By Celine Klosterman
As a teenager, Mark Gastel had a “gut feeling” he was called to service.
To what service, he wasn’t initially sure. But as a 16-year-old student at St. Rita of Cascia High School in Chicago, he one day stumbled upon an answer.
While skimming an issue of The Sign, a national Catholic magazine, he noticed an article on religious orders. One community, the Brothers of the Poor of St. Francis, was noted for its work with troubled youths.
Intrigued, Gastel requested and received a brochure on the religious order. Looking through the promotional material, “The first thing that went through my mind was, ‘I think God wants me to join that group.’” In contrast to the teenagers pictured, “All the Brothers looked like old men. I thought they needed some young men to help them.’”
Gastel eventually became one of those men. During 52 years as a Brother of the Poor of St. Francis, he has served at the Mount Alverno institution for delinquent youths in Cincinnati, Ohio; taught and served as principal at two parish schools in Cincinnati; and most recently, worked in Burlington at Young House Family Services, a Christian agency serving troubled children and families. Now general minister for the roughly 45 Brothers in his community worldwide, he aims to offer them spiritual guidance and “make sure we’re all trying to live out our vows in service to the Church.”
Gastel first saw devotion to the Church modeled by his “very Catholic family.” His father attended Mass not out of obligation, but desire, Brother Gastel recalled. His mother prayed often, and both parents shared a strong sense of spirituality.
Gastel’s own spirituality grew after he began attending a boys’ high school served by Augustinian priests. “I started to get a feel for community life.”
He hoped for — and found — that sense of community again after becoming a postulant with the Brothers of the Poor of St. Francis at 17 and later entering their novitiate. Though he struggled with what seemed to be a novice master’s unfair demands for household chores, “Looking at the Brothers around me, I felt support. ‘We’re glad you’re here,’” they communicated.
Br. Gastel professed final vows at age 25. By that time, he’d earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he also later received a master’s degree in criminology. He said the latter degree proved helpful over many of the 26 years he spent at Young House Family Services, working with troubled youths.
He retired from private counseling there Oct. 30 to focus on leadership duties for his congregation, which requires traveling to visit his Brothers in Brazil, Europe and throughout the United States. He’d like to see his order take on new efforts to serve youths — such as a mission in a Third World setting — but said doing so would be challenging. “We’re facing an aging religious community.”
He prays that more young people may feel called to a religious vocation. He said seven Brothers lived and worked in the Burlington area when he arrived there more than two decades ago, but all were called away to new assignments, and no men were available to replace them.
Br. Gastel said residing apart from any one group of fellow Brothers offers a sense that he’s equally committed to all of them. He wants to help them – and other people of faith he encounters — reach their spiritual potential. Lately, he’s felt a possible call to spiritual direction. It’s rewarding to be able to talk to another person about the joys, questions and struggles in finding God in his or her life, he said.
“I really feel a peace of mind that I’m where God wants me to be,” Br. Gastel said. “God says: ‘I didn’t ask you to be a priest or a lawyer or a parent.’ But with the number of people I’ve been asked to help guide at various levels, I feel like I’ve been a spiritual companion to many people… I truly feel Christ is working through me.”
Background on the Brothers of the Poor of St. Francis
The Brothers of the Poor of St. Francis strive, as the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi implores, to be instruments of God’s peace. They also embrace this idea attributed to the saint: “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”
According to www.franciscan-brothers.net, “Franciscans are challenged to live an integrated life through prayer, community, and our ministry to serve the poor, neglected and disadvantaged youth, the powerless, people in need, and the elderly. We live by our vows of poverty (living in simplicity), chastity (living in love with all), and obedience (living and witnessing the Gospel).
“…We serve the poor, neglected and disadvantaged youth, the powerless, people in need, the elderly, persons with AIDS and people who ask us for help regardless of their religion or their social/economic background.”