WCR PHOTO | LASHA MORNINGSTAR
Bro. Joachim Osterman
It began simply enough. Joachim Ostermann "thought it would be a nice break" when his Vancouver parish said a retreat was being held at Westminster Abbey.
"I had never been in a monastery before," he thought. "I should check this out. I might like it. It might be a nice way to spend the weekend, so why not?"
But God had other plans for this PhD scientist.
"During that retreat I was struck by the insight that I was not called to early retirement," recalls Ostermann.
"I would not be accomplishing much, just enjoying myself. It was in prayer, plus the silence, the opportunity to be entirely separate from secular cares, to be in a totally different environment. In order to have a good retreat it is necessary to make a clear distinction between the external and the internal."
So began Ostermann's journey to become a Franciscan brother. He took his solemn vows Aug. 23 at Mount St. Francis in Cochrane.
His life path did not start out this way though.
Born in Germany to parents Barbara and Gunther, Ostermann and his two brothers and a sister always attended Mass. "When I was growing up, a Catholic family would be seen at Mass. It has changed since then. But at that time, church attendance was a must."
Determining his life's course came early to Ostermann. "I knew as an adolescent that I wanted to be a scientist" and he began his "search for truth in the sciences."
Ostermann's university studies were accomplished in Düsseldorf and Munich where he received his PhD in biochemistry. "I went into chemistry mostly because I wanted to do hands-on work."
Ostermann travelled to the U.S. in 1990 and became a research fellow at Princeton University. His supervising professor moved to the Sloan Kettering Institute in New York and Ostermann went with him as a research fellow.
During his time as assistant professor of biochemistry at Vanderbilt University in Nashville in 1999, Ostermann had difficulty getting funding for his research.
Frustrated, he took a year off to become a visiting scientist in Germany and then came to Canada in 2001 to work in the bio-tech industry. "After the struggle over funding and money in academia, I wanted to be financially secure. I wanted financial security and independence."
Ostermann worked in bio-tech companies in Montreal and Toronto, co-founding the second company. Financially, the bio-tech move worked well.
"I reached the goal of being financially independent, and I wanted to evaluate again what I really wanted to do," he remembers. "My plan was to return to academic science. For a single guy, I had enough money to last and a friend offered me a job in his lab as a research assistant."
Then he moved to Vancouver and God stepped in when he went on his life-changing retreat. After returneing from the retreat, Ostermann sent an email to his pastor, saying "Something happened. What was it? I'd like to talk."
They started meeting immediately on a weekly basis.
"He heard me discern what had happened," says Ostermann. "He encouraged me to consider the call to religious life. He thought it was genuine and that I should explore it."
During his discernment process Ostermann discovered he was not called to the monastic life. "I really did not want to live behind monastic walls in a secluded religious community."
He also realized he did not want to give up the competency he had in the world.
"That is how I came to the Franciscans. I can live my life as a Franciscan but also keep the option of working."
A Vancouver friend, on hearing of Ostermann's decision to become a Franciscan, asked, "You worked so hard to make money. What is going to feel like to give it all up?"
"Very happy. It is liberating."
Before making solemn vows, a Franciscan must abandon all his worldly possessions. "The order is not allowed to receive money from us," explains Ostermann. "We are encouraged to give it to the poor. For me, my principle beneficiary is Development and Peace."
Another friend, an Israeli citizen who once worked with Ostermann in New York, understood his life-changing path, writing in an email, "In a manner of speaking it is not such a big change for you. You were a scholar then and you are a scholar now. You like to study and discover new things and you are basically doing it now in theology."
The journey to solemn vows took six years.
Struggles along the way?
The 52-year-old Franciscan sighs, "Oh . . . lots. Does God call me to that? Am I personally equipped to live this religious life? God does not want someone to do something he can't do."
This single man must also share his life with others. "Community life can be quite challenging, takes getting used to, learning some skills," says Ostermann. "Religious communities have their own culture, their own way of living together."
His answer to the understandable struggles is prayer.
"Without prayer what else would there be? The choice to live the religious life has to be grounded in prayer and trust in Jesus Christ. Prayer restores inner peace."
During his Franciscan discernment, Ostermann studied at Newman Theological College and graduates with a master of divinity this fall. "I have no plans to return to studies soon, but I might in the future."
He is also scheduled to be ordained a deacon by Archbishop Richard Smith Sept. 14. "As a deacon I might do Baptisms, preaching on Sunday."
Ostermann's immediate job is at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Sherwood Park as a pastoral assistant. "It will give me an inside look at parish ministry without having to be the pastor."
Asked about his hopes for the future, Ostermann replies, "I can't answer that in a few sentences."
After a minute or two, he shares, "What I really hope to do is to give a credible witness to the importance, viability, everlasting hope of the Christian faith, to people who have been shaped by the scientific technological culture.
"Many see a conflict between the scientific understanding of life and the faith understanding on life. They try to live a dualism that causes unbearable tension. Like when you go the hospital if you have cancer, do you trust in chemotherapy or do you trust in prayer."
There is a contradiction between the materialistic understanding of the world, which science provides, and the faith understanding, which is based on Christ.
"How do you reconcile that? I can't answer that. But what I am hoping is that someway in my life, maybe this way (as a Franciscan brother), I can be a witness to the significance of the Christian faith especially in this scientific, technological culture."