In the Steps of St. Francis: How One Community Brought Renewal to Religious Life

Since it was a decidedly Catholic film, it was only fitting that the invited audience at the premiere of Thérèse should be the same. Sitting with actor-director Leonardo Defelippis in the New York theater were a bishop, some priests, local diocesan officials, Catholic activists, and a patchwork of religious men and women wearing full-length habits.

After the film, a line of limousines waited outside to take the invitees to a celebration of Defelippis’s feat in a nearby establishment. Some of the habited guests seemed a little nervous about getting into the limos.

It was understandable, then, if a few of them felt relief when they arrived at the party and spotted a couple of homeless people outside the hotel. They weren’t your typical city homeless: a young man and woman, shabbily dressed and in need of a barber, piercings all over. They sat on a flattened cardboard box, dragged on cigarettes, and held up a piece of cardboard with a plea for food money. They were ignored by 99 percent of the New Yorkers hurrying by.

The other 1 percent consisted of men equally in need of a barber, wearing sandals, gray robes, and long beards. Members of the Community of Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, they squatted down to speak to these wanderers, engaging them in conversation to see what their needs were. A casual observer could catch snippets of the dialogue, which turned into a conversation about—of all things—the Church’s teaching on chastity.

The 20-somethings were smart enough to recognize that these were vowed religious. The young man seemed to be challenging some of the values the friars lived—perhaps because those values presented a challenge to himself. Perhaps no one had ever bothered to tell this young man and woman that the way they were living and the beliefs they held were wrong and would only bring them to a bad end. But they happened to run into a group of men—about their same age—who were willing to do so. They were complete strangers. Why would they care?

The friars were doing what they always do—reaching out to help the poor but looking deeper than material needs. At their homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and free medical clinics in the South Bronx and other places, they offer prayer and spiritual direction along with food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.

“The New Evangelization is a big part of what we do,” said community “servant,” or superior, Father Bernard Murphy.

Impressive Growth

It has been 20 years since Father Benedict Groeschel and seven other Capuchin Franciscan friars began a reform of the way religious life was being lived in their order. The band of brothers coalesced as the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.

“People often ask, ‘Franciscan Friars of the Renewal— what are you trying to renew?”‘ Father Bernard said. (In Franciscan tradition, members prefer to use only first names.) “Most say, ‘You’re trying to renew the Church, or you’re out of the Charismatic Renewal.’ Uh-uh. Me,” he said, pointing to his chest. “Personal renewal, personal conversion. It has to begin with me…. In that personal renewal is the renewal of the Church and religious life.”

Father Benedict and his confreres don’t consider themselves “founders” of a new order. They were simply trying to get back to the roots of Capuchin life—itself a reform of Franciscan life in the 16th century. At heart, they remain Capuchins, like one of their heroes, Padre Pio, and hope someday to reintegrate into the order, when and if—in Father Benedict’s words—”the Capuchins get their act together.”

In the meantime, this 20th anniversary might be a good time to ask: What has their reform accomplished, and is it having an effect on religious life anywhere else?

Thanks to the high profile of speaker, author, and TV host Father Benedict, as well as some of the other Renewal friars, they’ve been an inspiration to other new movements and religious institutes that have blossomed in recent years, as well as many individual religious and lay people trying to live their own callings faithfully.

The group has had impressive growth. With 106 brothers, they have houses and missions in the Bronx, where they began; other parts of the New York metropolitan area; Chicago; Albuquerque; Honduras; and England. This summer, they are opening friaries in Limerick, Ireland, and Fort Worth, Texas. They have been working closely with a young community of friars in Ghana, and Father Glenn Sudano, a former community servant, believes the New York community may one day open a house of its own in Africa.

And what has been a religious institute under the Archdiocese of New York may soon gain international status as a “religious institute of pontifical right.” With brothers from 18 countries, the community decided to apply to Rome for that status at the last general chapter. There is also a parallel community of nuns, the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, that now has about 25 members.

And yet, members of the community don’t feel like they’re anything special. They cringe at the suggestion that they are “leaders” in the renewal of religious life and quickly point out that there are many new communities springing up and several old communities that are experiencing new life.

