Franciscan formation is a process wherein an ordinary Christian becomes an extraordinary disciple of Christ by following the Gospel the way St. Francis of Assisi did.
I’m sure all of you have heard many times that one of the most important things in the life of a Secular Franciscan is Ongoing Formation — the down-to-earth, nitty-gritty, taking-the-bull-by-the-horns process of ACTIVATING in our lives what we have been reading, hearing, and praying about.
You can go through a Franciscan textbook as an inquirer and candidate; you can read every book you can get your hands on about St. Francis; you can read the Bible every day of your life; but, none of these adds much of anything to your formation growth unless you put the message into practice in your daily living.
Pope Pius XII, in a talk to the Secular Franciscans of Italy in 1956, said, “You must not just KNOW about the life of St. Francis; but, you must FORM yourselves in the spirit of his message.” Father Benet Fonck, O.F.M., said “Without formation, Franciscans don’t happen.”
Formation has been likened to a school of perfection, a school where one aspires to “be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.”
In this school of perfection, the candidate is not just LEARNING this new way of life; he or she is undergoing an APPLIED learning experience, an on-the-job training procedure
Once candidates are committed to this new way of life, they are never again the same. Candidates, no longer their own boss, can be compared to recruits entering an army.
In this army of St. Francis no one is drafted, each person enters as a volunteer. We don’t make our own rules. We operate under the tried and true “Rule” set forth well over 750 years ago by St. Francis himself. And he, as we all know so well, got it straight from the gospels.
What do we mean by that?
We mean this: Die to self; to our own egos; to our desire to have everyone go along with our way of thinking or doing what we want all the time.
The basis of our formation is just that, a dying to self and metanoia, a radical inner conversion.
In this army of the gospel way of life, we can get a lot farther as individuals if we motivate ourselves to a deep-seated sense of patriotism towards the great Franciscan family. It means getting a feeling of loyalty to the Church — a gung-ho attitude about God and St. Francis!
New candidates actually must form themselves; but, they do not do it alone, they have instructors who urge them on and members of the fraternity who guide them by their example and friendly acceptance.
We all need to read, read, read. Thus we will grow in the knowledge of the Franciscan way of life. But, growing in knowledge is NOT formation.
Formation is USING what you are learning; using it out there in the world where you knock elbows with a great assortment of temperaments — that’s formation. That is your on-the-job training and until you do that you will not grow much in the Franciscan way of life.
This applies not only to the candidates; but, to all the professed members as well.
I have been in the happy situation in my fraternity of having a few professed members attend my instruction sessions for the new people, including, thanks be to God, council members. This example of dedication and caring from our leaders and professed members is a tremendous boost, not only for the candidates, but for all of us.
A good Franciscan example, by all members of the fraternity, is the best teacher of all. It is worth a thousand instructions, a thousand books. It leads and it says, “This is the way, come follow me.”
I remember at a large gathering of Secular Franciscans in St. Augustine several years ago, the late Ralph Fenton, S.F.O., our then provincial president, in a talk to fraternity ministers and directors of formation, said, “we should not come at the candidates like a drill sergeant.” And finally, let me repeat the theme of what I have said before: We should lead, invite and show them by our example, with our actions saying: “see, I’m not asking you to do something I’m not doing myself.”
Formation Director can be scary for both the candidate and a newly appointed director of formation. In many cases directors of formation didn’t ask for the job.
One fatal day, one finds oneself looking down in disbelief at one’s lap where the role of director of formation has just been dropped, Kerplunk! It’s a bit shattering to say the least, but after a period of stunned immobility, there is the gathering of oneself together and running, not walking, for the nearest help.
Where is this help?
Where does any child run for help but to an understanding father and a loving mother — to God and to Mary. That is the first and the biggest step forward we need to take. It is a long, unwavering step into our prayer life.
We need to take a journey inward, away down into our mysterious inner self and get acquainted with ourselves. Down there we can, as Francis did, fall head-over-heels in love with Jesus Christ. This is what we are all about as followers of St. Francis — people crazy in love with Jesus.
I’ll never forget the first time I came across the passage by Thomas of Celano. (I’ve said this before, but it needs repeating). He was saying, “Francis was a man so deeply in love with Christ that he had Jesus in his eyes, Jesus in his ears, Jesus in his mouth, Jesus in his hands, Jesus in every cell of his body, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!” Before I finished reading that, I was goose bumps all over.
To have this feeling is to have one of the greatest gifts God can bestow. It is the center, out of which EVERYTHING in our lives should radiate.
We must truly believe what Jesus said, “Without me you can do nothing.”
Ah, but with Jesus we can do so much. We can plunge into the awesome responsibility of being a director of formation.
Directors of formation, and those who instruct candidates are a terrific and privileged breed.
If you are chosen to be one, rejoice and be glad, even as you moan inwardly that you can’t do it.
Thank God, who saw fit to call you to this important work in the Franciscan family; because, the Franciscan who benefits the most is yourself, in your own personal formation.
To be a good, dedicated director or instructor is a gift of God. God is at your beck and call, and brings Jesus to your side to guide you in this great opportunity to delve heart and soul into the mysteries of what made Francis so great — this Francis who was so great that his name is renowned among Catholics, Protestants, non-believers and even atheists throughout the world.
If you are sincere and dedicated in this work (and this goes for those of you who are in any kind of Franciscan work) you cannot stand still. You cannot, because the preparation of the work itself will bring you to a closeness to God you never knew before.
It can grow to be so deep-seated that at times you have an overpowering desire to hug yourself because of the great wonder of what is going on inside you.
The mechanics of formation are important. They should be flexible enough at each session, whether it be candidate instruction or ongoing formation, to fit the needs of that particular day and group. They must not be allowed to become monotonous. They need to be dressed up in a new outfit every now and then — a springtime look — a new Easter bonnet.