Homily January 5, 2020
On Friday morning I was in my office, with my cell phone in hand, waiting for, or not waiting for, a phone call from our provincial office in New York. We friars are part of Holy Name Province, and for the past few years, as our numbers have declined, our province has been going through a process of discernment about how many ministry sites we can stay in. We have 30 sites now, and we don’t have enough friars to stay in 30 sites, and so our provincial administration in December made a decision about which of the 30 we stay in, and which of the 30 we withdraw from. The announcement was made on Friday morning.
All of the pastors were instructed to stay by their phones on Friday morning between 9:30 and 10:30, and there I was in my office, pacing the hallways, looking at emails, and all the while not expecting a call from the province. At 10:21am, on the screen of my phone, the letters “HNP” appeared – Holy Name Province. This was it, this was the phone call. It was Fr. Kevin Mullen, our provincial minister, and he called to tell me that Holy Name Province was withdrawing from St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh.
Steve Kluge was in his office, I called him over to my office and told him the news. We were both stunned. We knew it was a possibility, but we didn’t expect it. Jim Sabak was out of town, I called him on the phone and told him. He was equally stunned. The word got out quickly.
What does this mean for us here? It means the friars are moving on, and that will happen most likely this summer, after our provincial chapter in early June. It means that this parish will continue with a new pastor and new associates. In a letter I received from Fr. Kevin, he wrote that he had spoken with Bishop Zarama and that the bishop assured him that he will continue to provide for the continued pastoral care of the faithful of the parish. Our parish has always been part of the Diocese of Raleigh, and will continue that way.
Why is the province leaving Raleigh? In Kevin’s letter, he states there are two decisive factors: our declining numbers, and fidelity to our Franciscan charism. He goes on to write:
“In 1985 we had 708 friars actively working in ministry in our province. In 2001, we were down to 443 friars in active ministry. Today, in 2020, we are around 280. Very simply stated, we no longer have sufficient friars to staff all the ministries where we have served in the past.”
“Additionally, our Franciscan charism calls us to live and minister as brothers in community. Our fraternal life together is a central priority for us – it is the core component of who we are and profess to be. With our diminished numbers, it is impossible for us to maintain all of our current ministerial commitments..” In all, the province withdrew from nine parishes, in the north, the south, urban, suburban, large and small.
These past few weeks have been busy and intense days here at St. Francis, with the end of Advent, the arrival of Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Family, and today, Epiphany. A common thread in all of these days is movement: Joseph and Mary are on the move from Nazareth to Bethlehem; the Holy Family is on the move from Bethlehem to Egypt; the magi in today’s gospel are on the move from the East to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews; and the magi again are on the move as they return to their country “by another way.” For Christians, our stories promise nothing about stability, and say much about being on the move.
Fr. Kevin, in his letter, writes the following: “The earliest followers of Jesus referred to themselves as those who belonged to the Way. This ancient description of the Christian community conveys a sense of movement, of pilgrimage, of never sitting still or remaining fixed in one location. To be a follower of Jesus is to be “on the road,” “on the way toward… the fullness of life that God intends for each of us and for creation.”
Over the next several months, we expect to be in conversation with the diocese about a transition plan, about who will be coming in to take our place. We have a very good bishop, and he is well aware of what kind of parish we have, and will surely keep that in mind as he considers who comes in next.
The friars of this parish, from the beginning, have tried to follow the path of Francis: an openness to hearing the voice of Christ in a divided and conflicted world; a deep care for God’s creation; a looking outward at who the lepers are in our modern world; an openness to hearing what other faith traditions have to say to us. Francis was all of that.
By summertime, the men in the brown robes will be moving on, and there will be new priests here. We don’t know who they will be. You, however, the people of this parish, hold the Franciscan charism. You are the ones who hear the word and act on it, you are the ones who visit the soup kitchens and homeless shelters, who write the letters to inmates on death row, who visit the sick in hospitals and nursing homes, who bring thousands of pounds of food to food pantries, who pass on your faith to the next generation, who take care of one another in ways known and unknown. You are Franciscan, carry that forward.
On Friday morning, after the phone call with Kevin Mullen, the reaction was swift – emails, phone calls, text messages, all expressing surprise and shock and wondering what it all might mean. This will take a while to get used to. In the midst of all the emails, there was one that caught my eye. It was from a member of this parish who needed a letter of recommendation for something. What was it?
She needed a letter so she could apply to work with migrants and refugees for the month of February at a place called Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas. It was a deeply Franciscan request: an openness to hearing the Word of God in our modern world, and a going out into that world in response. That, in so many ways, is who we are as Franciscans in North Raleigh.
Thank you, the people of this parish, for what you have brought to us, for your support over the years. Thank you for your grace, hospitality, and encouragement along the way. We will continue to communicate with you as we learn how things proceed from here. In the words of St. Francis: may the Lord give you peace!
Fr. Steve Patti, O.F.M.