When he talks about his guitar-playing days, Mike Perry doesn’t neglect to mention that his guitar was a 12-string Epiphone—nothing too fancy, but a step up from the primitive instrument he learned on. In those early days in Indianapolis, Indiana, he dreamed of becoming a lawyer, but a trip to the missions changed all that. Mike, the law student, met the Franciscans and fell in love with the poor, then with the Franciscans themselves. They must have loved him, too. At age 61, Father Michael Perry, OFM, is general minister of the Order of Friars Minor, the 13,400-member-strong branch of the Franciscan family tree.
While in Chicago at a meeting of provincial leaders from across the United States, Brother Michael (as he likes to be called) carves an early-morning hour out of a packed schedule to talk with St. Anthony Messenger. He’ll be on an airplane heading back to Rome in a few hours. During our 60 minutes together, in the house library at downtown’s St. Peter’s Friary, we’ll talk about his personal experience, the breadth of his concerns as leader of Franciscans, and his hopes and dreams for the future of the Franciscan Orders. He sees sweeping changes in the family’s future.
Journey into Poverty
But first, we’ll talk about his own personal changes that brought him to leadership of the Franciscans. After his profound mission experience in Appalachia, where he joined a group of people across faith traditions building houses for people in poverty, Michael was hooked on a life of service. He joined the Franciscans, Sacred Heart Province, in St. Louis in 1977, when he was 22. In the years leading toward law school, he had focused on philosophy and history at Quincy University in Illinois.
After switching career paths, as a new Franciscan he pursued theological studies along with other friars at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He professed his solemn vows in 1981; he was ordained a priest in 1984. In time, he would study for and receive a PhD in religious anthropology as he served the Church in Africa. The missions had been calling him all along.
“I think there were things taking place even before I went to Congo,” he says. And we’re off, on a conversation where Brother Michael seems willing to answer any question, but, like a good professor, talks at times from his yellow notepad—he has prepared for this interview.
Newly ordained Michael Perry was put to work right away helping to form the new students, and became involved with the province’s social advocacy. The words don’t exactly roll off the tongue, but Franciscan provinces worldwide have offices of “Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation.” JPIC, as they call it, though, is key to the Franciscan vision of people, animals, the earth as a part of a web of God’s creation. All are to be treated with loving care, in ways big and small.
It was that vision that brought Brother Michael to the People’s Republic of Congo, where he spent 10 years serving as teacher, prison chaplain, research director, and even farmer. In the midst of pastoral ministry in Africa, he received his doctorate in religious anthropology from the University of Birmingham (England). His research, in the Lower Congo for two years, was on the role of religion in the lives of everyday people.
How each of us interacts with our faith and each other is a curiosity Brother Michael had from the beginning. He recalls an episode from Chicago to illustrate the point: “I had a chance when I was at Catholic Theological Union to do one week on the streets here in Chicago,” he recalls. “I went to the Wilson Men’s Club, up on the north side. It cost $3 per night for the room. I had $5 in my pocket. The first evening I met a young man who was there, roughly a little bit younger than me. He asked me what I was doing, if I wanted to get a beer. I didn’t have any money, so I said, ‘No, I only have $3 that I paid and $2 in my pocket.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ He offered me two beers. The next day he took me to work and, throughout the whole week, he took me under his wing and I came back to the house one week later with $150 in my pocket!” Brother Michael relishes a good story.
He tells another story, one, he says, that “transformed my life.” This one occurred in the Congo, an encounter, time and again, over 10 years, living among people who had very little—less than most of us could imagine. The women, especially, had a grueling routine— up before dawn, kids off to school, work in the fields with infants strapped to their backs, selling what they could find in the market, coming home to cook, and more.
“I remember asking three women once, ‘How is it possible for you to do this? Do you think that God abandoned you?’ And they started laughing. They said, ‘God never abandons us. God is always here. We just need to recognize his grace, and God’s going to take care of us.’” He learned faith from those women: “It taught me about the total dependence on God and also the total interdependence, the sharing that takes place when we care for each other.”
