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.
Too Young to Follow Francis?
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
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,
Willingness to Witness
"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
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
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
on life," she says of her Franciscan discipline. "I
try to spread joy like St. Francis."
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
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."
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."
Francis: Teen Hero
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
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.
"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.
in the Church
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
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
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
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.
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
"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