Friars are welcomed by a neighborhood that needs them
There are four signs on the building announcing the presence of friars.
“One thing I learned working in evangelization,” says Fr. Alex Kratz, “is to let people know where you are.” So every few yards, there’s a sign marking the site of the newest Franciscan friary in Detroit: St. Moses the Black. The last time anyone lived in this former rectory on Oakman Boulevard was 20 years ago. Since October it’s been home to Alex and fellow friars Br. Louie Zant and Br. Maynard Tetreault.
In a city rebounding from its past, the friars are part of a neighborhood that’s been left behind. Next door is a food pantry that sees brisk traffic. On the street in back, eight houses are boarded up or so structurally unsound they’re caving inward. With windows broken or shuttered, nearby factories are lifeless and desolate.
A few blocks away is another sign, this one marking the boundary of Highland Park. It not only has the highest crime rate in Detroit – 46 crimes per 1,000 residents – but one of the highest in America. Here, your chance of becoming a victim of either violent or property crime is one in 22. If poverty has a Ground Zero, this is the place.
For Maynard, Alex and Louie, the natural question is, “Why here?” And just as important, “Why now?”
The “now” part seems like divine providence. “This is the 50th anniversary of the riots in Detroit,” says Maynard, referring to a tsunami of violence that swept the city in 1967, leaving 43 people dead and 2,000 buildings destroyed. For Alex, race and inequity converged in recent, deadly confrontations between African-Americans and police officers. “All of this came crashing into my prayers,” he says.
In March he suggested the friars expand their Detroit-area presence into an underserved neighborhood that was predominantly black. “I’ve been here [in Detroit] since 1999,” serving as Director of Evangelization for the Archdiocese for eight of those years. “Whenever I drive, I take the highway. I bypass miles and miles of this,” he says, waving an inclusive hand. “I felt a bit conflicted that I kind of avoided this whole area,” including the adjacent city of Highland Park, “which is even poorer than Detroit.”
A quote from a class at St. Bonaventure – “Faith must have social consequences” – nudged Alex forward. “My studies kept echoing in my head,” he says. “Social location is part of our Franciscan charism. When we’re in a location where the poor are, it changes your witness.”
Mark Soehner, former pastor of St. Aloysius in Detroit, knew the area well. During his time as Director of Postulants, “He also worked in this cluster and taught RCIA,” Alex says. “We talked a lot in general” about problems and possibilities. “We say Detroit has suffered ‘demolition by neglect’. We only have a few Catholic parishes in the city. There’s a feeling of abandonment among Catholics in Detroit. Institutionally, the Church has pulled out.”
Spirit at work
A pastoral letter called “Unleash the Gospel,” released in June by Archbishop Allen Vigneron, was a call to evangelization. “His plan is to have the religious evangelize the city,” Alex says. At St. Moses the Black, “I’d say we’re on the cutting edge of evangelization.” As friars, “It’s right down our alley.”
After the Provincial Council endorsed his plan, “It took some looking and searching” to find the right place. “If I was going to invite friars in, I didn’t want to be in a structurally dangerous building with a slumlord.” That eliminated a number of prospects. Finally, “The Holy Spirit guided me to this,” a rectory attached to St. Moses the Black Church.
The pastor, J.J. Mech, also serves as rector of the nearby Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament and pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary. His associate in all three locations, Patrick Gonyeau, is also Central Regional Coordinator of Evangelization for the Archdiocese of Detroit. The very busy Patrick speaks for the community when he says, “There’s such an excitement about the Franciscans being here.”
Indeed, “People have been very welcoming,” says Louie, a regular at morning Mass.
“The parish is older, but there are kids in catechism class,” according to Maynard. “There’s always hospitality after Mass. They have a lively liturgy and a great choir.” Now, “All they need is people.”
For Detroit-born Maynard, this was a homecoming. “Our parish [Visitation] was a mile from here. These were my old haunts.” He remembers Oakman Boulevard as “a nice, middle-class neighborhood,” more upscale than his own.
This summer his ministry in Galveston, Texas, ended when the province returned Holy Family Parish to the diocese. “This [Detroit proposal] didn’t really come about until April. I heard about the potential of this place. I think our presence among marginated people is important. I think it is a tiny gesture of hope.”
Formed by the merger of three parishes, St. Moses the Black spans most of a block on the boulevard. It’s a fortress of a building, with arched doorways and a vaulted atrium that serves as a vestibule and meeting space. Near the main door is an imposing painting of the church’s patron saint, the 4th-century slave who gave up a life of banditry to become a desert monk and an apostle for nonviolence.
Up the steps and off to the right is the friary, which until recently served as the hub and storage facility for St. Moses the Black Food Pantry. Now the pantry is housed in the former school next door, where Louie is a volunteer.
He visited the future friary after returning from missionary service in Jamaica. “I was just interested in going someplace where I could be useful,” he says, like Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. “Alex asked me if I might be interested in coming to Detroit, interacting with people in neighborhood projects.” Louie recalls his first visit.
To enter the building, “We came through a rolling metal door” that blocked homeless people from sleeping on the steps, turning the rectory into a bunker. Inside, “There were boxes all around. The first floor was used as storage” for the parish food pantry. “It needed some cleaning up,” he says. Despite the clutter, “We saw the possibilities” in the 92-year-old rectory.
“This place hadn’t been lived in in 20 years,” says Maynard, whose eagle eye as Provincial Building Coordinator does not miss much. “When we did the walk-through and saw plaster coming down, we knew it needed some care.” The parish fixed the plumbing and replaced the roof. Electrical work is an ongoing project. Most of the 17 doors would not close, a typical issue as old buildings settle. All of them needed sanding and/or lock repairs.
By the time he moved here Oct. 2, Louie says, “Things were very liveable.” The furnishings, most donated, have the plain but serviceable look of bygone friaries. The addition of Internet was a must, but TV screens are absent by design.
Slowly but surely, Maynard and Local Minister Louie have whittled the to-do list to a manageable size. Now they’re assessing the needs of their neighbors and quietly making their presence known.
Around here, “People carry a lot of burdens,” Alex says. “Some of them live on their own. One of the things I’ve been thinking of doing is asking people waiting at the food pantry if they’d like to be prayed with.”
