In a ward of a London hospital, a homeless man was dying.
He had been found prostrate on the street and was taken to a nearby hospital. The medical staff did all they could. It was hopeless, they said. It was only a matter of time. The man had few friends; he hailed originally from Eastern Europe. There were no visitors. Not at first. Soon after his admission, however, word somehow made its way to St. Fidelis Friary. One of the friars, Fr. Jacob, was soon at the patient’s side. The man had been a regular at the friary soup kitchen. Praying for his friend, the priest anointed him for the journey ahead.
Throughout the week I stayed with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in Canning Town, this dying man’s name was mentioned at Holy Mass and at the various prayers. In fact, the man was prayed for intensely. Fr. Jacob visited the hospital as often as he could. Other friars joined him. One day, Fr. Christopher and some friends from a Pentecostal congregation also went with Fr. Jacob to visit the dying man.
That afternoon, it was a curious group that arrived at the hospital ward. Two American grey-robed friars and three young black Pentecostals stood before a quizzical ward sister with a large sign above her stating: “No more than two visitors to a patient at any time”. Before entering the ward, they had prayed to be allowed to gather around this man’s deathbed to offer intercession for him. To that nurse in charge, one of the friars stated simply: “We are his family.”
Minutes later, this unlikely family were gathered around the bed of their critically ill brother. As Fr. Jacob produced his Ritual and began to intone the Prayers for the Sick and Dying, the Pentecostals opened their large leather bound Bibles and began to share with all present words from the Sacred Scriptures. The atmosphere suddenly changed from one of hopelessness to an altogether different sense.
On the wall, I noticed a sign for the medical staff. It said that ‘the next movement of this patient would take place at 3pm,’ presumably for bedsores and the like. But 3:00 in the afternoon is also the hour of Great Mercy.
Prayer became almost tangible on that ward that day. The prayers said were both ancient and spontaneous, the faith of those present very real. It was as if they were enabling this patient make a final act of submission to the Will of God, something, on a visible level, he appeared powerless to do himself.
Eventually, when the ‘family’ of the dying man left the ward, there were puzzled looks from the other visitors and from the staff. They, too, knew something had taken place, something beyond their comprehension. As the Friars and their friends left, however, one of the medical staff approached Fr. Jacob. She had witnessed what had happened, and wanted to know more of these men, of their lives and what they represented.
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The Friars of the Renewal are Franciscans in life and rule but this particular incarnation of the spirit of the poor man of Assisi is relatively recent. The community began in 1987 when eight Capuchin friars, desiring to work for personal and communal reform within the Catholic Church, joined together. The life and apostolate of the friars’ common life, as seen on the streets of inner cities and poor communities throughout the world, are rooted in the ideals and spirit of the Capuchin reform born in the early 16th century.
Perhaps, it is no coincidence that it was in a Marian year that these Franciscan Friars of the Renewal came to birth. In the spring of 1987, eight fully professed Franciscans began to live a life of renewal, inspired by the instruction and inspiration of Pope John Paul II.
The community has no founder as such. And, from day one, their desire was not to create a new form of religious life but rather to set themselves securely upon their ancient foundations. For this reason, none of the original eight Friars of the Renewal saw themselves as founders. None were to be prophetic architects; all were, rather, simple builders. To this day, the friars remain uninterested in ‘programs’ and the latest ideas that promise something called ‘spiritual renewal’. For these men, real renewal means daily conversion, and, just as for any Christian, this is a long, slow, sometimes painful, path. That journey takes the Gospels as its only map, the saints as true guides, and the Sacraments as source of the strength needed to continue to the end.
In 1987 eight friars began this work; today, the Friars of the Renewal number more than one hundred and twenty. Religious life appears not only to have survived in this community but is flourishing. There is an ardent devotion to daily prayer—both in common and private—not least the Holy Hour. Alongside this, there is a commitment to a lifetime of sacrificial service, especially to the poor. The friars’ life reveals the secret for any community intent on authentic renewal.
There is something mysterious about how this community appeared at a time when so much in religious life was crumbling. Various modern trends had enthroned faddish psychologies displacing the God-given charism that had called communities into being in the first place. The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal came into the life of the Church when a new generation were being prepared through the teaching and witness of the then Pontiff, Pope John Paul II, This phenomenon was to become visible with the crowds that flocked to World Youth Days.
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In November 2006, I was sitting in a London church listening to a man with a New Jersey accent. His name was Fr. Benedict Groeschel. Mostly young men dressed in the same religious garb, as he was, surrounded him. Fr. Groeschel talked about the previous 40 years. He spoke of how the Church had attempted a renewal at the Second Vatican Council only to have it hijacked by the ‘spirit of Vatican II’—a pale shadow of the original.
