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Franciscan Friday: On Mission with Fr. Tom Washburn, OFM


Continuing our series Sacraments and Social Mission: Living the Gospel, Being Disciples, our blog today features a conversation with Fr. Tom Washburn, OFM, on the Sacrament of Holy Orders and Mission.

Fr. Tom Washburn, OFM, has been a Franciscan since 1991 and was ordained a priest in 2000. He holds degrees in theology and liturgy from Weston Jesuit School of Theology. He has been engaged in a wide variety of ministries but currently serves as Executive Secretary of the English Speaking Conference working with Franciscans in the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, and Malta, Lithuania. He lives in Boston, MA. 

1. When some people hear the “Sacrament of Holy Orders”, they think, “I’m not a priest or religious. That sacrament has nothing to do with me.” How is the Sacrament of Holy Orders a call to be a representative of Christ that all Christians must answer?

The Sacrament of Holy Orders is really a sacrament of all members of the Church; not just those who are ordained as deacons, priests or bishops. The phrase often used to describe one who is ordained is to say that they act in persona Christi, or in the person of Christ. The priest is the bridge that brings God to His people – especially through the Sacraments, bringing God to nourish us through the Eucharist; to extend His mercy to us through Reconciliation; to be with us when we are sick and prepare us to return to Him in the Sacrament of the Sick, for example.

But, the call to act in persona Christi is not one that is extended exclusively to the ordained; it is the call of all who are baptized.

In the baptism ritual, we hear, “You have put on Christ” and from that moment on we are all meant to do more than just “wear” Jesus; we’re called to reflect Christ to the world. There is a wonderful sort of reflexive motion that happens at every Sacrament.

Fr. Tom writes the popular blog “A Friar’s Life”

We always hear, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life” or one of the other dismissals, but their intent is all the same; that as the priest presents Christ to us in that sacramental moment, we are then called to “go” and present the Christ we have received to the world.

2. Pope Francis encouraged pastors to “smell like the sheep”. How is that also a call for all Christians to act on their faith through mission?

Pope Francis has reminded all of us that our faith is not something that can be contained in a bottle and kept on a shelf. Through his wonderful phrase “smell like the sheep” he is reminding us that there is only one way for this to happen – if you are right there in their midst. In July, reflecting on the post-Resurrection encounter of Jesus and St. Thomas in the upper room, he gave more detail about what this means:

“We find Jesus’ wounds in carrying out works of mercy, giving to the body of your wounded brother, because he is hungry, because he is thirsty, because he is naked because it is humiliated, because he is a slave, because he’s in jail because he is in the hospital. Those are the wounds of Jesus today. And Jesus asks us to take a leap of faith, towards Him, but through these His wounds.”

“Incredulity of St. Thomas” by Caravaggio

‘Oh, great! Let’s set up a foundation to help everyone and do so many good things to help ‘. That’s important, but if we remain on this level, we will only be philanthropic. We need to touch the wounds of Jesus, we must caress the wounds of Jesus, we need to bind the wounds of Jesus with tenderness, we have to kiss the wounds of Jesus, and do this literally. Just think of what happened to St. Francis when he embraced the leper? The same thing that happened to Thomas: his life changed.”

3. Priests preside over the Eucharist, both a sacrifice and a feast. A) How are Christians called to sacrifice through mission service? B) How are Christians called to spiritually “feast” through mission service?

Sacrifice is often a word that we don’t fully understand. If you asked someone to give a quick definition of the word, they would likely say, “To sacrifice is to give something up.” And, giving something up is certainly a part of sacrifice, but when we look more deeply at the word, we find even more there. Sacrifice comes to us from two Latin words: sacra and ficio. Sacra means “holy”; just think of words like “sacred”, and “sacrament” that also come from it. Ficio is the verb “to make.”

So a sacrifice is an action that makes something holy. Through mission service, like all service, we give of our time, talent and treasure and it isn’t a pointless “giving” but a focused giving.

We give to make something holy.

Anyone involved in ministry, certainly in mission service, can attest to the spiritual banquet that is placed before us. I think of my own missionary experience in El Salvador. Yes, there were a lot of things that we did without – hot water, regular electricity, very simple food, etc. – but none of these are what I think about when reflecting on my own mission experience. It is always the people and their joy and strong family and community ties; their deep faith, love of God and His Church; their goodness to me and the others with me who were there.

We truly received far more than we gave. God indeed spoiled us.

4. An important responsibility for pastors is to build community. What can individual Christians do to fulfill that call to build community?

The most fundamental thing that all of us can do is to see each other as brother and sister. That’s where community begins. When we stop seeing the “other” and instead see a brother or a sister, things begin to change. When you are “other” it is easier to walk by and not acknowledge your need.

When you are my sister or my brother, I want to reach out to you and help in any way that I can. One of my favorite quotes of Pope Francis is “Let the Church always be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven.” This gets at the heart of the matter.

We are all the Church and in the Church – with us – everyone should feel welcomed, loved and forgiven; because, after all, that’s what happens when we are brothers and sisters.

5. Pope John Paul II said that “All priests must have the mind and the heart of missionaries” (Redemptoris Missio, no. 67). Should all Christians on mission have the mind and heart of priests?

The missionary heart and the Christian heart are one in the same. After all, what is the call of the missionary? It is a call to go out and bring the Good News, as Christ commanded. It is a call to go out and help where help is needed. While missionaries might do this in specific places at specific times reaching out to specific needs; it is no different than what we are all called to do wherever we are.

We all share in the mission of spreading the Word and reaching out to our brothers and sisters, especially those in need. This is the heart of the priesthood as well. In the Rite of Ordination for a Deacon, the Bishop says these words to the one being ordained, “Receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, practice what you teach.”

Although the ordained will do those things in a specifically sacramental context, this is a good mission statement for us all. We are all heralds of Jesus called to believe, teach, and live out our faith to the fullest.

A window at the ruins of the Convento de San Antón from the 15th century, just east of Castrojeriz, Spain, featuring Franciscan Tau crosses

6. What is your advice for any young women or men discerning a call to religious life?

Pray, pray, pray. Prayer is at the heart of any process of discernment. God calls us in the silence of our hearts and we can only hear that call – no matter what He is calling us to – if we cultivate prayerful places in our lives that allow us to hear His word. It is also good to remember that even in discerning, we’re called to community. So, find a spiritual director who can help; visit religious communities or dioceses; spend time with those who are also discerning as you are speaking the same language.

On the World Day of Prayer for Vocations last year, Pope Francis confirmed this, “Vocations are born in prayer and from prayer; and only through prayer can they persevere and bear fruit.” Pray and ask God, not if you have a vocation, but who He has created you to be.

St. Catherine of Siena said, “If you are what you should be, then you will set the world on fire.”

Ask God what He created you to be; and you can change the world!

Fr. Tom Washburn, OFM, is a member of the Franciscan Province of the Immaculate Conception. He has served as Executive Secretary of the Franciscan Provincial Ministers Conference for the last 10 years. He is currently the President of the Board of Directors of Franciscan Mission Service and has served on the board since 2013.