As for Maynard, “I’m not putting out my shingle” for sacramental ministry just yet. His goal for this first year, he says, is “to listen”, learn what people need “and what the bishop wants.”
Alex came into this juggling another project, the restoration of St. Joseph Chapel and the Shrine of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Pontiac. It’s also the home of Terra Sancta Pilgrimages, which he co-founded and leads.
At St. Moses the Black, “I think being visible and being in the neighborhood is important,” he says. One day at 6 a.m., “I was praying the rosary on the sidewalk” while wearing his habit. “A young guy was catching a bus for his job at a potato chip factory. He did a double take and said, ‘You’re medieval’. I explained to him what friars are about.”
Maynard is encouraged by what he’s seen. “I was happy to hear about us going into the city. A lot of people are working on a comeback for Detroit,” including a mayor [Mike Duggan] “who has promised to do more for neighborhoods. There are many hopeful signs.”
Four of those signs, lettered in brown, are attached to this building.
This story first appeared in the SJB NewsNotes.
With a backpack full of prayers
Br. Michael Radomski shoulders his backpack, steps out into the Detroit sunshine – and stops in his tracks.
“First, we pray,” he says, then asks the Almighty for wisdom to help those in need. For the next two hours he will seek them out on streets and in parks, offer them a sandwich and encourage them to talk.
On behalf of St. Aloysius Neighborhood Services, friar Michael is channeling God’s love to the reclusive homeless, those too skittish or embarrassed to say, “I’ve lost my way.” A member of the parish’s Backpack Ministry since 2008, he is there, he says, “to be present to people” who are sad, vulnerable, alone and afraid.
Just listening doesn’t sound like much. But to those who have nothing, it means everything.
Michael’s roomy red backpack is stuffed with gloves, wool caps, t-shirts and hand warmers, all in demand on this bright but brisk afternoon. He fills a collapsible wheeled crate with bottled water and sandwiches donated by local parishes. “We try to have PB&J and some sort of meat sandwiches. If there are extras left over, we sometimes go to the library and pass them out to patrons who are homeless. Today we have homemade cookies, praise the Lord!”
The route he takes varies, “depending on the needs that present themselves. It’s not so much about giving out stuff as being available. We don’t preach to them. We’re there to pray with or for them.” In a world that is often indifferent or disdainful, “It’s a chance to affirm their dignity. They don’t often get that.”
Everyone has a story. “Many have had a difficult life,” derailed by drugs, mental illness or a dysfunctional family. “We have certain regulars we’ve gotten to know and have seen for years,” then, out of the blue, “They’re suddenly gone, off the map, and we don’t know why.”
Walking in groups of two or more, “We try not to let bad weather stop us,” Michael says of St. Al’s 25 backpackers, most of them lay volunteers who come once a week. “If it’s not nice for us, it’s not nice for the folks stuck out there, either.” The worst day ever? “Oh gosh, when the snow was up to our knees.” They actually found people waiting for them along the route. “Warming centers are great, but when we go out in the cold and snow, those we minister to have a sense that they really are loved.”
There’s a strategy to this, he says. “You approach people who are loners, less likely to go to a shelter. We try to give them the ‘once-over’” to find those truly in peril. “Our priority is those who don’t have the safety of a warm apartment to go to each night.” Since backpack supplies are limited, “We try to explain that we’re holding tight onto items for people in dire situations. It’s a tough thing to do, but it’s a necessary thing to do.”
Michael heads north on Washington Boulevard, sidetracked by an unshaven senior sitting in the median of the street. He hails the friar, introduces himself as “John” and holds out his hands. John not only needs gloves, he needs help putting them on. “I had a stroke,” he says. Michael fishes a pair of gloves from the backpack and tugs them over the man’s gnarled fingers. “We’ll keep an eye out for a pair of mittens that would be easier,” he promises John.
“Brother Michael!” he hears, and turns to spot a friend. “Carla, you doin’ all right?” he asks a smiling, white-haired woman with a walker. She turns down a sandwich, preferring to catch up on the news while a small crowd gathers around them. Soon they are engaged in a lively conversation. “We often have a good time when we go out,” Michael says. “It’s a joy to meet people like Carla who are filled with joy” despite their circumstances.
At a construction site, a guy with a street-cleaning machine wants to talk. After being paroled from prison, the man spent four years looking for work. He would like to pray and give thanks with a man of God for the positive turn his life has taken.
Michael says his habit is rarely recognized. “Most of the time people are like, ‘What are you dressed up for?’ Most of them just know we’re ‘church guys’.”
Up the street, he turns into Grand Circus Park. A dozen men are sitting around the drained fountain, hip-hop vocals blaring in the background. Faces registering anger, boredom or hopelessness, they come to life when Michael walks into view. “When we get to a certain part of a park, they come from other parts,” he says. “It’s like they have antennae.”
A short queue forms quickly. “Got any socks?” a young man asks. Michael pulls out half the contents of his backpack before announcing, “There are no socks.”
“I’m allergic to peanut butter,” says another when he’s offered a sandwich. “What about chocolate?” Michael says, offering a cookie. These guys may be hungry, but they don’t seem destitute. Scanning the park, Michael points to a bench across the way. “That man is homeless. He’s wearing a coat that folds out into a sleeping bag.”
A middle-aged man named Aaron comes forward, face contorted in pain, and says he needs to pray. A dam of despair breaks loose as Michael petitions God, with Aaron sobbing, clinging, sinking to his knees. For the next few minutes there are no answers, only questions, but it’s obvious that this desperately sad soul has found comfort and catharsis. He wipes his eyes, gets to his feet and stumbles away.
“There are a lot of them like that,” according to Michael. “It’s hard to say, ‘My time’s up. Gotta go.’ You just can’t do that.”
Alone and confused
A bearded man with a finger wrapped in bandages wanders by looking so dazed that Michael is concerned. “You got a place to stay tonight?” he calls. “On the road,” the man says in heavily accented English. An immigrant from Nepal, he is alone in America.
“What do you believe in your God?” he suddenly asks Michael. “God loves you and me” is the friar’s response. “Some say Allah, some say God the Father; it’s all one God.”
