II. An Industrious and Constructive Chapter

In the first part of my recollections of the 1992 Extraordinary General Chapter in Mexico (which was published on this website in October of 2022) I had tried to evoke the Chapter by offering some details about the participants, the place, important moments during the Chapter proceedings, various significant events, etc. In short, I talked about its more external aspects, if you can call them that.
In truth, what really deserves to be remembered are the “contents,” that is, the topics that the Chapter dealt with, the issues that were addressed, the broad discussions that took place among the various language groups and in the general assemblies, the ideas that emerged, the new horizons that opened up, the decisions that were made, and the contribution given to the life of the Order. Obviously, it is impossible to recapture, in a sufficiently complete manner, however concisely, such a vastly detailed event. However, one can learn what the Chapter produced by skimming through the booklet containing the documents of the Chapter, entitled, “Friars Minor Conventual – Documents of the Extraordinary General Chapter – Mexico 1992”. The material was also published in Commentarium Ordinis OFM Conv., 89 (1992), file 2, pp. 376-445.
Therefore, in this second installment, I would like to talk about the topics that comprised the subject matter or content of the Chapter in Mexico. I will try to do so, however, with the awareness that summarizing ideas is more challenging (and often more tedious) than recounting events.

Listening First and Foremost
One should start by saying that part of the work of the Chapter was appropriately dedicated to listening. I am referring of course, to the indispensable practice of listening to each other during our many meetings, in groups or in assembly, which were convened to address the topics on the Chapter agenda. However, there were also various informational reports presented to the Capitulars. Some of these reports were intended to acquaint them with Latin America, especially when it came to inserting the Franciscan charism in the churches of that continent. Other reports were intended to introduce the three major topics that were offered for the discernment of the Capitulars.
Overall, there were nine reports, some more extensive than others, reported in full, in bilingual versions, during the Chapter proceedings found in the aforementioned 1992 Commentarium Ordinis, file 2.
The first report was made by Professor Augustín Basave FERNÁNDEZ DEL VALLE, a renowned philosopher from Mexico, a university lecturer, a writer, and a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. His report was entitled, “The Contemporary Crisis and the New World Order,” which was very scholarly and packed with rather challenging reflections. It offered a broad and penetrating look at the cultural transformations that have taken place throughout the Western world, particularly in Latin America.
There were other interesting reports of a Franciscan nature, which talked about the various occasions when the sons of St. Francis were inserted in Latin America.
Professor Mario CAYOTA, a history professor and an expert in Franciscan history, lectured very competently on the topic, “Justice and Peace during 500 Years of Presence: Examples of Franciscan Witness.” Particularly interesting was his description of the “Franciscan Project,” which was proposed as an alternative to conquest.
On September 5, the Capitulars celebrated “Latin American Day.” On that day, they heard four reports about the Conventual Franciscan presence in Latin America (and environs).
The first of these reports was by Friar Valentín Redondo FUENTES. It was particularly interesting because it dealt with a subject unknown to most of the Capitulars, namely, that a Conventual Franciscan presence existed in Latin America as early as the 16th century. This presence, however, was not a properly institutional presence. The matter is still not fully documented and requires further investigation.
Next, Friar Miguel Ángel LÓPEZ gave an extensive and detailed report on the Order’s presences founded during the 20th century in various Latin American countries. His report covered the first forty-six years of progressive plantatio Ordinis on the continent, from 1946 to 1992. As we know, in the last thirty years, our presence has continued to spread there.
There were two shorter reports about two U.S. Jurisdictions with historical links to Central and South America. Friar Allen RAMIREZ gave a report on the presence of the Franciscans in California and Friar Phillip LEY reported on the Custody of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which originated from the southern United States.
This series of reports helped the Capitulars place themselves, with greater awareness, into the “new world” in which the Chapter was being celebrated. The reports also helped the Capitulars appreciate the work the Order was doing in that vast area of the world, and to foster its further development—which has since occurred.
Next, there was a second series of reports. These were more directly related to the work the Capitulars would be doing on the three topics placed on the agenda.

