On the evening of the the Epiphany, during the festive banquet of the Franciscan friars celebrating the election of the new provincial administration and the close of the official business of the Provincial Chapter, the Governor of the state of Maryland stopped by unexpectedly to greet the room of 200+ Franciscans and say a few words to the friars. Sitting at a table in the middle of the room, I watched the Governor take the podium in front of the large gathering with a bit of political cynacism, anticipating some sort of generic political stump speech. I and my brother friars were delightfully surprised about what, instead, we heard.
The Honorable Martin O’Malley (D) is a professed Roman Catholic. A classmate of my confrere Fr. Jim Sabak, OFM, O’Malley attended The Catholic University of America as an undergraduate. Additionally, O’Malley shared with the friars that his home parish is “St. Francis of Assisi Parish” and that he was educated in elementary school by a community of Franciscan Sisters.
Perhaps the most impressive dimension of O’Malleys extemporaneous remarks was his ostensibly sincere understanding of Franciscan spirituality. He spoke about the Eastern Shore of Maryland (where the provincial chapter was being held) and the types of wildlife that lived there in richly spiritual tones, which rightfully elicited approving comments, smiles and nods from the men who have given their lives to a community known for its identity with the “Patron Saint of Ecology,” St. Francis of Assisi. As someone who has not only a personal, but an academic interest in Franciscan theology and spirituality, I was impressed, not with O’Malley’s ability to recount particular Franciscan themes or subjects, but with his implicit Franciscan sensibility.
While that implicit Franciscanism, or at least the ability to hit the Franciscan thematic target ‘dead on’ in the presence of real experts, was the most memorable aspect of the spontaneous address for most friars, I was incredibly pleased and surprised to hear what the Governor had to say about his recent reading. O’Malley spoke of the difficult times the country and world face today and that in response to such times he has found himself reading a lot of Thomas Merton. That’s right, THOMAS MERTON! Although O’Malley sort of tweaked a paraphrased Merton quote for a slightly more political purpose than the deceased Trappist would have ever liked, O’Malley’s characterization of the Merton idea was largely on target. He most certainly had read the 20th-Century Monk’s work.
The Merton comment led about 40 friars at the tables around me and at my own to all turn their heads to me in similar surprise, one friar from a table behind me got up and whispered to me “did you tell him to say that?” because the friars know of my scholarly interest in Merton. It just so happens that I fly to Louisville, KY, next week for a few days of research in the Merton Archives at Bellarmine University — what an interesting happenstance to have the MD Governor make those remarks at this time and at this gathering.
With Morning Prayer in less-than an hour our Chapter officially closes. Please continue to pray for the friars as we return to our ministries and communities to strive to live the Gospel in increasingly more authentic ways.