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Teenagers Following
Francis

Too young to vote, barely old enough to drive, these teenagers are not too young to seek a deeper spiritual life. They've found help in the life and rule of St. Francis of Assisi.

By Jan Dunlap

 



Father Evan Howard, O.F.M., witnesses the renewed commitment of Seton Catholic High School Seniors (from left) Anne Marie Servino, Aryn Seminara and Angela Menendez to the Secular Franciscan Order. At 21, each intends to make a permanent commitment.

PHOTO BY JOY E. TRICHE THE CATHOLIC SUN, PHOENIX


Too Young?
Direction to Follow
St. Francis: Teen Hero
Willingness to Witness
Renewed National Priority
Rooted in the Church

T wenty-nine high school students--both young women and young men--are quietly restoring a link in the history of the Franciscan Order in America. These Arizona teenagers are Franciscan youth, members of one of only four Franciscan high school groups in the country. They meet not to organize social activities or prepare for competition but to pray, plan works of charity and study the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO).

Earlier in this century, peaking in the 60's, Franciscan youth conventions around the country would draw good-sized crowds. Now decades of decline may be ending as these young people gather every Monday afternoon at Seton Catholic High School in Chandler, Arizona. The group includes athletes, scholars, prom committee members and campus ministers.

In its third year, the Seton group has grown from a handful to a roomful of students, each one of them pledging time and talent to walking the path of St. Francis. Along the way, some of them have already begun to find what they are searching for: a growing closeness to God, a connectedness to community and a more personal relationship with the Church. It is, in fact, this opportunity to grow in faith that attracts these students to the Franciscans. This is why the Seton group came into existence.

Too Young to Follow Francis?

When Shawn Allen enrolled at Seton Catholic High School two years ago, he started looking for a way he could become more involved in the Catholic Church, something beyond attending teen Masses and participating in occasional service projects. He went to Catherine Meibert, Seton's assistant principal, for help.

"He said to me, 'I know you're a member of the Secular Franciscan Order and I would like to join,'" Meibert recalls. "So I checked into it." Meibert found that age was an obstacle. Candidates to the Order must be 18 years old before they can make a temporary profession and 21 years old before they can make a perpetual profession to live according to the Rule of St. Francis, a promise made by the candidate before God and witnessed by the local Secular Franciscan fraternity. No current guidelines for a youth group existed.

Upon further inquiry, however, Meibert discovered that a group for youth was permitted by the Order. She spoke with a few students she saw regularly at daily Mass and helped to form the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Fraternity of Franciscan Youth.

Fueled by student interest and enthusiasm, and advised by Meibert, the newly organized group structured its activities to reflect an authentic Franciscan identity. Weekly meetings are devoted to student reflection, rosary recitation, study and discussion of the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order.

During the week of the feast of St. Francis, the students lead morning prayer for the entire high school student body over the P.A. system. Some of the students teach religious education classes at their parishes as volunteers. Others traveled to a Franciscan mission in Mexico last year to offer a few days work to the poor of the community. Meibert explains that each student chooses a ministry. "They take on their own personal commitment as well as try to live as simply as possible in the way of St. Francis," she explains.

One ongoing project involving the entire group is My Sister's Place, a diocesan-sponsored refuge for abused women and children. The students maintain a large collection barrel at school to collect clothing, food and toys for the refuge. When the barrel is filled, they sort and prepare the items for delivery. During the school year, they also sponsor "Buck-a-Jeans" days (students pay for the privilege of wearing jeans rather than uniforms) to raise funds for the shelter. On occasion, some of the students baby-sit at the shelter to give mothers a much-needed break.

Senior Anne Marie Servino, now in her third year with the group, sees service to others as a key element of living a Franciscan life-style, and one that sometimes sets her apart from other teens. "I hear people complaining about having to do service projects to get service hour credits at school and I think, 'How can you complain about giving so little of your time to others?' I want to help others and one way to do that is to serve."

As her individual project, Servino volunteers with a child development specialist, tutoring children with learning disabilities. Working one-on-one with children aged five to 13, she plays math games with them to bolster number skills, helps them to match alphabet tiles to sharpen letter recognition and gives ample praise to boost the children's self-esteem. "It's an outlook on life," she says of her Franciscan discipline. "I try to spread joy like St. Francis."

Willingness to Witness

Each fall, students are invited to join the group, although investiture of new members doesn't happen until January. "That way, we can do some spiritual formation to prepare them for joining the youth group," Meibert says. Attendance at daily Mass and saying a daily rosary are important components of that formation, as are group discussions focusing on the Franciscan virtues of humility, simplicity and joy.

At the investiture, attended by the candidates, their parents and guests, the students participate in a prayer and Communion service, led by the group's spiritual assistant, Deacon Herve Lemire of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Lemire is a member, along with Meibert, of the Secular Franciscan Fraternity of Our Lady of the Rosary at the parish.)

