“He, who does not believe in a future will not have a future”.

Paul Wennekes

More | Reflective articles

“He, who does not believe in a future will not have a future”.

Paul Wennekes

More | Reflective articles

Identity-seeking within the Dutch Franciscan province in the last 30 years.

This text is based on a viewing of policy papers of the Dutch Franciscans in the past 30 or so years. It shows a remarkable change in the policy and language used, going from a careful approach and orientation on the wishes and needs of individual brothers to a much bolder stating of a common policy concerning a possible future for the province. All this took a long time and required a large investment in an internal communication process in various phases. Through the attempt to roughly describe the phases of this process, hopefully other religious communities, which face similar challenges, can profit from the insights and results of this process. What is written below is the personal interpretation of the papers provided by an outsider who is sincerely grateful for the confidence given by allowing him such a private view in the deliberations by the order.

Different phases of identity finding.

In the course of the last 30 years, a number of phases in the development of the identity of the Dutch Franciscan province of the Martyrs of Gorcum can be distinguished. In the eighties of the last century, it seems that there was little systematic policy development. The decisions on closing of houses and the appointment of brothers for new positions seemed to depend mainly on the preferences and willingness of individual brothers. As these brothers were engaged in a very broad spectre of activities, it was difficult to define a clear identity as a province or even as a separate community.  Within larger cities sometimes different communities had quite different profiles and exchange, let alone cooperation, seemed to be difficult at times. Differences between houses throughout the province were even larger and sometimes prejudices among the brothers existed regarding some communities or individual brothers, which made the transfer of brothers to such communities a challenge.

Phase 1, the 55 min-process.

In 1990 the provincial board started the so-called “55 min-process”, a consultation of all brothers who were under 55 years of age. Despite all notable differences of view, a clearer picture of a possible future of the province took shape and resulted in the definition of seven so-called “voorkeursplekken”, places (houses) of preference, on which the province would concentrate its efforts. The board stated that they would have to let go of many places and activities and that this would be a difficult and painful process for many brothers who believed in these activities and did work so hard for it. But the board had no other options and declared that it is convinced that the brotherhood has a future in the Netherlands and that this future will be different from the past without being able to say what the future would look like. As it was later put, the process of mourning over the loss of what was in the past started here and the thinking became slowly but clearly more oriented on a common future.

In 1993 and again in 1995 so-called “mattenkapittels” (chapters of the matts) were held to include as many brothers as possible in the whole process.  The chapter of 1995 explicitly asked the board to speak with all brothers and not only with the minus-55 on the possible future as it was felt that although the minus 55 brothers would be the ones to implement a future policy in the long term, the province could not do without the experience, wisdom and brotherly concern of the elderly brothers.

Phase 2, Franciscan by profession.

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.

Phase 3: How do the brothers go through the world.

The 2004 chapter advised the board to start a new dialogue process concerning two questions: what are the signs of the times and what is the Franciscan place in society. In 2004 the provincial board installs a taskforce “How the brothers go through the world” (hoe de broeders door de wereld gaan). The task force advised to address both questions in separate rounds of talks and to make use of external advisors and experts. Between December 2004 and January 2007 the task force gathered no less than 20 times to organise this process. The task force noticed a certain fatigue with the brothers concerning dialogue processes and wonders how they can stimulate the brothers to engage themselves once more in a process of reflection.

In its meetings the task force wondered if the question how brothers should go through the world should be how they actually do go through the world. After further consideration it was decided that before being able to answer that question, another issue should be addressed, namely how the world goes through the brothers. Only in a second step the question can then be addressed how the brothers go through the world. The task force decided to discuss this second question on the basis of two texts: the testament of Saint Francis and the last (2005) mission statement of the Dutch province. Interestingly, the board acknowledged that is was almost impossible to find a modern Dutch Franciscan text which could be compared with the testament. Central question for the discussions was: do these words motivate us today to go through this, our, world as Franciscans? The emphasis was on ‘reflection’. The internal dialogue was seen as central, not the wording of a policy or the determination of a central line of thought. A brotherly meeting to exchange thoughts was seen as a benefit in itself and to that purpose different forms of dialogue were offered, acknowledging different degrees of interest and commitment but also of differing abilities to participate.

All in all 112 brothers participated in one of the three forms of participation offered, which made for 54% of the then total number of brothers. As the emphasis was on the mutual exchange, the results in 2006 of the two phases were very varied. Some striking points were:

  • The exchange among brothers answered to a concrete need, despite the noted fatigue
  • Brothers noted with some surprise that the meetings had a matter-of-fact religious character. Religions convictions were discussed with much respect and openness.
  • Participation in the dialogue process is a form of fraternal service to each other. Mutual exchange is an important contribution to the shaping of Franciscan witnessing. Brothers can grow on each other.
  • For the majority of the brothers the Franciscan spirituality and the brotherhood are the main sources of inspiration. ‘God has given us brothers’ against a past emphasis on the idea of the Lord has called us individually.
  • The younger generations of brothers were more open to questions to the Franciscan identity than the elderly ones. ‘How do you dare to call yourself a Franciscan?’
  • Many brothers started the reflection on their position in the world from the question what they could/should offer to the world rather then asking what the world asks/expects from them.
  • The story of the meeting of St Francis with the leper is more appreciated than in the past but the brothers acknowledge that they have only modest dealings with the fringes of society.
  • The brothers are receptive to the needs of the poorest but acknowledge that they have little means for solidarity. What they can give is to try and share as transparent people, the love of God.
  • Most brothers have an ambiguous relation with the institutional church
  • To have to let go and to feel oneself as a stranger in this world was a widespread experience among the elder brothers.
  • It seems that the influence of religious life on society is overestimated by religious organisations and the influence of society on religious life is being underestimated.
  • In the rule of St. Francis the going through the world is part of the message. Franciscans go through the world. Point. They are not from the world but in the world to bring the people the peace of the Lord.
  • Are Franciscans still in the world, or have they, like so many people, retreated in a world of their own?