For the next half-hour while the man sits quietly on a curb, staring blankly with his upturned hands on his knees, Michael is on his cell phone, trying to find lodging. Coming up empty, he scribbles a list of names, places and phone numbers.
“I wish there were more I could do for you,” he says, handing them over. “I will hold you in my heart and pray throughout the night. God will look out for you. Place it all in God’s hands.”
Armed with a bag of hand warmers, mittens, sandwiches, and directions to a shelter, the man sets off across the park. “I feel so unable to help in any way,” Michael says. “It aches to not know what happens to them. That’s the only part of this ministry I don’t like.”
Some days, there are rays of hope. “Periodically we meet somebody who is back, better, who has a house and has found work. One such person is Angelique, a young, timid woman who was ever gracious and appreciative” of the help she received. “She kind of disappeared for a while. Then one day we were out and someone called, ‘Hey guys! Hey, St. Aloysius!’ It was Angelique,” greeting them with a smile and a hug. “She got a home, lined up a job and got her life back on track. It was wonderful to see.”
With his load lightened, Michael heads for St. Aloysius and his other duties. He will be back here next week, praying for more happy endings.
This story first appeared in the SJB News Notes and Franciscan.org
Friar student is getting grounded in real-life law
In the real world of lawyering, you put on a suit, go to court and try to resolve conflicts. That’s exactly what Br. Michael Charron is doing this summer.
For Michael, a student at Appalachian School of Law, interning with Judge Amy Searcy has been a revelation. Since May he has assisted with cases at the Hamilton County Court of Domestic Relations in downtown Cincinnati. After one year of school Michael is immersed in the deep end of an emotional pool of litigation known as family law. The atmosphere in child custody hearings, divorce proceedings and domestic abuse cases is so intense that boxes of tissues are standard issue at tables for both plaintiffs and defendants.
Fortunately, “I’m pretty good at containing my emotions,” says Michael. After a rough day he goes home to the community at St. Clement. “If friars ask me, ‘What did you do today?’, I’ll say, ‘We had a hard case.’”
It’s a learning experience for both the friar and his boss. This is Michael’s first internship, and “I’ve never as a judge had an intern before,” says Amy, appointed to her post by Gov. John Kasich in May 2014 and elected to a full term that November.
But they have a lot in common: Both of them are grounded in prayer.
Asking for help
For the past two years Amy has worshipped with friars and the community at St. Anthony Shrine in Mt. Airy. Most weekdays she’s there before work for the 7:30 Mass. “It starts my day when I’m focused on asking God to help me take care of folks,” she says. “As I enter this courtroom, with its sadness and upheaval, if I come in centered and grounded, I’m reminded I’m not here alone.”
One day in the Shrine parking lot, Fr. Frank Jasper asked if she would consider taking Michael on as an intern. She answered, “Absolutely”, and later admitted that part of her motive was selfish. The Judge is pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and thought, “Michael can help me with this.”
But first he had to look like a lawyer. “Not my favorite part of the job,” he confesses, walking through the gold-plated doors of the Art Deco courthouse – it’s the old Times-Star building – and flapping the lapels of the dapper gray suit he’s wearing on this sweltering summer day. Before he arrived, “I kind of expected a more formal atmosphere,” having spent his first year in law school dealing with Contracts, Property, Civil Procedure, Torts and the like. But in Domestic Relations Court, “You’re not dealing with a contractor who didn’t fix a roof right,” Michael says. “You’re dealing with people.”
The typical intern is a writer, researcher and observer. “I started out watching everything going on and learning the different departments,” he says. Adds Amy, “It’s not just to help me. Seeing how a judge makes decisions should make him a better lawyer.”
After three months at the courthouse, “I see that family law and ministry kind of go together,” Michael says. “I’m really impressed with Judge Searcy’s understanding that people are people; they’re not used to being in a courtroom. I feel like she’s a really good servant. She kind of puts herself in their shoes.”
Those shoes belong to people of all cultures, faiths and economic backgrounds. Whatever the issue, “Nobody in the court system is happy to be here,” says Amy. “I call the courthouse ‘The House of Pain’.” Many cases revolve around kids, and “I’m required to make all decisions in the best interests of children.” Whenever possible, “That means letting people come to their own conclusions.” To make that happen, “You have to take a step of faith toward each other.”
There is no typical day in court. “We try to have hearings Monday and Tuesday morning,” she says. “Tuesday at 1:30 I do sentencing. I might send someone to jail” for non-payment of child support. “Wednesday and Thursday are custody trials. Friday we do overflow or write decisions. I take a lot home.”
Summers are always busy. “There are kids visiting one parent who don’t want to go home. And lots of people move in the summer when one parent gets a job offer out of town.” Hard to believe, but “I’ve had people fighting over payment for dental work or whether a kid can go to camp.” She has heard her share of shouting. Recently after letting a couple vent, her response was, “Do you hear what you just said?” On days of high drama, “I compartmentalize. I’ll take all the sadness and pain and hurt and put it in a box – then make a decision. Personally, I have to increase my time in prayer at home.”
A trial is the last resort once you’ve exhausted every other option, she says. That’s why the Dispute Resolution Department was created – to give folks room for discourse in a neutral atmosphere before a third party. “The mediator has to say, ‘What you’re saying is valid; now listen to what he’s saying.” After sending Michael to several of those sessions Judge Amy discovered, “He has a skill set that lends itself to mediation and helps people resolve problems.” In ministry as a friar, “That’s something he could offer a parish.”
Michael finds it fascinating. “In mediation you have these couples who don’t like each other. It’s interesting to hear both sides of the story. When children come in, it’s interesting to see their demeanor change.”
Sitting at trials, he has seen the best and worst in people. Some lawyers are less than scrupulous. And some parents choose winning at any cost – hiring a lawyer, going to court, spending a fortune – over the needs of their children. “Most people get married and have decent marriages,” Michael says. “Some get divorces and do that amicably. There are people who end up here. I tell myself these are the exceptions rather than the rule.”
Does being a friar make him a better intern? Humility helps, he says. “I don’t think I’m better than anyone else. No matter how small a job is, they’re all significant. I wouldn’t think I was better than anything the Judge has asked me to do.”
