At the San Lorenzo Capuchin Franciscan novitiate, 22 men learn to discern their calling and how to live the Gospel through prayer, fraternity and ministry to the marginalized.It’s nearly 5:30 on a Wednesday afternoon in the cozy chapel at San Lorenzo novitiate in Santa Ynéz, with 22 Capuchin Franciscan novices and four members of their formation team in prayer. Psalms and Scriptures have been read, hymns sung. But right now there is absolute silence for one of the deepest spiritually transforming human exercises with a 2,000-year-old tradition — contemplation.Only a few in the chapel, divided into four wood seat-and-kneeler separate sections with a small altar in the center — are kneeling. Most sit and read to themselves or simply look down with their eyes closed. One puts the pointed hood of his floor-length brown habit — which gave the Capuchins their name from the Italian “capuche” — over his head.The young men have come to the newly relocated common novitiate for the North American Pacific Capuchin Conference, made up of provinces in the United States, Australia and Canada, plus the Province of Great Britain. After a postulancy of a year or two in their home provinces plus a pre-novitiate in Victoria, Kansas, they have wound up on 400 acres in the horse country of the Santa Ynéz Valley, amidst rolling golden hills dotted with dark green oaks. Their job during the next year is to discern their calling and learn how to live the Gospel through prayer, fraternity and ministry to the marginalized as St. Francis of Assisi did 800 years ago.To be, as Francis said, “like the perfect son, Jesus Christ.”

‘Putting on the life’

Brother Christopher Silva says that, of course, is no easy task. “As a postulant, you’re saying: ‘OK, I’m looking at the life as this might be something-I-can-do-type thing. Now as a novice you’re really putting on the life,” the 23-year-old  from Fresno and graduate of Paraclete High School in Lancaster points out. “You’re still discerning your vocation, but you’re putting it on in a different way and making more of a commitment.

“So at times I wake up and I’m like: ‘Oh, I’m a Capuchin now,” he adds with a quick smile and laugh. “But it’s been good. It’s a challenge, still. Every day when you get up, I mean, you have to have the commitment. But it’s something that I find slowly you grow into. It’s not something that happens overnight.

“You know, the more I looked at just St. Francis’ total devotion to Jesus, his willingness to leave everything behind of his own life, that was something that didn’t resonate with me until more recently, actually. And it’s something that I’m trying to put on in my life. But it’s very, very difficult and it’s certainly not an easy thing to do.” 

The outgoing Californian had thought about religious life for years, but there was “no way” he was going to be a Franciscan. The son of a career military dad, he’s a self-described “Air Force brat,” born at March Air Reserve Base and raised at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert. 

He looked into being a diocesan priest, but then a Sacred Heart sister assigned to Old Mission Santa Inéz in Solvang came up to him one day and said, “You know, Chris, I think you really need to see the Capuchins.”

Reluctantly, he got in touch with Father Peter Banks, vocation director of the Capuchins’ Western America Province, and, with a lot of arm twisting, agreed to visit the friars at San Lorenzo, which was then a retreat center. 

(San Lorenzo was originally founded in 1962 to be a novitiate for the Western American Province. But in 1997, due to the small number of vocations, it became a full-time retreat center. This summer it changed back to a novitiate, but this time drawing candidates from across the United States as well as international provinces.)  

“It was just me and the friars over a weekend, and something just kind of clicked,” Brother Silva reports. “And I was like: ‘OK, these guys aren’t all crazy.’ So it was kind of strange how it happened. I even went back to my spiritual director, and he was like: ‘You found something, didn’t you?’

“I think one of the things was that they were all very real. It was just so impressive to me that, you know, you could be so real and still be so completely devoted to God. So that was kind of the initial drive. Then I love Padre Pio, who was a Capuchin, dearly. He was one of my inspirations. 

“And if I was going to be a Franciscan, it would have to be the Capuchins,” he says. “The main thing of all Franciscan [orders] is prayer, ministry and fraternity. But the Capuchin tradition of prayer I think is much stronger. We often say ‘We’re the contemplatives of the Franciscans.’ And that kind of resonated with me, too.”

Along with his fellow 21 novices, Brother Silva received the habit last July 24 during the formal rite of investiture. He says at first it was “kind of strange” walking around the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he goes for spiritual direction, and getting all kinds of funny stares from students. But at the same time, he realized that the habit was part of who he was now as a Capuchin Franciscan.

“First putting it on, it was like: ‘OK, this thing isn’t magic. I’m not a saint yet,’” he says before breaking up. “But it’s a very freeing garment that also carries a lot of responsibility with it. So being in the habit is kind of a reminder to me of, first of all, the commitment I’ve made and the responsibilities that I have as a religious, and the promises I’ve made to God as well.”

Then the neophyte novice pauses before observing, “So it’s a big thing.”