“We’ve latched on to the wave of the JPII generation,” said Father Benedict. “It’s a complete reversal of the Seventies and Eighties. The whole trip of the Seventies was a giant mistake.”

‘Broke My Heart’

He should know. The 73-year-old friar lived through the Sixties-spawned upheavals and tried to buck certain trends in religious life. His experience and reflections on the crisis yielded The Reform of Renewal in 1990, a book that, he said, was ignored by the very people who needed it.

The original eight friars came from two provinces— New York—New England and New Jersey—that were fine religious institutes, according to Father Benedict (from New York) and Father Andrew Apostoli (from New Jersey), until certain ideas seeped in.

“When I first joined it was very devout, pious,” Father Benedict said. The province tried to “withstand” problems that were “endemic” to the times. “That’s what broke my heart, to leave the Capuchins, because we had done well. But the ideas came in and people wrecked the place, and then they pulled out.”

What ideas? What problems? There was a general trend toward secularization, a more comfortable lifestyle, and a de-emphasis on prayer. Friars abandoned the habit, except for liturgies. Seminary training was proving harmful.

“Ultimately, the source of the problem was a decline in faith, throughout the whole Church, especially a decline in faith in Christ,” Father Benedict said. In his 2005 book A Drama of Reform, he describes a general crisis in the Church at the time. Biblical scholarship was questioning traditional creeds. Psychology was usurping spiritual direction’s place, particularly in the cloister. A crisis in catechesis was leading to religious illiteracy. In religious life, those professing to live the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were living just the opposite. Traditional practices, such as a common apostolate, were disregarded.

One idea the Capuchins adopted was “pluriformity.” In general, pluriformity is a recognition that, with Capuchins all over the world, certain principles may be lived out in various ways. What is poverty in the United States is luxury in, say, Sri Lanka. But for Father Benedict, pluriformity meant “everybody does their own thing. . . Wearing any kind of clothes, writing your own ticket.”

Father John Rathschmidt defends the principle. He was the provincial in New York when the eight friars began their new community, and he now serves at a Capuchin friary in Boston. “Our response at the time was, ‘But the Church is full of pluriformity,” he said, one example being the many styles in which people worship God.

Father John suggested that the Renewal friars themselves have pluriformity with one of their best-known members. Father Stan Fortuna, one of the original eight, is a musician who preaches the Christian message through rap and other styles of music in an attempt to reach kids who wouldn’t be caught dead in a church. His image is more that of a rap artist than a pious monk.

“There are many who would say [Father] Stanley’s mode of dress doesn’t reflect Capuchin life in a uniform way,” Father John said. “But in fact he’s been incredibly effective, especially with young people. So I’m saying, that’s the kind of pluriformity I would encourage.”

But the Renewal friars today, all wearing gray Capuchin-style habits—all the time—all sleeping in equally spartan rooms, and all following a strict rule of life, have pretty much abandoned pluriformity.

Another idea that took hold was declericalization, which arose when some friars noticed that priests in the order were being treated far better than the brothers. In Father Andrew’s estimation, it ended up being an anti-clericalization.

“I was at a Mass that was being concelebrated, and .. . running down from the choir loft were all these brothers to drink at the chalice first—and all these priests are waiting there,” he recalled. “That’s not the proper order. . . . It took on the tone of the feminists and women’s ordination.”

Making the Break

But perhaps of most concern was the training of brothers and future priests. “After Vatican II there was a great amount of confusion in terms of formation,” said Father Glenn, a former member of the New York province. ‘They didn’t know necessarily what they were forming or how to form. A lot of the old textbooks went out the window. It was a time of experimentation. . . . A lot of theology became fuzzy. . . . We felt seminary was not adequate and could even be hurtful.”

As the number of vocations went down, the order began accepting applicants “who [didn’t] have particularly strong character.” Father Glenn thought that while some members of the community were holy and orthodox, the province lacked a “strong corporate Catholic identity.” There was a “lack of definitive clarity on Church teaching.”

