Christ Present: Jessie and the Lay Franciscans

As you might know if you’re… an ancient history scholar… there are three major branches of Christianity. First, the Eastern Orthodox, who developed out of the ancient Byzantine Empire and live mainly in Eastern Europe, Russia, Greece, and parts of Asia.

Next, the Roman Catholics, who inherit a 2000-year old tradition out of Rome, common in parts of Europe and America and very wide-spread in Latin America.

And finally, those upstart Protestants, breaking away from the Catholic church about 400 years ago, very active in evangelizing, and found across Africa, Asia, and the West.

branches of the church

The Catholics and I

Growing up anglo in rural midwestern America means I was raised as a pretty classic American Protestant. But we were non-denominational, which means we were the protestants who didn’t like the protestant churches and so protested those and… started more churches. You can see how it spirals.

“We’re a beer-drinking Lutheran farming family,” my non-farming and non-Lutheran family said, looking up the German lines of our family tree. We knew that Catholics “weren’t christian,” as they focused too much on the externals, like Mary, statues, incense, and historic saints who weren’t Jesus.

This made attending a Catholic college a startling experience. Not just the bronzy jesuses hanging on crucifixes over every blackboard, or the amazing and miniscule Sister Fatula, face lighting up with joy as we slouched into her classroom at 8am on a Tuesday morning. But also the young Catholic women I came to know, with strong faith, close to God, an active devotional life, and warm relationships with other people. How were they so different? They seemed like the American protestants I’d grown up with, but in uniquely catholic form.

Meeting Jessie Conley

One my favourites continues to be Jessica Conley, art student, dormmate, and classmate from eastern Ohio. My first recollection is looking over from my desk, where I was madly swilling Diet Pepsi and writing my senior thesis, to see her sitting on the floor of our dorm room, surrounded by enormous wads of toilet paper. Dipping the paper in water, she pressed it over rosaries and let it harden, creating embossed covers for hand-stitched journals:

Embossed Cross by Jessie Conley

While visiting America this summer, I met up with Jessie and was intrigued to hear that she was in the process of becoming a Lay Franciscan.

This might be because my mental image of a Lay Franciscan has something to do with Frito-Lay chips + St. Francis walking around in Teva sandals. To learn more, I asked a few questions. Even if you’re not religious, I hope this gives you a glimpse of life for one young Catholic, and what a non-snack-food Franciscan actually is.

Tell me more about Lay Franciscans and why you got interested: 

Jessie: Well, I had been struggling with my vocation to be single or married. I felt like God was not calling me to become a religious sister [nun] … and I am still wondering if I am called to marriage, but that’s taken a backseat to my call to become a Secular Franciscan.

Celia’s notes: devoted Catholics consider three kinds of vocations for their adult lives. The first is religious life; priests, monks, and nuns join the ancient tradition of setting your life apart from the regular world, and redirecting sexual, social, and personal drives towards a life that benefits others. The second is married life, which Catholics consider a holy model of the relationship between Jesus and the Church and a way to keep, ahem, growing the church. Finally, the single life means staying focused not on one family, but on how you can freely move around and serve the world around you.

What’s the main difference between being religious and out in the world? 

Jessie: Well, being secular lay people, we don’t take vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. However, we live by those principles and virtues. . . Lay men and women out in the world are really vital. . . Religious are no less vital, they just live it out in a different way. Their prayers are constantly keeping the lay men and women going out in the world.

It’s more like two halves of the same coin, because you have many lay people spending time in contemplation and there are many religious orders very active in the world.

What are the stages of commitment for a Lay Franciscan? What stage are you at?

Jessie: There is a visitor stage where you come and meet the fraternity and receive a book about the life of St. Francis. Then if you are truly wanting to know more about being Secular Franciscan, you become an inquirer and go through formation, which lasts a few months.

If by the end of that Inquiry stage you feel called to live the Franciscan life, then you become a Candidate. Of course you have to be approved by your local Fraternity and have to be a Catholic in good standing, etc. I am currently in the stage of Candidacy…. where I am discerning making a permanent profession. Right now I am wearing the Tau, the Franciscan symbol of my fraternity and I received a copy of our Rule.

A Tau necklace

This stage lasts at least a year and should lead up to profession. It’s a permanent ceremony; that’s why the process to become Franciscan is so long and in depth.

Were you born Catholic? What are your strongest memories of faith?

Jessie: I would be called a “cradle Catholic”, but my father actually converted to Catholicism from a Methodist church when my sisters were young… I didn’t really come into my faith until I was in High school/College, [but] I always had visual reminders at home. My parents always had images of Christ, rosaries, Bibles around the house. And I have a very faithful Grandmother who used to watch us sometimes.

