Pope Francis is challenging clerics to depart from the stuffy sacristies and deliver the Gospel message to where the people are. Shepherds need to smell like the sheep they serve, not like the rectories where they live. Many are taking the Pope’s directive to heart, one group is friars living the radical Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in Brussels, Belgium
“Not so much” says Conventual Franciscan Friar Jack Mardesic, “The mission trips are becoming less and less radical.” Friar Jack has responded to an appeal from the Minister General Marco Tasca, the 119th successor of St. Francis, to continue a long history of friars serving the people of Belgium. 6 friars comprise the friary that are transforming the neighborhood through the joy of the Gospel, one person at a time. Friar Daniel Marie Theveneh, OFM Conv. the guardian (superior) is from France; Friar Jean Luc Marie, OFM Conv. is from France as well, Friar Adrian Baciu, OFM Conv. is from Romania, Friar Giuseppe Panarisi, OFM Conv. is from Italy, Friar Bart de Pape, OFM Conv. is from Belgium and Friar Jack Mardesic, OFM Conv. is from Australia.
All 6 friars live in the arena of providence. No transportation, no booked reservations, no meal plan, just a backpack, water and a breviary when they set out on 3 week mission. “We experience the goodness of God’s providence” and the people open their homes and networks to give us all we need. It is not long before we have a list of interested people that want us to stay in their homes. We share our prayer with them, sing our hymns with them, and swap many great stories. “Our missions are becoming less and less radical because the goodness of the people and we entrust ourselves to God’s wonderful providence.” People give from their hearts whatever we need, however we never accept money while out on mission. Friar Jack smiles with the many memorable stories of walking from the Italian capital of Rome to Assisi, the hometown of St. Francis. Today the trip would be a 2 and 1/2 hour drive that took the friars 8 days to navigate on foot. A walk that has not been led by friars for too many years to count. The stories he encounters while walking with the people make the friars’ preaching come alive to the people, and they have an experience that touches the hearts. He’s had atheists sincerely chase him down to say “God Bless You!” and homosexual guys who at first want to hassle them and later want to unload their wallets on the them. It’s great to witness the change in character and transformation of people once they realize the reason the friars are on the streets. “We have witnessed people healed, drug dealers shaking free of their addictions, God reaching out to give a healing touch to His people.” The friars are simply witnessing to the joy of the Gospel as St. Francis might have done 800 years ago. Friar Jack emphasizes that there is nothing radical about it, that he is just taking Franciscan fraternity from the friary out into the streets. “We live a very normal Conventual Franciscan lifestyle most of the year, only once or twice do we set out on an itinerant mission over the course of a year.”
St. Francis was called to the itinerant life that was always on the move taking the Gospel to the people. His travels went as far as Damietta Egypt and as near as his hometown streets of Assisi. In Belgium there has been a history of hostility to religious and Franciscan friaries have a heart-wrenching history of being suppressed. Brussels has a large Muslim population much like Damietta, Egypt in the time of St. Francis. Franciscans have a long tradition of reaching out to people of faith across denominational lines. The friars are bringing the Gospel to the people and continuing the itinerant tradition unique to Franciscan history. “Our prayer occurs 3 times a day, we pray the rosary together at Mid day prayer, and we fast every Friday. It’s all the same stuff we do in the friary only now we bring it to people’s homes and invite whoever is with us to join in.” And people receive the Gospel well. Friar Jack met 2 enthusiastic youth living on the streets when one girl says, “you are so joyful and have to have the best religion ever, I want to join. What religion are you?” They have been taken into homes of gypsies, socialists, Muslims, and others curious about the Franciscan life.
Most of the time Friar Jack is not afraid but there have been some close calls with youth gangs and robbers. The criminal element is there but when they realize the reason they are there, to share the love of Christ, the bad situations make a 180 degree turn for the better. I asked Friar Jack if his mom ever has any worries for his safety? Jack says, “Not really, my dad worries a bit about his drum-banging boy and is afraid I’ll turn into his gypsy son.” What is your best day in Brussels I asked Friar Jack, and he said, “My best day is playing the drums with the youth on the street and losing myself in the music, we have one guitar and I do percussion.” The enthusiasm and the receptivity of the youth keep him inspired, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t get exhausted after a long weekend. “Our task is simply to testify to the presence of Christ in the world, exemplified by the joy of our Franciscan fraternity.” Ephesians 6:19 summarizes the Franciscan mission well, “and as for me, that speech may be given me to open my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, so that I may have the courage to speak as I must.” Here are 6 ambassadors of Christ set out on mission with courage to spread the Gospel with great conviction. St. Francis must be smiling!
Peace and all good,
Friar John Bamman, OFM Conv.