This is Michael’s last week at work; Monday he starts his second year of law school in Grundy, Va. Judge Amy hates to see him go. “I will miss him dearly: his calmness; his openness; his steadiness. I trust him to give his unbiased views. I could rely on him and know his reaction will not be judgmental or tainted with emotion.”
After this summer “I think I’d be more confident in a courtroom,” Michael says. “Every time I see lawyers arguing, I kind of think to myself, I don’t know everything they’re doing. But I think I’m capable of that.”
This fall he hopes to take a workshop certified by the Ohio Supreme Court and become a professional mediator. “I could start mediating disputes right away,” while he’s still in school. In the future he intends to help marginalized people, whether that involves immigration, criminal defense or family law.
“I’ll keep thinking and praying,” he says. “I’m sure I’ll land in a good spot.” Part of being a Franciscan is “trying to make peace. Even though it’s kind of forced in the courtroom, this is a place where peace is made. I think this is a good place for friars to be.”
This story first appeared in the SJB News Notes August 10, 2017 by Toni Cashnelli
Message of hope, faith, and mercy resonates
Tricia Griffith settles into a pew for a presentation by Fr. Mark Soehner.
“This guy is so wonderful I’m recording him,” says Tricia, who hears Mark preach when she attends Mass here at St. Anthony Shrine. Tonight’s topic, mercy, has drawn a large and diverse audience.
It’s not surprising that members of the Sunday community would be here for the Nov. 2 talk, last in a series of three given by SJB friars for the Year of Mercy. What’s surprising is the two rows of Boy Scouts on the opposite side of the chapel. On the advice of Fr. Kenan Freson, who subs at the parish, chaperone Toni Schneider brought the 25 young men from St. Bernard’s of Taylor Creek as part of their “Ad Altare Dei” faith formation program.
Another attendee whispers to a trio of women in the row behind her: “How do you know Mark?” Their responses: “From when he says Mass on Tuesdays”; “He was our parish priest for years”; and, “He’s got the Spirit for sure.”
Introduced by Guardian Fr. Carl Langenderfer, Mark launches into an animated presentation, “A Franciscan Reflection on the Jubilee Year of Mercy”, with themes so relatable that even the Scouts listen intently:
- “God doesn’t love you because you’re good. You’re good because God loves you.”
- “Mercy doesn’t come to us all pretty. It comes to us when we need it.”
- “Before teaching the commandments of God, we need to talk about the God of the commandments….God seen as an unforgiving tyrant or benevolent Santa Claus.”
- “When our resources seem inadequate, it’s time we go to a deeper well.”
- “To be rich in mercy is not to be stingy in any sense.”
- “It’s a lot easier to judge than be generous.”
- “When we receive mercy we want to give it away.”
- “What if we lived our lives in gratitude and had a revolution of tenderness?”
- “We can give regular doses of mercy with simple words like, ‘Forgive me.’ ‘I’m sorry.’”
Mark recounts his adventures with the Walking Friars and their 2009 trek across Virginia. Mercy and generosity were offered in abundance in unlikely places from unexpected sources. “Isn’t God good?” he says, and everyone agrees.
Mark gives Pope Francis the final word, paraphrasing a sentiment that seems obvious but bears repeating. “Everything the Church says and does should be seen as merciful.”
Judging by nods of appreciation, the gift of mercy has been gratefully accepted.
Year of Mercy presentations by Fr. John Quigley and Fr. Larry Zurek can be viewed on our YouTube page.
This article first appeared in the SJB News Notes
Pakistani friar is at home wherever he goes
His first week in Cincinnati, Fr. Saleem Amir, happened upon a birthday party at St. Francis Seraph Friary. Asked to join in, he did not hesitate. Soon the animated friar from Pakistan was smack in the middle of things, chatting and mingling as though he were part of the staff.
It’s obvious why Saleem said “yes” to ministry in Jamaica. “I like meeting people of different cultures, sharing their expressions of life,” he says, a sign of adaptability if there ever was one. Being a missionary means “not only going beyond boundaries, but exposing yourself to other realities.”
Here while he waits for the work permit that will allow him to join SJB friars in the Diocese of Montego Bay, Saleem is not just killing time. He volunteers three days a week at St. Francis Seraph Soup Kitchen. “I love to go there. I feel so happy afterward serving these people.” He has met with fellow missionary Fr. Jim Bok in Chicago and done street ministry with friars from St. Aloysius in Detroit. “They are very creative and dynamic,” he says, referring to Br. Michael Radomski’s backpack outreach to the homeless and Br. Al Mascia’s work with the Song and Spirit Institute for Peace. “Having interfaith dialogue, sharing the values of other religions; I was really touched.”
It’s a subject he is eminently qualified to discuss. Saleem grew up facing the social, economic and educational hardships that Christians, 3% of the population in a Muslim nation, deal with daily. In Pakistan, “If a Muslim man marries a Christian girl, you are killed,” he says, “so you have to leave the country. Sometimes poor Christian girls are kidnapped. I remember 10 years back, Christians were not allowed to drink water from the same tap” as Muslims. As youngsters, Saleem and his brother attended a school run by Muslims. “The Imam [worship leader] would send us out of class when he did Islamic studies.”
‘A strong character’
One of eight children, Saleem has been working in the same province where he and his siblings were raised, the Punjab (“five rivers”) of Pakistan. His devotedly Catholic family was tested when his father died young (Saleem was 5 years old). “I loved my mother very much. She was a very strong character, very hard-working, a woman of conviction. She forced us to go to school. All of us are educated.”
After high school, “They wanted me to do technical training.” It must have been fate, but when Saleem went to Karachi, “I had no place to stay. I stayed with Franciscans and saw them singing and praying together day and night.” He wrote home to say, “I changed my mind,” and his mother responded, “This is your life. Do what you want.”
Since solemn profession in 1992 he has been Vicar, Secretary, Novice Master, Guardian, Student Master, Councilor, and most recently, associate pastor at a large parish in Lahore and Professor of Missiology at the National Catholic Institute of Theology.
“I am very happy to be a friar. I wake up every day and thank God.” Even so, “I have been saying for the last five or six years that I want to go for a mission experience. I must also tell you, I received an invitation from the Diocese of Joliet in Chicago” to minister there. “Finally when we had a council meeting, the councilors and Custos talked about the relationship” with St. John the Baptist Province in the United States.
