Saturday 20 September 2013  


Indian Liturgy Our Indian brothers directed the Liturgy this morning. We were each greeted at the entrance of the church with coloured paste applied to our foreheads, representing a “third eye”, the Eternal Wisdom. Many of the prayers were in Tamil, with its lilting music. Lamps were lit at the beginning of the Mass, invoking the Light of God, and water was blessed for purification of ourselves and our world. A typical Indian parable was told  by fr Susaimani, the Provincial, at homily-time, a kind of wisdom-story that would be typical of the Vedas. And the Mass itself was in honour of the many Korean martyrs who gave their lives for Christ.


Constitutions and Directory After the introduction that I presented yesterday to the six-year work we did on the re-organising of the Order’s Constitutions, this morning was a presentation of the results, section by section, page by page. Everyone was glad that the document under examination was well produced, with the old (present) text in a left-hand column, the revised text in a centre column, and the parts being sent to the General Directory in a right-hand column.


Fr Hubert Moons had been chairman of our working committee over the years. He was the one presenting the document, and – typically – he was clear, precise, cool and calm. I was the Moderator or Chairman for these morning sessions. It went really well. There was a number of questions, relatively few really, and comfortably answered by fr Hubert. Once or twice someone wanted a change in the present text, and it was easy enough to say, “you’ll be able to propose such things when you are working in your groups later on.”  I had the distinct impression that the whole assembly was very pleased with the document. And although fr Hubert did all the hard work through the morning, I came to lunch-time with a real sense of a weight lifted from my shoulders. I suppose that’s not surprising after a task that has been going on since 2007!


We finished well ahead of lunch-time, so that the President of the Chapter authorised a well-earned free hour. I went for a walk in the bright, warm sunshine. The total silence of these mountains, apart from an occasional cow-bell in the hills or a visiting group of bright schoolchildren, is something rare and refreshing.


Discernment for Prior General   The afternoon and evening sessions were dedicated to discernment for the election tomorrow of the Prior General. Fr Paolo Orlandini, Master of Students at the College in Rome, and fr Ángel Camarillo, General Curia assistant, led us through a process described as SWOT – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. And there was a long video-powerpoint presentation of the realities of the world in which we live, with statistics, photos, climate change, world finances, inequalities, war and new science developments. Then we considered the Servite Friars’ part in all of this, with our own challenges and resources. Overall, the participants found it reflective and helpful.


What qualities and who?   We were then invited to work in the 6-man groups where we have been sitting all week, and enter into the question: “What kind of person is needed to be our Prior General?” and then, “What names would you suggest?”.  Here are the qualities mentioned in my own group:

3.01 To be a witness as a man of spirit and spiritual strength;

3.02 To be a person directed towards renewal of us Servite Friars

3.03 To be a person full of humanity and fatherly strength, like Pope Francis

3.04 To be a person of Joy and Hope “Gaudium et Spes”;

3.05 To be a good friar, prayerful and good at relating to others.

3.06 To be a person of good health.

3.07 To be able to work in a group.

3.08 To be a person able to resist represion

3.09 To be wise and prudent, and not impulsive.

3.10 To be able to combine administration with the overriding value of spirituality

3.11 To be able to combine authority with collegiality, distinguishing “prior” and “superior”

3.12 To be a character who draws respect and loyalty from the friars: a good model for young and all;

3.13 To be a person who listens and learns.


Many names were put forward by the eight groups, and from my own group we offered the names of frs Gottfried Wolff;  Rhett Sarabia;  John Fontana; Silvano Maggiani;  Ermes Ronchi. Soon there will be the real voting of the new Prior General.


We concluded the evening with Evening Prayer and an Indian greeting of Our Lady, in which the 12 Provincials or Vicar Provincial of the Order each carried a flower to a crown, which was then placed on the statue of the Pietà from the Pietralba Shrine (not the famous little white statue, but another Pietà).


