The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal: Evangelizing Amid Poverty and Secularism

An interview with Father Glenn Sudano, one of the religious order’s founding members.

Since 1987, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal have lived in some of the poorest communities in the United States, Europe, and Central America while evangelizing and ministering to those in need. In the beginning, eight Capuchin friars founded a community in New York’s “almost abandoned and drug-infested” South Bronx. Among its founders were men who would become prominent figures in Catholic media, including Father Benedict Groeschel, Father Andrew Apostoli, and Father Stan Fortuna.

Father Glenn Sudano was one of the original eight. He has served in a variety of roles in the community over the past 27 years, and was the community’s superior for six years. He is from Brooklyn, and briefly pursued a career in television before entering the Capuchins in 1978 with the encouragement of Father Groeschel. 

At a time when many religious communities in the United States are without vocations, the Friars have grown to 120 members.  Father Sudano spoke recently with CWR.

CWR: Why did you join in founding the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal?

Father Glenn Sudano: We were concerned about the effects of secularism on religious life and a lack of clear and explicit fidelity to the Church.  That secularism is less prevalent today, thank God, but was very much the case in the 1970s and 80s.  What we were observing then were not so much sins of commission, but omission.  A pastor, for example, [might] not speak out against the Holy Father, but neither would he speak in support of him.  He [wouldn’t] condemn adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or the Rosary, but he [wouldn’t] promote them either.  We worried that many of the traditional expressions of the Faith were not appreciated or practiced.

Because of this secularism, men weren’t attracted to life in religious communities.  This is discussed in Michael Rose’s book Goodbye, Good Men.  In the 1970s and 80s there were a lot of potentially good religious vocations standing on the sidelines who might otherwise have joined communities.  They wanted to participate in the traditional forms of religious life, and wanted traditional signs, such as wearing the habit.

We recognized that things were not going well.  Our desire was to stay in the Capuchin community, but to be a renewal community.  We wanted to bring back adoration and traditional devotions and practices, such as wearing the habit.

Our superior in Rome was interested in our idea, but the provincials in the United States were not.  We were allowed to begin in New York, but after three years of fraternal discussions, it was clear that our order was not interested in our style.  So, we decided to continue our work under the archbishop of New York.

Leaving our community was not easy.  We didn’t leave our confreres because we thought they were evil, but because we had a difference of opinion.  Some of our confreres were upset with us, but leaving was something that had to be done.

Starting a community involves a process of trial and error.  However, we’ve been fortunate that we haven’t made any major mistakes as a community.  People join, people leave.  You’re dealing with people, so there are plenty of headaches and heartaches.  We’re creating a family, which can bring you the greatest blessings, but which can hurt you the most. 

It’s been an adventure.  We’ve lived our lives as we said we would.  We’ve been blessed with vocations, and have welcomed some fine, capable men.  We’d like more—some of our houses, for example, have four guys and we’d like them to have six—but we’ve held our own with vocations.  Many bishops are making requests that we come to their dioceses, which we can do as we have the ability to do so.

CWR: What is your community’s charism?

Father Sudano: We work with the poor and do evangelization. Each of our houses has some outreach to the poor.  This includes providing for their material needs, such as food and drink or clothing.

Regarding evangelization, we give days of recollection, retreats, and parish missions.  While running parishes is important, we do not run parishes.  We believe it will diminish our ability to serve the poor and evangelize.  When you run a parish, the parish is your main priority.  Evangelization and caring for the poor take a second place.  We can fill in at a parish if the need arises, however.

In addition to our priests, we have brothers, who are not involved in sacramental ministry.  We also have a community of sisters.

CWR: How do you fund your work?

Father Sudano: We are open to donations, although we don’t do fundraisers.  You won’t see us raffling off a Cadillac, for example; this is forbidden in our constitutions.  We live by divine providence and the generosity of the people.  We don’t sell things, we don’t invest money.  We don’t own property.  We do not own any of the houses we occupy.  We don’t charge for our services.  Whatever someone wants to give us, that’s what we get.

We live by what people give us.  We typically don’t buy food; people bring us food.  But as they say in Brooklyn, “You don’t get nothing for nothing.”  We work hard.  We’re called to be dependent on the people, and we, in turn, give them our spiritual gifts.  God gives us more than we need, so we are able to give to other causes worthy of support.

CWR: What type of man is a good fit for your community?

Father Sudano: We’re looking for healthy men who have had some responsibility.  We want a man from a solid Catholic background, which can be difficult to find in this culture. Ours is a precarious time: that 15-year-old boy who might consider religious life 10 years from now could today be on his iPhone looking at porn.

Family background is important.  When I work with candidates, I ask them a secret question: “Did you have a happy childhood?”  We need men who had stability in their early years, and who have had good relationships with their fathers.  Having the 1950s, stay-at-home mom may not be essential, but it is desirable.  When I meet a guy with divorced parents and no siblings, I wonder, can he make it for the long haul?  I wouldn’t put my money on it.

Age is important.  In my experience, age 24 is about right.  I give the example of a sparkler and a candle.  An 18-year-old is a sparkler.  He burns brightly but quickly goes out.  A man of about 24 is more mature, and realizes he has limitations.  He is more like the steadily burning candle.

It’s the same way with people who have had major conversions, such as from atheism or drug abuse.  They initially sparkle brightly and burn intensely, but soon sizzle, snap, and go out.  When the pressure is on, they crack.

As I said, the culture poses challenges.  Will a boy who has spent many hours of his life playing video games have the capacity to enter a community which has periods of silence adoring the Blessed Sacrament?  Will he have the ability to sit and stare and contemplate the Lord?