Custos Yusuf Bagh gave Saleem a choice, Jamaica or America. “I chose Jamaica to strengthen our twinning relationship and to be in touch with suffering humanity, to serve God’s people.”
He is an effective ambassador for his homeland, correcting stereotypes conveyed by negative news reports. “Pakistan is not Afghanistan,” he says. In the media, “They try to mix it. Pakistan is a modern country with a very good education system and hospitals and all the natural resources. If we have sincere, dedicated, committed leaders Pakistan can become something,” but corruption and extremists stand in the way of progress.
The seeds of Christianity, the second largest religion in the country, were planted in 52 AD by Thomas the Apostle. “We are growing. We have many Muslims, Hindus and others being attracted to Christianity,” an attraction fiercely opposed by the government. “Christianity in Pakistan has always been seen in the light of the West and Western religion,” so what happens in America impacts Pakistanis. Unfortunately, “Radicals try to blame Americans for everything.”
Saleem’s experience with American friars has been positive. “I knew Fr. John Quigley as a student. I had met Br. Vince Delorenzo and Fr. Alex Kratz” when they visited Pakistan last year. Brothers in Cincinnati have been “very loving, caring, concerned. I’m so grateful to Fr. Jeff Scheeler; he had made arrangements for me to go see different friars. They are asking me all the time if I am happy, if I need anything. I feel very much welcomed.”
Hospitality aside, Saleem is praying “very hard” that his work permit for Jamaica will arrive soon. In the meantime he is educating himself with YouTube videos and a book on Jamaican culture from the public library. “I will be going to Washington, D.C., to see Fr. [Greg] Friedman,” who will serve as General Visitor to the Custody in Pakistan. All along the way, Saleem is keeping a journal he plans to share with the friars back home. “Yesterday I wrote two pages about my experience of being in Cincinnati and visiting fraternities.”
When he gets to Jamaica, where will he live and what will he do? “Jim [Bok] asked me whether I have an agenda” about ministry. He told Jim, “I follow your plans or agenda. I am coming with my mind a blank slate.”
Whatever the future holds, “I have been happy I made the choice to go.”
Originally published in the SJB News Notes November 2016
Three friars say ‘yes’ to ordination
Why have so many people come so far? “They are good men and will do great things,” says Jordan Neeck, referring to friends Clifford Hennings, Colin King and Roger Lopez who were ordained June 11.
Jordan is so sure of this that he drove 500 miles from his home, a Norbertine Abbey in Wisconsin, to be part of their ordinations at St. Clement Church in Cincinnati. “I’m here to share in the joy in celebrating their accomplishment and the grace given by God to accept this call.”
In fact, the supporters who fill the sanctuary are almost as excited as the participants.
“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” says Chicagoan Marc Butiong, who once spent seven days in Jamaica with the three friars “bringing Eucharist to the sick, helping at the soup kitchen, painting homes for the homeless, putting together care packages for Christmas.” As a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, “It was my foray into being a man of faith. I thank God for them in my life.”
Relatives and lifelong friends feel included and appreciated, with good reason. The three being ordained – Roger and Clifford to the priesthood, Colin to the diaconate – know that ordination does not set them above or apart from other people. It brings them closer.
David Lukinovich, a friend of Clifford’s family, remembers the kid they called “CD” [for Certificate of Deposit] because “he was going to knock it out of the park in the business world.” Here from Baton Rouge, La., David says the grown-up Clifford “glows with happiness and joy.”
“We come from a lot of different places,” acknowledges Master of Ceremonies Fr. Richard Goodin welcoming guests to an event that seems more like a family reunion than a formal ritual. Ordaining Bishop Joseph Binzer, familiar to friars, is comfortable with this crowd. When Colin’s selection is affirmed by applause, the Bishop responds, “I thought I heard some angels and saints applauding along with us.”
As is his custom, Bishop Binzer met the three friars for a pre-ordination lunch and conversation at what he calls “a gourmet restaurant.” Dining at Skyline Chili, they discussed “their hopes for the future, their trust in the Lord and how truly blessed they are.” When the Bishop asked them, “What might I say to everyone else who is here?” they said, “That everyone who is here today might fall in love more deeply with Jesus Christ, that all of us might commit to serving the Lord.”
In his homily the Bishop quotes a News Notes story in which Colin expressed his excitement and Clifford and Roger talked about serving as Franciscan priests. He also quotes from an address Pope Francis gave during the Jubilee for Priests in Rome. “The Heart of the Good Shepherd tells us that his love is limitless; it is never exhausted and it never gives up,” the Pope told priests. And one papal pronouncement the Bishop especially likes: “He [the priest] is stubborn in doing good, anointed with the divine obstinacy that loses sight of no one.”
Turning to the three friars, the Bishop says, “Thanks for being great examples for all of us of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Know that we are here not just today but [always] to pray for you and support you.”
He calls them forward for the Promise – first Colin, then Clifford and Roger. Each responds to the final query with, “I do, with the help of God.”
“May God who has begun the good work in you bring it to fulfillment,” says Bishop Binzer.
A touching Litany
The ceremony unfolds with a sight not often seen, three friars lying prostrate in the aisle, as cantors Br. John Barker and Sacred Heart friar Br. Ed Shea, a comrade in the 2009 walking pilgrimage, intone the Litany of the Saints.
It is the interactions of friars that leave a lasting impression: Br. Gene Mayer fussing with Colin’s vestments; tears from Fr. Paul Walsman; bear hugs from Fr. Ric Schneider for the newly ordained; the ear-to-ear grins of Fr. Larry Zurek and Fr. Joe Ricchini.
After Communion, Provincial Minister Jeff Scheeler expresses “deep and profound gratitude” to teachers and formators “who have accompanied our brothers along the way,” as well as their families. “Thank you for your support over the years. We promise to try to cherish them as much as you will continue to do.”
And to Clifford, Colin and Roger he says, “Thank you for your generosity, your willingness to serve.” Jeff hopes that “what we have called them to today will go not to their heads, but to their hearts.”
For Roger’s Mom, Carlotta Lopez, the best moment was “seeing the brotherly love; it’s very touching.”
