By Br. Paul O’Keeffe, OFM
My Franciscan journey began with a trip to Italy that my parents gave me as a high school graduation present. I grew up with images and statues of St. Francis all around me at home and at the Catholic School I attended. Yet, like many people, I had little knowledge of who St. Francis was, save for his love of animals and brown robe. My high school trip to Italy included a visit to Assisi. The tour guide’s brief comments about this city’s most famous son inspired me and I went away with a strange feeling as if I had come home, even though I had never been to Assisi before.
Years later, while still in college I had the opportunity to go on a summer mission trip to Guatemala led by a friend from my home parish. My friend had joined a new type of organization that was founded to train and support lay people on mission in the Franciscan tradition. My summer spent in Guatemala exposed me to Franciscan values in action: love and service to our fellow brothers and sisters, the challenges of living a simple life, with all the richness and difficulties of living and working in a multi-ethnic, multi-aged community. This also gave me the courage to follow a call to go on mission long-term.
Shortly after I graduated from college in 1996, I joined the same organization as my friend had and was sent on mission to Kenya. The director of Franciscan Mission Service at that time was Fr. Joe Nangle, OFM (who is today my present guardian and superior). What was to be a three-year term ended up being six years in both Kenya and Ghana, where I worked in a variety of ministries with the disabled, street children and refugees. My time on mission challenged my faith and rewarded me with a profound experience of the materially and spiritually poor.
Through my work in Ghana with refugees from wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, I realized that much of my daily work involved listening to people’s stories and finding ways to comfort them on the loss of their families, their livelihood and their countries.
My time in mission was very formative for my faith life as well. Through the various ministries I worked in, I developed a greater appreciation for prayer and began to recognize a growing desire that ministry only partly filled. I left mission with a deep longing to continue working with the poor and found that I had developed a second calling; this time, to religious life.
At home, I started teaching high school and began going for spiritual direction at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston to one of the friars, Br. John Maganzini, OFM. Visiting the Shrine was also like coming home, although much like my first visit to Assisi, I had never been to St. Anthony Shrine before. The friars were welcoming and easy to talk to. I felt an affinity with the way they related to one another in the community, which strongly reminded me of the community spirit I felt while living in Africa. And there were joy and contentment in the friary. After two years of discernment, I made yet again another leap of faith and joined the Franciscans.
… I felt drawn to work with people like I had in the refugee camps in Ghana – to listen to their problems and help them find the peace and serenity they so desperately needed.
In 2004, I entered the postulancy training program in the Bronx, N.Y., and then moved on to Novitiate in Wilmington, Del., the following year, finally finishing my formation with a period of studies at our house in Silver Spring, Md. Again, I felt another call while in formation, this time to the brotherhood. Many friends and family members back home were puzzled by my decision to stay a brother and not pursue the priesthood. Some even asked why I didn’t “go all the way.” It’s difficult to explain why one feels called to a particular vocation. Yet I can best describe my calling as a strong desire to minister to people in the mental health field. I didn’t feel called to sacramental ministry, but rather drawn to work with people like I had in the refugee camps in Ghana —to listen to their problems and help them find the peace and serenity they so desperately needed.
Ten happy years have passed since I joined the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province. Each one of those years has been a gift and a challenge, of ministry and fraternity, and of letting go and allowing God the freedom to use me for the good of my brothers and those in need.
After completing a master’s degree in theology at Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C., Br. Paul went on to receive another master’s in clinical social work from nearby Howard University. He now works as the clinical director of psychiatric services at Advent Hospital in Takoma Park, Md. He also leads summer mission trips to Africa with students from Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., St. Bonaventure University in Western New York and the University of Georgia at Athens.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2013-2014 edition of The Anthonian, which is published three times a year by the Franciscans of Holy Name Province, St. Anthony’s Guild.