How do these stories start? Perhaps something like, “A long time ago, in another time and place…?” Nah, I’ll just jump right in!
When I was a high school student, I was drawn to one of the instructors at the Catholic boy’s school I attended. The Marist Brothers ran the school, and there was one teacher who wore a brown outfit – the habit of the Franciscans. I was attracted by his teaching methods and his kindness to everyone, and wanted to know more. So, I began writing to religious orders about this “Franciscan” business. The pamphlets and literature poured in and I saw soon overwhelmed by the vastness of the world of religious!
Suffice it to say, I chose a group that was close by and was well-and-truly, Franciscan. Wanting to enter their seminary right of out high school, as one does when overcome with religious zeal, I was asked by my parents to wait a bit. Being the obedient son I was, I did just that. After a few, wonderful years at a public university, I soon realized it wasn’t for me. With no negative feelings, I moved on and completed my degree, graduated, got a job, and was married. Two wonderful children came to this marriage, and sadly the marriage ended but that is another story.
This story now moves to my adult life and my college-age children. While visiting my daughter one weekend at her University my life was turned upside down! One of the Franciscans, who was previously unknown to me, was living at that university and invited me to dinner. He simply asked if I had ever thought of returning to the Friars. My initial response was quite simply, “no.” There’s where it ended…or so I thought.
Through the next months, I was in something of a haze, because what I have described as a “boulder” having moved a fraction of an inch in my mind and heart. Then, the momentum began; that small shift soon became all consuming and there was nothing left for me to do but contact the Franciscans.
And wait… not for them, but for me and my own heart. There were so many compelling reasons NOT to do this, but just one simple reason why I MUST. That was: the call, the nudge, the idea, whatever one calls a vocation.
Having had to make incredible adjustments in my life, I began the process of entering religious life. Home, possession, money, career, and even some friendships – all were subject to this great decision into which I was being drawn. And so, my life as a friar minor began.
Plunging into this life has been an excellent journey thus far. It does not come without some worldly jabs from time to time. For instance, when people hear that I have two grown children, the inevitable questions of judgment arise. “Did your wife die?” “Were you divorced?” “Was the marriage annulled?” “How do your children feel about this?”
There is one exception to this litany of questions, however, and our story must now move to La Verna, Italy. In the summer of 2015, I was blessed with a pilgrimage to Italy to follow the steps of St. Francis. The trip ended in La Verna, where Francis received the precious stigmata. The friary there was home to many young friars who were in their novitiate year, prior to taking their first vows. I knew very little Italian, but nevertheless, befriended one of those young friars. He and I walked one day through the grounds of this holy place and I shared with him my story and told him about my children. He stopped in his tracks and simply said to me, “How wonderful for them to have a father who is a friar!” It was incredibly moving to me, because after I had told him about my children I braced myself for the usual litany of questions, vis-à-vis, judgments but that didn’t come – only a genuine happiness for both my children and me. His kindness toward me was transformative. He helped me to realize that we all have journeys and they are never, never straightforward ones. I now have a slightly greater insight to the paths of those whom I encounter, and know that they, like me, have a story and possibly a very painful one but one for which I should have great compassion, tolerance and patience.
Pax et bonum!
Robert Barko, OFM