The Wind Blows Wherever it Pleases

Novice Marvin Voo recently entered the Franciscan novitiate house in the Philippines. He shares a short reflection on his formation journey thus far. 

My journey has been very exciting and challenging. My postulancy time of come and see with the friars was about two and a half years. It began in St James of the Marches Friary in Johor Bahru in 2017, moved to the Franciscan Friary in Penang in 2018, and moved to Singapore in 2019. I was in Greccio Friary in upper Bukit Timah from early to mid this year. Now I am in Juan De Plasencia, the Franciscan Novitiate House in Laguan, Liliw, Philippines. Yes, the wind blows wherever it pleases (John 3:8) in the life of the Franciscans. 

My time experiencing Franciscan life with the friars as a Postulant was more about knowing myself and establishing a deeper relationship with God as our Father, as St Francis did when he was rebuilding the physical church. I continued to say yes to God, and He brought me here to the Philippines for my novitiate. I wish to cherish whatever experiences come here as the next step of my relationship with God, to know more of him and to follow the way of St Francis in following Jesus, so that what is bitter becomes sweet. 

We novices had our Investiture on 15 July, after a three-day Investiture Retreat. Please pray for us in our year of discernment. 

The Investiture is the formal reception of the Franciscan habit. During the ceremony , newly received members of the community symbolically shed their former identities in the world and begin their new lives as religious. 

Francis and the Sultan

Francis and the Sultan

Francis life is that of his meeting with Sultan al- Malik al-Kāmil in 1219. It was the time of the Fifth Crusade, and since Francis opposed all killing, he sought the blessing of the Cardinal, who was chaplain to the Crusader forces, to go and preach the Gospel to the Sultan. The Cardinal told him that the Muslims only understood weapons, and that the one useful thing a Christian could do was kill them. However, Francis persisted and at last, the Cardinal agreed he could go, although he was certain that Francis and Illuminato, the brother travelling with him, would die as martyrs. The two left the Crusader encampment singing the psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd …” 

They were captured and brought before the Sultan, who asked if they wished to become Muslim. Francis replied that they had come to seek his conversion, and if they failed, then let them be beheaded. According to legend, Francis offered to enter a furnace to demonstrate the truth of Christ’s Gospel. 

The Sultan was deeply impressed by Francis’ courage and sincerity, and invited him to stay. For a month, Francis and the Sultan met daily. Although neither converted the other, the Sultan had such fondness for his guests that he spared their lives and allowed them to visit Christian holy places under Muslim control. He also presented Francis with a beautifully carved ivory horn that is today among the relics kept in the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi. It is recorded that Francis and Malik al-Kāmil parted as brothers. 

How different history would be if the crusades had not happened. During the First Crusade, no one was spared when the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099. Men, women and children were hacked to pieces until, the chronicle says, the Crusaders’ horses waded in blood. 

During the Fifth Crusade, as Christianity in the West preached the holiness of war, Francis was a voice crying in the wilderness. In a sense, Francis became the soldier he had dreamt of becoming as a boy; he was as willing as the bravest soldier to lay down his life in defence of others. However, there was a crucial difference. Francis wanted not the conquest but the conversion of his adversary. 

Francis’ actions – equivalent to leaping into a furnace – were possible because nothing was more important to him than Christ and His Kingdom. As Francis wrote in his Admonitions, “They are truly peacemakers who are able to preserve their peace of mind and heart for love of our Lord Jesus Christ, despite all that they suffer in this world.” 

Franciscan friars gather at the assembly in preparation for Chapter.

Franciscan friars gather at the assembly in preparation for Chapter.

The week of 1 – 5 July 2019 saw the gathering of Franciscan Friars from the Custody of St Anthony gathering at the Stella Maris Retreat Centre in the Diocese of Penang.

There were a total of 36 friars from Singapore, Kuching, Johor and Penang, including our friars in formation coming together for a Custody Assembly which is held every three years prior to the Custody Chapter later in the year.

This fraternal assembly included days of intensive discussions both in smaller groups and in plenary, praying together the liturgy of the hours and celebrating the Eucharist, enjoying meals together and a nightly recreation for brothers who are posted in the different regions of Malaysia-Singapore to reconnect and renew bonds.
At this assembly all the friars, including those in formation had equal opportunity to express their views on all matters and were included in the vision and planning for the future of the Franciscan presence in Malaysia and Singapore.

This year, the assembly was held in Penang as an introduction to a new establishment of the friars’ presence in the diocese of Penang. With the warm welcome of Bishop Sebastian Francis, the Franciscan Friars of the Custody of St Anthony established a friary at Tanjong Bunga and assumed the pastoral care of the parish Church of Risen Christ at Air Itam. The assembly at Penang also provided the occasion for the blessing of this new friary after having undergone some minor renovations to accommodate 8 friars.

The friary being near to the College General Seminary of Malaysia has given us the option of availing our own friars in formation some opportunity for initial formation at the seminary. On one of the evenings, the friars boarded a 40 seater bus to head out to the Church of the Risen Christ to visit the parish which is under the pastoral care of the friars. The liturgy of the hours for Evening Prayer was celebrated in the church and followed by dinner at the parish hall. Bishop Sebastian Francis joined the friars for this occasion and had time to catch up and acquaint himself with them.

The occasion provided the diocesan Bishop of Penang to meet the friars informally and which was followed with a Penang classic; a Durian Party with this king of fruits provided by a parishioner who owned a plantation! Like the five loaves and two fish, there was plenty leftover!

As part of the assembly agenda, all ministries undertaken by the friars in Singapore, Kuching, Johor and Penang were presented together with their financials for a review and comment by the friars present.

Reports were given for the last three years and future directions proposed by those in current responsibility for these ministries and offices.
Formation matters which included the different stages of formation for the friars were discussed which was followed by a lively discussion with inputs and reflections coming from the Franciscan seminarians themselves.

These triennium assemblies provide a fraternal base to assess and plan the future of Franciscan life in this part of Asia.

While a number of our friar students provided secretarial backup, many others were involved in the liturgy, hospitality and housekeeping. The process of the assembly resulted in the formulation of resolutions which will be brought to the Custody Chapter in October 2019 for further deliberation, fine-tuning and voted upon by the solemn professed friars.
The democratic process is a feature of the mendicant Order who for the past 800 years has relied upon and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit whom St Francis said is the true Minister General of the Order.

Friar Robin Toha OFM, who is a friar in formation summed up his experience of the assembly thus, “The Custody Assembly was a joyful event, like how an extended family meet for a reunion dinner. Even better, we had not just spent one evening, we spent a week to catch up. Like any family, we have differences and challenges. As a young friar, it is very heartening to witness the spirit of renewal and fraternity that we share. I am proud to be a part of it. If we can be brothers despite the challenges, then we can hope for the bigger community, the church. And if we have hope for the church, we can also have hope for society, for the world.”