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Lively Young Man in a Brown Hooded Habit: An Interview with Brother Tommy


Editor’s note: Missioner Tim Shelgren shares an interview with Brother Tommy, a Capuchin Franciscan.

One quiet morning at the Casa, my colleagues and I prepared for our first class session of the day with prayer in the chapel and a quiet reflection on how appreciative we are for the education we are receiving. We made coffee, moved to the classroom, and settled into our favorite spots at our class table. All was peaceful. Then, the front doorbell rang, we answered, and in came our teacher. With his black shiny hair, big smile, and full resonating voice he entered with an energy level that easily could have carried us all through a morning 5K run. We thought, are you here to teach us about the Testaments of St. Francis, or are you here to try out for the lead in an Italian romance movie? Who was this lively young Italo-Americano in the brown, hooded habit?

Our guest was, indeed, our teacher. His name is Brother Tommy. He is a Capuchin Franciscan Friar. After a fantastic, highly academic class experience we realized that Brother Tommy seems also to show traits of a scholar. So many gifts! Later, I asked him for an interview.

As a little boy, Brother Tommy’s mother invited him regularly to pray the Rosary with her and go to Mass. Growing up, he found himself gazing at St. Francis’s portrayal of the Nativity scene, especially at the Christmas Mass. In that gaze, he began “recognizing who Christ actually is.” Soon after, he developed “a love for the Lord, a longing for God.” He began observing other lovers of God, the priests. In their lifestyles he saw a certain “freedom.” All of these experiences as a youth developed in young Tommy a desire to be a priest.

As a young adult, Tommy’s experience of figuring out where to go to college, even aware of a possible priestly vocation, did not involve any “fancy exploration or long, drawn out discernment,” he says. He had a mentor/teacher who simply suggested to him one day, “I think you would fit in with the Capuchin Franciscans.” “Sometimes God just tells us to jump in,” reflects Brother Tommy. He became a Capuchin Franciscan brother at age 22 after he graduated from Saint Louis University.

What is unique about the Capuchins? In 1520, a man named Matteo da Bascio was inspired to return the Franciscans of his day back to the ways of their founder, St. Francis of Assisi. When he and his followers found resistance from the Church in doing so, they found refuge living with the Camaldose monks. On the Camaldoses’ habit was a hood—i.e., a cappucio. Hence, we have the Cappucio monks who have returned radically to poverty, chastity, and obedience almost 300 years after St. Francis.

Brother Tommy’s desire to serve in the world of academia reflects a strong sense of obedience, one of the three vows taken by Franciscans. As a Capuchin Franciscan, BrotherTommy’s goal is to become a former of minds.” Now 27 years old, he intends to start teaching after pursuing doctoral work, and is determined to continue that vocation through his old age. Like St. Francis, he wants to participate in the ongoing “rebuilding of the church,” to “articulate the tradition for the tradition.” Moreover, Brother Tommy wants to live out his academic vocation with joy. He admires the elderly friar who continues to exude joy.

In a fascinating discussion on the concept of chastity, Brother Tommy pointed out that the human need for intimacy can be met in many ways. With a laugh, he stated, “I come from an Italian family, there’s lots of people there to be close with!” “I have brothers here and brothers all over the world to share fraternal relationships with. I love that,” he continued. In terms of spiritual intimacy, our brother practices the Augustine tradition of Familial prayer, “entering into the son-ship of Christ.” This deep intuitive sense of “being with the Divine as His child” demonstrates intimacy between father and son. And equally as intimate and beautiful, says Brother Tommy, is the type of prayer shown in Chapter III of the Capuchin Constitution: “Prayer to God, as the breathing of love, has its origin from a movement of the Holy Spirit through which an interior person listens to the voice of God speaking to the heart.”

A brief look at Brother Tommy’s prayer practices illustrates that he has a deep desire to surrender to God as His child, to breath in His love, and to hear His voice. In his practice of poverty and humility, Br. Tommy desires even more from God. “God, I am not humble enough. But, You called me,” he recognizes. He pleads, “God, I am never going to be poor enough. You deal with it.” Clearly, in Brother Tommy’s relationship with the Divine we see both willingness and trust. He is willing to follow his religious vocation, but not without God’s support. Just like many Italian men, Brother Tommy is not afraid to voice his truths.

Come to find out, the Italian man at the front door was not in town to audition for a movie. He was there because he was interested in playing the part of Franciscan Capuchin brother. With his commitment to academics, his intimate relationship with God, and his humble recognition that he will never meet his calling on his own, my colleagues and I vote that God give him the part. We feel honored to have had Brother Tommy share his knowledge and passion with us in class. We give major credits to Mom—and “best friend,” Dad—for a job well done. And we hereby sign on as Brother Tommy’s most vocal fan base.

Reflection question: Who is someone you know that inspires you with their ability to voice the truth?

Tim Shelgren has led many youth mission trips as a committed Christian. He has worked as a hair stylist, massage therapist, and yoga teacher, and most recently as a counselor at a residential home for teenage boys. A father of three and grandfather of five, Tim is passionate about working for equality for all people and has a special interest in working with children and youth without families. After living recently in Arizona and Pennsylvania, Tim is looking forward learning and growing spiritually by serving in another culture. He likes rock and tree climbing, riding bikes with friends, and playing piano, just like he did when he was a kid.