Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Fraternity and Minority

We are continuing our study of the Capuchin charisms with Brother Jack, whose ideas I relate below.

After the Second Vatican Council, which reformed and renewed the identity and practices of Roman Catholic Church, the religious orders of the Catholic Church were summoned to reclaim the particular gifts that characterized their founding spirit and apply them to life in the 20th century. Religious sisters and brothers were called to be faithful to the founders of their communities, and to bring their founders' vision and values into the present by reading the "signs of the times."

For the Capuchins, their charisms or gifts number five: fraternity, minority, contemplation, ministry, and justice-peace-ecology. Brother Jack says there is an order of priority here. Using the metaphor of a wagon, he says fraternity is the vehicle driving the Capuchins' way of life; minority and contemplation are the front wheels that steer the vehicle and give direction to ministry and efforts for justice, peace, and care of creation.

Fraternity is the most important value for Franciscan women and men. Francis of Assisi believed that his vision for Church and society was confirmed by the God of Jesus Christ who "gave him brothers," companions on the way. For Francis and his new community, the brothers were the charism itself.

What comes to mind when you think of fraternity? The postulants named the following: togetherness; being one family; kindness, affection, dependability; acceptance; peace and happiness; like-mindedness in Christ; mutual support and guidance; and strength for witness to the reign of God.

What do Capuchins mean by fraternity? It is all of the above, and more. Very simply, it is relationship with those persons God has specially given to you to live with. For the Capuchins, Christ is at the heart of fraternity. God is everywhere and in all things, and God has made a covenant to be there in love for all persons who gather in God's name. One has only to believe this truly to receive the strength to love other people and all of creation in a way that brings life, goodness, peace, and joy.

The Capuchin Constitutions (chapter 6, no. 98) state: "[l]et us live in the midst of the world as a gospel leaven so that people, seeing our fraternal life centered in the spirit of the beatitudes, may realize that the Kingdom of God has already begun in their midst." Brother Jack says fraternity also has a penitential dimension. The Capuchins' form of Gospel brotherhood trains the friars to look first of all to the gifts in each other, not the sins. Living in gratitude for these gifts is a practice of ongoing conversion that enables the brothers to go about God's work with humility.

Minority is our relationship with the poor. It is our desire to live among the poor and the voiceless in relationships marked by integrity and equality. Poverty, which itself is a state of life and not a "charism" or gift -- ask the poor if their poverty is a gift -- is a condition Capuchin Franciscans assume, the better to enter into loving relationships that are other-centered, peaceful, vulnerable, and just.

Francis of Assisi rejected his merchant father's dream to enter the class of "maiores" or nobility and took a path of downward mobility to become one with the "minores," the lowest class of Italian society. Brother Jack says the name of our order, Capuchin Friars Minor, reflects our commitment, not merely to solidarity with the underclass, but also a relationship of authentic minority with all people, as a minor.

Friars do not seek poverty for its own sake. Poverty, especially involuntary poverty, is evil. The gift, the charism, lies in a chosen identity -- servant of society's "lepers" -- and a commitment to relationships with all people despite their social class.

Some Franciscan orders may construe the connection between poverty and minority differently. For some people minority and poverty may in fact be synonymous. The Capuchins are careful to distinguish the two, for the reasons Brother Jack has described. Poverty is a condition. Minority is a relationship, and the relationship is the gift.

I could see an equivalence between minority and what the beatitudes call being "poor in spirit" or "spiritually poor." Some might substitute the term "simplicity" for such a notion of poverty. Minority, simplicity, or spiritual poverty may or may not obtain within the condition of one's own material poverty. Even the poor do violence to one another. And I could be persuaded to believe that genuine minority can manifest without personal poverty (e.g., Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero, Franklin D. Roosevelt).

What made Francis revolutionary was that he humanized poverty, and he restored to the "minores" their personhood. And he admonished his brothers to do the same. One question for every generation of Christian disciples is, Can a wealthy person do this and still remain wealthy?

We will continue our study of the charisms tomorrow with contemplation. We will return to ministry and justice-peace-ecology later in the year, after we have had a few months to live into these charisms we have named and recognized in ourselves.

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