One measure of a religious institution’s health is its engagement with young people. By that measure, the St. Irenaeus Fraternity of the Order of Franciscans Secular, based at Mt. Irenaeus, is a healthy organization.
St. Irenaeus Fraternity will mark its 10th anniversary during the 11 a.m. Mass at Mt. Irenaeus on Sunday, Sept. 25. At that time, its newest member, 2016 St. Bonaventure University graduate Jason Damon, and Troy Hillman, a 2015 St. Bonaventure University grad who studied with the fraternity, will have entered the Order of Friars Minor in August as postulants with Holy Name Province.
Jason and Troy sat down after the July fraternity meeting to talk about their experiences with the fraternity and its influence on their spiritual journeys.
Jason had been introduced to Mt. Irenaeus by a neighbor from West Seneca before attending St. Bonaventure, so he felt comfortable enough to get involved immediately. For Troy, who was from a Protestant background, it took more time.
“I had heard whispers of the Mountain when I worked on campus in the summer of 2014,” Troy said. In October 2014, he was invited to a Men’s Overnight that Jason was coordinating. “This is all his fault,” Troy said, laughing.
As it happened, fraternity members Larry Orsini and Don Watkins also took part in that overnight, introducing themselves as Secular Franciscans.
“I remember asking, ‘What’s a Secular Franciscan? Doesn’t secular mean worldly, sinful?’ And Larry explained the Seculars to me,” Troy said.
During that event, “We did one of the silent walks up there, and I turned to the Francis statue (along the path to the Chapel) and asked, ‘Are you calling me to be a Catholic?’ The silent answer to that was, ‘It’s going to be a lot more than that.’”
It was Jason, who had started studying with the fraternity in fall 2014, who first invited Troy to the Adoration that precedes fraternity meetings, and to a meeting itself. By that time, Troy had begun studying the Catholic faith and was planning to be confirmed.
“The hospitality of the Secular Franciscans has been huge,” Troy noted. “The fraternity made an effort to support me,” attending his confirmation and giving him a tau cross rosary that he carries with him. He noted other ministries of the fraternity — quietly welcoming visitors to the Mountain, inviting inquirers and the curious to attend meetings, helping with coffee and cleanup after brunch, doing laundry and cleaning after visitors. “I will credit the fraternity here in large part for helping me to want to go down the path that I’m on, and supporting me in that.”
“For me, it took a while to understand that reading — ‘The harvest is great but the laborers are few,’” Jason said. “(Journeying with the) Seculars reoriented me to understand that we all have the same call to holiness. Secular Franciscans do a really excellent job of embodying that — being able to live out the gospel wherever you are. They are people who have regular jobs or who are retired, who are parents or grandparents, who live out their call in a way that’s really attractive.”
When Jason was in formation with the Seculars, he had the opportunity to intern one summer with the Knights of Columbus in Washington, D.C., and asked formation director Larry Orsini if he could continue to study remotely.
“Larry was totally supportive; he reminded me of the itinerant nature of the Franciscan charism,” he said.
Jason would email his reflections on his studies, then discuss them by phone with Larry and his wife, Bonnie, who partners with him in formation along with vice minister Betty Hooker. Betty met with him before the OFS meetings while Bonnie and Larry traveled in the winter. Last summer, when he interned with the Franciscan Action Network in Washington, he also sat in with a Secular Franciscans group that met in the house where he lived.
“Being in the Secular Franciscans really helped me to realize that I am being called to the friars,” Jason said, adding that he didn’t know whether to continue to journey with the Seculars, with whom he was professed in May.
“Larry encouraged me to continue walking this path,” with much carrying over to his future formation journey. “It reminded me of how much bigger Franciscanism is than just the friars, than vowed religious life.”
While Troy was invited by the vocations office to enter postulancy in August 2015, following his graduation, he chose to spend a year with Franciscan Volunteer Ministry (FVM) in Camden, New Jersey. “My time with the Secular Franciscans here, going with Don (Watkins) to the Secular Franciscan Conference, was an inspiration for me to go to FVM for a year, rather than jumping to the postulancy.
“When Francis and the brothers started out, they were laymen for the most part ... It’s inspiring and helpful to know that you don’t have to be a brother or a sister or a priest to walk in the footsteps of Francis — the footsteps of Christ — and you can be enriched and touched by community life,” Troy said.
The fraternity members have encouraged the young men to stay in touch as they can and are inspired to do, and have offered prayers and support as they journey toward becoming friars. The fraternity continues to welcome new members as it always has.
Don Watkins, now minister of the fraternity, credited the late Fr. Robert Struzynski, O.F.M., as well as current guardian Br. Kevin Kriso, O.F.M., with encouraging him to reach out to young people, especially on the Bonaventure campus, to involve them in the Secular Franciscan movement.
“We realize that young people represent the future of not only the friars, but also the Secular Franciscans, and we are keen to share our life with them,” Watkins said.
St. Irenaeus was a newly forming group from 2001 until October 2003, when it formally defined its mission and belief statements. The mission of St. Irenaeus Fraternity is “to respond to the needs of people with love, prayer and hospitality through gospel living, embracing all as Christ. We believe as followers of Francis and Clare that prayer, contemplation, hospitality and reverence for the sanctity of all creation are foundational to our way of life.”
Canonical establishment was formally noted on Oct. 15, 2006, with a Mass celebrated by spiritual assistant Fr. Louis McCormick, O.F.M., who has supported the fraternity from its beginnings. Just two weeks later, three new members were professed during Sunday Mass, joining the seven already professed members. Since its formation, four members are deceased and two have relocated.
The fraternity, which currently has 11 active members and one in candidacy, welcomes anyone who would like to learn more about life as a Secular Franciscan to its meetings, generally held following 11 a.m. Sunday Mass and brunch at Mt. Irenaeus on the fourth Sunday of each month.
For more information, please contact minister Don Watkins at email@example.com.
(Suzanne English is secretary of the St. Irenaeus Fraternity OFS and a member of the Mountain’s Communications Committee. She is also an alumna of St. Bonaventure and former media relations director at the university.)
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