An Interview with Father John Fontana, O.S.M.

by Gordon Nary



Gordon: When you received your vocation, why did you choose to be a Servite?


Father John: At the end of my 6th grade, my family moved to a new town, Hillside, IL, and I discovered that Servite high school seminary was right on my way to the Servite parish church, St Domitilla. The seminarians seemed to have a happy sense of camaraderie and personability, the pastor at the time was welcoming, and I had already been thinking about priesthood. So my encounter with Servites introduced me to the existence of religious life. Looking back, I see my family’s move as part of God’s plan; not only did I choose the Servites, but it felt that God chose me to be a Servite. I found the community to be smaller than others, which would offer a better opportunity to know more of my brothers. And yet, the Servites offered a variety of potential ministries, in which we would serve others using the unique gifts of each person, rather than be limited more strictly to education or parochial ministry, for example. An added attraction was the presence of Mary of Nazareth, whom my own mother taught me to love and appreciate, right at the heart of the Order’s charism. The internationality of the Order just increased my interest, and has greatly enriched my life.


Gordon: Where did you attend seminary and what was the most challenging course that you took, and why was it challenging?


For Servites, “seminary,” during the 1970s, did not refer to a self-standing institution. Rather, while living in community houses a few blocks from the campus of St LouisUniversity, and very much involved in university activities and organizations, I obtained a BA in English, with a minor in philosophy, and experienced the other aspects of a holistic formation program. I made my novitiate between the second and third years of college. I continued in formation at our Servite theological faculty in Rome, Italy, the ‘Marianum.’ In response to your question, I found two courses to be the most challenging. The first was canon law, which was taught by a Roman layman who spoke very quickly, and I had only studied Italian for one summer at that time. My most important learning from that course was…to make sure I have on hand the phone number of a good canon lawyer when I need one! I also found moral theology to be challenging, as I still do. Some of us wondered how anyone could make a good moral decision following the complex processes being presented to us. And it’s a field that is continually expanding and evolving, even moreso with new issues resulting from science and technology.


Gordon: What was your first assignment and what did you learn there?


Father John: My first assignment was as an Associate Pastor at the Church of the Annunciata on Chicago’s East Side. Fr Michael Doyle, presently the Prior of the Servite community at Assumption in Chicago, where I live, was the pastor and my very good ministry supervisor during my year as a deacon. After years of academic study, I learned so much about the ordinary lives and issues of people, especially during significant moments, like marriage, the birth of a child, tragedy, illness, and death. The people of God are less interested in the doctrine of the Trinity or laws governing Church discipline than they are in facing life issues with faith and hope, receiving compassionate ministry from those who serve them and having a sense of belonging to a supportive human and faith community (which also knows how to celebrate life!). Often, the Servite images of Mary as a “listener” and one who stood at the foot of the Cross of Jesus, inspired me to at least be present with people, even if and when I wasn’t quite sure what to say or do. And when I did speak, as a homilist, I received my first lessons in preaching a sometimes-challenging Word, with widely varied responses from the diversity of God’s people! I was also involved in a retreat program, together with people who desired a deeper dive into a relationship with Jesus, and a life lived in imitation of Him. I began to learn the value of mutual esteem and collaboration with good and gifted lay women and men. All of that learning was so valuable when, after two years as a priest, I was named as the formation director for our new candidates. My parochial experience, I believe, helped to make my formation ministry (and hopefully my whole ministerial life) more holistic and down-to-earth.


Gordon: When were you appointed Prior Provincial of the USA Province of Servites and what are your primary responsibilities?


