November 2, 2018

Vocations Supplement

Pope Francis and St. Francis join priest on his journey of joy

Conventual Franciscan Father John Bamman smiles and waves from his 2014 Buick Encore, the vehicle that he drives across the Midwest—with Pope Francis and St. Francis at his side—to promote vocations. (Submitted photo)

Conventual Franciscan Father John Bamman smiles and waves from his 2014 Buick Encore, the vehicle that he drives across the Midwest—with Pope Francis and St. Francis at his side—to promote vocations. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

As the crowd of wide-eyed teenagers rushed toward him—with their cell phones already poised to take picture after picture—Conventual Franciscan Father John Bamman knew there was no turning back from the journey of joy he had just started.

It was November of 2017 during the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis, and Father John and a few fellow Conventual Franciscans had just piled into his brilliant-sky-blue 2014 Buick Encore—a sports utility vehicle detailed with the image of Pope Francis smiling and waving on the driver’s door while a glowing image of St. Francis of Assisi beamed from the rear passenger door.

“I didn’t expect the kids to go nuts over it,” Father John says with a laugh, before recalling how he had to stop suddenly to avoid running over any of the teens as he tried to leave the parking lot. “They saw the pope on the side of the car, and they all ran out with their cell phones to take pictures.

“The kids wanted to know more. That was a wonderful response, for sure.”

So began what has become one of the great adventures of Father John’s life—the story of a former professional driver of semi-trucks and tourist buses who has spent his past year as a vocations director for his community, traveling around the Midwest with Pope Francis and St. Francis by his side.

‘Take our message to the road’

In his 10 years as a professional driver before becoming a priest, Father John was often intrigued when he saw cars on the road that were “wrapped” with advertising images and slogans for such enterprises as maid services, pizza parlors and home improvement companies.

That approach stayed with him when someone challenged him to do something “big and bold” in his role as a vocations director for the Conventual Franciscan Our Lady of Consolation Province based at Mount St. Francis in Floyd County in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Father John prayed about it and thought, “It’s a really smart way of advertising, but I’ve never seen anything Church-related like that on cars. Why don’t we do that?—hey, there’s a Franciscan in that car!—and take our message to the road.”

He shared his idea with an advertising company where he was told that research showed that “you have only three to six seconds to grab the attention of other drivers” with a wrapped car. Then, he said, the challenge became, “What’s our message, and what do we want to say in three to six seconds?”

The Franciscans assembled a think tank of people to answer that question. The process led to images of Pope Francis because of his “magnetic personality” and St. Francis because, well, the Franciscans are named after him. The words, “Rebuild My Church” were also added because those were the instructions that St. Francis said that Christ gave him when he decided to dedicate his life to God.

Printed in white, reflective letters, those three words become illuminated by the headlights of other vehicles at night. So does the lettering of the website, www.franciscans.org And as an added touch to attract the attention of drivers of semi-trucks, buses and other large vehicles, an image of the San Damiano crucifix—the crucifix associated with St. Francis and the Franciscans—has been emblazoned atop the roof of Father John’s SUV.

For Father John, it all adds up to a distinct goal: “To bring a greater awareness of the Franciscan presence in the world.

“One of the challenges of our time is to present the Church as attractive, current and engaging in people’s lives. This is one small effort to bring the conversations of vocations to the road and awaken the passion to serve the Lord with the zeal of St. Francis.”

The joy of being on the move

Now 51, Father John faced his own challenge of faith 17 years ago. He had a good life in his 10 years as a professional driver, but there was also a nagging feeling that it wasn’t enough, that he was expendable.

“If I didn’t show up, they’d just find another bus driver,” he says. “It wasn’t my calling. I didn’t have that joy, that passion. I felt God was calling me to something more.”

So at 34, he considered a path of life that had been part of his thoughts since he was in the fourth grade—the priesthood.

“I couldn’t put it off anymore. I asked, ‘God, where are you leading me?’ He said, ‘I have an exciting, passionate vocation for you if you would turn to me.’ ”

He began his journey as a Franciscan in 2001. Eight years later, he was ordained.

“It was like God was preparing me for this life all along.”

One of the parts of his life as a Franciscan that he enjoys is “being on the move”—an approach to life that he associates with the life of St. Francis.

He’s on the move about three weeks of every month as a vocations director. His work not only leads him down the road, it takes the self-described introvert to new places within himself.

“This takes me outside myself, and that’s a fearful and challenging place to be,” he says. “There’s exposure to a lot of groups. Now, I’m called to be a leader and stand up before people. It’s brought me joy and passion and excitement. It’s where Jesus has been directing me in this Gospel endeavor.”

It’s an adventure marked with moments of humor, too.

‘Look, there’s Pope Francis!’

Father John laughs as he recalls the time he made a rest stop next to a car filled with children in the backseat who shouted, “Dad! Dad! Look, there’s Pope Francis!”

There have also been times when he’s made a quick pit stop on the road, and as he exits his vehicle to rush to the restroom someone will want to talk to him about the vehicle, the faith and the Franciscans. So he does.

“Generally, people are curious, and they want to talk to you if they have time.”

Driving with Pope Francis and St. Francis has also made him more conscious of the way he drives.

“I drive more in line with the speed limit. And I don’t cut anyone off because it would leave a bad feeling to be cut off by the pope,” he says with a laugh.

He laughs again a moment later after he says, “And no non-verbal communication from me. I just wave, and it’s a five-finger wave.”

He views his adventures as one more avenue for advertising the faith and the Franciscan way of life.

“We have a retail space in a shopping mall in Syracuse, [N.Y.]. They have Mass every day and confession every day. It’s constantly busy.”

Father John even dreams of one day having a booth at Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts football team.

“St. Francis was big on meeting people where they’re at.”

‘A joyful message of how to live our lives’

While Pope Francis and St. Francis are just images on his car, Father John still believes both are a real part of his daily journey as a Franciscan.

“St. Francis had a joyfulness about him that was so attractive. People liked him so much that they didn’t want to leave him. Even animals and birds sensed this guy was something special and saintly. I love that quality of joy. I see Pope Francis having it, too. He writes an [apostolic exhortation] called, ‘The Joy of the Gospel.’ What a great drum to beat! It’s a joyful message of how to live our lives.”

That emphasis on how to live life is also a part of the card that Father John gives to people he meets during his travels. The card includes this quote from Frederick Buechner: “Your vocation is the place God calls you to where your deepest happiness meets the world’s deepest hunger.”

“We’re all called to make the world a better place,” Father John says, stressing that it’s true whether our vocation is as a priest, a religious, a married person or a single person.

“It’s about following the Lord. He doesn’t demand a little of us. He demands all of us. I’m an adventurer at heart. When you have the challenge to throw yourself into something, to be all in, I love that.”

So his journey of joy continues, in the hope that his travels will lead the people he meets closer to God.

“I’m just a reminder to live the Gospel every day and donate your gifts back to the one who gave them to you.

“I’d like to be a reminder of the good in people—and how everybody is called to holiness.”
 

(For more information about the Conventual Franciscans of the Our Lady of Consolation Province, based at Mount St. Francis, visit https://franciscansusa.org.)

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