The Underlying Goal of the Chapter: To Attempt a Revitalization of the Charism
The first and fundamental task entrusted to the Chapter, as mentioned before, was to reflect on the status of the Order at that time and to offer directions for the future, with an eye toward the soon-approaching third millennium. In the first installment  of my recollections, I recounted how the Minister General, Friar Lanfranco SERRINI called for a Chapter to foster “more dynamic evangelical conversion, a renewal of the Conventual Franciscan charism, and greater attention given to the cultural and ecclesial contexts of our various Conventual presences at that time.” “What we need,” the Minister General further observed, “is an open, generous attitude, free from prejudice or apathy. We need to be open to what God wants to tell us through peaceful, fraternal, sincere and respectful discussions with each other.” He called for a “change of mindset,” aided by prayer and reflection. “Fraternal coexistence will help us,” he added, “to get to know each other and, therefore, increasingly appreciate each other. We should be willing to ‘listen,’ because each brother is a gift that the Lord places before us, so we might appreciate the multiform richness of God, who shows himself to us through so many brothers.” These words seem to resonate in the Church today, since Pope Francis invites us to walk the path of synodality and to follow Jesus in a more consistent and lively manner as part of a truly evangelical Church.

The first major theme that was put forward was, “Conventual Franciscan Presence and Witness toward the Year Two Thousand.” It set the tone for all of the Chapter work and would later lead to the drafting of the Chapter’s main document.
The Chapter intended, in essence, to project itself into the future, to look forward with a clear and prophetic vision that could arouse widespread desire for the renewal and revitalization of the Order.
To better understand the content and meaning of the Chapter work, particularly on the first theme, I find it very useful to consult the brief text that the Capitulars used to introduce the document they entitled, “Conventual Franciscan Presence and Witness toward the Year 2000.” In it, we read:
“The reproposal of the charism of the Order, the object of this extraordinary General Chapter, constitutes our imperative response to the invitations which come to us from:

  • the Church which, already beginning with Vatican II, asks religious institutes to adopt ‘suitable renewal,’ ‘a return to their original inspiration’ and ‘adaptation to the changed conditions of our times’ (Perfectæ caritatis 2);
  • contemporary society, with its unavoidable positive and negative challenges, such as, secularization and the post‑modernity of Europe and North America; the new and complex reality of Eastern Europe; [One must not forget that the fall of the “Berlin Wall” had occurred only three years earlier]; global injustice which especially involves Latin America, Africa and the greater part of Asia, generating grave social crises.
  • the requests expressed by a good number of friars within the Order through the consultation which was made prior to this Chapter.

Therefore, we are convinced that the Order is called by the Spirit to:

  • continually rediscover the originality and the spiritual fruitfulness of the charism of Francis of Assisi;
  • indicate ways of life or new institutional structures for embodying the Franciscan charism in today’s Church and world in the most suitable and meaningful manner.

Such a responsibility has been entrusted to our Chapter, which is called upon to carry out a particularly conscientious task of reflection and discernment In view of the ‘new evangelization’ which the Church is proposing.”

The Document
Conventual Franciscan Presence and Witness toward the Year 2000
This theme, as I said, dominated the work of the Chapter. It sought to answer the question: “What does it mean to be Friars Minor Conventual today and in the near future, in the Church and in the world?”
The theme was not addressed in an improvised way. The introductory text just quoted stated: “the requests expressed by a good number of friars within the Order through the consultation which was made prior to this Chapter.” In fact, an earlier report by Friar Pietro BELTRAME, which facilitated reflection on this theme, talked about the results of this consultation, which had been requested by the 1989 General Chapter (in which a revival of the charism and some restructuring of the Order had been envisaged). This introductory report by Friar Pietro called for keeping in mind the fundamental elements to which the charism necessarily refers, namely: a set of core values, a structural component (institutionalization), a cultural component, and a prophetic component. What degree of willingness did the consultation reveal to promote the revitalization of the charism and, at the same time, envisage changes in the structures (changes hitherto mainly related to changes in the number of members of the constituencies)? The result of the consultation showed, yes, a certain desire for revitalization of the charism and renewal of the life of the friars, and also some positive criticism of the inadequacy of structures inherited from the past, but it also showed that there was resistance to change and, on the part of some friars, a sacralization of the old structures. Questions about where (the reality of the present), how (structures), and what plans for a revitalization were to be implemented, showed different desires, and hinted at some fear of change.