Highlighting the ceremony is the students' declaration of their desire to follow a Franciscan life-style in order to discover and deepen their own Christian and Franciscan vocation. Following this pledge, the candidates then receive a Tau cross (the familiar cross of the Secular Franciscan Order) as a sign of their belonging to the Franciscan youth fraternity and their willingness to witness to the gospel. Although they are not required always to wear their crosses, a few of them do so, Meibert notes.

Meibert also confides that she is sometimes surprised at the spectrum of students who come to the group each year. "They are a very diverse group," she explains, "and they are not necessarily the kids who hang around with each other at school. Sometimes it's kids you wouldn't expect to be interested--like the quarterback on the football team. For them to keep coming, I have to believe that there must be great spiritual growth."

Direction to Follow

Morgan Segroves, a junior, was originally attracted to the Seton group because she was looking for a way to show and share her faith in God. "But once I joined," she says, "I found St. Francis was a really good role model. He loved everyone so much....I hope I can accomplish that at some point in my life."

Segroves had the chance to practice that embracing Franciscan love last year when she was one of the Seton students to spend three days at the Franciscan mission of Casa Franciscana in Guaymas, Mexico. "One day, we pulled nails out of the wood at the orphanage," she remembers. "It doesn't sound like much at all, but it needed to be done. And the kids were all around. They were so happy to see us. Just being there, helping these people, was something I'll never forget. I still carry them with me and I pray for them every night. I really wanted to stay and keep on helping them, but we had to come home."

Her experience in Mexico, along with the other activities she's participated in since joining the fraternity, have made a big impact on Segroves, who feels her life has changed. "Trying to live like St. Francis by practicing simplicity and learning to live in humility gives me a direction to follow," she explains, even when that direction doesn't always match up with her friends' interests and desires. "A lot of my friends are materialistic and I'm not, and sometimes they give me a hard time about it, because they like to go to the mall. But St. Francis wasn't materialistic, so he's a really good role model for me. Now, people can see an outward sign of who I am as a young Franciscan. It's a commitment I've made because I want to show and share my faith, and as a member of the group, I can do that."

Nicole Hank, a senior, agrees that faith-sharing plays an important role in her life as a young Franciscan. In particular, she credits her growth as a Franciscan with helping her deal with the death of her grandfather, to whom she was very close. "Being closer to God really helped me accept the fact that my grandfather was suffering," she recalls. "I accepted his death very well and I was able to help my family accept it, too, although at first they could only see death as a negative, while I understand death as a positive thing, because that person will become one with God.

"I think," Hank continues, "before I became a student Franciscan, I used to be more of a 'half-empty glass' person and now I'm more a 'half-full glass' person. It has definitely changed my perspective on life. I've become more loving and understanding of others." Teens often treat each other with less than perfect or patient understanding, she notes, and frequently prejudge each other based on their differences. "Now I take 'differentness' as something special," she says, "and not as something bad. I think it's made me more accepting of others and more patient with others' differences." Hank also believes that attending daily Mass--one of the ways she stays focused as a young Franciscan--helps her keep her days less stressful and more peaceful.

Fellow young Franciscan Angie Menendez also makes time for prayer in her life. Now in her second year with the group, Menendez, a senior, says she prays daily, tries to stay happy and keep a good outlook on life. "I try to make the best of everything," she says, "because the way of St. Francis is to be joyful."

Once a month, she shares that joyfulness with the disabled of her parish through a special ministry program, teaching arts and crafts, songs and prayers. Every Sunday night, she volunteers as a team leader with her parish junior high youth group. Like Servino, she doesn't consider serving to be an imposition, but rather a mandate of her Franciscan life-style: "Franciscans are called to serve one another and their community," she says, then adds, "The way of St. Francis is to keep it simple."

That isn't always easy, though, Menendez admits. "Sometimes it's hard when I'm around people who gossip or drink, and I'm the only one not doing it. I get these looks for refusing to do it. But later, they respect me for my beliefs and they say, 'That's cool.' I even have differences with my family sometimes. My family is very liberal and I'm more conservative, so I just try to respect others' opinions and not fight over it. But sometimes it's really hard."

Renewed National Priority

Personal change, challenge and spiritual growth are powerful experiences for Franciscan youth, but they come as no surprise to Lemire, who has worked with the group since its formation. "These kids are genuinely excited about St. Francis and his vision," he affirms, "and we're very proud of them and what they do, because they're not just talking about living the gospel, they're doing it. They have so much to offer, such freshness and creativity. We really need to get more youngsters involved in the Order."

Lemire is not the only one who sees promise in these young Franciscans. Last year, the national fraternity of Secular Franciscans made it a priority to begin the development of a youth organization. "There is very definitely a vision for a national network of student Franciscans," reports Terry McCarthy, Sr., a regional minister for the Secular Franciscan Order. "Although there is no national policy as yet, we are now in the process of getting information and beginning to pull something together."

