Friday, March 2, 2012

What I Told the Children

Today my postulant brothers and I visited St. Peter of Alcantara School in Port Washington, L.I., to talk to the Grade 4 to 8 students about our vocation as religious in the Capuchin Franciscan order. We joined a married woman, a diocesan priest, a deacon, and a woman religious from the Dominican Sisters of Amityville.

Initially I felt reluctant to do this presentation, not because I would refuse anything to my brothers and our vocation ministry. It's because I feel awkward around young adolescents and out of touch with their thoughts, emotions, and desires. I taught religion in a Catholic middle school in the inner city of Baltimore from 2003 to 2004, and it is the toughest job I ever survived. I still have nightmares about that year with the children. I could not assert my authority, exact discipline, motivate the students or command their respect. I regret all the ways I failed to serve the children properly, and I will be repenting for my lack of charity and understanding toward them all the days of my life.

However, the unfailing good cheer of my brothers and the good will of the principal toward us pulled me through, and by the time Mass was over and the presentations were to begin, I felt sharp, relaxed, and good-humored. And as the other speakers said their piece and took questions, my heart poured love into my veins, feeding my mind with inspired words. I scribbled ideas down on a piece of paper.

My brothers and I were the last to speak. Of the four of us, I elected to go last and summarize on behalf of my brothers what religious life means to us and what the Capuchin way of life is about. What follows is not a verbatim of my pitch to the children, but it gives you a rough sense of what I tried to get across to them.

Good morning, everyone. My name is Anthony. I am thirty-four years old, and like you I grew up on Long Island. I come from Babylon, which is south and east of here in Suffolk County. Thank you for welcoming me and my brothers into your school. Thank you for letting us talk to you about being a religious brother.

Why am I religious brother, or why am I asking to become a religious brother? Well, for me, God is not just one person among other persons, one being among others, only stronger and more powerful than others. God is not like Superman. God is greater than that and is beyond all beings. And for me, my faith and my religion are not just one thing alongside everything else. Religion is not like that. It doesn't stand alongside other activities, like work and school and sports and watching TV.

I am a religious brother because for me it comes down to two basic questions. Do you believe in God? And do you believe in Jesus Christ? And related to those questions are other big questions. If you do believe in God and Jesus Christ, then how important is that to you? How much does it matter? Does it matter more than anything else? If so, then how are you going to live?

Well, I do believe in God. And I believe in Jesus Christ, who is God. And it matters a lot to me. God is my all. God is everything for me. God is the meaning of my life. And God has set me free from all the things I worry about. God sets me free from sin, from the wrong that I do that hurts so many people. God sets me free from suffering, from the pain in my life. I don't have to be afraid of it. And God sets me free from death. God set me free from all these things, and I am so grateful to God for this. God found me 15 years ago, when I was a college student. I didn't think about God for a long time, and then God found me, and I found God, and everything changed. Now I know God is real. God is real. And God lives within me. God wants me to have this life that Jesus Christ gave to all people.

Since then I have been trying to listen to God to learn how God wants me to live. I want to live as if I really believed that God is real, that God is love. I want others to know God is real and to live with God, too, as I hope to do. I want them to know Jesus Christ because Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God. He shows us God. His words and works are God's own words and works.

So I want to live the way God wants me to live, the way Jesus shows us how to live through the Gospel. That is why I am a Christian. Now God has also sent us many holy men and women, many saints, who have showed us how to follow Jesus and live with God. They have formed many different communities to help people do this. They were religious men and women. And so I am a religious brother because I want to follow Jesus the way Francis of Assisi, one of the greatest saints, did.

Francis grew up in Italy eight hundred years ago. He was a little bit like you once upon a time. He came from a middle class or upper middle class family. He had it good. He had a rich and wealthy father with a successful business. Francis had many good things and like to have a good time. But when he grew up and became a young man he suddenly left behind his parents, his family business, his good reputation, everything, because God took hold of him. And he felt the love of God so strongly inside of him that he had to share it with others. And he went around preaching the love of God to everyone. He asked for nothing in return. He lived in complete poverty and without anything of his own. And a community formed around him which he called the Lesser Brothers, the Friars Minor. And these brothers set the world on fire with their love, God's love within them. God changed Francis' life, and then Francis helped change other people's lives through his love of God and Jesus Christ.

I want to love God the way Francis did. Even now I love God so much and feel God's love so strongly, I can't share this love with just one person. So I am not getting married. I will be sharing my love with all people and bringing the love of God to everyone I meet. To help me do this I will be taking vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. These vows are my way of living up to my baptismal vow to love and serve all in the name of Jesus Christ through the Church. These vows help me channel the human energies of sex, money, and power in good ways, to help me stay close to the love of God, and not allow these forces to separate me from God.

So I am becoming a religious brother with the Capuchin Franciscans. We are first and foremost brothers to each other, loving each other as ourselves, as Jesus commanded us love one another. We choose to be with the poor, to be one in spirit with them, because Francis saw in the poor the face of Jesus, and so he saw the face of God. We are men of prayer, deep prayer. We pray together a few times a day, and everything we do begins with our prayer and returns to prayer. We are ministers who go into the world to reach out to all of God's people. We can do just about everything. We are preachers and teachers; some of us become priests and lead worship and celebrate the sacraments; we are chaplains to hospitals and prisons; we are spiritual directors; we are nurses and social workers and community organizers. We minister to all people, young and old, rich and poor, black and white and brown and red. We care especially about immigrants, prisoners, youth, seniors, minorities, the sick, and workers. We reach out the lepers of our world today, the people nobody wants to love, the people nobody likes to be around. Francis loved these people, and so do we. And we work to bring God's reign of justice and peace and mercy into our world, because it is important for God's gifts to be shared fairly with all people, and for God's creation to be protected for all generations to use and enjoy.

This is who we are as religious brothers with the Capuchin Franciscans. This is our vocation. It is not just a job or a career. This is our way of life, and we want to share it with you. We hope you will feel the love of God in your lives and think about how you want to live with this love for others and for Jesus Christ. Thank you for listening to us, and peace be with you.

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