It was a Sunday afternoon.
The venue was a hospital chapel that had been Anglican but is now used by any Christian group who requests it. It was amongst the Victorian statues and monuments to the great and good that a group of young black women were singing songs of praise to the Creator God, to His Son, and to the Holy Spirit who was undoubtedly animating them. Beautiful as their voices were, more beautiful still was the Christian faith they so clearly professed. An American man was with these English women; he was a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal—a Catholic surrounded by Pentecostals, dressed in a religious habit, and playing a guitar.
Fr. Christopher is a regular at what is known as the ‘House of Prayer’ on Sunday afternoons. The Pentecostals have taken him to their hearts and he has taken them to his. Not only does he pray with them but he preaches too, at their request.
So here I was sitting in the pew of a nominally Anglican place of worship, watching a Pentecostal worship session with a Catholic friar leading it. That experience tells us as much about the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in general, as it does about Fr. Christopher in particular. The friars’ appeal appears universal: Catholics, Protestants, believers, and non-believers alike seem drawn to them.
By way of example, Br. John Bosco told me a story of his time in New York. One Sunday afternoon, he went walking with another friar in his newly adopted city. The pair strayed into Harlem; there they wandered into one of its many places of worship. The service at the black Pentecostal church was in full swing. The friars were ushered to the front. Amongst the swaying and praising congregation there there sat now two white men, who happened also to be Catholic friars. Suddenly, the music stopped as the pastor mounted the podium. And, on raising his hand, the congregation fell silent. The pastor began: Today, my brethren, we have been visited by prophets. At this, all eyes fell upon the two friars sitting at the front. It was then that the pastor called them forward. That afternoon there would have been few non-Catholic churches in Harlem that heard preaching on the subject of Our Lady and the Rosary, but this one did. And, what’s more, when the friars had finished preaching there was just as much praising and praying—perhaps more—as when they had first arrived.
Back in London on that Sunday afternoon, I witnessed something similar. There is much talk of ecumenism these days—some good, some bogus. I wondered what those often little more than polite participants in clerical discussions would make of what I was witnessing. Here, before my eyes, The Revival was meeting Rome: with everyone singing the same tune and with the same Fire lighting the way ahead.
After the service ended, I spoke to the young attendees. They were mainly women, all of whom seemed as on fire with the Gospel as the friars. I noticed a similarity between the friars and these women straightaway; it was a similarity that made the shared worship not only easy but also somehow essential. These women had a faith that could be cut with a knife – it was a living, breathing faith. I understood immediately why they were such good friends with the friars.
And, it wasn’t only on Sundays that this friendship manifested itself. A few days later, at the soup kitchen, I spotted some familiar faces. It was some of the young women from the previous Sunday’s House of Prayer. Most of these women are lawyers, all are professional; they had come to help out, serving food and washing dishes, singing for and praying with anyone present there. And, just as when initially I encountered them, they appeared to be wholly engaged in their tasks, setting about them with the same energy they displayed during their Sunday worship. Like those who came to be fed at the soup kitchen, they appeared to have taken to their hearts the friar’s exhortation, and the spirit that pervaded the thrice weekly feast, namely, there was only one rule: all were family.
A day later, I was in a car speeding through the Essex countryside east of London. The woman driving was taking two of the friars, Br. John Bosco and Fr. Christopher, to meet a group who are despised by the wider community: gypsies or Travellers as they are now known. We soon arrived at our destination: a campsite of caravans parked on rough land that appeared neither rural nor urban. This netherworld is an appropriate, if sad spot, given the position in the minds of the wider society inhabited by the Traveller Community. Traditionally, these people have never fitted into city life or, for that matter, due to their transient lifestyle, into the fixed ways of the countryside. As a result, they are often outcasts. This particular group of Travellers had been evicted from an official site nearby, where they had for years parked their caravans. As the friars emerged from the car, a small group of children gathered around them, immediately fascinated by these bearded men in grey robes.
There were many caravans. There were only two friars. They set to work. Each inhabitant wanted a blessing and a chance to talk to the friars as well as a short time of prayer with them. The friars had come with a different agenda, however. They would, of course, bless those present and their homes, but they wanted to talk to them of prayer in their lives, of the power of the Rosary as a way of helping solve so many family ills. They also wanted to talk of the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all believers. At the margins of society, here was the New Evangelisation.
That day, the friars met with a willing and enthusiastic audience. Televisions were turned off; prayers were said; confessions were heard; people were consoled; cars and caravans were blessed; and the children, no longer simply intrigued, were left smiling. Eventually, the car sped away as quickly as it had come. In its trail, there was a much-changed group.