Around Easter 1987, Father Benedict and the other seven announced their intention to set out on their own. John Cardinal O’Connor, the archbishop of New York, provided them with an empty church in the South Bronx, where they established their first friary. They were known at first as the Capuchin Franciscans of the Renewal.

In an attempt to prevent a split, the Capuchins offered to cede part of the New York province—in three upstate dioceses where they had no ministries—where the new group could become a vice-province, have its own house of formation, and make its own decision on what seminary to use. But the Renewal friars wanted to stay in the Bronx, where they were already ministering to the poor.

“At the time, there was total devastation” in the South Bronx, Father Glenn said. “We were in an area that was completely abandoned by everybody. We had made our roots there. We started the Padre Pio Shelter, started to go through the red tape for the St. Anthony Residence, which was an abandoned tenement next door.”

There were already two Capuchin provinces represented in the Bronx. It was part of the New York province, but the New Jersey province had a large and long-established parish there. To have a third Capuchin entity—one that was very different in nature—would present a confusing situation, said Father John.

“So at the end of three years, we were told we’d have to leave the South Bronx,” Father Glenn recounted. “And even myself, who was very hesitant and even annoyed when some of the friars talked about leaving the province, it became crystal clear to me that staying in the province was maybe a need for myself—for security—but it was not going to help the poor.”

Prayer and Fraternity

The young group wrote into their constitution that they would always seek the poorest neighborhoods in which to set up shop. They now have a postulancy in Harlem, on a street that had constant drug dealing and prostitution when they moved in, and a novitiate in an old Dominican convent in Newark, New Jersey, in a neighborhood where gunshots ring out regularly at night.

And yet they still attract many young men who seem to be right off an Iowa farm. They are men who are gung-ho about serving the poor—and solidly orthodox, loyal to the pope, and devotedly apostolic. Each year there are ten to 15 new postulants. A class of ten novices professed first temporary vows in March. Seven friars were ordained in May, and eight friars will profess final vows this summer.

The community sends its seminarians to St. Joseph’s, the theologate of the Archdiocese of New York, and Holy Apostles in Cromwell, Connecticut—two of the most reliably orthodox seminaries in the country.

None of this could have been done without prayer— a lot of it. “There’s a Capuchin tradition of spirituality. They’re the contemplatives of the Franciscan family,” said Father Bernard. “When the brothers wanted to get back to a more intentional Capuchin Franciscan pattern of life, that’s something they worked into our daily horarium.”

In addition to a daily Eucharistic holy hour, friars spend about four hours in private and community prayer. There is also a weekly quiet day of recollection, a monthly hermitage time in a remote area, a yearly retreat in solitude, and a yearly preached retreat.

“So there’s an emphasis on interior recollection, which, given the intensity of our apostolic life—the poor don’t know schedules; demands can come at any time—there can be tension between the interior and the apostolic life,” Father Bernard said.

Indeed, during the two hours he spoke to a reporter at St. Crispin’s Friary in the South Bronx, Father Bernard got up several times to answer the door, trying to provide a can of soup or other assistance to some of the neighborhood poor.

“What holds it all together is our very intense fraternal life. We pray together; we work together; we’re brothers together.”

Fraternity can be more difficult than other aspects of their life. As Father Bernard puts it, “Religious life works on the same dynamic as a washing machine. Clothes get clean by agitation.”

“If lived well, religious life purposely pulls down or pulls away things you can be dependent on. If you have a rough day, you can distract yourself with a number of things. In religious life, all of that is stripped away. You can’t walk out and head to the mountains whenever you want. . . . You’re left to face the challenges, and challenges are most regularly surfaced by the other person. This puts you face to face with your brother and his idiosyncrasies.”

That’s why the friaries don’t have television sets or computers—they would allow one to escape from the realities of community life.

“I often said to them when I was novice master, ‘Those to the right of you and those to the left of you are your source of growth in holiness,” Father Bernard said. “‘Thank the Lord every day for that brother who drives you crazy because it’s a way that now you’re going to have to learn, How do I deal with this? How do I choose to move through this? How do I learn to live my life so that Jesus is enough for me?’