It also taught him to listen. As general minister of the Order of Friars Minor, Brother Michael’s job is to listen to, and when necessary provide guidance for, his Franciscan brothers. So he travels the world over, interacting with friars. “I think in threes,” he starts, cuing up to talk, from his yellow notepad, in some detail about friars around the world. “I’m becoming more and more convinced of, if we’re open to God, if we’re open to surprise, God will surprise us! And life will bring many, many surprises. They’ll be difficult; but they’ll be wonderful.” Then he starts offering examples of surprises he has seen of Franciscan spirit afoot in the world.
He was recently in Taiwan, for example. He tells of seeing Franciscan missionaries and laity firsthand, brothers “who have been able, in a sense, to bring in elements of the local spiritual tradition that are centuries old.” He was in Peru before that, where he saw friars truly empowering the laity, “engaging them in their responsibility as disciples and missionaries in the local Church.” These were working along the Amazon River, making tremendous sacrifices “because they go for periods of time without electricity, without access by telephone or Internet.” Perhaps these missioners might travel for a week to get from one Christian community to another. “These are tremendous signs of hope,” he says.
Hope bubbles from this friar as he recounts even more stories, far from the Roman curial offices: “I was in Indonesia also this year and had a chance to see the brothers working with the farmers on how to develop sustainable methods for farming and to integrate that into Catholic spirituality.” Not just farming, not just sustainability, but also a prayerful approach, he repeats.
“They don’t have an office of Justice and Peace and Integrity of Creation; they have fraternities of justice and peace and integrity of creation. They have fraternities that are integrated who have a sense of Franciscan prayer, contemplation,” he says. They have a sense of Franciscan mission and evangelization, he observes, “and have integrated the elements of the care for creation, stewardship of the earth, and also the protection of indigenous peoples and the respect for human rights. They’ve integrated all of this into a common life.”
As he traverses the world of Franciscan ministry— OFM friars are present in 112, soon to be 113, countries—he sees his job not simply as encourager, or some contact with the broader community, though surely he is both. “I think one of the most challenging things is helping the brothers, the Franciscans, to remember who they are and to whom they belong,” he offers, admitting that it may sound a bit strange to say it that way. “But one of the things that has emerged throughout the history of the Franciscan movement is the need for us to never forget our Gospel roots, our Gospel identity to which we are called, our Gospel mission.”
He, and the nine other council members with whom he lives in Rome, “remind each other, then, that we go out and remind the brothers of the central aspects of our identity, so that we can be energized and have passion for our life and for the world.”
He takes his cue from people he has served along the way. “When you have nothing,” he says, “when you have no guarantee of tomorrow or the next day for your food, for your lodging, for your health, you are forced to recognize the role and the dependence you have on God. Poor people know they cannot do this by themselves; they recognize God’s grace.” For wealthier people to serve our brothers and sisters who are poor, to step even briefly into their shoes, he says, is transformative. “This is something which I hope for,” he says, and something he thinks Franciscans can facilitate. “We have a special privilege we could offer to people by inviting them to come into these places of grace. When we do that, people will never be the same.”
This privileged viewpoint of poverty, by the way, is some cause for hope in spite of current financial hardships for the order’s central government, its curia. It made worldwide news in 2014 when a group of investors, purportedly helping the friars, involved a significant amount of Franciscan outreach funds in an apparently unethical scheme, and brought the central offices to the verge of bankruptcy.
“What’s been amazing is what I would call an outpouring of global solidarity,” Brother Michael says. Franciscan provinces who could help sent resources, he reports. Franciscan sisters and those who love the Franciscans offered signs of support, including financial support. That was a grace, he says, but there is a second grace: “We’ve had to simplify our lives in the curia,” he observes earnestly, perhaps even with a hint of joy.
“The brothers would probably straighten me out if they heard me say this,” he admits, but “maybe we don’t need to own buildings. Maybe we even need to leave the general curia at some point and find some things much simpler, much smaller, to identify ourselves once again with the very people God has called us to serve: God’s poor, God’s people who are forgotten, God’s marginalized, those who are abused, and those who are facing all types of injustices. That’s where we need to be.” Brother Michael wants his brother Franciscans to imagine their futures differently.
Future of the Franciscans
Father Michael Perry, OFM, general minister of the friars until at least 2021, has a vision of the future of the Franciscans. His vision is coming from the founder: “It’s clear from the beginning, where Francis prays before the crucifix: ‘Lord, what is it that you will for me to do? What is it that I’m supposed to do with my life?’ And eventually that prayer expanded to the brothers: ‘What are we supposed to do in the world today?’” That’s the big question now, says Brother Michael: “How do we get ourselves energized, pick up, and get moving again?”