Preparations for Tomorrow  After the generous evening meal – it’s always generous! – little informal groups were meeting all over the place, ahead of tomorrow’s election. My own team of Provincial fr Bernard Thorne, fr Colm McGlynn and myself, met to finalise the liturgy for tomorrow morning, which is being directed by the Province of the Isles. Then I joined a mixed group of friars from all over the world, sharing an evening drink and a lot of conversation…


Saturday 21 September 2013


Morning Prayer  and Mass The morning Liturgy for thisvery important day of the General Chapter was entrusted to my own Province of the Isles. Prior Provincial Bernard Thorne presided, with myself and fr Colm McGlynn assisting. It was the liturgy of Saint Matthew, apostle and evangelist. I arranged for the Holy Bible to be carried into the church in procession, with a lamp ahead of it, in honour of the Gospel. Fr Dennis Kriz obliged to carry the holy book. During the procession the Angelus was recited, always remembering that this is the theme of this General Chapter. We had prepared an attractive leaflet so that all the friars could join in the various hymns and prayers. Fr Bernard spoke about the ducks and geese, peacocks and dogs around the gardens of Benburb Priory, calling them the “alternative second community” and a lesson in making space for one another with respect. He described the beauty of the peacock from the front side and its less attractive appearance from the back side (!). This too was a lesson for us, just as Jesus noticed the good side of Matthew, while the Pharisees only saw the bad side: so too with us in our community and fraternal life… Everyone enjoyed the homily.


Election of the Prior General  The outgoing Prior General addressed the gathering, with apologies and thanks and a show of emotion from everyone as he finished his mandate. Taking his place for just one hour was the oldest Chapter member, fr Lorenzo Tanganelli. Lorenzo has been on my own particular table-group throughout the week and is one of those delightful elders whom it is a privilege to be with. In the opening prayers of the elections, he spoke of “God’s dream for us, shown in Nazareth and the Upper Room”, which we are called to be part of.


We sang “Come Holy Ghost”, and then the ballots were distributed. In no time at all, a first ballot gave a good idea of where things were going, and on the second ballot a decisive majority named a new Prior General, fr Gottfried Wolff. He is German by origin and has been recently the Prior Provincial of the Tyrolese (Austrian) Province of the Order. I worked with him a lot on the former North European Conference and also on the Constitutions and Directory Committee, so that I think I know him quite well. I was delighted with the result, when he announced, “Yes, with your help and the prayers of Our Lady, I accept this office”. Applause and congratulations. He was clearly moved, and he had tears in his eyes when we each went up to him to wish him well and give him a brotherly hug of peace.


Ritual  The election of the Prior General is enshrined in a liturgy of prayer. We were to go in procession to the church, but this had to wait because the Shrine Church was full of visiting pilgrims celebrating Mass. So we relaxed for a little, and at 11.30 began our procession across the courtyard, into the church and around the altar. Here we shared the oath and promise of the Prior General, and prayed for him with words and song. I had been appointed to take photos, but I wasn’t the only one. And I was taken up into the choir-loft for a few special pictures.


Panorama  We left the church and went out to the front of the Shrine, on the great veranda and steep hillside, to take a photo of the whole gathering of friars, all looking beautifully medieval in our religious habits, and all in very good humour!


Back to work  Almost immediately it was lunch time, and there was a new wine to celebrate the new Prior General. I half expected the afternoon session to be later, but it started at 3.30 as usual, right back to work. And it was a continuation of the Discernment Process. Each of the eight table-groups discussed what would be needed in the General Councillors, and then offered some names. The list was quite long, as you could imagine. It was all people much younger than myself, appropriately enough. We didn’t do any voting. That will be for next week, possibly after we have identified more closely the sort of things we expect the new General Council to deal with.

Sunday 22 September 2013


Day-off – Day-out  Today was a day-out. The plan was so full of all sorts of special events that it might not be considered a “day off”. However, we all joined in. I was up at 5 o’clock, and everyone gathered in the car park, complete with a little bag of rolls and juice provided by the hosts, ready for a 6 o’clock departure. It was dark, and we watched the dawn coming up as the bus drove down the valley to Bolzano and then up north towards Austria.


