In the beginning of 1996 the board published a note which was much more robust in tone compared to previous papers. The note contained four statements:
- “Religious, and such are we, are men of God. This statement, on which we hopefully can all agree, is at the base of everything we can say about our life as Franciscans.
- As Franciscans we belong to a brotherhood.
- We need to discuss the nature of our work
- In the last years (few) new brothers have come our way”.
These statements were followed by a series of questions aiming specifically at the identity of the province, among these:
- Can we indeed see our life, as described in the three vows, as a way which is grounded in God and that leads us to God?
- May we and can we address each other on a common interpretation of our vows?
- We are (often) busy with ourselves and our work, but which space do we want to free for the cultivation of spirituality (in prayer and meditation, both as a community and as an individual person)?
- To what extent do we make ourselves dependent on the brotherhood? Do we dare to answer to the appeal of the brotherhood in the person of the provincial or the board?
- What way of life, which Franciscan characteristics do we present to candidates?
In a letter dated April 12th, 1996 the then provincial Father Jan van Duijnhoven OFM invited his brothers to participate in what was called ‘the province in council’. Almost 200 brothers (about 60%) responded and in six regional meetings, brothers and board members spoke about the future of the province. The board was struck by the intensity of the talks and by the brotherly openness which allowed for supportive and critical remarks alike.
The board decided to organise a number of regional meetings in which the board mainly asked the brothers how they experienced the province and what they wished for in the future. Next to that every brother was offered the possibility of a private talk with a board member. In May 1996 the provincial board published a ‘vision on the future of the province’ (Visie op de toekomst van onze provincie). It was plainly stated that religious life was in a crisis, that this was more than a temporary set-back and that no one can tell what the future will look like, nor what the place of religious life will be. It is worth to quote from this text at some length:
“The process of renewal will be a long one and will likely take more than one generation. What is demanded now is patience and faith. He, who does not believe in a future will not have a future. We believe in a future for our brotherhood. We are convinced of the value of this form of Franciscan life. Especially also in our time. But we do not orientate ourselves on a restauration of the past. This historically grown province is over. It was a time-bound shape of the Franciscan charisma. It was a large province with many projects and works: schools, parishes, missions. A working province of mainly priests. In monasteries and parish houses life was lived according to a uniform monastic style of life. Talking about future, we do not strive for saving this traditional monastery life or a revival of our existing province.
We think that in the future our province will exist of some smaller communities, spread over our language region. The (local) community will be the bearer of our Franciscan future…
A uniform model of life cannot be imposed from above. The contents of Franciscan community life must be found by the brothers themselves. This common deliberation will have consequences for the shape of religious life (prayer and meditation, hospitality, openness to people in society); for a reconsideration on and interpretation of the three classical vows; for a common commitment…
In fact we follow a twin-track strategy. On the one hand a gradual, some times quick reduction and dismantling of our past….All this requires our permanent care and attention. On the other hand we wish to create conditions for a (modest) future of our brotherhood. And we wish to involve as many brothers as possible. Future concerns us all.”
The paper ends by stressing that recruiting will have to be oriented on this vision for the future and will have to be implemented with great care, whereby the barriers should not become too high. Next to that the focussing on the places of preference was to be continued as these will be the places where Franciscans will be visible. “These are the instrument with which to face the future”.
From the large variety of answers and opinions presented in these talks, the following points are striking:
- In the past there was a strong connection between individual persons and fields of work. Quite a few works depended on the charismatic or strong personality of an individual brother. This made these works vulnerable as they depended on that person and were not so much carried by the whole of the province.
- The decision which community was to be a community of preference depended much on the qualities and availability of individual (younger) brothers. Later on the board stated more boldly where a community of preference was to be, independently of individual brothers.
- Uncertainty is unavoidable in a process of policy developing but uncertainty is also taking a lot of energy. Good and frequent communication on all levels is vital for a successful process.
- Brothers state that in the course of the process they note a change for the better in communication between each other. Talking about vital issues apparently needs to be learned and experienced.
- The brothers appreciate that the provincial stated that he knows too well the temptation to do nothing and let things take their (natural?) course. But everyone must face the realities. Given the high average age and the given problems, the board is impressed by the involvement, commitment and participation of so many brothers.
- In the course of the process the spirituality is addressed ever more openly, including questions regarding the status of prayer, poverty and obedience. In the end ‘even’ the view on Eucharist and wearing the habit is addressed.
- Many attempts by local communities were made to play a role in the direct social surroundings, however with little success. The communities were too small to have an impact. “De stad/wijk/buurt zit niet op de OFM te wachten” (the city, neighbourhood is not waiting for the Franciscans).
- The possibility for lay people to connect themselves to communities or the province, is rather seldomly discussed. Much of the discussion remains within the confines of the own brotherhood.
- The use of the term “places of preference” caused mixed feelings. In spite of the need for clarity and progress, the importance of inclusive and appreciative language cannot be stressed enough.
- Several communities advised to look for possibilities of cooperation with other orders and congregations in a concrete setting or project.
- “Only” 60% of the brothers participated in the talks in 1996. Given the importance of the issues at stake, a larger participation would have been expected.
- The communities recommend a greater (international) cooperation: Franciscans without borders!
- The time of free uncommitted talking is over, now it is time for policy making.