That evening was no sterile lament, however, for Fr. Groeschel went on to describe a ‘miracle’. The elderly friar looked around the church, which was packed mostly with young people and their families, and said that the miracle was that the people in front of him were there that night. Why? Because, growing up in the times they did, they shouldn’t have been. He documented the all-pervasive materialism; so-called sexual liberation with its uncritical obsession with false forms of freedom; the lack of religious instruction; a hostile media casting doubt on everything, but especially on the Church’s teaching; and he spoke of a culture that ultimately told us to forget God, just as it had done.
There were two reasons, he maintained, why the people were in the church that night.
First: God is God. If those He had entrusted to pass on the Faith had failed in that task, then the Holy Spirit would intervene, and that’s precisely what had happened. It was indeed through this direct intervention that so many young people had come to an understanding of God—if often they had followed many twisting routes to get there—before ending up right back where they had started: the Catholic Church.
Second: the election of Karol Józef Wojtyła as Pope. Knowing all too well the challenge at hand, Pope John Paul II took his teaching office directly to the world. He wrote, spoke, and travelled, spreading the liberating Truth of the Gospel as he did so.
At the end of his talk, the elderly friar looked around at those assembled and exclaimed: ‘You are the JP2 Generation!’
* * * * * *
Ten years later, those same friars of Fr. Groeschel’s community are still shaping the generations. One example of this is the Catholic Underground, held monthly at a central London church. On those Saturday nights, people of all ages, from the very young to the young at heart, sit in the semi-darkness as the friars lead worship before the exposed Holy Eucharist upon the altar.
During that period of adoration, alongside other priests, the friars who are ordained to the priesthood hear confessions in the various corners of the church, as well as in its few confessionals. Within that church there is a pervading sense of peace, of healing even, as all around in the city outside many search for both peace and healing in improbable places. That night at the Catholic Underground, I watched a constant stream of men and women go to Confession. I watched as grown men wiped tears from their eyes as they left the confessionals. It is true that the JP2 Generation is now come of age and is helping to heal and to form the next generation. The call for the New Evangelization, first sounded by Pope John Paul, continues to ring out across the world, and, in its vanguard, are these grey robed friars.
Historically, Franciscans in England were known as Grey Friars. It seems fitting that these grey friars have returned here at this time. The parish priest who first welcomed them to their new English home at the start of the Millennium has now left to take charge of Walsingham, England’s Marian Shrine. There his mission is to commence a new phase in the spiritual life of that once famous place. The friars often go on pilgrimage to this medieval Shrine. In them, it welcomes ones who, dressed in their grey habits, look as if nothing had changed in the intervening centuries since the shrine was destroyed in the sixteenth century.
There is an old saying that when England returns to Walsingham, then England will return to the Faith. In hidden ways, and not so hidden ones, these friars, dressed in grey, are leading that pilgrimage of the broken-hearted, from the rundown city streets out to the lush fields surrounding England’s Nazareth, leading all to a Mother’s heart.
I stood at the Canning Town train station at the end of my week with the Friars. Soon I had boarded a train and was on my way from their world back to my own. Memories began to flood my mind as the train pulled out.
The stillness of the morning as the friars prayed, long before London was awake; the reverence with which the friars participated in the Holy Sacrifice; the way they kissed the floor of the chapel on entering; the way they looked forward to their Holy Hour—a true encounter with the Risen Lord; the smiles of the family who ‘feast’ three times a week at the friar’s soup kitchen, men and women with problems, with many heartaches, with illnesses, and yet who, for a few hours on a soup kitchen day, know they have a home, and are truly a part of a family. There was the remembrance of the helpers who join in joyfully at the soup kitchen; the shopkeepers handing over food the night before, after the friars’ lonely trek to seek out food for their charges. There is the peace in which the friars live with nothing, and, in so doing, strangely become kings of creation, wanting for nothing. Their lives speak of a prophetic reality that is not of this world, pointing as it does to another. And through it all, and in it all, they are empowered and driven by the Eucharist, placed at the heart of their chapel and, so obviously, in their hearts.
The train rattled on, taking me away from all this, and yet, having lived with these men, if only for a short period, it seemed that things could not be the same again.
Weeks later, I took a call from the friary. In the course of the conversation, I asked about the dying man whom the friars and their friends had visited at the hospital on that afternoon and whom the doctors had pronounced beyond hope. The voice on the other end told me that the man had not died, in fact, he was progressing well. On the Sunday following this news, in an oratory of a Catholic friary, and also in the Anglican church, home to a Pentecostal prayer group, there was much rejoicing indeed.
Other articles in this series:
• “A Week with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal: Part 1—The Men” (April 6, 2017) by K.V. Turley
• “A Week with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal: Part 2—The Mission” (April 12, 2017) by K.V. Turley