Thanks to some forward thinking by Saint Francis of Assisi in the 13th century, several lay Catholic Alaskans are now official members of the Franciscan Order.
On a frosty January morning, members of Alaska’s only Third Order of Franciscans gathered in the Shields Center at St. Michael Church in Palmer. Formed in 1994, the local group is part of the Third Order Franciscans, which was begun by Saint Francis in 1221 A.D., just 12 years after he founded the Franciscans in Italy.
As preaching and example of Saint Francis spread across Italy, it attracted many married men and women who wished to join the order. Since the married state was incompatible with the order, Saint Francis found a “middle way” and established a third order by which they could live according to the Franciscan spirit. The order is open to any Catholic not bound by religious vows to another religious order and is made up of both the laity and secular clergy — who are not members of a religious order.
Fast-forward some 773 years into the future and look some 8,500 miles around the world and the Third Order Franciscans are active in Palmer, Alaska, where they hold regular gatherings on the second Saturday of each month. Meetings begin with praying the Divine Office, catching up on each other’s news, and sharing a letter from Father Joe Hemmer, the sole Franciscan priest serving the Diocese of Fairbanks in Kaltag and nearby areas.
At the most recent meeting, members shared and discussed readings from several different Franciscan sources. For postulant Michael McCarthy, it was time to offer his personal reflection on specific questions, which is part of his formation process towards becoming a fully avowed member of the order. A hearty lunch was served following the morning’s study.
Like all other Franciscans, Third Order Franciscans profess vows, or promises, of poverty, chastity and obedience, and strive to live the virtues of the Gospels as exemplified by Jesus Christ. Unlike other Franciscans, however, they are lay people — often married — who model those virtues in their families, their work and their communities.
“No person understood lay people better than Saint Francis,” said Karl Gansler, a member for several years. “You are living in the world, but living the Franciscan lifestyle.”
The sole Alaskan group of lay Franciscans is part of the Pacific Northwest region. Worldwide, there are approximately 400,000 lay Franciscans, with 15,000 in the United States. The group at St. Michael’s has nine professed members and one in formation. Many have been members since its inception.
Due to its secular nature and the diverse interests and abilities of participants, the group is not heavily involved in joint projects, apart from supporting the work of Father Hemmer by periodically sending boxes of needed items to his ministry.
In day-to-day life, the members find unique ways to live out their calling. They share a common spiritual heritage, in both their Catholicism and their adherence to the rule of the order, but the ways they choose to follow them are unique.
For Cathy Adler, the primary facilitator and a founding member of the Palmer group, membership in the order “has helped take my Catholic faith into a deeper walk with Christ though Francis,” she said. That walk has resulted in substantial growth in her spirituality, she said.
Fellow member Janet Hahn said she was drawn to Saint Francis since childhood.
“His joyfulness and emphasis of seeing Christ in everyone, and his optimism” are especially appealing she said.
After converting to Catholicism 10 years ago, Karl Gansler was still looking for something else. The Franciscan approach to life provides a link between God and his church, he reflected. “Formation is a continual process,” he said, adding that this way of living is a resource for like-minded Catholics.
“Franciscans both directly and indirectly support their community — setting an example by living our lives according to the Gospel,” he said, noting that this is especially important for those who are struggling.
When Janice Barrett was invited to join the local Franciscan group, she was intrigued by the emphasis on community.
“I grew up with a helping attitude, when you are involved in a community, you help,” she said. With the Franciscans she found her niche in volunteering to participate in the parish’s practice of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
To embrace the Franciscan lifestyle is to struggle within a society focused on materialism, according to fellow Franciscan Richard Gain, who lives in Anchorage.
“This materialism is devastating to a Franciscan way of life,” he said, noting that Third Order Franciscans help the poor in individual ways.
“I am compelled by obedience to the rule, to abide by the great commandments to love God and to love my neighbor,” he said. The Franciscan lifestyle, he added, “has been a great help to be faithful, loyal to and trusting of the teachings of the church.”
For Michael McCarthy, the struggle that Gain speaks of is part of the formation process in which he is currently immersed.
McCarthy is working his way to full membership in the order. That entails a three-month orientation period, followed by inquiry, a formal period of initiation, and candidacy, which culminates in permanent commitment.
“I greatly appreciate the humility (Saint Francis) exudes,” McCarthy said. “A focus, in the spirit of the Gospel brings a lot of humility to the secular life.”