The sun was fading as I boarded a London underground train. My destination was different from that of my fellow travellers. Few, I imagine, were on their way to a religious house; none were going to the London friary of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. It was to the friary in London’s east that I journeyed.
The plan was for me to spend a week with these men, to observe their lives, to witness their witness, to attempt to experience in one week the life to which they had committed.
The friars were strangers to me and they, for their part, had never met me. My stay at the friary had been arranged over the telephone. Fr. Christopher, the friary’s Guest Master, had initially expressed interest when first I proposed a visit; some of his confreres had been less enthusiastic. That was months back; since then, the idea had ebbed and flowed, its possibilities discussed, before seemingly running dry. Then, one day my phone lit up; Fr. Christopher’s voice was on the end of the line. The conclusion of that telephone conversation was as unexpected as it was definite: come.
On exiting the train station at Canning Town where the friary is situated, you are confronted by two realities: the old and the new. The new Canning Town takes the form of a huge residential development. These new dwellings are for the rich who need convenient access to the centres of international commerce in the City of London and Canary Wharf. Plush apartments for wealthy clients that stand in stark contrast to the dilapidated post-war public housing that has traditionally existed for decades in that part of London.
The friary is situated behind the new developments. As yet, the friars are still surrounded by the homes of the relatively poor, but there are fewer of these than once there were was: the locals are being moved on and out in order to make more land available to the developers. It may be that, in time, the friars will be surrounded not by the poor at all but by the high-rise apartments of the very wealthy.
Making my way past shabby streets, I came to the friary. It is a modern building with no obvious aesthetic appeal—it looks like what it originally was: a church hall. Surrounded by railings and a tall gate, it has the air of a fortress. Through the tall gate, I saw a large image of the Divine Mercy and beside it a simple sign declares that this is St. Fidelis Friary.
I rang the bell and a friar came towards to me. There were two aspects of the man that I noticed immediately. First, the unmistakable religious habit of the Friars of the Renewal: it is a long grey tunic, tied about the waist with a rope from which hangs a large Rosary. This habit I remembered from my initial meeting with the friars in 1997 at the World Youth Day in Paris. I had heard an American accent urging on a group of youths. When I turned to look at who was speaking, I saw a man dressed in the habit of a medieval friar and, more striking still, in the litter-filled, glass-strewn streets of the French capital, he was walking barefoot. Now, standing at the gate of St Fidelis in London, a smiling friar unlocked it for me. This is the second characteristic of these men: their friendliness. With hand outstretched, the friar introduced himself: “I’m Fr. Christopher.”
It was a Friday when I arrived. This is the day on which the friars have their time of quiet—a ‘desert day’ of sorts—with few, if any, visitors, the friary more silent than usual. There is adoration of the Blessed Sacrament from early to late. The friars take it in turns to watch during this morning to night Holy Hour. My arrival disrupted that somewhat, but the friars made it seem that this was no trouble at all.
There are five friars living in London: two priests and three brothers, four Americans and one Englishman. Br. John Bosco, the Englishman, is the Servant; this is the title of the person in charge of the community. Fr. Christopher comes from Pennsylvania as does the newest vocation and youngest member of the community, Br. Angelo. Br. Teressiano hails from California; Fr. Jacob from Florida. Now they are all living in London. As I was to learn, their stories are as unique as they are.
Before entering religious life, for example, Br. John Bosco had his own business as a piano tuner, an interesting job that took him all over London and the South East of England. He had friends, money, an apartment, and a burgeoning client list. Devout even then, he was expecting to meet and marry an equally devout Catholic girl and raise a family. There was, however, something nagging at him. And it would not leave him alone. One day he met the friars, and soon after in New York at their friary he was to discern a vocation, to be later confirmed.
