A FIRST TASTE OF FRANCISCAN LIFE
We had been twenty-eight candidates for the L.C. in my final year , 1952, at M.B.K. Twenty of us passed. A more significant statistic is the fact that as many as three of the L.C. graduates (15% !) immediately left for the seminary. One went to Springwood, the diocesan seminary, and two of us joined Religious Orders.
My own choice of the Order of Friars Minor meant first experiencing a preliminary year in the Franciscan Juniorate at Robertson, a few hours by train in the hills south of Sydney. I had no doubts that a year later I would enter the Novitiate and become Brother Leon – and later Father Leon – and spend the rest of my life serving the people of God as had St Francis of Assisi.
I did not know a lot about this thirteenth-century saint, or the Order (he would have preferred that it be called a fraternity) he had founded. I had read the story of Giovanni (Francesco) Bernadone, an Italian rich kid who felt called by Christ to give up everything and dedicate himself to living the Gospel and sharing its Good News with the rest of us. I also read the Franciscan monthly magazine, “The Crusader”, which my parents received at home. But the deciding factor for me was neither what I read nor even the example of my absent brother (soon to be ordained as Father Aidan, O.F.M.), but the Franciscan Vocations Director, Fr Kieran.
At M.B.K. we had regular visits, within the Religious Education program, of priests, both diocesan and regular (members of Religious Orders), who would give us a talk on “Vocations”. The only vocations they talked about, and actively promoted, were, of course, vocations to the Priesthood. Father Kieran never came to our school. It was I who took the initiative of setting up an appointment with him at Mary Immaculate, the Franciscan parish in Waverley, one of Sydney’s eastern suburbs. He did not need to give me the “hard sell”, which, at all events, was not his style. I was already convinced of my “vocation” before I met him.
He was a middle-aged gent, friendly, sincere, an Australian but with an Irish “gift of the gab”, an obviously happy Franciscan priest who had, he told me, relinquished his career years before as a journalist. He was one of those rare “late vocations”, a man with some experience of life, unlike the schoolboys most seminary-candidates like me were.
Father Kieran cut quite an impressive figure in his Franciscan habit, sandals and rimless glasses, a father-figure, whose faith and conviction were contagious, a rôle-model who incarnated the vocation I thought I had.
There was no mystical experience behind my decision to become a friar, no voices, no visions, no talking crucifixes – all of which were part of the spectacular conversion of the Man from Assisi who seven and a half centuries earlier had founded the Order I was about to join.
Francesco Bernadone was born into a bourgeois, wealthy family in Northern Italy, and lived a spoiled, riotous adolescence. He became the town’s life of the party, king of the local youth, popular for his charm, fun-loving company and deep pockets. He had been destined to join his father’s prosperous drapery business, until one day in a decrepit church, San Damano, he heard a painting of the Crucifixion speak to him : “Francis, repair my church (my Church ?)”. Surveying the ruins around him, Francis realized that such a project would require money. No problem there. Oblivious of his father’s inevitable reaction – to say nothing of the seventh commandment – he helped himself, in the family shop, to several rolls of precious cloth and offered the proceeds to the priest of San Damiano. (He had apparently forgotten what vigilant Australian shopkeepers sometimes say about shop-lifters : God help those who help themselves).
His Dad was furious. Father and son ended up in the public square in front of the Bishop, where Francis returned to his father not only the money but every shred of clothing he wore, declaring that henceforth his only father would be “Our Father who art in Heaven”. A dramatic beginning to the saga of Saint Francis of Assisi and what was to become the Franciscan Order.
My own “entry into religion” was, in the early 1950s, a banal, common occurrence in the Australian Catholic community, and something bordering on a habit in my own family. Before long, my parents would be able to (but never did) boast of having given no less than three of their four sons to the Catholic priesthood.
I had never been to a boarding school. In fact, the only times I had slept anywhere except in my bed at home, and military bunks during bivouacs with the Cadet Corps, were the couple of occasions, around the age of ten or twelve, when my parents took me with my brother John and little sister Therese, to visit brother Mick (Brother Aidan !) in Melbourne. Part of the fun was living for a few days in a city hotel, the Victoria Palace (!). For us it really was palatial. We played in its long corridors and elevators, ate in restaurants and slept in the hotel’s beds.
