(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
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
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
Obviously, there is much about the
life of St. Francis and the Franciscan
tradition that inspires millennials.
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.
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
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
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
"The Franciscan values and philosophy
align well with me," Whelan says.
"There's a strong sense of solidarity and
community emphasized here."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.