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St. Francis and the Millennials: Kindred Spirits
By Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M.
Francis of Assisi was in his early 20s when he abandoned comfort for a higher calling. Doesn't that sound like a Catholic millennial?

Q U I C K S C A N

Craving Community
A Commitment to Solidarity
Profit or Prophet?
Looking for Acceptance
Looking to the Future
Resources for Millennials

(Left to right) Sean Foote, Alex Letvinchuk and Casey Cole employ their youthful energy, passion and Franciscan-inspired faith to assist homeless people at Philadelphia's St. Francis Inn.
PHOTO © 2010 MARK STEHLE PHOTOGRAPHY

ONLY 800 YEARS apart, they are kindred spirits, open to where God leads them. Alexander La Point is 23 years old, about the same age Francis of Assisi was when he first made the decision to change his life in 1206. Eight centuries later, La Point entered religious life with the Franciscan friars, found it was not what God wanted for him but still has great love and respect for St. Francis.

Before going off to college, La Point says he did not go to church or take his faith very seriously. In 2003 he began studying mathematics and creative arts at Siena College, a small Franciscan liberal arts college near Albany, New York.

During his time at college, "The Franciscan tradition was made evident through the concept 'Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words,'" La Point recalls. "It was in seeing the way the friars behaved, engaging them in conversation, learning about Franciscan spirituality on my own, hearing the friars preach and conduct Church services that I discovered the importance and beauty of the Franciscan tradition."

The lived example of St. Francis that La Point first encountered in college inspired him to consider what role God was playing in his life. "In my case the Franciscan tradition encouraged me to return to my faith, engage in conversation about the poor and underserved and eventually take part in a year of volunteer service."

La Point, a millennial, is not alone. The Millennial Generation—those born after 1982—is the latest group to reach adulthood. The earliest members of this cohort began graduating from high school around the year 2000 (hence the term "millennial"). Now the first of those are graduating from college, entering the workforce, starting their own families.

Today's young adults see something inspiring in the life and spirituality of Francis of Assisi. In a survey conducted in Washington, D.C., and published in the book American Catholics Today: New Realities of Their Faith and Their Church (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), young adults were asked which people in all of Church history are the most inspiring to them. After a first-place tie between Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II, St. Francis was next.

Obviously, there is much about the life of St. Francis and the Franciscan tradition that inspires millennials.

Craving Community

One element that captures the emerging attitudes of the Millennial Generation is the strong desire to be part of a community. In a way that is unique to this group of young adults, the millennials have grown up in a time of increasing global consciousness, easily accessible travel and near-instant communication. The hyper-connectedness of technology, however, leaves many young adults seeking something more.

Tara Dillon, 32, was the director of the "20s/30s Boston" young-adult group at St. Anthony Shrine and Ministry Center, an urban Franciscan church located in the heart of Boston. The group meets once or twice a month and is composed of men and women from a variety of professional and socioeconomic backgrounds. She describes the group as an opportunity for young Catholics in their 20s and 30s to meet one another and learn more about their faith.

"The meetings have tended to focus on the social dimension of the gathering, but have been moving more and more toward enrichment," Dillon says. She sees the young adults of Boston "yearning for religious education."

But that's not all these young adults are looking for. Dillon sees members of the Millennial Generation "looking for family" in the Church. "Many young adults are transplants from other cities and states. They are looking for a community atmosphere to share their faith," she adds.

The Franciscan tradition has always focused on the communal dimension of Christian life. The personal history St. Francis models and the subsequent Franciscan spiritual tradition emphasize three modes of relating to others, creation and God. This uniquely Franciscan way of viewing relationships includes a focus on community, a commitment to solidarity and a life lived in fraternity.

Eddie Whelan, 24, is a member of the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry (FVM) in Wilmington, Delaware, an organization of young lay women and men who dedicate a year to ministry while living in a community modeled after gospel values and Franciscan ideals. FVM has three locations in poor urban neighborhoods of Philadelphia, Camden and Wilmington.

Whelan, a graduate of the University of Georgia at Athens, says that he came to FVM in part because he was looking for something service-oriented and an intentional community.

"The Franciscan values and philosophy align well with me," Whelan says. "There's a strong sense of solidarity and community emphasized here."

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Millennials hunger to be connected to something larger than themselves, a trait that has been highlighted by many generational researchers and one that serves as a connecting point for young adults seeking a spirituality that is not about just "me and God."