Younger vocations

Father Robert Barbato from the Western American Province is part of the formation team at San Lorenzo, along with Father Frank Grinko, of the Mid-America Province who heads the team as novice master, Father Gerard O’Dempsey from Australia and Brother Jerry Johnson also from the mid-west. Father “Bobby,” as he is known, says the Capuchin Franciscans are attracting more traditional men — and a touchstone of that is not only an emphasize on contemplative prayer, Office of Readings throughout the day and the importance of the Eucharist in their liturgies, but also that long brown habit. 

Another trend the 52-year-old priest, who graduated from St. Francis High School in La Ca√±ada, has noticed is the community is getting younger vocations. While the age of new novices at San Lorenzo runs from 20 to 48, most — like Brother Christopher Silva — are in their 20s. 

“We’ve had some very good older vocations, but it’s encouraging to see this because it’s encouraging to see the faith among the young and realize the aliveness of the church is still strong,” he notes. “Because a lot of what you hear about vocations today is so negative.

“Another thing has to do with our society today. Our candidates are coming from a lot different backgrounds. There’s a lot more divorce, a lot more separation of families. Quite a number in this class are from broken homes. That is different, and I’ve had to adjust to that reality. And I haven’t noticed it as a problem that makes a difference. It may be even part of why they’re seeking more of a community life like we have to offer.”

But Father Barbato believes the biggest draw to the Capuchins today remains St. Francis himself as well as Padre Pio, the Italian Capuchin priest who received the stigmata and was canonized in 2002. And then there’s the out-of-the-ordinary combination of a contemplative life along with doing apostolic works, especially ministering to the poor.

“That’s always been the attraction of this life at least for some people, and it’s also our struggle because you’re trying to balance the two,” he explains. “And that’s why during the novitiate we want them to get a real solid foundation, especially in prayer. Because they’re going to have a lot of formation in ministry, which is also an essential part of our life. But they need that solid foundation so they can integrate the two together.”

So the focus of the novices’ day at San Lorenzo is centered on prayer, specifically the Office of Readings or Litany of the Hours, which dates back to early Christians, especially monastics. During weekdays it usually starts with morning prayer at 6:30 a.m., followed by meditation and Mass. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday they have seminar-like classes in the “History of Spirituality,” “Franciscan Christology” and other subjects. 

Then there’s mid-day prayer before lunch. Three afternoons a week are devoted to doing housework assignments or special projects. Most days there’s more Office of Readings followed by another half-hour of meditation and evening prayer before dinner. And at 8:45 p.m., the young men come together one last time for night prayer.  

Thursdays are “free days” when novices can take off for the beach, mountains or other nearby locales. On Fridays, some have hands-on ministries at Catholic Charities sites. Others work with developmentally disable adults, the homeless, hospital patients, seniors at a retirement home or parishioners at Old Mission Santa Inéz. And Sundays they divide up into four groups, attending Mass at San Lorenzo or different local parishes.

The biggest challenge the novices face, according to Father Barbato, is just “slowing down” — without TV, video games, movies and limited access to the Internet — so they can enter more deeply into themselves. And then there’s learning to live together in fraternity and letting go of their own autonomy to be obedient. 

“I would hope at the end of the novitiate they would have discerned whether God is calling them to our community and that the values that they learned here are values that they plan to maintain and develop with the grace of God the rest of their lives,” he says. “Hopefully, they would have developed a deep conviction about the need of prayer, a commitment to living in community with all the good and limitations that brings, and to live the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. 

“But especially that God is with them,” he stresses. “Because the whole point of any of this is to know that God is with us and then listen to the Lord and follow his will.”  

‘Feels like home’

Brother Brandon Berg, 33, was born in Valley Falls, Kansas, and raised as an only child by his single mom. In 2004, while living in Kansas City and playing drums in a rock band, he knelt on a bluff at Benedictine College, his alma mater, and asked God what he wanted him to do with his life. A voice came back: “Be a priest.”

But it turned out not to be that simple. Addicted to both drugs and alcohol, he was turned down by the Maryknoll Fathers, which brought him to rock bottom of his troubled young life. So he entered a 12-step program to deal with his addictions. “And that gave me the freedom to really discern, to really put myself in God’s hands,” he recalls today. 

After applying to five more different religious communities, he stayed for a week with the Capuchins in Denver and decided after meeting the friars, “Yeah, this is the place to be. This feels like home. So I applied, and here I’m at.”

“It’s been amazing grace,” he says of his two-year postulancy in the Mid-America Province and common novitiate at San Lorenzo so far. “It’s been a growth in my relationship with Jesus. It’s been a growth in my relationship with myself, learning more about myself by living in community. It’s been a growth in prayer. 

“The brothers, this class of novices, they’re great. It seems like we’re so open to each other, caring for each other and we’re so jovial. You should hear us in the dining room at supper. It’s like a dream come true. Just like a foretaste of Heaven.” 

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