In our community, we share a common life.  When we sit at table together, that time is very important.  We don’t need young men who know how to text, but young men who can talk.  They need to be able to be transparent and communicate, identifying how they feel and how to appropriately respond and not merely react.

Our way of life might be a little like the 1950s.  We work with our hands, we cook our own meals—we don’t have a microwave—and the television is not the center of our home.  We pray together, and we work together.  Our life is a healthy form of what life was like years ago.  Where will young people learn this today?

Making a lifetime commitment, too, is hard for many in this culture.  But, when men do leave the community, it is not because we are not living up to our ideals.  It is not because of a lack of orthodoxy.  In fact, men who leave thank us for helping them realize that our way of life is not for them.

We are solicitous in choosing our candidates.  We could have quadruple the number of candidates if we were not.  We want to make sure they have a John Paul II understanding of religious life, and can live a healthy life with us.

CWR: Tell us about your religious habit and tradition of wearing beards.

Father Sudano: We wear the Capuchin habit with a large cowl [hood].  We adopted gray, the original Capuchin color, to distinguish ourselves.  We have a cord around our waist with three knots, representing our vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  We typically wear sandals, although in cold weather we may wear shoes.  Even St. Francis made this stipulation in his rule.

Our habit is our ordinary clothing.  If you see me on the subway, getting on a plane or at home, it is what I wear.  The habit is a sign of our consecration to Christ, and reminds us and one another daily of this consecration.

While the wearing of the habit is strongly recommended by the Capuchin general, in our community it has been legislated or mandated, just as it has been legislated that we don’t have a television.

The public’s reaction to the habit is positive, although some young people don’t know who we are.  They mistake us for Muslims.  We travel often, and people are respectful to us.  We wear the habit with a smile.

Regarding the beard, it is not mandated but highly recommended.  Only one member of our community does not have one.  It is a tradition, a sign of manliness and austerity, and is in imitation of Our Lord and St. Francis.  It is also in opposition of the values of the world.  A man tends to look good clean shaven and with longer hair.  We have the opposite.

CWR: You started your community in the South Bronx, one of the poorest communities in the United States.  You continue to work in poor neighborhoods.  What impact have you made?

Father Sudano: When we started in the South Bronx, it wasn’t really a neighborhood, but a non-neighborhood.  If you flew over it in an airplane, you’d think you were flying over Nebraska: huge plots of open land and no buildings.  Mayor Rudy Giuliani did a good job in improving community and it is no longer the “Fort Apache” it once was.  It’s still a poor neighborhood, though.  We’re in many other poor areas, too.  In Ireland, for example, we work in a poor neighborhood in Moyross, Limerick City. 

Our economic impact is not huge.  We run soup kitchens, but they are small, serving perhaps 30.  We talk individually with people in trouble, acting as a guard rail.  We talk them out of killing themselves, killing someone else, or having an abortion.  You won’t see us opening a rehab center, but you might see us sitting on a porch with a few heroin addicts, talking and praying with them.

Our goal is to feed those who come to us, physically and emotionally.  We look them in the eye and smile at them, and treat them with respect.  We offer to help in the proper way. 

I don’t know that you can measure it economically, but in God’s view I think we’ve made a positive impact on these communities.  They are slowing beginning to heal through the presence of the Church and the friars.  From this perspective, I think our friars are doing an extraordinary job.

CWR: Ten years ago, Fr. Benedict Groeschel was struck by a van and nearly killed.  How is his health today?

Father Sudano: I remember that day.  He came back from the doors of death.  I flew to Orlando, Florida to see him.  We thought he was going to die.  He was hit in a poorly lit section of an airport.

Today, he lives with the Little Sisters of the Poor.  He likes to be involved in activities and can concelebrate Mass, but is no longer physically able to be active in our apostolate.  He uses a wheelchair, and one of our brothers is there to assist him.  He’s an “old 80.” 

He’s a holy man, however, and he’s accepted his condition.  He’s preparing for purgatory.

CWR: In 2012, Father Groeschel was criticized for some comments he made to the National Catholic Register about the sexual abuse of children by clergy.  [“Suppose you have a man having a nervous breakdown, and a youngster comes after him.  A lot of the cases, the youngster—14, 16, 18—is the seducer.”]  Considering his age and poor health, did the words come out wrong?

Father Sudano: The Register was interviewing Father Benedict about the 25th anniversary of our community’s founding.  He was asked about his work at Trinity Retreat House, and the conversation veered off in that direction.  Father Benedict did a cannonball into the pool, suggesting that the people with whom he worked should not be demonized.  They are people with problems, he admitted, but they are still people.

Are there ever cases when a young person could proposition a member of the clergy?  Yes.  But considering how careful you have to be about what you say today, he shouldn’t have led with that.

Father Benedict was not in a good state of mind at that time; he was recovering from a fall.  He kept asking me afterward, “What did I say that was wrong?”

It was sad.  Father Benedict also made a reference to “poor” Jerry Sandusky [the Penn State coach found guilty of sexual abuse of minors in 2012], and the New York Post ran Father’s picture with the headline “Sympathy for the Devil.”  It was sad. …

I have never heard Father Benedict speak ill of another person—another person’s position on an issue, yes, but not the person himself.  He has taken it on the chin, and has not swung back.  He’s an extraordinary person, and he’s done much good in the world whether it is recognized or not.  Once he is gone, however, the only opinion that matters will be God’s.

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About Jim Graves 225 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.