In this post, Postulant Troy Hillman offers his thoughts and reflections on his own vocation journey. As we continue to celebrate National Vocation Awareness Week, Troy invites you to consider: is God calling you, or someone you know, to be a Franciscan Friar?
It is a very odd feeling, writing about your own vocation when you have spent so much time reading the vocation stories of others. This week, we celebrate National Vocations Awareness Week, and I find myself reflecting on what my vocation means to me and why I am with the Franciscans – and in doing so, I hope that I may invite others to begin this journey themselves. My continual journey of conversion and discernment has been a long, blessed, but also a challenging one. Before exploring that journey, however, it may be good to consider what the word “vocation” actually means.
The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word vocare, which means “calling.” Every person is called to love, but our vocation is the way of life in which we are called to love. Am I called to love by getting married, raising children and being the best husband and father that I can be? Am I called to love by living the “single life,” devoting what time I can to others as much as possible? Am I called to love through and with a community – in this case, as a professed religious? This is the joy and struggle of discerning your vocation, one that I find myself in the midst of as I continue my Postulancy with Holy Name Province.
I did not grow up as a Catholic, but rather as an evangelical Christian, and although I grew up in the area close to St. Bonaventure University, I must have had “Catholic blinders” on so that I never really noticed or was aware of how deeply influential the Franciscans were not only in my geographical area, but in my upbringing as well. For example, toward the end of his life, my maternal grandfather was treated at the former St. Francis hospital in Olean, New York – which was staffed by the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany. Also, one of the pastors whose church I attended for most of my childhood and teenage years later shared that he had spent a lot of time with the Franciscans, which made me realize how much Franciscan-ism he had weaved into his theology and preaching through the years. There is also a statue of St. Francis standing with his arms held high in front of the hospital where I was born – and the hospital chapel contains a stained-glass window depicting St. Francis. Therefore, when I was born, this statue of St. Francis was outside blessing the hospital, which means that I came into this world with Francis there to greet me.
Not only were these things going on all around me, especially with the Franciscan friars and the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany just down the road from me at St. Bonaventure, but I was also growing up near The Warming House, one of the oldest-running (Franciscan-based) soup kitchens in the United States; I grew up near Mt. Irenaeus – a Franciscan retreat center in Western New York – and I also grew up occasionally eating food from Canticle Farms, which has a great deal of Franciscan influence. Certainly, there was no lack of Franciscan presence in my upbringing, and these are only a few of the many influences that I did not realize until years later.
For the first two years of my college career, I studied English and Philosophy at a community college in the area, yet as time went on I became eager to start some kind of pastoral ministry. However, not having grown up Catholic, I always assumed I would grow up, get married, have children, and become a married minister. Once I graduated from my community college and decided to attend St. Bonaventure University to get my degree in Theology, and it was then that the Divine began to give strong hints that I may be called to a very different way of life.
Very early in my first semester, through classes at the University, conversations with the Franciscan friars, retreats at Mt. Irenaeus and a lot of personal research, I came to the conviction that I wanted to join the Catholic Church. The following year, I began the R.C.I.A. process to enter the Church, and was confirmed and received my first communion. In the middle of this year of R.C.I.A., I also left the United States for the first time and went on a pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi in Italy – and my roommate and I were both deeply impacted by this spiritual journey. That roommate was Jason Damon, who had become my friend at St. Bonaventure, and little did we realize at the time that we would enter Postulancy together in the same year.
Visiting the birthplace of St. Francis and St. Clare in Assisi was very special for me, and I had not recognized at the time just how powerful it would be for my discernment. Walking the streets where Francis walked, gazing on the San Damiano Cross and connecting with Francis, seeing the Porziuncola, visiting the caves where he stayed high above Assisi on Mount Subasio, seeing where Clare was laid to rest, and visiting the church of San Damiano itself was itself an undeniably strong call to “come and see” much more, to come and experience what Francis and Clare had begun all those centuries ago. There was something mystical and adventurous about it all, and I knew I was being invited to something deeper and something much bigger than myself.
When I returned to St. Bonaventure a few weeks later to begin my final semester, I continued to waver back and forth over whether or not to apply to the friars. In many ways, I felt as if I was in a variation of the famous Footprints poem, except in this case, Francis was the one walking, and I was the one he was dragging, kicking and screaming most of the way. Yet at the end of the day, there was still something that attracted me to Francis. Whenever I wanted to turn my head and start looking a different way, Francis would always catch my attention, and call me in farther. When I first started looking seriously into the Catholic Church, it was because I was attracted by the life and works of St. Francis, as well as the lived-out example of the Franciscan friars, Franciscan sisters and the Secular Franciscans I met early while at the University, and this attraction was growing stronger everyday.
