The road to vocation with the Franciscan Friars Conventual is a journey of self-awareness, education and promise.
Although these elements are constant, the path traveled can be as unique as the individuals who undertake the journey.
To illustrate this point we are sharing the stories of friars Tim Blanchard, OFM Conv., Franck Lino Sokpolie, OFM Conv. and Rich Rome, OFM Conv., who professed their Solemn Vows together in June.
The profession of Solemn Vows follows a deep reflection on one’s call to ministry. Here is a little bit about how these young men found their way to this most important time in their lives.
A recipe filled with faith
Tim Blanchard grew up outside of Albany, N.Y., in a small town where he was home-schooled from the second grade until he reached high school and he credits that experience with helping shape his faith.
“Homeschooling tends to have this connotation of being an academic path for ‘odd balls,’” said Tim. “That has not been my experience. We had a busy schedule that included multiple volunteer opportunities, engagement with the arts, as well as extra-curricular activities like debate. We were given the freedom to explore how our Catholic faith was shaping us and where it played a role in our life.”
Living in a town he described as “Little House on the Prairie (with) WiFi,” Tim developed an early interest in culinary arts.
“The first ever serious interest I had in my childhood was cooking,” he said. “I learned a great deal from my mother about the art of cuisine. It soon developed into a passion that still excites me to this day; the feeling of creating, tasting, perfecting, then sharing is my favorite part.”
Tim spent eight years as an altar server for a Conventual Franciscan priest, but his curiosity was raised when a group of lay ministers affiliated with the Militia of the Immaculata, an organization founded by Franciscan saint Maximilian Kolbe, visited to conduct a confirmation retreat.
“After the retreat ended, they invited me to join them for retreat at the Shrine of St. Maximilian Kolbe in Chicago to meet the friars and dive deeper into Marian devotion. I don’t know why I said yes, but I did and that following month I was off to Chicago.”
Although this experience was a great introduction, Tim said his call to vocation was a gradual process.
“I always say that my decision to join the Franciscans did not happen overnight. The first time I became aware that religious life might actually be for me was when I attended my first “Come and See” weekend in Syracuse and prayed with the friars. There was something about joining my voice of prayer with theirs that made me feel like I belonged.
“Basically, the more I prayed with the friars the clearer it became, my place is here as a Franciscan brother.”
When asked what his profession of Solemn Vows means to him, Tim reflected on the deep discernment process he has undertaken.
“In short, to me it means living as Christ did while he was on this earth and upholding the values that he instilled in his disciples,” he stated. “Values such as human dignity, charity, concern for the other, and a love that does not want in return.”
A soldier for God
Born in the West African nation of Togo, Franck Lino Sokpolie, OFM Conv. split the majority of his childhood between Europe and Africa before his family came to the United States at the age of 10 and settled in Richmond, Virginia.
From a very religious Catholic family, which includes two uncles who are priests and an aunt who is a nun, he always felt the call to religious life, but his journey to becoming a Conventual Franciscan is one he ultimately put in God’s hands.
“Whenever I saw priests, as a child, they always seemed happy,” said Franck. “It was always in my mind that I wanted to pursue religious life.”
His calling was magnified during the time he spent at a Catholic Boarding School in the African nation of Benin.
“My thirst for God came from the teachings I received in that boarding school,” said Franck. “It was run by Augustinian Sisters who taught us how to pray and understand our relationship with God.”
Franck’s calling to religious life shifted to the back of his mind in high school, as he began to pursue his passion for sports. He played rugby and went on to be a part of the varsity tennis team at J.R. Tucker High School in Henrico, Va. While at Tucker, he also became very active in JROTC, which drew him to consider a military career.
“I loved everything about my time in the JROTC,” he said of an activity which he pursued with his older brother Frederic and a dear friend. “We were part of the color guard and many other activities that I enjoyed.”
After high school the three of them began to pursue some of the in-processing procedures to join the Marines. At the last possible moment, however, Franck pulled out to give himself an opportunity to pursue what he believed to be his true calling.
The other two went forward with their military careers and eventually fell in love and married, producing Franck’s treasured nephew, Galen.
“Family is also at the heart of my religious calling.” he said. “Although one of my uncles is a Diocesan priest and one of my great inspirations, my other uncle and my aunt are both Benedictines. I knew I also needed to be part of a community, part of a larger family.”
Researching orders, he was stuck between the Benedictines and the Franciscans, because of his affinity for St. Francis.
“I was leaning towards the Benedictines, but my mother felt I would be a better fit with the Franciscans because of my extroverted personality. I could not choose, so I decided to leave it up to God. I sent two emails, to the Benedictines and to the friars at the Shrine of St. Anthony, and whichever group got back to me first would be my choice.”
The friars got back to him the very next day. He visited the Shrine and immediately felt the sense of community he cherished.
“The sense of the coin toss I did at the beginning, really worked. There is Divine Province, which is how it is supposed to be. God leads us to where we need to be.”
Sailing towards the Lord
Whereas his fellow conferees come from divergent destinations, Rich Rome, a member of a Naval family, hails from many ports.
Of course, life in a naval family means a lot of time around the water and Rich developed a love for swimming and sailing, as well as a great interest in preserving the Chesapeake Bay. He also has a passion for history, his college major, which he continues to pursue.
He spent most of his life in public schools but did get to spend a year studying in Italy while his father was assigned there. After graduating from Kempsville High in Virginia Beach he attended William & Mary University. Rich eventually earned his Master’s degree from Towson University, while working for the Army at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Bel Air, Maryland. This ultimately led to his introduction to the friars.
“I was very involved with my parish, St. Margaret’s, and the friars would come to say Mass,” said Rich of his time in Bel Air. “As I started discerning religious life, I approached the friars and they started inviting me to events at (Archbishop) Curley and the Shrine of St. Anthony.”
Those visits brought into focus something Rich had been pondering for most of his life.
“Ever since I was little, I felt this general pull towards religious life, but it was never clear,” Rich said. “I briefly looked into diocesan priesthood, but nothing seemed like the right fit. So I graduated, got a good civilian career with the Army, and just went on with life.”
Still, something was missing.
“The work I did with my parish was infinitely more fulfilling than my career. I made a few trips to different Benedictine abbeys, which helped me to discern I was not called to be a monk. Whenever I met with the friars, I felt like I was at home. And, when I went on my Come and See Retreat, I realized this was where God wanted me to be and I wanted to pursue it.”
Professing his vows is an act of making some very positive statements, according to Rich.
“It’s a yes to God, who I believe guided me on a very long, and beautiful journey to this moment. It’s a yes to the friars, who welcomed me, treated me as a brother, shared this amazing Franciscan heritage with me, and now invite me to become a part of it. It’s a yes to this way of life. It’s a yes to the Church and the People of God, whom I’ve always had this longing to serve.” †
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