Secular Franciscans held the first virtual chapter meeting via video conferencing because of the COVID-19 Pandemic.  This is one of a series of reports that appeared in TAU-USA Winter 2021 Issue 102.)

By Sharon Winzeler, OFS

Fr. Christopher Panagoplos, TOR celebrated the masses for the virtual national chapter from his friary.

Fr. Christopher Panagoplos, TOR, helped set the tone for a pandemic-caused virtual chapter by reminding attendees to take a Franciscan approach and see opportunity.

In the opening mass streamed from St. Joseph Friary in Hollidaysburg, PA, Father Christopher noted that many were experiencing anxiety in the midst of a pandemic as well as civil unrest.

“I cannot stop all of the issues from swirling around in my mind — racial discrimination, fear and uncertainty with every breath we take, divisiveness in society, in our institutions, in our church, bigotry, lack of civility in public discourse, injustices against human dignity, preventive health and safety measures misinterpreted as restrictions on personal freedom, disinformation,” he said.

Disruptions Can Be Opportunities

Father Christopher called on chapter participants to “see the disruptions” as “an opportunity to be alone with Jesus and go deeper and deeper.”

Approach these unsettling times with a Franciscan heart, he advised, by maintaining a joyful attitude like St. Francis of Assisi while being penitent and seeking conversion.

“The call to conversion is a change of mentality,” he said. “It predisposes us to believe in the gift of the Kingdom of God proclaimed and inaugurated by Jesus. Being penitent introduces us to the extraordinary and intimate relationship with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Fr. Christopher, who is past president-in-turn of the Conference of National Spiritual Assistants, urged Franciscans to listen to the Holy Spirit during these trying times. “Act in ways that bear witness to our vocation. This hidden treasure has not lost its value in the current conditions of the world and of the Church. To the contrary, it is even more valuable as a Gospel alternative to the lacerations that oppress and distress today’s men and women.”

Unwavering faith in the face of uncertainty helps us to accept and understand Jesus’ words to be prepared against the unexpected, he said.

Fratelli Tutti

In the chapter’s closing mass on Oct. 24, Father Christopher pointed to the encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, as a way to spread harmony in these trying times.

“Pope Francis is surely right to think that a confused world urgently needs some Catholic common sense.” That is what he provides us in his latest encyclical, “universal fraternity put into dialogue with the Gospel. It points in the direction of the brotherhood and sisterhood of every human being.”

He referred to the Gospel in which Jesus told his disciples, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another as I have loved you.”

“Not just ‘love one another.’ Not simply ‘love one another as you love yourselves.’ No. ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’”

A Good Model

Franciscans have a good model for this type of love, he noted. “St. Francis lived and taught this reciprocal love as Gospel living. He showed us how to love the Father by being in harmony with all creation. How to love the Son by imitating his life. And how to love the Spirit to be Advocate of the Order.”

The encyclical is an expansion of  Catholic Social Teaching, he said, and a reiteration of the essentials of the Gospel, urging us to get back to the basics.

“Pope Francis stresses the importance of meeting others, of creating a culture of encounter, to really get to know one another. Covid-19 should not diminish our desire to connect with one another. Computers and smartphones and video communications are at the ready.”

Pope Francis’s example of ordinary human goodness working for the common good is exemplified in the life of St. Francis of Assisi as noted in Fratelli Tutti: “In the world of that time, bristling with watchtowers and defensive walls, cities were a theater of brutal wars between powerful families, even as poverty was spreading throughout the countryside. Yet there Francis was able to welcome true peace into his heart and free himself of the desire to wield power over others. He became one of the poor and sought to live in harmony with all.” (#34)