Additionally, the commitment to solidarity—standing with and advocating for the poor and marginalized—speaks to the hearts of young people. Millennials can see in St. Francis' conversion to live among the poor lepers a reflection of their own desire to work toward a world where each person's human dignity is protected and celebrated in the human community.

Melissa Cidade, director of Pastoral Assistance Surveys and Services at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, explains that the Franciscan emphasis on global poverty resonates with today's young adults. According to her research, millennials are the generation most likely to "strongly agree" that the United States should spend more money to deliver medical care to victims of AIDS in other countries.

They also are likely to believe that an equitable society can be achieved only if special attention is given to the needs of the poor and that people in rich countries have an obligation to help those around the globe, not simply people in their own communities.

"Franciscans not only have a special charismatic responsibility to the poor, they also have a global presence which speaks to millennials," Cidade adds.

Kelly Donnelly, 23, also a member of FVM in Wilmington, believes that the Franciscan tradition offered everything that she was looking for in a year of volunteer service: community, spirituality, service and living simply. "Franciscans tend to emphasize social justice and living among the people you are serving," she adds.

The climax of the Franciscan view of relationship is fraternity. St. Francis called all aspects of creation his brother or sister, transcending simply human relationships to include all of God's work. In an era marked by ecological crises and global warming, the call to relate to all of creation in a deeper way is indeed appealing to a generation that has grown up witnessing the decline of the earth's health.

Authors Eric Greenberg and Karl Weber, in their book, Generation We: How Millennial Youth are Taking Over America and Changing Our World Forever (Pachatusan Press, 2008), decided on the name "Generation We" to describe millennials because they see this cohort as a "caring generation, one that appears ready to put the greater good ahead of individual rewards."

Even though contemporary society presents an image that at times normalizes self-centeredness and competition, young adults show a noticeable enthusiasm for volunteer work and meaningful service.

Like many young adults today, Alexander La Point felt drawn to volunteer service after college. He knew that he wanted an experience that would continue what he had first come to know in college. After exploring the possibilities, La Point committed to a year of service with FrancisCorps, a Franciscan lay volunteer program in Syracuse, New York.

La Point says that, while there are many volunteer organizations available for young adults to choose from, "the Franciscan spirituality that exists in a program like FrancisCorps makes the program more accessible to a young adult."

He sees his experience as a Franciscan volunteer as both formative and challenging. "This spirituality is going to offer more [than other volunteer opportunities] in the way of community, guidance and faith."

St. Francis, in his Letter to the Entire Order, wrote, "Hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves, that he who gives himself totally to you may receive you totally" (#29). Francis makes a deep connection between Christ's real presence in the Eucharist and our need to empty ourselves in self-giving to God and others.

St. Francis' own life provides a helpful model for this way of living. We often forget that Francis was only in his early 20s when he began his way of life and started to receive the first brothers in community. He was a young adult who was at first captivated by the nascent materialistic culture he knew well because of the rise of the merchant class in Assisi. The son of a wealthy cloth broker, Francis aspired to riches and fame as his family's financial means increased.

Franciscan Volunteer Ministry
(Friars Minor of Holy Name Province)
Locations: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Camden, New Jersey; Wilmington, Delaware
Web site: www.franciscanvolunteerministry.org

FrancisCorps
(Conventual Franciscans)
Locations: Syracuse, New York; Costa Rica (must speak Spanish)
Web site: www.franciscorps.org

Thomas of Celano, Francis' first biographer, wrote that, after his conversion, "he who had once enjoyed scarlet robes now traveled about half-clothed" (The Life of Saint Francis, Chapter VII, #16). Francis, who was once oriented toward business for fame and profit, was now living the life of service as a prophet.

Millennials, through exploring the writings and prayers of St. Francis, are challenged to ask themselves whether they are motivated to make profit or to live as a prophet. This is seen in the way young adults give of their time and service as long-term volunteers in programs such as FVM or FrancisCorps.

The prophetic call to hold back nothing of oneself in today's economic environment provides a message of hope and value that market capitalism simply cannot deliver. Or, as Eddie Whelan sees it, "Franciscan spirituality challenges you to be what you believe and find out what that means in a real physical way in life. It challenges you to walk in your faith."

The way millennials practice their faith can look very different from those generations of Catholics that have gone before them. For many of the Millennial Generation's elders, this characteristic has elicited both concern for today's young adults and skepticism about their commitment to their faith. One popular slogan frequently used to describe today's young adults is: They are spiritual, but not religious.

