By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published April 30, 2009
The “reunion of all family reunions” took Brother Nicholas Wolfla to Assisi, Italy, where Franciscans celebrated the 800th anniversary of Pope Innocent III’s approval of the rule of life that established the order.
For only the second time in its history—the first being in the year 1221—the order invited all Franciscans to gather for what is called its “Chapter of Mats.” Given the growth of the order worldwide, the recent event held April 15 to 18 was known as the “International Chapter of Mats.”
The name has great historical significance and harkens to the first time St. Francis called all of his followers together for a general meeting. Being poor they brought reed mats upon which to sleep.
While Brother Nicholas confessed not to have slept on a mat under Assisi’s night sky, the title of the event speaks to the order’s continuing spirit of simplicity found in communal living. “(Franciscans) are mendicants, or beggars. … Our monastery is the world,” said the Conventual Franciscan brother, who lives and works in the Atlanta Archdiocese.
Numbering about 2,000, participants first gathered below the city, set in the Umbrian hills, before ascending to it in procession, he said.
“At one point I found myself walking to (St. Francis’) tomb with 2,000 friars singing our praise to God. We were brothers of various shapes and sizes. It was phenomenal.”
The mood was joyful. “As we walked into the city (trumpets played) in triumph. … At the tomb we received a copy of the rule of governance. … It was the order coming home and it was extremely powerful.”
Not one “prone to being overly dramatic,” he continued, “I was humbled to experience the Spirit of God so alive. It was like St. Francis was walking with us.”
The event culminated on the last day with a special audience granted by Pope Benedict XVI at his residence at Castel Gandolfo.
The pontiff reminded those gathered as followers of Francis to translate the Gospel through their lives now.
“While you praise and thank the Lord who has called you to belong to such a large and beautiful ‘family,’ continue to be attentive to what the Spirit says to it today, to each of its components, so that you may continue to proclaim the Kingdom of God fervently, treading in the footsteps of your Seraphic Father,” the pope said, alluding to the title given St. Francis.
Brother Nicholas summarized what he heard in Pope Benedict’s words, recalling, “You come to me, as you should. Now I send you out to do Christ’s work and to bring peace.”
The audience with the pope was preceded by days of reflection and a re-evaluation of the order through presentations held in tents next to Our Lady of the Angels, a papal basilica built on the site where St. Francis died.
“The talks were mainly about a return to our roots and revisiting our traditions of Gospel living, like being of service to the poor. We recalled who we are as an order and looked at what we find ourselves doing in this modern age. We were founded in the 1200s and we’ve gone through a lot of changes, so we looked at what we’ve morphed into,” he said.
The event afforded time for contemplation during which Brother Nicholas chose to visit the saint’s tomb located underneath the Basilica of St. Francis. He was humbled to be chosen to attend the event and to sit before the tomb.
Asked why this was only the second time for a Chapter of Mats calling all Franciscans, Brother Nicholas said that while there have been smaller gatherings over the years, the answer lies mostly in the make-up of the Franciscan family.
“Francis established an order, but unlike, for example, the Dominicans who set out to do so, it just happened in his case.”
Francis had a gradual yet powerful conversion experience that eventually led him to rebuild a broken-down church, San Damiano, after hearing Christ tell him to “rebuild my church.” Later he realized the deeper meaning of his calling.
“The number of his followers grew and they took up his way of life for themselves. Out of that came the first order, the OFMs,” Brother Nicholas said.
Then came St. Clare, Francis’ contemporary, and the formation of a second group, made up of cloistered sisters called the Poor Clares. The third “family” includes the third order of men, clerics at the start, whose names are marked with ‘TOR.’ This third group encompasses other religious and the National Fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order, a lay fraternity called to live according to Francis’ rule of life, as well.
This year’s Chapter of Mats brought all three orders together under the Franciscan umbrella; most were friars with a sprinkling of sisters and others, according to Brother Nicholas.
All gathered to reaffirm their commitment to poverty, charity, simplicity, community and contemplation—all wrapped up in living the Gospel. While Francis delivered his rule of life orally to Pope Innocent III, any written version has been lost over time, Brother Nicholas explained, saying that copies of the simple rules might have been destroyed or subsequently erased.
“It was basically a series of biblical quotes on how Francis and his followers were to live life … ideally who we are and what we need to be doing to live a life based on Gospel values.”
Many heresies were prevalent at the time and created an attitude of cautious skepticism toward spiritual movements among the church hierarchy.
“These heresies were anti-church … and very much focused on the degradation of the human body; anything physical was bad and only the spiritual was good,” Brother Nicholas explained.
Francis’ simple way of life had what some back then may have considered “the earmarks” of a heretical movement. But Francis’ approach to life was “very incarnational,” as he acknowledged and drew close to Jesus Christ who was Word made flesh coming into the world, reinforcing that the physical world was intrinsically good. What also ended any reservations about Francis and his rule of life was that he submitted himself and his followers to the authority of the church.
“He came to the church for approval and so they gave it,” Brother Nicholas said.
Living in community has been a hallmark of the Franciscans and remains so today.
“We look at our individual needs, but another aspect of Franciscan life is community. We are nothing without community.”
Franciscans typically live together in modest homes.
“We don’t own anything ourselves. The shoes I’m wearing are not mine and when I die they’ll become someone else’s shoes,” Brother Nicholas said with a smile in his voice.
They live as a fraternity with one another “and from there our ministry flows out, but we come back to community, which gets us recharged.”
The best preaching is not necessarily through “a social program” as such, Brother Nicholas said, but by being in community and living out the Gospel. “If we do those right, we’re going to spread the Gospel by the way we live our lives. Then our example spreads.”
Too often these values conflict with worldly approaches to living, he said.
“What Francis, first and foremost, might say to us today is that something we’re missing is love of the world. Not in a negative sense, not with a love for things that are not right with (the world), but a love that it was created and a love and respect for all creation, in particular, human beings. We have all this technology, but in a way it dehumanizes us. … Francis might look and say that we seem to have forgotten something; we’re forgetting each other.”
While technology has its benefits, one downside has been its dehumanizing effect. People communicate less directly, opting for texting or e-mailing, for example. And when human beings are relegated to numbers it “takes the humanness out of what we do.”
Giving examples such as the Holocaust, Brother Nicholas continued, “When you begin to look at people as not human, suddenly they are disposable.”
“We need to bring back to humanity the dignity of humanity and of creation.”
Repentance is another theme carried into the world by Franciscans: “Love God, repent of sins and love—love your neighbor.”
For Brother Nicholas, his service comes through his work with the Metropolitan Tribunal of Atlanta where he is the chief auditor. He lives at St. Philip Benizi in Jonesboro, a parish served by Franciscans.
His work with marriage annulments allows him to be a conduit for “bringing someone back to the sacraments, which is what Francis would want.”
“It’s a service to the church, to God and to the people of God.”
Franciscans are not catalogued into one area of ministry. “We run the gamut.” This was evident as well at the gathering in Assisi.
“To go to this was very humbling for me,” he said, adding that in his almost fours years as a Franciscan he has made many friends, some of whom he encountered on the trip. He also formed new friendships.
“To give you the scope of the event, presentations were translated into three major languages—Spanish, English and Polish—but I heard Russian, Japanese, Filipino. … People came from all over the world to this one spot; we all had parochial differences, but there wasn’t a problem. The thing is we were family.”