Lighting the Way

Is the community making a difference? There are many stories of how they’ve influenced individuals—people like Joseph Corvi, for whom the friars were a part of his conversion experience. He went on to become a Missionaries of Charity priest.

“What most struck me about the friars was that I finally met priests who were happy, who were revealing holiness, living the gospel, and preaching the Good News that Jesus loves us, that we are sinners and need to repent, and that it is great to be Catholic,” Father Corvi said from Tijuana, where he is stationed. “They reminded me of the Spirit of St. Francis. They maintained their individual identity; they were human, easily approachable, and down to earth… They had a strong devotion to the Rosary and to the sacrament of confession and the Eucharist.”

Aside from anecdotal evidence, it’s hard to measure whether the friars can be considered leaders in the renewal of religious life. Three priests associated with the Institute on Religious Life, a consortium of traditional religious institutes in the United States, pondered that question.

“The great contribution the Franciscans of the Renewal have made is that they’ve been successful and they’ve been a model of how to accomplish this,” said Norbertine Father Thomas Nelson, executive director of the institute.

Dominican Father Brian Mullady, who has taught several of the brothers at Holy Apostles and serves as theologian for the institute, thinks the friars are “great people and [I] applaud what they are doing, but I do not think they are starting a trend at this time in the older orders.”

Speaking of new communities like the Renewal friars, Benedictine Father James Downey, the institute’s former executive director, predicted that it will take a long time for them to make a difference. “The traditional orders were huge,” he said. “It will take time for these smaller ones to grow in numbers to replace those who have strayed from Church teaching and are slowly dying out.”

Father Luke Fletcher, vocations director of the Renewal friars, reports that members of several established religious orders, which he declines to name on record, have called or visited “to see what we were doing.”

“Religious who visit us are not happy with all the craziness, the dissent from Church teaching, the talking’.. . against the pope, the throwing out of any attachment to the vow of poverty,” he said. “There’s a spirit of secularism—going to the movies, TV, etc., in the monastery.”

Franciscan Sister Angela Mellady, provincial of the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration in Mishawaka, Indiana, said that in their formation program they have used Father Benedict’s tapes on psychological growth and development. Over the past ten years Father Bernard has given them retreats, and one talk even helped the sisters formulate their Ratio, which is a program of formation.

One of the sisters made her final vow retreat in New York, directed by Father Glenn. He suggested she go with them to a clinic where the friars were counseling abortion-bound women, said Sister Angela. The young sister was impressed by the joy of the novices and how they interacted with people on the subway and their “powerful witness.”

“They’re a wonderful example to young sisters,” Sister Angela said, with “their zeal for the Catholic faith, for the Franciscan life, and their loyalty to the Magisterium.”

Even overseas—and in the Capuchin order itself—the friars are making a difference. Father Mark Turnham Elvins, an older Capuchin in England, finds that the friars’ example is “influencing younger members” of the order. Father Mark said he and other Capuchins are trying to emulate the Renewal friars’ life of simplicity. The British province never strayed from orthodoxy, he said, but got caught up in running parishes and lost the original charism of serving the poor. He and his brothers are trying to get back to that, and the Renewal friars have lit their way, he said. “They have the ring of authenticity with regard to the Capuchins.”

But how to keep a good thing going? What will prevent the Renewal friars from falling into the kinds of patterns to which older, established religious orders succumbed?

Father Glenn likes to keep the Gospel passage, “I am the vine, and you are the branches” in mind. “The community . . . will only begin to diminish and dissipate when it uproots itself,” he said. “And so, remaining faithful to the teaching office of the Church, being rooted in the Eucharist” are key to survival. “Distancing ourselves from the poor, . . . taking on responsibilities that are not ours to do, that’s when the life begins to diminish and the flower begins to wilt.”

The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal seem to have the experience and resolve to keep that from happening.

By

John Burger has been news editor of the National Catholic Register since 2003. He came to the Register in 2001 as a staff writer after working as a reporter for Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York. Prior to that, he taught English in China and France. He has a bachelor's degree in English from Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., and a master's degree in English from Iowa State University. He is married and lives in Connecticut.

MENU