Father John: I was elected to serve as Prior Provincial by my brothers in 2009, after one term as the Assistant Provincial, and was subsequently re-elected in 2012 and in 2016, ending in 2020. I quickly discovered that my “primary” everyday responsibilities were usually quite different from the list of mostly juridical tasks found in our Constitutions. What I actually did (and every day was different), can be generally categorized as: a) personnel; b) organization/administration; and c) spiritual leadership of a community of priests and brothers.


a) Personnel: In a word, I ministered to the ministers. I was responsible, in collaboration with the Provincial Council, for the formation of local communities and assignment of friars to particular ministries, both external (parishes, school and sanctuary) and internal (e.g. secretary, treasurer, vocation ministers/recruiters, committee members). I made a formal annual ‘visitation’ to each community, along with informal visits and ongoing conversations with the Priors (superiors) of each. An increasing part of my job was to invite friars from other jurisdictions, where new vocations are more plentiful (like India, the Philippines and Indonesia) to minister in the U.S. I desired to support and encourage my brothers in their life and ministry, whether personally, or through newsletters, in which I usually included a more reflective component. The most challenging personnel issue, by far, was when a friar would receive an allegation of sexual misconduct toward a minor. These were very few, and mostly from many years ago. But the protocol for responding is extensive, challenging, emotionally draining and very time-consuming. While the main focus of a response was on the alleged victim, I also had to remove a brother from ministry and accompany him through the investigative process. My responsibilities also included these ‘bookends’: at one end of life, the assignment and ongoing support of friars responsible for the recruitment, formation and education of new members; and, at the other end of life, issues of aging, illness, senior care and the death and funerals of our brothers.

b) Organization/administration: While I would sometime explain to friends that my role was similar to that of a CEO (and we are, indeed, also a corporation), I gladly, and necessarily, shared or delegated the responsibilities for financial, legal, real estate and immigration issues with others, both friars and professionals in the various fields. Religious formation and theology classes do not prepare one for the occasional lawsuit, buying/selling/improvement of property, or development projects, along with ongoing fund-raising and public relations. We, as a Province, also own and minster at Servite High School in Southern California and the National Shrine of Our Sorrowful Mother (The Grotto) in Portland, OR, both of which are also corporations with Boards of Directors. The renovations of some buildings to better serve our senior brothers were significant projects. Most such projects were done together with the Provincial Council, and sometimes involved our Prior General and his Council in Rome. I met with my fellow Priors Provincial from North America, and all the other countries, on all the continents, in which Servites serve. International meetings were always quite rich, as we learned the variety of ways in which our founding charism is expressed in diverse languages and cultures. Also enriching and broadening was my participation in a national conference of leaders of men’s religious communities, which dealt with societal issues of peace and justice, as well as issues relative to the Church and our own communities.


c) Spiritual leadership of a religious community: Aside from organization/administration, critical issues arising, and one-on-one relationships, a principal responsibility was that of leading friars gathered in the name of Jesus, “to witness the gospel in fraternal communion and to be at the service of God and all people, drawing abiding inspiration from Mary, Mother and Servant of the Lord” (from our Constitutions). Whoever the Prior Provincial is, he is in a line of succession of those who have, for almost 800 years, passed on a charism, a gift, given to our Seven Founders, for the sake of the Church and world. While my brothers were exercising our charism in very practical forms of life and service, it was my task to encourage their religious commitment, as individual friars and as communities, to live out our Spirit-given gift, by also nourishing their own ongoing spiritual growth and development. I tried to remind and encourage them both personally and in writing, and to include opportunities for ongoing human and spiritual formation during some of our gatherings. While our global presence is growing more in developing countries in Asia and Africa, we trust that the compassionate service which we offer the Church and world will continue in the Northern and Western parts of the planet, too, as we continue to invite new members to join us, and to stand, like Mary, at the foot of the many crosses on which our sisters and brothers continue to suffer, “in order to bring comfort and redemptive cooperation.” (Constitutions). I also had limited but positive interaction with Servite Sisters and with the lay women and men who make up the Servite Secular Order, all branches of the family of Servants of Mary.


Gordon: What were some of the challenges that you had to address in South Africa and Australia?


Father John: The biggest common challenges are the small number of Servites in each of those two jurisdictions and the geographic distance from the U.S., which limit physical presence and challenge ongoing communication. As different as the two delegations are, culturally, historically, and as local churches, one common challenge has been in the area of new vocations: the lack of new members in Australia, and the limitation of trained personnel to form and guide those who enter the community in South Africa. In each of these two Delegations of the USA Province, we have recently passed the torch of local leadership from older men who had come from other countries as missionaries, to younger men who were born and grew up within the local church community.


