Undated photo of Fr. Benedict Groeschel and other friars meeting Pope John Paul II (Image: Screenshot from video at franciscanfriars.com)
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
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
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
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
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.
* * * * * *
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
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 prayerboth in
common and privatenot 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.
* * * * * *
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
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 Godif often they had followed many twisting routes to get therebefore ending up right back where they had started: the Catholic
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
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
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
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 Houra 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
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 1The Men" (April 6, 2017) by K.V. Turley
"A Week with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal: Part 2The Mission" (April 12, 2017) by K.V. Turley