TRAVERSE CITY — Five years ago, Parker Tiffany was a senior-class prom king. Now he's a friar.
Tiffany, 23, recently professed vows of chastity, obedience and poverty as a brother of the Capuchins, an international community of friars modeling themselves after St. Francis of Assisi.
The 2005 Traverse City Central High graduate spent the last three years preparing to profess first vows with the religious order, first as a candidate in Chicago, then as a postulant in Milwaukee and finally as a novice in Pittsburgh. He is affiliated with the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph, headquartered in Detroit.
Tiffany, who now is known as Brother Parker, said he began thinking about religious life as an acolyte at Acme's Christ the King Church.
"I always liked altar serving in Mass, and I always found that really attractive," he said, from his formation house in Chicago. "I had to wait until I was 12 years old, and that anticipation grew in my heart."
It wasn't until a few years after graduation, when he was invited by a friend to Immaculate Conception Church, that he first discerned his calling. Arriving a day early by mistake, he nevertheless felt a powerful pull to pray and then to give his life over to God. As he left the sanctuary, he spotted a pamphlet for the Capuchins and was struck by a photo on its cover.
"There was a picture on the brochure of Birkenstock sandals on a beach, and (the caption) read, 'Are you the kind of man that can fill these sandals?' he said. "And I was wearing Birkenstock sandals."
As a member of the St. Joseph province, Tiffany eventually could serve in a variety of Capuchin ministries around the Midwest and Central America, including social services, schools, chaplaincies, retreat houses and parishes. For now, he'll study sociology and philosophy at Chicago's St. Xavier University in preparation for his master's degree in theology.
Over the next few years he'll consider whether to remain a lay brother or become an ordained priest who can administer the sacraments of the Catholic Church. In the spirit of St. Francis, lay and ordained friars see themselves as brothers and equals without distinction of rank, title or education.
"I'm just trying to be open to whatever direction God's calling," Tiffany said.
As a friar, he said he lives as simply as possible, without attachment to material possessions and belongings like savings accounts or property. Like Friar Tuck of Robin Hood fame, he wears sandals and a simple habit: a brown hooded robe tied with a cord with three knots to symbolize the three vows.
"We don't own anything of our own, and we share whatever we have in the community," he said. "It's really a spiritual, immaterial way of life: Try to be humble with who you are, put others before yourself — what St. Francis wanted to do. We cherish community. It's a big part of who we are as Capuchins."
He said he shares the formation house and chores with 23 other "brothers" — students, formation house advisers and directors, and retired friars — in a high-crime Hispanic parish. The parish oversees a food pantry, a church with a 24-hour chapel and a community kitchen open every morning "so people can come in and get a coffee or just hang out."
"It's a very, very vibrant parish," he added. "Because of the amount of people that are involved, it's not like any other Catholic community. There's always something going on." Because he speaks Spanish and enjoys working with youth, he believes he'll ultimately work in the Hispanic ministry.
"Youth here are addicted to drugs in their early teens. They don't have any opportunity," he said. "There needs to be a young Capuchin, a young friar, to be an example, to get them to know God and find a way out."
Although he's free to leave the Order in a year when his first vows expire, he doesn't expect that will happen. Neither does his father, David Tiffany.
"He's in his third year of a lifelong program, is how I look at it," said David Tiffany, noting that Capuchins profess their vows annually for several years until they're ready to make a lifetime commitment through perpetual profession.
Tiffany said he's proud of his son's path, which could call him to minister to some of the toughest and poorest areas of the world.
"One of the things that my mom told me is that if you instill in your children that they have a personal relationship with God, everything else will fall into place," he said. "In (Parker's) case we did a really good job."