You know them when you see them. The long brown robes. The knotted cord belts. The well-worn Birkenstocks. The glorious facial hair.
Yep — they’re Capuchin Franciscan friars.
It seems everyone can pick out a friar on the street. But how much do we know beyond the habit? While a layman might possibly mistake one for a Jedi Knight or medieval monk at passing glance, even those familiar with Capuchin Franciscan orders may not know who these men are or what their life is all about.
To better understand what it means to be a modern follower of St. Francis of Assisi, I spoke with three Capuchin friars from the Province of St. Conrad: Fr. Christopher Gama, O.F.M. Cap., Br. Marshall Schmidt and Br. Jude Quinto. In honor of St. Francis’ feast day, these three men share their journey to the Franciscan life.
Q: Where were you before you decided to enter religious life?
Fr. Christopher: Before entering religious life, I was a student at Colorado State University studying civil engineering.
Br. Marshall: I was a cook. I’d gone to culinary school and worked in a number of restaurants. During the time I was discerning, I was cooking for a sorority on campus.
Br. Jude: Before entering postulancy, I worked in a Catholic church in Denver as a sacristan, master of ceremonies, receptionist and religious education teacher.
Q: What brought you to the Capuchins?
Br. Jude: Even as a young kid, I wanted to become a priest. During middle school I looked at a few religious communities online. I thought about the Dominicans because they had a cool habit — but around the same time, a Capuchin priest was visiting my parish, hearing confessions and helping out with Mass. I went to confession with him, and there was something unique about that experience. He was very kind, very warm, very passionate. After that, I encountered a bunch of other Capuchin priests who always encouraged me with the gifts that I had.
Later on, my parents decided to send me to a Dominican high school in the Philippines; I discerned with them and got a good taste of what the Dominican life is like, but after graduation I decided to go back to Denver. I got ahold of the Capuchin vocation director, and we got together for dinner one evening. There was a very fraternal, family-like feel among the friars, and that attracted me. I started visiting with the Capuchins pretty regularly, and I was truly impressed by their strong emphasis on prayer and their fraternity. I decided to join them when I turned eighteen — and here I am today!
Q: What distinguishes the Capuchins from other Franciscan groups?
Fr. Christopher: Like other Franciscan groups, the Capuchins have both brothers and priests, and we all take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. All branches of the Franciscans wear the same habit, too: the hood, the tunic, the sandals, the cord. The Capuchin reform was a renewal in the Franciscan tradition roughly in the early 16th century, during a time when the contemplative life was struggling. The Capuchins emphasize the contemplative life. All Franciscans follow the same Rule and Constitution — but Capuchins put an accent on the Testament of St. Francis, a spiritual document that includes maxims by St. Francis. That is essentially what distinguishes us from other Franciscan groups: the contemplative dimension and the focus on the Testament.
Q: What does a day look like for the friars?
Fr. Christopher: We start off at 5:30 with Morning Prayer and meditation in the chapel in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Then we have Mass. Our house is a student house, so Monday through Friday the students study philosophy, theology and any pastoral skills they need for their future ministry. Friars who are ordained priests also serve the community with Mass, confession, spiritual direction and other pastoral needs. We begin our evening together at 5:15 with Evening Prayer, followed by a communal meal. We all pray in community, and we all share a meal in community. The way to think about it is the “two tables” that we share: one table is the Lord’s Table with the Eucharist; the second is the fraternal table, the meal that we share. The rest of the evenings are broken up by study times or going to events. We have Night Prayer at 9:00, and then we have some fraternal time to catch up with one another. Lights out is at 10:00, and we’re back to work the next day.
Q: St. Francis is perhaps one of the most beloved saints in our Church. Is there anything about St. Francis’ life that inspires you?
Br. Jude: One thing I admire about Francis is that he encouraged his followers pray to God with their whole heart and to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Br. Marshall: One element of St. Francis’ life that I like the most is the undivided commitment he made. He didn’t let anything get in the way of his decision to follow Christ. A story from his life that I appreciate is that, on one of his pilgrimages to Rome, Francis was given some money. In dedication to his poverty, he took the money and threw it through the grate of a shrine. He didn’t put it nicely in the donation basket or give it to someone in charge; no, he wanted to give it away immediately, he wanted to live out his commitment. I want to be like that.
Fr. Christopher: There are two things that capture my imagination in the life of St. Francis. The first is that he was not a priest. The second is his vow of poverty. He valued poverty above all things. It wasn’t just an external poverty so that he could look “holier-than-thou”; Francis was really captured by the poverty of Jesus, particularly in three areas. One was in the Incarnation: Jesus was born in a manger and vulnerable in the arms of Jesus and Mary. (Francis was the first to give us the Nativity scene.) The second place Jesus was poor was on the cross: When he was crucified and pouring out His blood and His prayers for humanity, he was poor, he was weak. And the third place Francis fell in love with Jesus’ poverty was in the Eucharist: Jesus continues to offer Himself to His disciples even after His ascension. Francis fell in love with Jesus, who inspired him to let go of everything this world had to offer to live in a way that points to eternal life.