That said, I now turn to the document, “Conventual Franciscan Presence and Witness toward the Year 2000

Of course, it is only possible to go very briefly into its contents. The way it is organized is interesting. It consists of four main headings and their related minor headings:
– Our Conventual Franciscan Identity:
The Franciscan Gospel fraternity, minority and Conventuality
– Structures:
Initial and continuing formation, leadership and mission
– A Plan of Action:
For the individual friar, for the friary, for the Jurisdictions, for Inter-Jurisdictions and for the entire Order
– Reviewing Structures:
the filial house, the Province and the Provincial/General Custody

It is obvious that this plain list of headings is somewhat generic and lacks any interesting novelties. One should keep in mind, however, that during the last thirty years (that is, from the time of the Chapter in Mexico until now) religious life and our Order acquired and affirmed certain ideas, visions, concepts, and sensibilities that, at the time of the Chapter, were not commonplace or taken for granted the way they are today. For those interested in getting at least an idea of the contents of the document, here are just a few elements from the text with its four headings.

Identity It is decidedly important that we clearly recognize our identity, which enables us to respond appropriately to the needs of the Church and the challenges of society, following Christ in the footsteps of Francis of Assisi. A well-defined spirituality should animate the being and activity of every friar. Thus, “more important than what one does is the spirit with which a particular work is carried out.” Our identity is principally characterized by fraternity, minority and Conventuality. Fraternity is a “the fundamental value to be lived out and to repropose to the Church,” and it requires an attitude of permanent conversion and recognizing others as a gift. Minority makes us humble brothers, and leads us to the “expropriation of what we have and what we do.” It means “being lesser ones” and also “being with the lesser ones” of society, sharing in the sufferings and hopes of the people. Conventuality makes us attentive to the issues of the people of today and calls us to participate in the culture of our time, to dialogue with all, to place ourselves at the border, and to be on the front line of renewal in the Church.

Structures This term refers to external or institutionalized expressions of the charism. The document insists that they be adapted to the changing culture in order to facilitate the prophetic thrust of our charism. Therefore, their suitability with regard to the here and now in which we live must be frequently evaluated. This presupposes openness to renewal (avoiding getting stuck in a repetitive rut or the misguided restoration of the past). Within the context of structures, the themes of formation, animation and mission are addressed. Concerning initial formation, particular emphasis is placed on adopting “precise policies on the selection of vocation prospects ‑ the result of rigorous discernment,” on the importance of basic education in the humanities; formation for affective maturity, in depth Franciscan and theological-spiritual formation and pursuing studies at quality institutions. The need for continuing formation is strongly emphasized. It is something that each friar must take serious responsibility for. It must take mandatory forms and involve dutiful verification. The theme of leadership refers to “helping the friars and their communities to live out their charism concretely in today’s world and within a variety of situations.” It is the primary task of the Superiors, at the various levels. The undeniable value of the Friary Chapter and the common programming of the life of the community are also mentioned. As for the mission, “a true diversity of locations and activities in the Provinces/Custodies” is required, along with the growth and strengthening of our missionary presences. Valuable criteria are offered to guide the choice of opening new missions or strengthening existing ones. The friars are encouraged to implement an effective option for the poor and to work in the area of ​​justice, peace and the integrity of creation as well as in the area of culture.