“It was so heartfelt, so beautiful, such a genuine thing to see how much joy they had,” says David’s daughter, Mary Lukinovich, who has known Clifford “all my life”.
Clifford chose the friars, says his mother, Susan Hennings, because of “the brotherhood. Watching the priests come and lay their hands on Roger and Clifford was probably the most touching.” Her son Seth, 20, was moved “seeing my brother give Eucharist for the first time.”
When Roger was an altar boy, says Carlotta, “The pastor told me, ‘You’ve got a priest on your hands.’” In high school Roger was voted “most spiritual, most likely to be a priest.” For Carlotta’s part, “I just prayed he would make the right decisions.”
As for Clifford and Colin, open minds and open hearts have helped them find the way. Susan says of her son, “He’s definitely where God wants him to be.”
More photos on our Flickr album Ordinations 2016
this story was originally published in the SJB News Notes, edited by Toni Cashnelli
Piecing together the story of a soul
Fr. Murray Bodo, OFM, jokes about the girth of his new book.
“Once I started I kept going,” he says of writing his 380-page autobiography, Gathering Shards: A Franciscan Life (Tau Publishing). “Now I can hardly lift it.” He’s a bit embarrassed about the literary importance implied by such heft. “Maybe we can use it as a doorstop?”
Asked by Tau to record the story of his life and his spiritual journey, he initially declined. “I thought it would single me out as somebody worthy of writing an autobiography,” says Murray, one of our foremost Franciscan writers of prose and poetry. “I felt my life was too ordinary to warrant something like this” – that it would seem pretentious or self-indulgent.
Then, he says, “I realized no life is ordinary, and when I had the opportunity to look at it, I see how extraordinary my own life has been,” from a halcyon childhood in the Southwest through days of doubt about the path he pursued, from friendships that helped him hone his craft to the inspiration he found in his adopted home, Assisi. He also realized, “I could not have written this book when I was younger. There’s a certain clarity that comes [at age 78] you wouldn’t have at the time you’re passing through it.”
More than anything, Murray’s 32nd book is an appreciation of his parents and the friars, the friends and the places that shaped his spirituality and kindled his creativity. “My parents and others who loved me and believed in me and let me go are the real protagonists of these memories,” he writes in a foreward.
And because Shards is so personal, “It’s the hardest book I’ve ever written,” Murray says. “The scariest thing was self-disclosure. How much do you tell? How deeply do you get into it? I had the most anxiety when I sent it in and realized, people are going to be reading this! I have never felt that vulnerable.”
The book’s title comes from the pieces of Anasazi pottery Murray collected as a boy near the Navajo Reservation in Gallup, N.M. “The following pages, fragmented and flawed though they are, attempt to gather the shards of my life into a metaphorical pottery bowl similar to those I tried (and failed) to assemble,” he writes in a Dedication. Some of his published poems are the tissue binding the sections. “Poetry has been a way to process my inner life,” he explains.
An adventure begins
Pleasant Street Friary in Over-the-Rhine is about as far from Gallup as you can get. But it’s obvious that Murray’s office with its Native American rugs, pottery and panoramic paintings is occupied by a child of the Southwest.
During the two years of “immersion” he spent writing Shards, he returned to Colorado and New Mexico, “revisiting the places of my youth. I could feel myself being renewed by the landscape. Someone once said, ‘Every landscape you love is the landscape of your youth.’”
The first segment of Shards, a narrative of childhood, is so vividly drawn it’s like stepping into one of the cowboy movies to which young Murray was addicted. Mom Polly and Dad Louie led quietly remarkable lives, as did many hard-working parents tested and tempered by the Great Depression and World War II. What’s striking and relatable is how lovingly Murray describes their sacrifices – and the guilt and gratitude he still feels so deeply. Imagine letting your only child leave home at the age of 14, watching him board a Greyhound bus bound for a seminary 1,500 miles away.
“I was 14 years old; it was a great adventure,” says Murray. “From the time I was 14 I’ve been a pilgrim, away from my roots. The pilgrim spirit is something very congenial to me. I am truly the itinerant friar.”
Though it’s the story of a soul, Gathering Shards is grounded in relationships. “If I only wrote about mystical experiences, that’s a pretty short book because we live an incarnational life.”
He writes candidly of his spiritual isolation as a Franciscan novice: “It was as if Jesus stood for the last time at the door of my soul and left without even saying goodbye. And no amount of prayer or fasting seemed able to bring him back.” Providentially, Novice Master Benno Heidlage came to his rescue. “Fr. Benno intuitively grasped the story of woe I shared with him; and having been there himself as a young friar, he empathized with the depression into which I’d sunk and deftly led me through this dark night of the soul with compassion and prudent counsel.”
As often happens in Murray’s life, the right person was there at the right time. “One of the things that helped me [write the book] was three long sections about the people who influenced me,” he says. Chapters are devoted to “those exceptional others” who were friends and mentors: poets Denise Levertov and Herbert Lomas, and Fr. Francis Harpin, who taught Murray about “authentic prayer” in Assisi.
Eventually, Murray found himself through teaching. “I realized I had more gift for doing what I was doing than as a missionary.” Ironically, “By doing obedience I found parts of myself. This became my familiar world, but it has never had the emotional or archetypal pull the Southwest has had for me. As a teacher I took the summers ‘off’ to be in Assisi” as a guide for pilgrims. “So in some ways, I was fulfilling my desire to be a missionary.”
Since 1972 when Murray wrote Francis: The Journey and the Dream, the book that made him famous, Assisi has been “a place vital to my spiritual, emotional and creative life….it clings to me the way this Umbrian hill town clings to a spur of Mount Subasio…”
“There is meaning”
While Murray was assembling these shards, “I was learning things about myself in the process. I realized that some of my best writing came out of the times I was broken. I’m not a saint; I’m a writer. It’s writing that helps me grow closer to God.”
After two years of research, recollection and re-writes – “it was fulfilling but draining” – he’s pleased with the way the pieces fit. “Somehow the book seems to cohere. I wanted it to be honest. My prayer and hope for every page was that whatever I was saying about myself would remind readers about their own selves. There is meaning, there is a pattern in our lives. My hope is that especially friars will think of their own lives and how special their lives are because they’re Franciscan.” Being a friar is “an extraordinary life to commit yourself to – full of riches you don’t think of day-to-day. I had the great privilege to have time to do that.”