We also visited Mick at St Paschal’s College, Box Hill, a Franciscan seminary of quasi-Spanish architecture in a Melbourne suburb. Of course, the family was never allowed to enter the cloister. We met with my tall, sandaled, gaunt, brown-robed brother in the parlour. We all preferred being together in the front-garden, a charming, well-kept, spacious area about fifty times as big as our backyard in Kogarah, full of flowers, shrubs and carefully selected trees, pathways, fish-ponds and birds. Saint Francis would have had misgivings about the Friars owning all this, but St Paschal’s garden may have reminded him of the beauty of his native province of Umbria. I never for a moment imagined that this garden would be the scene, years later, of my own “manual labor”, far more pleasant than the other chores to which I would be assigned, notably waxing and polishing the ambulatory and cleaning the community’s toilets. But at present, having just turned sixteen, with my Leaving Certificate in hand and wearing a new school uniform with the St Anthony’s College crest on my jacket, I bade farewell to my parents and siblings at Sydney’s Central Railway Station and boarded the train for what henceforth we would call “Robbo”.
St Anthony’s at Robertson had its own railway station, a vestige, like the property itself, of the Hotel Ranelagh it had been. The Friars had purchased this “white elephant”, which had become a barracks for members of Australia’s Women’s R.A.A.F. soon after World War 2. The “station” was a tiny platform, at the bottom of a small hill on which stood the Seraphic College. I accompanied the other “Seraphs”, “old-timers” (some a mere twelve years of age) and newcomers like myself, up the hill, wondering what was in store for me.
I discovered an enormous mansion, austere but with traces of its short-lived, prestigious past, a school totally different from what I had experienced in Kogarah. Instead of the one thousand students we had been at M.B.K. (which included both the three primary grades and five secondary grades), St Anthony’s student-body numbered less than fifty, with small classes in each of its five High School grades.
I knew no one, of course, but quickly felt at home with my Fifth Year companions, some of whom had been in the College for the past four years, while the majority, like myself, came from Catholic schools around Australia and New Zealand. A few were older men, “late vocations”, who had left High School several years previously and abandoned their job to experience a year of Franciscan life and learn some basic Latin before joining the Order as novices. For them, I suppose, it was a sort of trial-year. For me, there was nothing experimental about my sojourn in Robbo. I had made a decision to join the Friars, and it never occurred to me that I might, as many did, have second thoughts.
I was immediately impressed by the friar-priests who were to be my teachers, and in particular by a very dignified, smallish man, Father Bernardine, Rector of the College, Father Superior of the small community of friars, and professor of Latin. I discovered very quickly that my personal project, as a proud possessor of the L.C., to spend a year reading the poetry and learning the history I had never studied, and filling the other gaps in my High School education, was a pipe-dream. Father Bernardine explained how much credit I would bring to the College if I did the L.C. again. Not only was I sure to pass, but I could achieve even better results, including an Honors level, for example, in Latin and French. The Rector made it sound like a proposal. Although I obviously had no choice, it did not enter my mind to argue the point. “Ipse dixit” (“He hath spoken”), and what your Superior suggested was, if not the “vox Dei” (“the voice of God”), a non-negotiable decision. I accepted it, as I would henceforth accept everything that was asked of, or decided for, me. There was nothing especially new in this, of course. Catholic education, at home and at school, meant doing what you were told. The Franciscan difference was that not only was there no threat of punishment, but that for candidates and members of the Order, obedience and observance of rules were foregone conclusions.
1953 at Robbo was a totally enjoyable, enriching year. I wrote to my parents frequently, never felt homesick and returned home at the end of each term for holidays. Life in the College was, I imagine, similar to that in any Catholic boarding school, with one significant difference. Daily Mass, classes, study-periods, examinations, sports, strict observance of time-tables were part of an expected routine. What made Robbo special was the atmosphere, the sense of belonging to a close-knit community, a school where camaraderie was, literally, class-free, where young boys, adolescents and young men could have fun together, whether harvesting potatoes in the rich Robertson soil, engaging in mud-fights or enjoying occasional outings and picnics together in the area.
I suppose we spent more time in the chapel than we would have in an ordinary Catholic boarding school. But there was neither excessive piety nor iron-bound monastic discipline at Robbo. The Friars had the good sense to treat us as the red-blooded boys we were. We liked and respected our teachers. They gave us the best education they could. And without pressure or proselytizing, they reinforced, in some of us at least, the desire to become Franciscans, Gentle Men of God, like them.