The friars carried the concerns and worries of those they had met back with them to London. That night, before the Blessed Sacrament, they prayed for all these intentions. Soon they would return to the Travellers’ campsite, and would often choose to go there, to a place few others even knew about, let alone cared to visit.
* * * *
Beside the new expensive flats close to the friary, there is a freeway with a bridge that takes vehicles over the large traffic island beneath. It is a busy thoroughfare, with traffic all day and all night. However, there are few, if any, driving over it who are aware that beneath it lives a homeless man. But the friars know. They go to visit him regularly. The day I went with them, the man had been given a caravan to live in by a well-wisher. Before that, he lived in a tent pitched against the concrete of the freeway wall; now his home would be a caravan, if one still set beneath the endless roar of traffic overhead. It was winter, and with the temperature dropping every night, he had no heating in the caravan. Nevertheless, how glad the man was to see the friars was evident: he was very glad. One suspects that he sees few friendly faces.
This homeless man is trying to free himself from an alcohol problem. Finding a job at a nearby factory, he is working hard to get his life back together. And, for him things have improved, if slowly, and, on this occasion, his friends, the friars, are relieved to see him looking so well. He is keen to welcome them into his new home. A regular at the soup kitchen, he tells me how he loves going to ‘their place’. The friars pray with him before saying good-bye.
Not far from there, that same morning, in front of the soon-to-be finished luxury apartments, the friars stand giving out pictures of the Divine Mercy to anyone who will take one. They are also open to speaking to passers-by about anything that troubles them, or to witness to the faith that animates the friars. This is London. The fact that two men, dressed as medieval mendicants, are handing out religious images hardly raises an eyebrow. Most of those that pass by are indifferent; some are curious. One or two look with a strange longing at the friars—a look, I suspect, that speaks of something in a Catholic childhood and of a faith that, perhaps, now lies buried under so much rubble. Some day, someone will stop. Some day, someone will take the image or the plastic Rosary on offer. Some day, there will be rejoicing in the heavens.
The friars witness to their faith every time they step out of the friary. They walk the city streets as naturally as anyone else. They are as much part of Canning Town as their neighbors. Slowly, they have become part of that local scene, a regular sight, with their beards and robes and sandals in all weathers, and never without a large rosary hanging from the cord around their waists. When travelling on the underground train, I saw one friar saying the Rosary quietly. His eyes were closed; silently he was moving the beads he held in his hand. I noticed also how all other eyes in the carriage were fixed upon him. There is a way of looking, and of not looking, in large cities, but this praying friar drew gazes that strained that convention to breaking point. Some started to laugh, but then quickly fell silent. Others seemed to marvel at this mystery before them, speaking as it did of another world and of a different way of living: and all of this on a packed London train.
* * * *
Br. Angelo set out on a dark night to walk to a church a few miles from the friary. This young bearded friar makes his way through the drab, deserted streets, carrying his guitar on his back. As I walk with him, I wonder what is going through his mind as he moves past brightly lit homes, knowing that he will never have such a home, with a wife and family. On he walks to the church.
When we arrive there, the church is dark save for a few candles lit around the altar. Soon the Eucharist is exposed. In the half-light, barely a handful of souls gather to worship. Nevertheless, Br. Angelo leads the prayer. Hymns are sung and praise is given. An hour or so later, we are sitting in a room at the church where the friar leads a Bible study group with a dozen or so young people. The prayer and sharing that follows are, as one would expect from young people, earnest and joyful. These are Catholics slowly starting to burn with the zeal of their baptismal mark. The grey robed friar sitting amongst them—laughing and joking, praying with them, helping them discern God’s will—is a constant and welcome impetus to that.
We walk back to the friary. It is now late; and it is as dank and cold as when we first set out. We walk past bars and cafes, some still open. Br. Angelo’s robed figure catches the eye of some revellers. I ask him if he misses anything. He says he used to like going for a beer with his friends. A memory triggered no doubt by passing the bars. He then gives a more considered answer, as simple as it is direct: he misses his family. On this dark night, walking the cold pavements of London streets, his former Pennsylvania home seems a long way away.
The mission of these men is the same; the ways in which each of them carries that out is different. Whether this mission is with young people or those on the margins of society, it is an encounter with the friars that draws each one to an ever-closer relationship to Christ and His Church. It is for this reason alone that the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal are in London.
Br. Angelo arrived back at the friary. Upon so doing, he went straight to the chapel, and knelt before the Blessed Sacrament there. In the glow of the soft red votive light burning by the Tabernacle, he was home.
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