The result is a substantial book about a substantial life. “I dropped three or four chapters,” says Murray, still mindful of the weight – and the cost – of his autobiography. “How much is this thing? Seventeen dollars? I don’t know anyone who can afford it!”
For those who cannot, here’s a spoiler alert: The book ends happily.
Originally published in the SJB NewsNotes by Toni Cashnelli
They put their hearts into helping
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes.
They are athletes who advocate for youth, activists who champion the underserved, families who persevere through tragedy to light the way for others. April 15 at its 44th Annual Community Dinner in Cincinnati, Friars Club said thank you to people like these who exemplify the spirit of giving.
It was the second dinner at Friars’ new facility but there were several firsts:
- Honoree Andrew Whitworth of the Cincinnati Bengals and former teammate Dhani Jones autographed footballs and basketballs and posed for pictures with some very excited Friars Kids. “I believe in what they do here,” Andrew said.
- Attendees browsed items offered for a silent auction before the dinner, then took part in a spirited after-dinner auction hosted (with gusto) by Chanel 12’s Bob Herzog.
- The awards went high-tech, with video intros of honorees flashed on twin screens in the basketball courts, transformed into a dining room with artful lighting and décor.
“The whole atmosphere was very different,” says Annie Timmons, Friars Club Executive Director. “People told me [afterward] that it was a lot of fun, the best dinner they’ve been to.” A generous crowd – nearly twice the usual attendance – helped Friars raise about $80,000 for its athletic and Learning Center programs.
Introduced by Chanel 12 news anchor Rob Braun, who was returning for his 35th dinner, Annie previewed the awards presentation. “I would describe all of our honorees as ‘superheroes’,” she said.
Through his BigWhit 77 Foundation, “Andrew Whitworth has been a role model for many young kids,” Annie said of the Player of the Year. Friars Award winner Jeanette Altenau, TriHealth’s Director of Community Relations, is “a caretaker of the community.” And receiving the Francis Award were the parents of Lauren Hill, the courageous teen who spent her final months raising awareness about pediatric brain cancer and raising millions of dollars for research before she died.
At the lectern, Jeanette turned the attention to others like “the Franciscans, who impart their heart and soul” to ministries like Friars Club. Lauren’s Mom Lisa encouraged the audience to “find something to fight for.” And Andrew deflected the applause. “This is such a cool opportunity to be here,” he told the crowd. “You may think I’ve inspired kids, but you inspire me.”
Spoken like a true superhero.
Originally published in SJB NewsNotes by Toni Cashnelli
More photos on our Flickr page
♪ “At the Old Ball Game!” ♬
At noon on Opening Day, Fr. Stephen Cho is glued to his smartphone, thumbs churning out tweets and Facebook posts. By now, most friends know he will walk in the 97th Findlay Market Parade with brothers from St. John the Baptist Province. It’s a new experience for Stephen, a Korean friar who is living at St. Francis Seraph Friary while he learns about religious publishing at Franciscan Media.
When it’s time to gather for the parade, he hoists a PVC pipe over his shoulder – it will hold up their banner – and follows a group heading north in Over-the-Rhine to their assigned spot in the lineup.
Wordlessly, Stephen takes in the carnival surrounding him: clowns, kids, floats, bands, flags, bicycles, horses, dogs and cartoon characters with giant heads. Asked if they do this in his homeland, he shakes his head no. “Asian culture doesn’t parade,” he says, “especially in South Korea.” Not that it’s unknown. “Decades ago, when excellent results [were] achieved in the Olympics or world championships,” the government would honor the winners with a parade. In 2014, South Koreans flocked to the processions led by Pope Francis during his visit to Asia.
With or without parades, Koreans are passionate about baseball.
When countryman Shin-Soo Choo played a season with the Cincinnati Reds, the folks back home followed his every move. Then, says Stephen, “He went to Texas. Free agent.”
Stephen isn’t the only rookie on this team. Br. Chris Meyer, preparing to leave for the missions in Jamaica, also responded to a call for participants. He’s hoping to rack up some miles on his pedometer and work on his tan. “It’s my first time in the parade,” he says, “and may be my last.”
While they wait for the signal to start, friars chat with their neighbors in the parade, including a woman who trains miniature horses and brought four of them with her today, their manes dyed the colors of cotton candy. Petted and photographed, they are stars of the backstage show.
Roaming the streets with his camera, Fr. Frank Jasper is approached by parish people and other folks who admit they’ve left the Church. Emboldened by his habit, “They just come up and start talking about how they like the Pope,” he says.
Once the banner pole is assembled, friars Tom Speier, Tim Sucher, Pat McCloskey and Carl Langenderfer gather for a stirring rendition of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, videotaped for social media. Although some words escape him, good sport Stephen gamely follows their lead.
When it’s finally showtime, he picks up one end of the banner for the 16-block trek down Race Street, past Fountain Square, and onto Fifth Street to the stopping point, the Taft Theatre.
From the outset it’s obvious that Chris, like fellow marcher Tim, is a natural. Chris works the crowd, high-fiving a row of kids parked at the curb, and initiates a twirling dance move that spins the banner 360 degrees. The crowd loves it. Tim is everywhere, clasping outstretched hands and dashing from one side of the street to the other with the rallying cry, “Go Reds! Let’s hear it!”
Sharing the joy
Content to carry the sign for much of the way, Stephen is captured smiling in every photo.
By parade’s end, Chris has logged 10,000 steps on his pedometer. More important, “I enjoyed it,” he says. “So often we’re in our own friaries, and here we are in this public view, and we really get to hear how much we’re loved and respected. It’s a great opportunity to share the joy friars bring. It was a very positive experience.” Next year, he says, “I think we should work on our routine. We’ve got to spice things up,” maybe by doing the limbo under the banner?
Stephen says he was glad to see how “friars have been sharing life with the people of Cincinnati for more than 100 years of existence. I was proud to be a Franciscan in the middle of Cincinnati made one,” united in a spirit of exuberance and good will.
Before long, he pulls out his phone and starts thumb-chatting.
As Pat had predicted, “It’ll take him more than one tweet to describe this day.”
