New documentary shows Franciscan friars among the world’s “outcasts”

The new project from Grassroots Films is a powerful and beautiful depiction of the work of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal with the impoverished and the desperate.

Outcasts is a new documentary film from Grassroots Films. You may remember their impressive debut, The Human Experience, from 2008. Be prepared to be impressed once more.

The film’s subject matter is the life and witness of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a congregation founded by Father Benedict Groeschel and others in 1987. The documentary is not just about the friars, though; equally present throughout are the people with whom they share their lives.

The film starts in the Bronx, although it is no tourist’s guide to New York. These opening scenes are the type only seen on television news when there has been a gangland killing or some other outrage. The streets are dirty and dangerous, at night poorly lit and threatening. The friars run a soup kitchen and a night shelter in the middle of this urban mayhem. Their friends are the dropouts, the disturbed, the dangerous when drunk. The camera watches as these grey-robed friars move around and talk to all they meet. The friars appear unshockable and, more importantly, unflappable. They speak in ways that are straightforward, unsentimental and, above all, truthful to the men they interact with. They radiate integrity. It is their passport on these streets; they do not need a bulletproof vest; they judge no one. They are there to help, to listen; as a result, they are left alone.

As soon as we become accustomed to these mean New York streets, the filmmakers propel us to Ireland. The jump cut is sudden, unexpected, and initially disconcerting—it is meant to be. This is no land of thatched cottages and convivial gatherings. This is a “sink estate” in Limerick city, a place notorious for social deprivation and resultant high levels of crime. The friars have ended up where the worst of that city’s problems are to be found. One of the residents bluntly says he was not sure why they had come, but did know one thing: that they had come to “hell.”

An exaggeration? After another 10 minutes of footage, one suspects it is an accurate description. Just before the friars arrived in 2007, across from what would become their friary, two children were horribly burned by a car bomb. The friars suffered verbal abuse from the start, as well as attacks on their friary; bricks were pelted at the friars and hit their target. Still they persevered. We watch as they go to a fragile middle-aged woman; in her home, they help her make a fire. She lives alone in impoverished circumstances; the situation is made worse by the fact that local youths have just firebombed her home, leaving considerable damage. No explanations are given for these actions; no platitudes are spoken. Instead, we watch as two friars help a very frightened woman cope better with this. Their calming presence is truly present on screen.

When asked about coming to that part of Ireland, the friar interviewed simply states that when they saw the razor wire, the burned-out cars, the boarded-up houses, they knew they had come to the “right place.” These men bring the Risen Lord into the most desolate of places. Viewing this movie, it is clear to see that such situations and the people who live in them are their mission. 

At this juncture, one wonders if there could be a worse posting than Limerick or the Bronx for the friars. Then, suddenly, we have a television report with horrific scenes of a prison fire in Honduras. Dozens lost their lives in the overcrowded and understaffed prison. It is to this same prison and to the inmates still held there that the friars now minister. These are prisoners with little chance of release, such are the crimes they have committed. The friars are unfazed. They see beyond the criminal experience, instead, to the pain of a soul. It is not just the perpetrators of crime to whom they minister, however. There is the young woman gunned down for her mobile phone in a street robbery. She is now paralyzed for life. Barely in her 20s, she lies on the floor of a makeshift dwelling. Her poverty acerbates her condition, so much so that, after she was told she would never walk again, she decided to kill herself. It was the friars who helped her through that dark valley. She is still suffering. Her pain is now more mental than physical, but acute nonetheless. She talks of how the friars are always there for her. Their presence dispels the despair just enough for her to make it to the next day.

Next, we move to England. To Bradford to be exact, a depressed northern city that has seen better days, just like the people we now see on screen: they are homeless, destitute, many struggling with drug addiction and the consequences of funding their habit through crime. The friars make these people a hot meal and, perhaps even more welcome, they sit and talk to those who come to their shelters. As one woman says, she can just sit there warm and safe for a few hours. Her comment is as pathetic as it is shocking. In fact, the English episode, arguably, is the most overtly disturbing. There are scenes of people reverting to their former lives of drugs and prostitution. At this point, the cumulative emotional impact of the film starts to hit home. Somehow the distance from those we are watching on the screen starts to shrink. Suddenly, we realize that this is all real, altogether too real.

The friars are a remarkable group of men. Inspired by the Gospel, and by the example of St. Francis, they are as authentic as the message they preach. The film shows them at play with their street friends; going about those same streets handing out prayer cards or just embracing the people who come up to them and who feel reassured by their presence. Watching this, it is not hard to understand that last reaction. The friars radiate peace. More importantly still, we see them at prayer and Eucharistic adoration, at Holy Mass, walking with their Rosary beads in hand. Not for one moment, or one frame for that matter, are we under any illusion as to why they do what they do.   

For those of you who enjoyed the now classic Into Great Silence (2005), Outcasts is a companion piece, of sorts. The Bronx, and the other desolate cityscapes in which the friars live and work, could not be more different than the sublime alpine beauty of the Grande Chartreuse. Nevertheless, there is a similarity between the friars and the Carthusians. Both communities are living their lives according to the Divine Plan; they are where they are supposed to be, doing what they are supposed to be doing. They witness in different ways; but it is the same witness.

Some of the images of Outcasts will stay with you long after the lights have come back on: the man dying of AIDS being anointed by one of the friars; the ex-prostitute talking to camera about how the friars have helped her; the friar with the prisoners in Honduras who reveals that, when he lived in the United States, he too had been to prison on a number of occasions. This is a film that lives on in the consciousness long after viewing.

The subject matter of this film may at times be depressing, but somehow the film is not. It is immensely uplifting, as well as beautiful to look at. Some of the cinematography is stunning; the film’s editing excellent. The way the movie unfolds is never predicable. The stories it tells are equally unpredictable; some do not have a “happy ending.” The film is stronger for this honesty.

When Outcasts opens at a movie theatre near you, or, more likely, at a nearby film festival, go, but take some friends, especially those friends with misguided ideas of the Catholic Church in general or priests and religious in particular. Watching this film will do them a lot of good. But be warned, you’ll have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by this glimpse into a divinely inspired intervention at the fringes of the human experience.

Contact Grassroots Films about scheduling a prescreening of Outcasts.

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About K. V. Turley 61 Articles
K.V. Turley writes from London.

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