Editor’s Note: The following is part of our daily holiday series celebrating “The Shared World.” Fr. Tom Washburn, OFM, is the newly elected board president of FMS.
My first real experience of ministry took place the very first year that I entered into religious life as a Franciscan. It was 1991, and finally entering religious life was the answer to the question of my life.
Until this moment, my life had been a bit of a ping-pong ball, bouncing from one thing to the next. First college (changing majors repeatedly), then to investigative news reporting (changing newspapers looking for just the right job), and then God opened the path before me toward Him through religious life—there was finally peace and clarity.
In the first year of religious life, it is all about adjustment – learning how to pray as the friars pray; learning how to follow the schedule of the house in all of its precision; learning more about our founder, St. Francis, and deepening our faith.
Among the many things we did was to receive a ministry assignment for the year. Some of my brothers went to a sort of chaplaincy in the local hospital, others to the local food pantry or center for immigrants. My assignment was to the House of Hope, a shelter for unwed mothers and their children.
There, the Sisters of Notre Dame did everything they could for these women to make it feel more like a home and less like a “shelter.” I was so touched by the stories of these women who found themselves in such difficult situations, and yet still trying to turn things around in their lives and for the lives of their children.
And, while I was honored to do the work we did there helping around the house, serving food in the dining room and whatever else they needed, I always left wishing I could do more.
As Christmas approached, I asked the sisters if there were something more I could do. Perhaps, I suggested, I could organize to get some Christmas presents? Sister responded with gratitude, but that everyone would receive something Christmas Day – something they needed, like clothing or other basic supplies.
While I was grateful for this, knowing the basics were the priority, there was something in me that felt a bit sad that each child would not have a toy to open and each mother would not have something nice just for herself.
When I went home for Thanksgiving, my first time home after entering the friars, I took the opportunity of a full house of family to announce after dinner that there would be a collection.
“Just a few months in religious life and he’s already taking up a collection,” one uncle remarked. But, it was more than enough to play my role as Secret Santa that year.
I was thinking of that story recently because Pope Francis has given me language to understand more clearly what I was feeling back then.
I remember as I was shopping for these gifts a simple refrain kept echoing through my heart; a paraphrase of St. Francis’ famous prayer: “Make me a channel of your joy.”
I will always remember that Christmas among my most precious. The holidays are, understandably, particularly difficult for these young women – homeless for so many reasons, none of them good. Maybe their family rejected them once they became pregnant; perhaps they were on the run from a situation of domestic violence.
It was so wonderful to be part of an organization that reached out to them in their needs; but what a gift it was to also reach out and bring them even a moment of joy. I still know today, that this was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.
Fr. Tom is a Franciscan friar of the Immaculate Conception Province and the newly elected board president of Franciscan Mission Service. He first heard about Franciscan Mission Service through his work as the Executive Secretary of the English Speaking Conference of the Franciscan Order, coordinating ministries between OFM members of the Franciscan family in the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, Malta, and Lithuania. He also makes time for more directly pastoral ministry, facilitating retreats, coordinating the Confirmation program in his home parish in Boston, and taking preaching assignments each year to speak about the good works that Franciscan friars and lay people like Franciscan Mission Service are doing around the world.
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