By Greg Friedman, OFM
Since the middle of March, life for the friars and student priests living at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C., has undergone two major shifts, as measures to contain the pandemic have drastically changed life around the world, as well as in this Franciscan friary.
First, observing the “stay-at-home” orders of Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., the friars’ ministry and other travel outside the house has been largely curtailed—travel only for essential reasons. Two friars shop and get mail for the community; residents may travel for necessary medical appointments; and the mayor’s orders allow for exercise out-of-doors, while maintaining a safe distance. Masks must be worn in stores and medical facilities.
The employees of the Monastery are largely working from home. A “skeleton crew” of two housekeepers, two chefs and two security guards work on site, maintaining proper procedures to insure the health of all.
Early in the shut-down, a religious sister who is also a surgeon, visited the community and briefed the friars on how to keep safe, stressing hand-washing and providing masks for those essential trips outside the house. She also took the temperature of those who wished; a digital thermometer, along with the masks and gloves, are available in the friary’s “infirmary.”
A new rhythm
Second, the “rhythm” of the religious community has settled into a new routine. Friary life ordinarily revolves around prayer, ministry and fraternal interaction. With no external ministry—the Monastery church is closed; there are no tours; friar-priests who assist parishes and religious communities have no regular assignments—life within the walls has settled into a daily round of prayer, meals and recreation.
The 17 friars currently in residence (two are detained at the moment in other countries) are joined by nine student priests who are attending classes “remotely” to complete degrees in various disciplines. They are a welcome addition to the community at any time, and more so in these days. Several of the student residents for this year were able to return to their home dioceses before restrictions were imposed.
The community’s prayers have shifted to the friary chapel, located on the residential floor of the Monastery. Morning Prayer (the Liturgy of the Hours) is celebrated at a later time than usual, followed by the community’s Eucharist. Evening Prayer takes place before evening recreation and supper; weekend Evening Prayer (usually in private, due to external ministries) is now celebrated with the special intention of prayer for those suffering in this time.
Of course, each friar adds his own prayer life to the community’s rhythm of prayer, and friars report that they are praying in a special way for the victims of the pandemic.
Each friar finds his own way to spend free time; reading and puzzles top the list for recreational activities. The community has also begun a “film festival,” with movies shown several times a week in the evening for those who are interested.
This unexpected time of change in the ordinary way of life for the Franciscans perhaps has moved this “itinerant” community closer to a monastic way of life. It is too soon to see how the pandemic will affect the whole world. For the moment, however, the sacred rhythms of prayer and fraternal life have been gifts for the friars of the Monastery.