority of our vocations came? What was the role of lay brothers in vocational animation in these rural areas?
Are we truly ready to become “new wine in fresh wineskins” without forgetting that “nobody who has been drinking old wine wants new. ‘The old is good,’ he says?” (Lk 5:39).