CLEMSON—Franciscan Father Bob Menard enjoys citing Irish poet W.B. Yeats, specifically the fourth verse from his poem “Vacillation.” In it, Yeats describes a man fondly reflecting on the 50th year of his life.
This summer, Father Menard is celebrating a half-century of vows as a Franciscan friar. Given his love of both poetry and prose since childhood, it’s fitting that his first introduction to St. Francis of Assisi came via a book.
As a youth in Springfield, Mass., Father Menard recalled the construction of a new library across from the apartment where he lived with his parents.
“I watched every brick being laid at that library,” he said. “I couldn’t wait to get inside.”
Upon its opening, one of the first books the young man checked out was “My God and My All – The Life of Saint Francis of Assisi” by Elizabeth Goudge.
“Once I finished it, I knew I wanted to become a Franciscan,” Father Menard said. He was attending a Catholic school at the time and would go on to Cathedral High in Springfield followed by college at St. Michael’s in Colchester, Vt.
While at Cathedral High, Father Menard received his first formal introduction to religious life, not via the Franciscans, but through the Edmundites, who invited him to join them for retreats at their novitiate in Connecticut.
The Edmundite community retreats “were influential in deepening my spirituality and my vocational call,” he said, but the Franciscans proved to be a deeper draw. “They tried to get me to join them, but I wasn’t interested. I always wanted to be a Franciscan.”
Father Menard graduated from St. Michael’s in 1965 and then enrolled at St. Joseph’s Seraphic Seminary in New York. The next year he was received into the Franciscan Order at St. Raphael’s Novitiate in Lafayette, N.J., and professed his first vows in 1967.
He studied philosophy and theology for the next five years at The Catholic University of America and the Washington Theological Coalition in Washington, D.C. In 1970, he made his solemn profession and was ordained to the priesthood in 1972. Father Menard’s first assignment was associate campus minister at the University of Georgia.
The Franciscan priest would serve God and His people through a variety of ways over the next 40 years, including Catholic campus minister for Suffolk University and six years at Holy Name College in Washington, where he was part of the post-novitiate formation team assisting students during their vocational discernment.
Between his work with college-aged men and women, Father Menard was appointed pastor of a parish in North Carolina, followed by service as parochial vicar at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Triangle, Va., where he remained for 13 years.
In early 2011, the priest took a one-year sabbatical in North Africa, living with fellow friars in Egypt, Morocco and Israel’s West Bank.
“One reason I took that sabbatical was to see how the friars live and work in Islamic cultures,” he said. He was also building on his post-9/11 work in Virginia about Christian/Muslim relations.
Following the sabbatical, Father Menard was assigned to St. Andrew in Clemson. He is about to start his sixth year as campus chaplain, and will continue his work in developing and fostering interfaith leadership in the Upstate.
Father Menard said he was close to the Catholic Church as a youngster, serving as an altar server and active in other ways. His parents, however, were divided when it came to life in the Church.
“My mother was an alienated Catholic and my father was a practicing Catholic,” Father Menard said. “He led a moral and faithful life, but it wasn’t articulated in any way other than the quality of one’s living and the faithfulness to one’s relationships.”
That devotion influenced the young man in terms of his father’s fidelity to those he loved and the commitments he made.
“He wasn’t an educated man, but he was a faithful man,” Father Menard said. “His philosophy was, life is a gift and you live it.”
Father Menard, along with other silver and golden jubilarians, was honored June 22 at a province Mass in New York. He will be honored again in July during a celebration at St. Andrew.
He said he’s happy to be back in the college setting because his life has always been influenced by the academic world. It is also very important to his life of faith and the faith life of young Catholics.
“You have an opportunity to influence people at an impressionable age. I try to influence and encourage the younger generation to be a little more critical in their faith, a little more expansive in their spiritual practice, and a little more adventurous in their pursuit of faith and spirituality,” Father Menard said.
At age 71, he knows the challenge of relating with those in their late teens and early 20s.
“They live in a different universe than I do, so it’s not a question of imposing my experiences on them,” he said. Instead, he shares his faith and spirituality in an unassuming way.
“It’s like giving them a mirror to look at their own reflection,” he said.
Father Menard said in his brief time with the Edmundites, he learned the value of community in his spiritual and faith life, a gift he has carried with him as a Franciscan.
“Religious community is the real charism gift in the Church,” he said, and it is one he has cherished.
“It’s been deeply enjoyable being a Franciscan,” he said. While the work he has done and continues to do is important to him, being a Franciscan is of prime importance.
He said being a part of the community allows him to “be a Franciscan in any context, doing any kind of ministry.”