Phase 4, Moratorium, time out, 2009 – 2012.

The general chapter of 2009 asked all Franciscan provinces in the world to take a time out to reflect on questions as ‘where do we stand as a province, where does the Spirit lead us to, what should we do to get there?’. The Dutch provincial board decided to devote three separate phases to these three questions.

Question 1. Where do we stand?

Four questions were given for the first phase: “Where do we stand:

  • in our religious and prayer life?
  • in our brotherly/community life?
  • in our position within church?
  • our place in society?”

The first phase was implemented in the spring of 2011. The board first answered the questions for themselves and then asked the brothers to react. In the report on that first phase it is stated that actually only the prayer life was discussed (somewhat to the surprise of the participants, it seems). The answers by the board were well received but the remark was made that these answers mainly summed up activities and did not so much address the (religious) experience at the basis of religious and prayer life. It was advised to address this specifically in the second phase. The brothers defined themselves as loyal but critical members of the church. Some express their loyalty in terms of suffering at the church. Participation in church life should take the form of simple, approachable, inviting participation.

Question 2. Where does the Spirit leads us to?

Phase one focussed on prayer life but more on the forms of prayer and less on religious experience. In its letter of October 17th, 2011, the board announced that the second phase would focus on the question where the spirit leads the brothers to. “What moves us spiritually and can we clarify this for ourselves and for our brothers?” No policy development or intensive reporting was expected, the emphasis was completely on the exchange among each other. First talks were organised within the communities and after that three possibilities of exchange on the national level were offered.

Question 3. What should we do to get there?

Phase three addressed the topic of prophetic presence in the world. The board identified four Dutch Franciscan activities in this respect: the Franciscan youth work, the spirituality centre La Verna in Amsterdam and two magazines published. The brothers admit and stand up to their limited possibilities and find peace with that. At the end of this phase, two conclusions were drawn:

  • The Dutch province wants to show the gentle face of the church. In loyalty to the church and the bishops, the Franciscans want to create possibilities for human, spiritual and modern ways of belonging to and participating in the life of the church and of fulfilling the mission of the church.
  • The Dutch province wants to give more attention to its visibility in the public domain. “When we are not visible, people cannot meet us and do not get to know us and so will never experience that our life is a good life, worthwhile living.” The decision was taken to ask for professional help to reflect on a PR policy. And then “We will also rethink wearing our habit in public”. In some respect this last statement marks a small revolution within the province.


Looking through all the papers and reports, it seems that the Dutch Franciscan province has moved since the nineties in a process of ever intensifying internal communication from a phase of identity finding to the question how the world goes through the brothers and how the brothers go through the world to a concentration on a deepening of their spirituality. In this last phase questions arise about the place and value of prayer, of the Eucharist, guidance by God through the brotherhood, personal religious experience. It seems that after the seventies and eighties, with a strong emphasis on individuality and personal development, the order as a whole became visible again, leading to questions after identity, visibility and spirituality for individual brothers, communities and the province as a whole. In the papers of the nineties the word prayer is hardly to be found, in 2011 one of the conclusions is that it is experienced that the Franciscans as a province, despite all differences, like to pray with each other. Also the question after the meaning of the Eucharist is being explicitly asked. Striking was also to meet the remark that after having invested a lot in the internal life of the brotherhood, maybe this went at the expense of the collective visibility. This question after the visibility connected to the discussion on identity is also a new point in the deliberations of the province. The presence of the Franciscans in the world is critically and self-consciously but also positively defined as marginal. There is no need for a massive and sweeping presence. The forces are lacking to have a direct impact but interestingly the formulation ‘sensitivity for places’ is being used in the discussions.

In this long process, the province managed to leave behind the mourning over the past, to address the issue of the identity of individual brothers and of the province followed by a reflection on the relation between the ‘world’ and the Franciscans. In this process the question after spirituality (also instigated by the questions of the general chapter) became the next natural step. In the whole procedure the brothers and the provincial boards experienced an improvement in the internal communication and became more confident in the sharing of personal religious convictions and feelings. Despite great efforts to include as many brothers as possible in this process, the board however also had to live with the fact that a substantial minority of the brothers could not or would not participate in this process of learning and growing on each other. It took faith and brotherly love to accept the individual disposition of brothers and at the same time not let the process of ‘reading the signs of the time’ be stopped by this. No doubt the process of identity finding and adaptation to the demands of society and church will continue but the past 30 years have shown faith, hope and love to an impressive degree and has provided the province with a good base to face an in many ways open future.

About the author

Paul Wennekes

In the year 2018 Paul Wennekes had the opportunity to look in the archives of the Dutch province of the Franciscans concerning the quest for an adapted identity within the province in the past 30 years. The discussions are presented in some detail as these present a host of information on the internal processes which is likely of interest to other orders and congregations facing the same challenges.