A Plan of Action This heading relates to the Order’s need for a plan of action at all levels: for the individual friar, for the friary, for the Jurisdictions, for Inter-Jurisdictions (where there is a collaborative relationship between Provinces and Custodies) and for the entire Order—where there should be the mindset and effective ability to operate on the basis of shared values and standards and adequately thought-out projects. Appropriate suggestions are given for each of the levels mentioned. Here are some examples: For the individual friar, adequate periods for continuing formation should be planned, perhaps three to four weeks of formation [annually]. For the friary, the conditions necessary should be provided to offer the friars the opportunity for community and personal prayer, authentic fraternal life, the celebration of positive Friary Chapters, a diverse selection of ministries, effective leadership from the Guardian, etc. For the Jurisdictions, it is interesting to note that in order for the Provinces/Custodies to continue as such, they must promote vocations, guarantee fraternal life, offer opportunities for authentic initial and continuing formation, collaborate with other Jurisdictions, participate actively in the life of the Order, etc. Furthermore, the Provincial/Custodial Chapter was, at that time, tasked with drafting a Three-Year Plan of the Jurisdiction. Now, it is a Four-Year Plan. For Inter‑Jurisdictions, various forms of collaboration were to be carried out among the Jurisdictions in a spirit of openness and co-responsibility (in common formation, in sharing friars, in assistance rendered to elderly friars, etc.). For the Entire Order, the General Chapter is called to foster a universal vision in the mindset of the friars; facilitate collaboration; promote the apostolates of the General Curia, Assisi, the Seraphicum and the Penitenzieria; and verify the implementation of the indications of the General Chapter

Reviewing Structures Under this heading, some of the indications set out in the previous headings were clarified in a juridical-practical way. I shall mention a few of them. One was the requirement that communities be composed of at least three friars. Another laid out the precise requisites for establishing a filial house, affirming that “every friar has a right to live in community,” and thus commitments should not be undertaken that would impede him from doing so. Another was the need to review the situation of Provinces with fewer than forty solemnly professed friars for a period of six years. Additional standards were suggested “to guarantee genuine fraternities which can respond to the needs of the Church and the world of today,” for example, assuring that priority is given to the more significant services; focusing attention on the needs of the local Church; giving preference to dioceses which are poorer in terms of clergy; keeping in mind the historical significance of our presence in a given area, etc. As for the Provincial and General Custodies, it was specified that a Custody must have clearly articulated goals governing its life and mission; that it should be “a transitory stage toward the establishment of a Province”; and whenever, after a sufficient number of years, a Custody exhibits an inability to reach the established goals, it must be suppressed.

Not One Document among Many
Let me dare to offer a few simple remarks on the document just presented. I must first, however, apologize for my overly dense presentation and my rapid succession of themes. I felt that expounding extensively on the contents of the document would have been excessive. However, reducing it to a sparse outline or table of contents would have been like presenting an empty box. After all, “Conventual Franciscan Presence and Witness toward the Year Two Thousand” was intended from the beginning to be the main document of the Chapter. Let me also mention that the text in question is substantial: in the booklet containing the documents of the Chapter in Mexico it takes up twenty-two pages.
I have already mentioned that some visions of ecclesial and religious life that have been quietly acquired today were not commonplace thirty years ago. One should remember that at the time of the Chapter, the Synod of Bishops on Consecrated Life (1994) had not yet been celebrated, the valuable document “Fraternal Life in Community” (1994), had not yet been published, nor had the Post-Synodal Exhortation Vita consecrata (1996) been issued. The document just presented may not seem particularly innovative today, but back then, I believe it had a significant impact on the Order. Many subsequent concrete changes in the practice and choices of the Order were certainly influenced by this document (as well as changes in the map of the Jurisdictions in the Order).
I would like to reemphasize that the Chapter was animated by a clear desire for renewal, focusing on the essential. This was in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, with its well-known eagerness for updating. In fact, the Chapter occurred twenty-seven years after the end of the Council (not fifty-seven like today, nor were there bizarre traditionalist manias going around, as is the case today). The conciliar drive was being felt more strongly.
The consultation [sent to the friars as a whole], conducted prior to the Chapter was very interesting, even if it deserved to be better set up. In fact, at that time, it was required to make the results of this consultation known to the whole Order. The consultation contributed to the intelligent organization of the Chapter, and helped to make the Chapter discernment more grounded in reality. It also seems to me, that the good approach the Chapter adopted made it clear that the way to deal with emerging problems in the Order was not by fixing them as best one could through improvised solutions. Rather, it was by discussion, discernment and wise planning and perhaps helping the Provincial Chapters to adopt standards and indications that were sufficiently thought out and adequately discussed.
Of course, in our time, changes in the Church and in religious life have been very rapid, as we well know. And Yet I allow myself to express the conviction that the Chapter in Mexico really helped the progress of the Order, and taught it to use an interesting and productive methodology.

✠ Friar Gianfranco Agostino GARDIN

(to be continued…)