By Br Andrew McMahon, ofm
After 60 years in the Franciscan order, I have never found the answer to the question - did I find Francis or did he find me? I have tried various efforts to get close to the answer, two in particular:
The first, after 20 years in the Order, I decided to do something I knew St. Francis would do. I set-off one morning and got the boat from Southampton to Le Havre. I began a walk which would take me 3 months. I walked to Assisi. Walking alone gives you time and opportunity to reflect on many things. I discovered the great kindness of people. I slept in 33 beds, and never have to pay for one. I can still see myself as I walked into St. Mary of the Angels, where Francis founded the Order and when he died. I kissed the ground.
But what inspired this walk was also the experience I had in working with homeless ex-prisoners in Southampton. They were “men of the road”. I needed to know from experience, more about that. My poor French and even more basic Italian, were sympathetically welcomed by the French people, Franciscans, lay people; my Italian evoked the gentle smile that amused them and me! When I returned to Southampton, I knew how very important people were for my journey, my pilgrimage. How Catholic they were was helpful, but many just welcomed me out of the sheer goodness of their hearts.
After twenty years in Southampton, not living in a Friary, but a house like other people on the street: and seldom wearing the habit, and never the roman collar, I realised how frequently religious dress, and titles can be an obstacle to people. I feel that they have become status symbols. Quite how working, living with men from prison, or from drinking in the parks, qualified for me for my next move, is one of life's Mysteries. I was asked if I would like to go to Park Place Pastoral Centre, which I knew quite well, as Chaplain to the Community of Franciscan Sisters from India! That I am still with the Sisters 25 years later, speaks volumes of their understanding of the Gospel and St Francis.
I quickly began to ask questions: Like, “Why do you dress like European Nuns when you are Indian Nuns! The great spiritual traditions of India: meditation, yoga, stillness, the West needs to discover what you have to offer.” The very sympathetic Bishop Crispian Hollis agreed. Some of the symbolism of Indian spirituality is quite beautiful. The people here at mass on Sunday get a taste of it too!
From the start of my vacation at Campion House, Osterley, a study house for late vocations run by the Jesuits, I started to find Francis. In 1953, students who had been there and joined the Franciscans and now ordained, would return to say Mass for the student body. I liked these men. I visited a shrine to St. Francis in the garden every day, asking him for guidance.
In 1965 I went to the Novitiate House, which I found very difficult, often convinced I should go home but never did. My six years as a student saw a deeper appreciation of that lovely quotation, “Behold what a good and wholesome thing it is for Brothers to live together”. Just how significant this ideal of “brother” is came home to me when I was put in charge of receiving the men who wanted to become Franciscan Brothers, not priests! I did my best to bring some acceptance, recognition of just how these men with seeking the ideal of Francis in brotherhood and not as clergyman - That I did achieve something was a comfort. I was the last to hold this position. The brothers joined the clerical students of the student house
But it has taken a Council of the Church to sow the seed that Francis planted - as “Brother Francis”. This is why when, we set up our little community in Southampton, we all did jobs that did not require a priest. Two of us worked as social workers, two worked as teachers. It was the most important community for me in my whole life.
The Order faces great challenges. Not least may well be the courage to begin again. As one very talented Friar put it: “We need to return to an alternative orthodoxy”! I gather we may well be one, if not the most, often reformed Order in the Church. Francis still, as he did shortly before he died, invites us to “begin again my Brothers”. As part of the Irish Province, we have brothers. As part of the Church, we have Brothers and Sisters. We pray that we shall re-discover Francis. We know Francis will never forget us.