Originally published in the SJB NewsNotes.
Jeff Rapking loves Roger Bacon High School
and they love him too
Jeff Rapking leads the way to the cafeteria at Roger Bacon High School.
It’s as tidy as an Army mess hall, and Jeff is largely responsible.
“When the lunch starts, I start,” he says, proudly describing his duties with the custodial staff, from managing trays to sweeping the floor, from cleaning tables to straightening chairs. “I love to work here,” he says, fisting his hands at his sides and smiling so broadly he squints.
Jeff is lucky to be here, and they’re lucky to have him. Many people with special needs face a lifelong struggle for acceptance. Jeff, whose world is limited but not defined by disabilities, is trusted, loved and respected at Roger Bacon. “The Bacon family, that’s his family,” says Barb Coyle, the school’s former Outreach Director and a longtime friend.
“It’s a good example of how a community embraces one of their own to provide a place where they can thrive” instead of falling through the cracks, says Paul Zlatic, Assistant Principal. “There is a real sense here that everyone has value. We’re a diverse school – rich, poor, black, white. Jeff is just another great piece of that.”
It’s been that way for 33 years, ever since Jeff was hired by friar Jim Bok during his days as Principal. “He has a special place at Bacon in the hearts of a lot of folks,” says Fr. Jim, one of Jeff’s favorite people in the world.
“One of the guys”
“There is such a purity and honesty and sincerity to him,” Paul says of Jeff. “It’s easy to be drawn to that.”
Barb was running Bacon’s Community Outreach Program when she met Jeff. “He was always popping into my room. If something was driving me crazy, he would show up with his smile and innocence and joyful spirit and it just rubbed off. Everything makes him happy.” Ask him why and Jeff says, “I’m all the time in a good mood.”
Crazy for sports, he’s a fixture on the sidelines at Bacon’s football and basketball games. “He will offer players a high five,” Paul says. “Many times he rides with the football team” to away games. “He’s just another one of the guys.”
In Jim’s years at Bacon, “When kids were around, I never ever saw or witnessed anybody mocking Jeff. There was always a genuine respect for him on the part of the students. I think all the kids there knew that Jeff loved Roger Bacon and everything about it.”
One year when he competed in Special Olympics – winning gold in the softball throw and 100-yard race – the school held an assembly in Jeff’s honor. “Kids were high-fiving him all day,” according to Barb. “I am a good runner,” Jeff says shyly. “I’d love to go around the track more times.”
“He is solid gold”
Eight years ago when awards were given for milestone service at RB, Jeff received the sole standing ovation for his 25 years. In 2007, Bacon students organized “Jumping for Jeff”, a Polar Bear Plunge into a freezing swimming pool to raise money for Special Olympics.
“Jeff means a lot to the kids,” says St. Clement Pastor Fred Link, who for years was Jeff’s walking buddy around St. Bernard. “They very much respect him. He is solid gold, just goodness, as tender-hearted as they come. He brings out the best in folks.”
It’s hard to say no to Jeff, says Barb. “He loves his Cincinnati Reds and goes to a lot of games,” courtesy of teachers, students and alumni. Each season, Paul says, “I usually go to at least one game with him, sometimes two.” Barb once managed to wheedle tickets from Reds owner Bob Castellini when she wrote to him explaining that Jeff had never been to Opening Day.
“We had great seats,” she recalls. “We went to the parade and game. His favorite player, Joey Votto, hit a home run. On the way home I asked him what was the most exciting part of the day, thinking it would be the home run. Jeff started clapping his hands. He said, ‘I loved the clowns and the bands.’”
This should not have surprised Barb. “Jeff was always a huge fan of the Roger Bacon band,” Jim says, and especially fond of Wes Neal, who in 37 years led the band to numerous state and national titles. “Wes was really nice to him. Every Friday night at football games Jeff would be right with them, marching along.”
More than sports, more than bands, “Jeff loves Fr. Jim,” says Paul. “He gets so excited whenever Jim gets into town” for a home visit from the missions in Jamaica. “Jeff will talk about it for weeks leading up to it,” anticipating their usual outing to Gold Star Chili. “If I ever came to Cincinnati and Jeff found out and I didn’t see him,” Jim says, “he would be hurt.”
They’ve known each other for 40 years, since Jim was a cleric theology student. “I was going to law school at night and teaching at Roger Bacon during the day.” Outside the school, “I used to hear what sounded like a siren; it was this little boy, Jeff, riding his bicycle” and making a racket. “He and his family went to St. Clement Church. He was developmentally handicapped, going to Bobbie Fairfax School” for children with disabilities. From the day they met, “We were always friends.”
After ordination, as Principal at Roger Bacon, Jim got a call from Jeff’s school. “They had programs where they would place kids in internships” in preparation for the real world and asked if Bacon could take Jeff. Jim said, “We’d be delighted; what is he capable of doing?”
“Maybe he could clean tables in the cafeteria, that kind of thing?” they suggested.
Jim readily agreed. “He came and he never stopped working there.”
Love and support
Jeff’s diligence is legendary. “He’s so conscientious about the work he does,” Paul says. “He takes it very seriously when a fork or spoon gets into the garbage.” After lunch Jeff patrols the tables, arranging the chairs in perfect alignment. “He always does a sweep of the grounds to make sure things are kept up.”
Satisfied that all is well at school, Jeff will head home, one street over from Bacon, to walk his dog, Rusty. “Jeff has a wonderful mom and a sister who provide a lot of support,” says Paul. “Together we kind of make sure he’s doing well.”
Apart from the televised sports he devours, “His world is very limited,” Jim says, “and Roger Bacon is a significant part of his world.” During the summer, when he helps prep classrooms for the school year, “Jeff gets depressed,” Barb says, because he misses the students.
“I love everybody here,” Jeff says. “I still miss Fr. Jim the most,” and wishes he weren’t so far away.
“Jeff is as innocent as a child, but he can get sad,” Fred says. “When somebody dies, he really grieves and doesn’t understand it.” He has his challenges, “no doubt about that. But he sure is devoted to Roger Bacon.”
In fact, says Jim, “You could consider him one of Bacon’s biggest boosters.”
Originally published in the SJB NewsNotes