Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity feature Secular Franciscan Mary Esther Stewart during the month of March.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a mother, grandmother, widow, retired educator, gardener and artist living in Flagstaff, Arizona. I am a member of our local Secular Franciscan fraternity named for Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, ofs.
What attracted you to the Franciscans?
In 1999, as director of adult education for our parish, I was asked by our pastor to provide an education program about our new patron, St. Francis of Assisi. I began to read the Franciscan sources, interact with some Franciscans in Phoenix, and look into this new-found spirituality. What I discovered was a healthy, positive approach to God and all things spiritual. This was reinforced in me when I got involved with the writings of St. Bonaventure and made a few pilgrimages with the Franciscan Pilgrimage Program. I just simply liked what was unfolding in me. My children liked it, too; they told me there was something different about me and they liked it.
Why did you become a Secular Franciscan?
I had no desire to formalize my Franciscan adventure, least of all to join an official group. But I heard Franciscans talking about “the Franciscan family.” As a widow, the idea was beginning to appeal to me. On the occasion that I was assisting a friar with a retreat, I heard him explain the roles for each of the branches of the Franciscan family. When he came to the Seculars, he said their role was “to be Gospel in the world.” That really spoke to me; I decided that I really wanted that for myself. In 2010 I was professed in the Secular Franciscan Order and I’ve been a happy Franciscan ever since.
In what way do the Secular Franciscans differ from the other three branches of the Franciscan family?
All the branches of the Franciscan family are equal but autonomous, and they all share the same charism, to live the Gospel in the spirit of St. Francis. But each branch has its own emphasis: the friars are to be minor, lesser brothers in the world, at the service of all; the Poor Clares are the contemplative dimension of the family; the Third Order Regular (active religious living in community and bound by vows) are the focused apostolic part of the family in their work in schools, hospitals, missions, social work, etc.; and the Seculars are to be Gospel in the world. We maintain our secular lives, our jobs, our families, our money, cars and homes, but we live a life of witness to the Gospel. So a Secular Franciscan mailman delivers mail, treating each person he meets with dignity; a Secular Franciscan nurse serves her patients with joy; a Secular Franciscan who volunteers at a homeless kitchen prepares the food as if he or she, like Zacchaeus, were feeding Jesus. Shouldn’t everyone do this, you ask? Yes, but they don’t always. Christians have not always seen their spiritual life connected to the social needs of others; we have too long been blind to the leper among us, both systemically and individually. As Secular Franciscans, we make a permanent, life commitment to live the Gospel in the world. We strengthen and support each other by our fraternal life and our shared and individual prayer lives. We meet in monthly gatherings for prayer, formation, and laughter and joy. We have a Rule of Life that guides us along with our daily contemplative prayer time focused on the Gospel. We don’t take vows, but we make a life promise to observe poverty (a simple life-style), chastity (a life of love for our families, our fraternity members, and all whom we encounter), and obedience (a life dedicated to listening to the Gospel message) and to live the Gospel in our secular state. Our Secular Franciscan life is a permanent way of life.
What do you think is the significance of the Secular Franciscan Order for the future of the Church?
Secular Franciscans, like their brothers and sisters in the other branches of the Franciscan family, take roles of service, prayer, and apostolic activity. But we can be your next-door neighbor, your bridge partner, the CEO of the company, or the chef in the local restaurant. Rather than a religious habit, our symbol is the Tau, a letter in the Hebrew alphabet. One Secular Franciscan friend of mine summed it up perfectly: She was a teacher’s aide in a public school. She was highly respected by the parents for the kind way she treated the children in her class. She always wore a little silver Tau around her neck. One day a parent asked her what that was. She said that she was Franciscan and that the Tau is her Franciscan symbol. The parent replied, “Oh, I always knew there was something different about you.” That is our Secular Franciscan challenge in the world: to make a difference in ourselves, in our society, and in the future of our Church by spreading the Gospel message of peace and joy.
You can learn more about our Secular Franciscan life by visiting our fraternity website: www.sfoflagstaff.org.
Please visit me on my website and view my Franciscan art, writings and Franciscan presentation list: www.arcoirisstudio.com