One of Brother Joe Schwab's aims as executive director of the Franciscan Renewal Center, commonly called the Casa, has been to get people to better appreciate the work and mission of St. Francis of Assisi and the labors and ministry of his religious order, the Franciscans.
Too often, Schwab said, folks think of the 13th-century ascetic saint as the humble animal-friendly friar who is part of a birdbath in a front yard.
"There is so much more than that to St. Francis and the Franciscan tradition than a birdbath," he said.
Now after 30 years in the Franciscan Order, Brother Joe is about to become Father Joe.
On Nov. 29, Bishop Thomas Olmsted, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, will ordain Schwab as a priest at St. Mary's Basilica in Phoenix where other Franciscan friars are assigned as key staff. "It's not common for us" to take that step to ordination to the priesthood, Schwab said. "It happens sometimes."
Even with the ordination, Schwab remains a friar and retains the distinctive brown habit of the Franciscans, complete with the cincture, a white rope belt with three knots that represent poverty, chastity and obedience.
"Brother Joe is a teacher, a peacemaker" who "lives with personal simplicity of life," said Charlie Brown, the center's general manager. "He is unafraid to take up the cross of his own humanity," shows compassion to others and "walks in gratitude and solidarity with God." Brown credits Schwab for transforming the 57-year-old Franciscan retreat, 5802 E. Lincoln Drive, Paradise Valley, during his 11 years as its leader "with great character of spirit."
Born in 1956 in Cincinnati, Schwab moved with his family to Phoenix as a teen and graduated from Arcadia High School. He went on to Phoenix College and Arizona State University where he graduated magna cum laude in religious studies. While he had a number of relatives in religious orders, he said he wasn't particularly drawn to religious life.
"As a teenager, I guess it was girls and fun, but I enjoyed studies," he said. "I cared about church, but it was not the center of my life."
"I was pretty unfocused, and I couldn't make up my mind," he said. "I would look at a lot of things but was uncomfortable deciding on anything." In time, however, Schwab sensed a need to seek "something greater than myself" and a quest to be part of something to better the world.
In his late teens, he discussed possible vocations with a priest, a friend of the first bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, Bishop Edward McCarthy. Schwab was advised to try whatever interested him and let time pass as he pondered what to do about a religious vocation.
He later took advice from priests to try living inside a religious community.
While still a teen, in 1973, he had met the Franciscans in Phoenix. "They impressed me as a group of men who cared about each other and had a great sense of commitment and energy around the Gospels," he said. He entered the Novitiate of the order in 1978, embarking on a year of intense training and discernment. "It is pretty darn difficult, like spiritual boot camp," Schwab said, noting how one's personality is shaped and molded for religious life, "not unlike when you get married. It changes your personality."
Not a few times, he said, he felt "this is not for me," but people around him gave him "the courage to stay." In the fall of 1983, Schwab made his final vows.
For most of the next 15 years, he labored in the Province of St. Barbara, which has about 275 friars today. His work ranged from running institutional kitchens, overseeing properties and grounds, teaching and secretarial duties. Along the way he earned his master of theology studies degree.
In 1997, Schwab returned to Arizona to deal with family health issues, when the Franciscan Renewal Center was seeking someone to run its adult education programs. In short order, he was named executive director.
At the time, he said, staff needed to be reoriented on the Franciscan mission. "No one could tell me that," he said. "There was a problem. ... It wasn't anybody's fault. It's just they were not trained on it."
Schwab sought to instill the theology that all things flow from God. "That means we are amazed and delighted that God chooses to empty himself, as the experience of divinity becomes a man (Jesus)," Schwab said. "That means there is something beautiful and noble about everything there is that means to be a human" or things like "an elephant or oxygen. Those are all wonderful and amazing things because they were literally touched by God."
Schwab said he has sought to make the Franciscan Renewal Center a place where being Catholic or Protestant is irrelevant. "We, as members of the Christian community, have an obligation, as followers of Christ, to help reveal the fullness of that image," he said.
Classes, retreats and events bring about 120,000 people to the center annually. About 300 classes or retreats are offered, some of which are repeated (www.thecasa.org). Through the years, the center has hosted many leading religious voices, including the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, twice; Thomas Keating, founder of the Centering Prayer movement; author Ilia Delio; Jesuit scholar Walter J. Burkhardt; and Sister Helen Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking."
The center, which has a staff of 25, has five friars in residence. The Franciscans, whose headquarters are in Rome, have about 25,000 men worldwide. Schwab spends parts of each summer in Rome directing pilgrimages.
The choice to pursue priesthood flowed from conversations with provincial leaders almost eight years ago. Then a series of events and nudges moved him forward, including a priest he didn't know well who said, point blank, "You should be a priest."
"He has a very good pastoral sense," said Brother Jeff Shackleton, a Franciscan who coordinates religious education and baptismal preparation at St. Mary's Basilica. Together, they attended the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., part of the consortium of nine schools in the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., where they earned master's of divinity degrees.
Shackleton said Schwab has literally acted as a "brother" to the people of many faiths that come to the retreat center. "We are supposed to be sacramental ministers as priests, but we are also supposed to honor and manifest Francis of Assisi's emphasis that we are brothers first and foremost. We are brothers to all creation."
After his ordination, it will be up to Schwab's provincial superior to determine whether Schwab remains at the retreat center or serves elsewhere with the full faculties as a priest.