Mountains and Sunrise...  The sky was dappled with “johnny-apple-seed” clouds, silver and grey to start with, and then gradually illuminated from beneath by the distant rising sun to produce a breathtaking rose and pink and golden display across the heavens, with the steep Dolomite mountains as a backdrop. I was speechless. Fr Mel Loftus was in the seat behind me, and he too was moved by the vast beauty of it all. I tried to take some photos from the moving bus, not very successfully,


But then, as got further into the mountains, the sharp pointed peaks had broken up the cloud into great columns, like so many twisted spirals of grey and silver. They kept changing shape, above the firm mountain range. And they were more easily photographed. I look at those pictures now and wonder, “did we really see all that?”.

Maria Luggau  We crossed the Austrian border without noticing. There were no barriers or checks. And just before 9 o’clock, still amid the most wonderful mountain scenery, we drew into the village or town of Pietralba. There were people in costumes all over the place, ready for a big celebration. And on the veranda of the town walls there was Father Norbert, smiling and waving a welcome to us. He was going to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of his ordination today. Father Andreas Baur  was there too, and it was his 40th Anniversary celebration. There were band members with their gleeming instruments, flower girls, confraternity groups, even a gang of little children in the uniform of the Compostella Camino, black with white clam-shells attached.  The whole town was there, and we remarked afterwards, “Wow! They have their own band, their own fraternities, all gathered around this Servite Shrine.”

I slipped into the great Priory of Maria Luggau, to change into the Servite habit after the bus ride. In the cloister was this delicious wooden portable shrine of the Virgin and Child. Like Pietralba, this place is full of artwork, all finely maintained. (In some ways there was a museum-feel to it all, insofar as there are no longer many friars. But that is true in less attractive priories, and the local groups and faithful always uphold the spirit of community around these places, just grateful for the presence of the friars in their midst.)

Mass  The Shrine church was full to bursting point, and the 60 friars were located on benches at the front. Out came fr Andreas Baur and fr Norbert, in the most ornate Roman vestments, complete with naughty altar boys and a glorious baroque altar – perhaps they have a little portable altar facing the people for ordinary days, but not today! Up in the choir loft at the back of church were gathered the town choir – fine voices to tell the truth, and the town band. And they did a baroque Mass, not Beethoven, but certainly one of the classics. We sat down for Kyrie and then again for Gloria, but it must have been a more modern composition, because it didn’t go on for ever at all. Indeed, it was very beautiful and conducive to prayer.   After the Gospel, the new Prior General, former Provincial in the Austrian Province, fr Gottfried Wolff gave the homily. Of course I didn’t understand a word, and Gottfried is not given to body-language or facial expressions. No harm done, it wasn’t very long.


Procession  After Mass, there was a splendid procession. My Roman memories were of no use, because the Austrians are very orderly. Everyone seemed to know their proper place, and the procession included absolutely everybody in the town and all pilgrims and visitors. I mention pilgrim visitors, because this past year has been the 500th Anniversary of the Shrine, and  this Mass and Procession were the culmination of celebrations. So, off we went in procession, with a large crucifix in the lead, then the band (I don’t know how they negotiated the hillside and meadows, but they did!). Then the fraternities in their colourful costumes with the sacred Pietà Shrine image and that other Virgin and Child shrine that I had photographed earlier. Then all the friars in their habits, some taking photos but all looking suitably devout. Then came the Blessed Sacrament, carried by fr Andreas under a traditional canopy with bells and incense, followed by crowds of people, parishioners and pilgrims. It was quite a walk, surrounded by mountains and valleys of vast, silent beauty. It last about an hour, after which we received a blessing, the ministers retired to church and everyone else gathered on the grass in the forecourt of the shrine for a concert by the Town Band. Mingling began, with delight and new faces.

Mothers of Servite Friars One of the new faces for me was the venerable mother of fr Martin Lintner. I was introduced to her and considered myself well blessed. You will appreciate that when I tell you that just an hour later fr Colm McGlynn received a text on his phone from London to say that fr Peter Conniffe’s mother Muriel had died last night in Bolton. This brought us great sadness. Mrs Conniffe was just on 97 years old, and a real matriarch, not just for Peter, but for many of us who knew her. She was the one who said, when Peter was up for being moved to another priory, “don’t get moved to Manchester to be near me in Bolton. I gave you to serve God whereever you are most needed!”  We never forgot her injunction. May she rest in peace!  I spoke to Peter on the phone later in the day, just to share his sorrow.