Is he saying that the friars have somehow become ineffective? Not really. It seems more that of straying from the core mission. That’s been a challenge for 800 years, he observes. “One of the problems we’ve always had, we kind of get settled. We start as a movement, we get energized,” he starts, searching for the right way to say something easily misunderstood. “We’re doing very good work in parishes and institutions,” he continues, “but we get bogged down at some point.”
He and his brothers lose what he calls the “flexible grace” of God. “God is always inviting us to deepen our experience with the people where we are, to really sink roots there. The roots remain because they’re built with the people of God.” Then it’s time to take what the friars can from that experience and move on to the next, he says: “I think we have to reenergize.” He summons the call of Pope Francis in “The Joy of the Gospel” and elsewhere: “We need to open our horizons; we’ve got to move where God’s people are moving.”
What does this mean practically? Immediately on the horizon is a change in the way the friars are organized worldwide. In short, Franciscans support each other through a system of provinces and some other, smaller entities. When a province grows to be too large, a new one is formed. The opposite is true in some places, and will be happening in Europe and North America as the Church continues to undergo changes. There are seven provinces in the United States. Each province has a history with the local Church and lots of relationships, so making changes won’t be easy.
“Should the seven provinces remain in the future?” asks the general minister. “I think the indications are telling us no.” That is why he was in Chicago during the week of our interview, in fact, meeting with US provincial leaders. “These [provinces] have helped us be able to express central themes and values of our lives.” But they need to change with the times.
There are bigger structures, too. Over the centuries, the Franciscan movement split into rival factions, for reasons that have little to do with today. The four major branches of the tree that include priests and brothers— the OFMs, the OFM Conventuals, the OFM Capuchins, and the Third Order Regular (TOR)—are finding new ways to work together.
Brother Michael is eager to share examples: “In Zambia, for 25 years, the OFMs, the Capuchins, and the Conventuals have been living in a common center. They’ve been studying together. They don’t pray every day together, but they pray regularly together. They celebrate Eucharist together. They share meals together. The brothers are friends to each other.” This educational center is, in fact, bursting with friars from across Africa.
They are in a difficult situation, he says. “We have no space to welcome our brothers. We have two to a room. The ceilings are too low for bunk beds. And you can’t add a third bed because you’ll block the door and the seating for the desk where they study.” Similar things are happening in Asia, too, he adds. “I think this is a sign of the future.”
Where will we be in 50 years? “Well, in three years, I hope we’re going to have one unified Franciscan university in Rome.” Clearly, 50 years isn’t the issue. The university will be jointly operated by Capuchins, OFMs, TORs, and Conventuals. “We’re moving in that direction, and I think we will be there.” He hopes, with certainty, it seems, that within three years even other forms of cooperation will take form.
He takes it even a step further. Later this year will be the 800th anniversary of the Feast of Pardon, Francis’ appeal to Pope Honorius III to allow an indulgence for pilgrims visiting the Portiuncula chapel, where the order started, in Assisi. The Franciscans, he says, all three of these branches in the First Order, are “going to spend time seeking the way of forgiveness for the ways we’ve hurt each other historically throughout the centuries.” The following year, 2017, marks the 500th year since the act that divided OFMs and Conventuals: “We’re going to see in what way we can heal, do a rereading of that history, and what can we do, again, to heal any wounds and to see about the possibility of a future where we are reunited together.” And there’s more in 2018, the proposal of joint mission projects.
It all points in one direction, to a new vision. One can see how a dreamer of big ideas got to the place he is today: “I think of the future; there’s a potential that God is going to bring us back—the Franciscan men’s orders—back together into one unified movement.” Clearly, others are dreaming with him.
To think, all of this starting with a simple guitar and a trip to the missions. The music still helps keep him going, day after day, country after country: “St. Francis the songwriter and singer resonates with me very deeply,” he says. “I am still learning just how much music [formed him], the sounds that began deep within him, and which he picked up from everything around him, especially from creation.” Here’s Brother Michael, the anthropologist, discovering what’s in front of our very eyes, all over again. “If the world would only sing a bit more and fight a bit less, things might be very different.”