South African challenges also include the overall poverty of the people, illness (especially HIV-AIDS – and now Covid 19) and the number of orphans. One rewarding challenge, which our men have answered well, has been the preparation of lay Catholics as local leaders and catechists. The work in this area has borne much fruit, as seen in the talent, capability, commitment and enthusiasm of the laypersons who serve in those capacities. The local church (though relatively small because of the small percentage of Catholics) is very much alive and lively, but struggles financially, and needs outside support to maintain its ministries, means of transportation, buildings and, of course, the community of Servites. While our Order established the Church in northern KwaZulu-Natal, and made up the totality of ordained persons for many years, there is now an equal number of diocesan priests, whose formation, attitudes, lifestyle and ministry are lived out quite differently from Servites. Increasing and ongoing collaboration, rather than competition, is a challenge. After years of Servite leadership, our mission now is being led by its second non-Servite bishop, and the first who is African-born, and our “mission” may soon become a diocese. On the other hand, the slowly increasing number of priests, Servite and diocesan, is easing the strain of serving Catholic communities who are geographically spread out, and who gather into many “outstations,” at some distance from one another, requiring long commutes for Mass or limits to the number of times in which Eucharistic liturgies can even be celebrated. Catholicism (a minority of the population) is also being increasingly challenged by the proliferation of charismatic, evangelical churches, as well as by local African religious groups.


Unlike Zululand, where there is a strong majority of Zulu people, with only a very small number of white, ‘colored’ (mixed race) and Indian South Africans, Australia is a nation of great diversity within its overall population, and including the Catholic population. A more recent effort has been made to invite Servites from other nations, especially India, the Philippines and Indonesia, to serve the AustralianChurch, which includes significant numbers of their own nationals now living in Australia. This also assists the continuing presence of Servites in Australia, to serve mainly in parishes, in education (including our own high school) and a ministry of healing, since local vocations have been few and far between, with only a few Australian men at present. The sexual abuse crisis has been especially strong in Australia, and has very strict protocols to follow, in both Church and government. The immigration of Servites into Australia has also been a challenge. And then there is the big time zone difference!


Gordon: Please provide an overview of why Saint Peregrine is the patron saint for those with cancer?


Father John: According to an early source, written shortly after his death in 1345, Peregrine Laziosi, OSM, practiced an extreme form of penance, often standing for very long periods of time, in his community in Forli’, Italy. This practice, over many years, led to his having varicose veins, which became infected, and led to serious sores which might be described today as an ulcerative cancer. When Peregrine was about 60 years of age, his medical doctor concluded that he could only survive this cancer by an amputation of his leg. The night before his operation, he dragged himself to the friars’ Chapter (meeting) Room, where he prayed for healing before a fresco of the crucified Jesus. He fell asleep, and the story reports that while asleep, “he saw Jesus come down from the cross and take away all sickness from his leg. Soon he awoke, and felt the leg healed.” When the doctor arrived to amputate his leg the next morning, Peregrine said to the doctor, “See with your own eyes, and see whom I have had as my doctor.”


This story focuses primarily on Peregrine’s faith in the crucified and risen Jesus, who provides healing in many sick people. Peregrine lived for nearly 20 more years, until he was almost 80, when he experienced the definitive healing of death on the way to resurrection. Shortly after his death, people began to report miracles obtained through the prayerful intercession of St Peregrine. As Servites spread out from Italy to other nations, so did people’s devotion to Peregrine, and he has gained global popularity as a patron saint to be invoked by those who desire healing. He was canonized on December 27, 1726. And because of the circumstances of his own healing from a cancerous sore, he became the universal patron of persons with cancer and other serious, life-threatening illness.


In this post-Prior Provincial chapter of my life, I am now involved in our Province’s St Peregrine Ministry of accompaniment and support of persons who suffer from serious illness, especially cancer, along with their loved ones and caregivers. The National Shrine of St Peregrine is located at Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica, Chicago, and all of our ministerial sites in the U.S. and Australia include Masses, devotions and outreach related to St Peregrine, at which we focus our faith, compassion and prayerful intercession on those in need of hope, peace and the healing presence of God in their lives.


Gordon: Thank you for this great interview which will help many of our readers to better know the Servites.