Refectory The friars were then invited for lunch, and so were many other guests. We were shepherded into the priory refectory, a large room designed to hold about 50 friars sitting around the outer perimeter of the hall. It could hold 100, and so it did today! All round the walls were fine baroque paintings, some of Servite Saints, others of benefactors and so forth. And, of course, Our Lady and St John at the foot of the cross. The strangest fitting was the great yellow stove, about 9 feet high, in the middle of the floor at the far end of the refectory, about 15 feet wide. This was the ancient heating system, it seems. But on the top, moulded in painted plaster, was the Pelican and Chicks, the bird representing Christ nourishing the young ones with his blood. I actually thought the bird was a phoenix at first, the one that rose from the ashes. Seeing that on top of the stove was very amusing, even if a bit irreverent!


As for the dinner, served cheerfully by local helpers, it was just great. We really need to go on more processions up and down the meadows to cope with the excellent meals we have been receiving. I could have written this a week ago!


Scenery I could write a book about the mountain and village scenery, with the little spired churches, meadows of deep green, vineyards and orchards, and the firm houses with wooden fittings and blooming window boxes. Of course the snow hadn’t arrived yet, and the skies were a glorious blue, whereas it could just as easily been cloudy and raining and we wouldn’t have seen the glory of it all. One thing was questioned: what are those strange houses? No, they’re not houses even if they look like houses. They are hay-loft houses, full of gathered grasses for the animals in winter-time. They seemed just as important as the houses themselves.


In the afternoon we climbed back into our bus and drove south back towards Bolzano. A long drive, again through mountain valleys as well as the speedy Motorway. The engineering of these roads has to be seen to be believed, with bridges and tunnels and – in great contrast to British motorways – not very much traffic at all.


There was plenty of chatter on the bus, re-living the experience of our Servite Shrine at Maria Luggau. And, as we went through a valley where there was a large town, I knew there would be a good moblie-phone signal, so I phone fr Peter Conniffe on his mobile phone, to speak with him about his Mum. He was glad of the call, and so was I. I even passed the phone to fr Mel Loftus behind me, who joined in the conversation.


Ice-Man   However we weren’t going straight home. We went to the University City of Bressanone (I don’t remember the German name). This is where our fr Martin Lindtner is one of the professors in the Theology Faculty. And it had been arranged for the Innsbrück Professor of Mountain Archaeology to give us a powerpoint presentation on the Ice Man. This is the 5,300 year-old body found mummified in the Alps on the Italy-Austria border in a state of perfect preservation. The lecture was most interesting, and the professor very passionate about his subject.

Bressanone Cathedral  We were running late, and I was nervous about going into the Cathedral in Bressanone. That’s just me, a stickler for time-keeping, but also a little concerned for the evening-meal restaurant, which loses business when they are waiting for late-comers. Just the same, we went into the cathedral, and I was overwhelmed by the cloister. It is Romanesque and solidly very beautiful. A slightly later gothic renovation part of the cloister is filled with frescoes or wallpaintings. I only had minutes to view them and photograph some of them. I am convinced that they must be of the highest quality. I think I saw Dominicans in some of the frescoes. I will have to go and check it all on a study-site on the internet. The cathedral itself was baroque splendour, but I hardly noticed it. I’m guilty of always avoiding the baroque, with my penchant for the early and late medieval art.


Supper  So we drove further south towards Bolzano, and it was now sunset. Once again the sky turned full of gold and purple and the thin clouds took up the setting sunlight. Out came the camera again, and this time I wasn’t alone, because we were off the bus, on  the top of a high hill above a town whose name I don’t remember. The restaurant was surrounded by vineyards of firm black grapes, and the mountains in the distance bathed in evening pink. Our supper – who had room for any supper? – was either pizza or pasta with wine or beer. The restaurant seemed happy to have us there, even if their other halls were all full of Sunday evening families and groups.


I don’t know what time we left that place, and – like a few others – I fell fast asleep on the bus, waking just as we arrived back in Pietralba at 10.45pm. The end of a glorious day-off, or should I say “day out!”?