So I think seeds were planted by my family, but it took me a while to understand where I came into the picture, and how being Catholic made us different from the very protestant area we grew up in.

How did you come to understand what being catholic meant?

Jessie: Growing up, my family went to mass and I did enjoy it, but I hadn’t been very well Catechized despite going through Catholic school… My parents were very open to talking, but I guess I was too young to know what questions to ask.

It wasn’t until I went through Confirmation classes that I realized I had no idea about my faith. That was when I had started realizing the Eucharist was truly Christ present. Then in High school I joined a Christian group and had to defend myself as one of the only Catholics in the group. . . I had very little Catholic friends, and it felt like even my Christian friends were not whole-hearted Christians.

Celia’s unofficial explanation: catechism is a routinized list of questions and answers that helps young Catholics learn the guidelines for their fath. confirmation is the process of accepting this faith publically as a teenager; can involve catechism classes. The Eucharist is a key church practice, as catholics believe the bread and wine eaten is actually the presence of Jesus himself, not just a remembrance. And adoration, below, is a really sweet practice of extended prayer in front of the host (sanctified bread/body of Jesus/standup golden thingie) in a catholic church.

Jessie: But College is where I found Catholic friends (and Christian friends) who knew their faith and were trying to live it! That changed my life…. that and Adoration! I had not really known how I could love being in Adoration until it was available to me in college.

I guess everyone wants to find people who share their interests. Back then I didn’t know it, but I was interested in what was true, ethical, how to become a better person, to find a purpose. . . I was studying graphic design, and had no idea about theology….. until two people changed my life: Sr. Fatula (below) and C.S. Lewis.

http://www.dominicanstudies.org/sites/dominicanstudies.org/files/styles/medium/public/images/fatulam.jpg Sr. Mary Ann Fatula, OP

What was so life-changing about class with Sister Fatula?

Jessie: Well, I initially took Basic Christian Beliefs. Then, I had a watered-down theology that didn’t satisfy my need for knowing more. But Sr. Fatula not only answered those questions. . . but made me realize how important a good knowledge was.

I was hooked. I took Death and Eternal Life and a class on the Holy Spirit…. All the while going to adoration and gaining an amazing prayer life. I was being fed on Christ with my whole being, and I was the most carefree I had ever been!

I remember you went to adoration in college. What was special about it?

Jessie: We rarely had adoration at my home parish… and we never really went. It was a battle to get us kids to mass sometimes. So when I went to adoration in college… It’s a time where you just came in…. sat down and prayed…. not just for a few minutes, but really took time to visit with Christ in the Eucharist, the same risen Christ right there…..

Adoration was like nothing I had ever experienced. The silence of the chapel, of the world, of your own heart when you just sit there and listen. After my first adoration I had the best sleep… lol! Partly because I was so relaxed, and partly because I felt like there were no boundaries between me and Christ. I didn’t have to “do” anything, I didn’t have to “be” anything. I just could be with him.

Celia’s note: Notre Dame grad Danielle Rose was a hit with the Catholic girls at my school, and the The Saint That Is Just Me is a great song for catholic history and lifestyles. More on her website here.

You’re also an artist. How do you see art fitting into your devotion now?

Jessie: You know, I would hope art would fit into the future. Right now I paint for fun, for prayer, or someone asking me to paint them something. If God wants me to continue painting…. He’ll prompt me to and give me opportunities.

If He calls me to something even greater than painting, I will follow Him. C.S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce that there is a certain temptation to artists/poets/writers to start to love the painting/telling/writing greater than the one who is inspiring them. So it doesn’t worry me too much if he doesn’t [call me to art].

Painting by Jessie Conley

What do you hope for the future? What’s your passion for being in the world?

Jessie: As a lay Franciscan, I am hoping to incorporate a lot more of the prayerful disciplines that are in our fraternity . . . and discern where God is calling me be of service. Maybe being active in the prolife movement, family life, or in evangelization. Of course you never really know what God has planned until He springs it on you! lol! He could be calling me toward a whole different area completely!

And I’ve always wanted to help families, my nieces and nephews & the next generations, to Catechize and let others know more than I did… The family is the domestic Church so… it makes it more necessary to build them up. And if I am ultimately called to marriage, I would love to raise little saints!

2 Comments

  1. Awesome article Celia! I love reading about Jessie’s journey! 🙂 Thanks for sharing! (this is emily BTW)

  2. Thanks Emily! I love reading your blog and learning more about quilting, as well!

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