It’s true. One of 18 local fraternities within one of the international order’s 54 U.S. regions, the St. Joseph fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order swelled to more than 750 members in the early ’60s. Since then, the fraternity’s membership has gradually ebbed with the passing of years and its members, now number only 67. The order’s zenith and subsequent decline is similarly reflected in the other local fraternities as well as on a nationwide scale.
“These people — women and men, young and old, single and married, wage-earning and retired, from the city and countryside — simply desire nothing more than to quietly go about doing God’s business in whatever ways are presented in daily life,” Peter explains. Adds Carol: “We felt called to follow the way of Francis by making Christ known and loved everywhere in our everyday life. Spreading the spirit of love and unity by living simply is what attracted me to the order.”
Why the lack of new blood? It’s certainly not for lack of time, for the Bekkers — like many other parents of the day — professed their lifelong commitment at a time when their lives were brimming with the busyness and responsibility of raising a large family.
Your Catholic Neighbor
Name: Peter and Carol Bekkers
Parish: St. Mary, Greenville
Age: Peter, 75; Carol, 73
Favorite saint: Francis of Assisi
Words to live by: “I promised myself I would not spend my retirement practicing to be dead.” (Peter) “Appreciate the simple joys in life: the smile on a child’s face, the flowers in the garden.” (Carol)
“Our activity with the local fraternity was comparatively low back when our children were still at home,” recalls Peter. “Still, we were members in good standing and tried our best to follow Francis 24/7 as do the other members of our community. The commitment was there, both guiding and accommodating our lives as parents.”
There’s also the question of perceived needs in today’s culture for hands-on action in order to feel purposeful. Again, the Bekkers adeptly explain how the simplicity and profound meaning of profession to the order are a powerful inspiration driving members into action, living out the charisms of St. Francis and St. Clare through local efforts. These include social service programs such as Community Outreach Temporary Services (COTS), the Fox Valley Warming Shelter, LEAVEN and the Community Clothes Closet, as well as struggling families in far-flung corners of the globe.
“I remember being approached by a member of the order,” Peter recalls. “He invited us to come and see what they had, to find out if divesting ourselves of the burdens of everyday life — if finding peace and joy in each day — would affect us in the same way it had affected them. We found it shaping us not just in a Sunday-morning manner, but also in a way that transcends our motives, priorities, values and goals — everything we do with our time, resources and lives. It’s radically different than the life TV commercials are coaxing us to live.”
Carol says the order gave her a new kind of calling to not only contemplate, but also to act; the freedom to be a peacemaker, a stronger yearning for a deeper relationship with God through contemplation and prayer; a passion for social justice; and a greater concern for ecology, the poor and the marginalized.
“This is all part of why we are what we are,” explains Peter. “Within a five-month period of 1967 our oldest child was severely injured in a car accident and our youngest child died. Events like that will either tear a marriage apart or make it stronger. Looking back, we see how crucial our faith is in difficult times.”
As the Bekkers approach the 50th anniversary of their professions as secular Franciscans, the question is asked: Why persevere? Perhaps the answer lies in the often quoted St. Francis of Assisi himself: “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”
Learn more about the Secular Franciscan Order online at www.lavernasecularfranciscans.org.