Each of these have stories that are similar to the extent that each was in the world earning a living, and, in their quieter moments, had sensed something missing. It was lack of fulfilment, something that propelled each of them to seek another, different, way to live. In the process, some began to contact other religious communities before eventually meeting the Friars. After that encounter, in terms of a vocation, they all knew that that was that: whether it was Br. Teressiano, praying all the time for God to reveal himself as he crisscrossed the North American continent driving his delivery truck; or Fr. Jacob, working in a Florida garden centre, increasingly restless with what life seemed to offer; or Br. Angelo, running a restaurant, dealing daily with the difficult and the fraudulent; or Fr. Christopher, playing dive bars with a makeshift rock band before his real vocation became apparent . Undoubtedly, there is a mystery to these vocations, all individual and yet all similar. There remains an age-old beauty to the Divine Call, to come apart from this world’s ways for the sake of the Kingdom.
Fr. Christopher still plays in a band, only now it is one that consists of his brother friars. The Friday night that I arrived, there was a band practice: Fr. Christopher was on guitar, Br. John Bosco on electric piano, and Br. Angelo was the percussion. They were rehearsing for the monthly Catholic Underground—a time of prayer and praise with young people before the exposed Sacrament. To my surprise, they sounded an accomplished musical ensemble. But they are a band whose music ministry has a deeper mission than just purely entertainment. They want to help people to pray, young people especially; the music they make is an accompaniment to Holy Mass and Adoration.
When the practice finished, they retired to the chapel for final prayers before lights out.
The room I had been given was just like one of theirs. They sleep on the floor. My room, however, had a mattress on the floor. A church hall, the building in which the friars live, was never designed for human habitation. All the more remarkable, therefore, is the transformation of the space that has been made by these men. There are the friars’ cells, a chapel and small kitchen, a library and a dining room; the last two are essentially parts of corridors. The friars now have showers—a gift from a well-wisher, just like everything else material at the friary. This comprises their living quarters. The rest of the space at the friary, the majority, is devoted to the large kitchen and area in which they run a soup kitchen three times a week.
The friars’ daily life is as one would expect of a religious community. They rise for Morning Prayer at 6:00, followed by a period of silent prayer before Holy Mass at 7:30. Then there is breakfast. From then on, the days run in different ways depending on whether there is a soup kitchen to prepare or some other activity within the friary, such as cleaning, or some excursion away from St. Fidelis. Each working day draws to a close with a communal Holy Hour, around 5:00, followed by Evening Prayer, and then supper—sometimes this meal is accompanied by a reading; more often, as when I was there, it is a time for a fraternal talking over the events of the day.
These London friars are a lively group. Perhaps this is to be expected so intense is the life they live—a hard life, if viewed from a worldly perspective. In a world which urges people to become more individualistic and isolated, these men live community together in a way that is almost shocking when first encountered, so counter-cultural is it. A similar shock is to be had when experiencing their commitment to the poor. This is no pious sentiment, but the running of a regular and well-attended soup kitchen. The smiling friars welcome all those who turn up. The soup kitchen’s only rule is announced at the start: all present are family.
What the guests do not witness, but which I did, is that each evening one of the friars goes to the nearby shops where he begs food for the next day’s soup kitchen. This is a regular nightly occurrence. Each evening, along a busy London thoroughfare, a friar can be seen carrying back to the friary whatever he has been given. The next day he turns that food into a meal for the many who would not otherwise eat but for the friars.
This, in some ways, is a perfect illustration of the friars’ very public witness alongside their hidden one of prayer. The faces of the shopkeepers spoke volumes that night I accompanied Fr. Jacob as he begged for food. Expressions of mingled bafflement and world-weariness at how these men, these religious, could live as they do. But they do live like this, and, as a result, every week there are three packed soup kitchens.
The friars may beg for others, but they themselves live by Providence. When first I entered the friary’s kitchen, the range of foodstuffs on display was impressive. I asked where they bought their provisions. They told me they didn’t. Instead, they said, they live on what people give them, quickly adding that people were generous. They appeared as unperturbed by this arrangement as I must have seemed incredulous. Here, in twenty-first century London, there are a group of friars who lived just as their spiritual brothers did many centuries previously.
As I retired to my cell that first night, I was struck by the silence all around. London is always noisy, bursting with the sound of cars and trains, voices speaking or shouting, the blare of police sirens and even on occasion the crack of gunfire. At St. Fidelis Friary there was nothing, only stillness. I lay down on what many would not consider a bed, and soon found myself falling fast asleep, and with the sense of peace only found when protected by a surrounding heavenly army.