I finally made the decision to contact the Province in February of that year, and decided to apply to Postulancy. However, around the same time, I had visited two Franciscan sites that now hold great meaning for me – the St. Francis Inn Soup Kitchen in Philadelphia, and St. Anthony of Padua parish in Camden, NJ. I had gone to the Inn during a Fall break the previous year and had met a number of Franciscan Volunteer Ministers (FVM), which captured my attention. I was drawn to the ministries that the FVMs were involved in, saw how they prayed together, yet what I noticed most was their life as an intentional community.
One of the things that attracts me the most to the Franciscans is the relationality, the call to simplicity, the emphasis on social justice and most especially, brotherhood. I have one sibling, my dear brother, who means the world to me. I am a few years older than he is, but he and I remain very close, and I feel very blessed to be both his brother and his friend. When I first encountered the Franciscans, the fact that they lived together in community not only struck me deeply – but the fact that this community is also a fraternity. I love my family very much, so to become a part of a larger family and experience new and wonderful relationships and connections has been one of my favorite parts of entering further and further into the Franciscan life over the past few months and the past few years.
Thus, when I decided that I wanted to apply to the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry to do a one-year service program and live in an intentional Franciscan community, I also decided to hold off my application to Postulancy for another year. I felt that it was important that I do this year of service before diving into Postulancy, especially as a recent convert, and I am so very grateful that I did. To further add to all of this, intermittently throughout all of these different processes, I was also attending Secular Franciscan meetings with the St. Irenaeus Fraternity in West Clarksville. I ended up participating in a little over six months of formation before I graduated from St. Bonaventure, and by this point I has also applied to the FVM 2015-2016 year as well as the 2016-2017 Postulancy program with the Franciscans. When I decided for sure that I wanted to enter FVM after graduation, I also decided to put a halt to my formation with the Secular Franciscans, as I intended on pursuing life as a friar down the road. But it was my time with the Secular Franciscans that had really inspired me to try out FVM, and they had all supported and encouraged my decision to apply to the friars.
In August of 2015, I began my year of service as an FVM in Camden, NJ, where I was placed, and ended my year in July of 2016 – beginning Postulancy a month later, in August of 2016. Over the course of my year as an FVM, my community very much became my family – and one of my community members, James La Grutta, also went on to become one of my fellow Postulancy this year. It was a very formative year, and was one of the first chances I had to be actively involved in all sorts of parish ministries, including co-teaching Gym, Religion and Technology at our parish school, singing in the Church choir, teaching a teen Confirmation class, co-leading a Youth Group, working with an inter-denominational social justice organization, helping out at the parish food pantry, leading a few retreats, and a number of other wonderful things.
During my year as an FVM, I also had the opportunity to visit a number of other Franciscan sites throughout our Province. A year ago around this time I went on a discernment retreat to St. Petersburg and Tampa and connected with the friars there. I was also fortunate to visit my mother in the process, at which point she gave her support and blessing of my journey. In the Spring-time, my community also visited three of our parishes to promote the FVM program – in Triangle, VA, as well as in Raleigh and Durham in North Carolina. My FVM community remembers this trip fondly as some of our favorite memories together, and it was also a very influential trip for my discernment and for James’ discernment. At various points over this past year, I have also had the chance to visit St. Patrick’s in Buffalo as well as St. Francis of Assisi in Manhattan, both of which have helped to welcome me and encourage me in my discernment with the Franciscans.
Finally, during my time thus far as a Postulant, I have been blessed to participate in a number of wonderful ministries, trips and workshops with my fraternity. Each of us is paired up in ministry, so that I co-teach English classes to Hispanic Adults, I help to deliver meals with Meals on Wheels through St. Camillus’ parish, I have had the chance to help out with our food pantry, visited a nursing home, and gotten involved with a number of other ministries. As Postulants, these ministries and the many others that my brothers are involved in afford us the glimpse into what ministerial and pastoral work will be like as Franciscan friars, and our time together as a fraternity in community as well as the trips that we take together help us to grow, foster relationships with one another and move toward life as a Franciscan family.
It says in our way of life for Postulancy that our journey as we venture deeper into Postulancy and if God wills it, one day into Novitiate and Post-Novitiate is intended to be a “gradual” process, something each of us must continually remind ourselves. My best advice for discerning one’s vocation is this very theme of “graduality”, or, as put by our brothers and sisters in A.A. – “one day at a time!” Discerning one’s vocation is not always an easy challenge, but rather a daily challenge of growth, a chance to love deeper, a call to humility and openness, and most importantly – a chance to live out the Gospel, and to never have to go down that road alone, but together as brothers.
Troy Hillman, Postulant Class 2016