Melissa Cidade believes that statements like this do not accurately reflect the faith experiences of millennials. "I think the issue here is not that millennials are 'spiritual' or 'religious,' but rather that their spirituality looks different than previous generations," she says.

CARA research suggests that millennials report the highest participation in certain Lenten practices including abstaining from meat, receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday and giving money to charity. Cidade points out, however, that "one third (33 percent) report attending Mass 'rarely or never.'" Millennials are also "most likely to agree 'strongly' that one can be a good Catholic without going to Mass every Sunday," she says.

These seemingly contradictory trends can confuse Church leaders and others. Cidade suggests the data tell us, "Millennials are trying to figure out what is core and what is peripheral to their faith."

What has often been the standard mark of a "good Catholic," such as attending Mass, no longer offers a satisfactory test of committed faith. That is not to suggest that millennials want to do away with Mass, but it should not be the only indicator of this generation's religious commitment. Because of this shift, millennials are looking for faith communities that welcome them in their journey of religious discovery and exploration, and accept them as they are at the moment.

One of the most memorable experiences in the life of St. Francis was when he and a friar-companion traveled past the crusaders in Egypt to meet with the Muslim Sultan Malek al-Kamil during the height of the Fifth Crusade. St. Francis' encounter with the sultan was marked not by wartime negotiations or efforts to establish a truce, but by a commitment to the Gospel instruction to "love your enemies, do good to those who hate you" (Luke 6:27).

The experience of encountering the sultan changed Francis and led him to add a chapter to the Franciscan Rule that described the way in which the brothers were to engage with people of other faith traditions or those who had no belief at all.

He wrote, "One way is not to engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to every human creature for God's sake and to acknowledge that they are Christians" (Regula non bullata, Chapter XVI, #6). St. Francis expressed a lived commitment to follow the example of Christ in welcoming all and meeting people where they were and not where he wanted them to be.

Brad Landry, 23, of FVM in Wilmington, has experienced this welcome firsthand. He considers himself "bireligious," as one raised Catholic, but also a dedicated practitioner of Dharma (Buddhism) for more than five years. Landry sees similarities between Franciscan spirituality and Buddhism.

"In my tradition there is an emphasis on tenderly touching suffering—meeting suffering for what it is through a type of compassion and empathy that develops over time, spiritually. I think it's not so far from what Franciscans would say they are doing."

Landry has experienced a welcome in the Franciscan tradition he describes as life-changing: "There's something about the way in which Franciscan spirituality has manifested itself that there's no going back to 'normal life.'"

Like St. Francis with the sultan, today's Franciscans live out a tradition that strives to accept people as they are and welcome them into a community of faith. This has left a positive impression on many millennials. Tara Dillon recalled one comment a young adult shared with her after speaking with a friar. She said that "the priest at St. Anthony's seemed like he really cared and he didn't even know me."

It is after being welcomed into the community that many young adults begin to practice their faith more regularly and share that experience of welcome and acceptance with others. Eddie Whelan adds, from his own experience, that "Franciscan spirituality challenges you to have introspection and then go out and see how you can be a spiritual person in the world."

As millennials seek guidance and inspiration in their spiritual journeys, the model of St. Francis offers a rich resource. In many ways the Franciscan tradition is infectious, which perhaps explains its popularity and longevity over eight centuries.

Tara Dillon is now a religion teacher and chair of the theology department at Archbishop Williams High School in Braintree, Massachusetts. She, like those polled in the Washington, D.C., study, has two heroes: Pope John Paul II and Francis of Assisi. "All of my students know that. I have quotes all over my classroom from both of them," Dillon says. "Whenever I talk about Francis, the students always say, 'He's one of your heroes.'"

When asked what about St. Francis makes him a hero, she says, "I try to live his example 'to preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.'" Dillon sees gospel living as important, but also adds that St. Francis' example of simple living, although a challenge, is something she strives to follow and model for her high school students.

As millennials experience, embrace and pass on the Franciscan tradition to those who follow them—like Dillon to her students—the spirituality of the saint from Assisi continues to live on, inspiring others for another eight centuries.

 

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is a millennial Franciscan friar of Holy Name Province in New York who currently teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Siena College in Loudonville, New York. To learn more about Dan and his work, visit www.danhoran.com.


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