Some of that information may come from sources outside the United States, McCarthy reports, explaining that an international Secular Franciscan youth organization, called Jufra, already exists in many countries around the world. "The organization is especially active in Latin America," he says, "with a lot of involvement in Europe as well. At this point, it's one of the priorities of the national fraternity to get the youth groups going in the United States." To direct that effort, Secular Franciscans Anthony and Mary Mazotti of Arnold, California, were recently appointed coordinators of the National Franciscan Youth Commission.

Redeveloping a student network will take time and research, according to Mary Mazotti. "We've always been anxious to develop a youth organization," she says, "but it took time to research what would make it acceptable and what young people are looking for. Since the culture of the United States is different from that of other national groups, we need to see how American youth will respond, and so we are involved in inquiring around the country."

No assistance has been readily available in the recent past to students or advisers who were interested in forming groups. Consequently, one of the Mazottis' primary goals as coordinators of the commission is to help formulate guidelines and formats to aid Secular Franciscans in establishing youth groups, such as the one at Seton. To Mary Mazotti's knowledge, only three groups currently exist in the United States, but she sees great potential in attracting many more young people to youth fraternities.

St. Francis: Teen Hero

"I think the ideals of St. Francis are very attractive to youth at the 14- to 18-year-old age level," Mary Mazotti says. "I think they are looking for a hero and sometimes the heroes they choose are not the best for them." Francis, however, can offer young people a role model with whom they can readily identify, and whose spirituality is a very positive thing, she explains. In addition, his well-known role as an advocate of peace and ecological harmony is especially appealing to many of today's teenagers.

Mazotti echoes Segroves's observation that following in the footsteps of St. Francis can give students a fresh focus in life, one to which they may not otherwise be exposed. "I also think they like to be challenged," she says, "and that they want to do something worthwhile to serve their community and improve their world. Our purpose as adult Secular Franciscans is to inspire them, and to be inspired by them, in working to renew the world."

Like Lemire, Mazotti feels that youth have a lot to offer the Franciscan movement. "They have their energy, their vibrancy, their willingness to try new things, whereas some of us are more reluctant to try new ideas," she admits. "Their willingness to work, especially in the area of apostolic action, is wonderful. Hopefully, the attraction of St. Francis and the Secular Franciscan life-style will encourage them to develop spiritually as well."

Meanwhile, Mazotti feels that the members of the Order have an important role to play in helping these young people grow in faith. "As adult Franciscans, we have lived to experience more things," she reflects, "and along the way, maybe have grown wise and can offer these young people stability, wisdom, direction, focus, encouragement, support and love."

Rooted in the Church

For Shawn Allen, the support of the Franciscan community, both adult and student, has been a sustaining and deeply satisfying experience. "When we attended the Blessing of Animals at St. Maria Goretti Parish last year with the Secular Franciscans, it was great. It felt like a culmination of a lot of what Franciscan spirit is about. There was so much joy there, with all the families, children, parishioners and animals all around."

Allen also affirms Mazotti's vision of the relationship of Franciscan youth with members of the Secular Franciscan Order: "I think that being in the group is a wonderful opportunity for teens to have support in their spirituality from adults in the Order."

Allen says that membership in the youth group also offers young people a definite channel for experiencing spirituality. "It seems like lately, a lot of people are saying that teens in the Church aren't willing to become involved in the life of the Church. But I know that many do want to be involved, that there are a lot more students who want to be active, but they have a hard time admitting it. This offers them a way to be in touch with God and to deepen that relationship. I'm especially attracted to the humility of St. Francis and the fact that it is a life-style, a channel for teens to be more closely connected to Church. I think it's a necessity to see ourselves as we really are and this lets us be open to God and what God wants us to be."

Yet perhaps the real measure of the Seton group will become most visible over time as the teens grow and mature in both their personal and spiritual identities. Allen has been thinking about becoming a priest since he was in the second grade. He now plans to look into the Franciscan Order as well. In April, three members of the Seton group--all having reached age 18--made their first temporary professions to the Secular Franciscans at a special Mass at St. Maria Goretti Parish. They are the first members of the Seton fraternity to do so. Other members are also considering profession in the years ahead. Their experiences as student Franciscans have convinced them of the appeal of the Franciscan life-style.

Lemire sees their participation as a strong sign of hope for a new generation of Catholics, believing that student groups are a powerful way to keep teens in the Church. "This way of following Christ--this dream of Francis to live the gospel as perfectly as we can while living in the world--is what we, as members of the Secular Franciscan Order, have to offer young people. For the future of the Church, we need to get young people interested now, and Francis and his vision is exciting to them," he points out.

"After all," Lemire adds, "Francis was a young person, too."

For more information about Franciscan youth and the Secular Franciscans, write to Anthony and Mary Mazotti, P.O. Box 2571, Arnold, CA 95223.


Jan Dunlap is a free-lance writer whose articles have been published in Catholic Digest, Family Circle, St. Anthony Messenger and other magazines. She and her husband live in Scottsdale, Arizona, with their five children.

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