The ‘Franciscans of the Renewal’, nicknamed ‘Franciscans of the Bronx’, are at the service of the underprivileged populations of the big cities. Two of them, Raphaël and Angelo, gave their testimony to the Metanoia festival, in St-Maurice (VS).
“Liam* had a criminal record as long as his arm,” recalls Angelo. When he came to the Franciscans’ house in East London, he behaved in a detestable way.” The seasoned criminal, also sick with cancer, however experienced a radical conversion, notes the American Franciscan who has worked for years in England. “He was quite surprisingly cured of his cancer, and completely changed. He became extremely smiling and sympathetic, spoke of God all the time”. If Liam* finally died today, he remained in this peaceful and luminous state of mind until the end, explains Angelo to cath.ch.
Back to Franciscan sources
These “feel good stories” illuminate the commitment of the “Franciscans of the Bronx”. “Conversions” are indeed at the heart of the action of these religious, in the various places of the world where they work. Raphaël-Jacques Gilou and Angelo Lefever gave a “sparkle” of this daily life to the participants of the third edition of the Metanoia Catholic festival, which takes place from July 11 to 17, 2022, on the Vérolliez site, near St-Maurice (VS ). The red-haired American in his thirties, with a smile etched on his face, and his French colleague with the long white beard and round glasses clash with their gray bures, among the festival-goers of Metanoia, in shorts and t-shirts on this hot summer day.
“From 9 a.m., the bell rings almost non-stop”
The two priests with angelic first names came to Valais to bring their testimony as ‘Franciscans of the Renewal’. This religious community was founded in the United States in 1987, in the New York district of the Bronx, known at the time for its poverty and its context of violence, hence the nickname of its members. Eight Capuchins of various nationalities wanted to return, in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, to the sources of the Franciscan charism initiated by the ‘Poverello’, explains Raphael [les capucins sont issus eux-mêmes d’une réforme du mouvement franciscain, au 16e siècle]. The French cleric, now 70, knew all the founding fathers, three of whom are still alive today.
Food aid and more
The ‘Franciscans of the Bronx’ (there is a female parallel community) share a common life characterized by charity, prayer, chastity, obedience and poverty. The communities, assisted by lay associate members, serve the spiritual and material needs of the poorest in their neighborhoods and are engaged in the apostolate of preaching. Today, the ‘Franciscans and Franciscans of the Renewal’ has 140 members in five countries, in North America, Central America and Europe.
“Concretely, the commitments are multiple, and they are different depending on the part of the world”, notes Brother Raphaël, who currently lives in Newark, near New York. The convent of this town in New Jersey, which the French call the “new Bronx”, notably houses the novitiate of the “Franciscans of the Renewal”. Twelve people are currently in training there.
Religious life is combined daily with charitable action. “From 9 a.m., the bell rings almost non-stop. People come to ask for a sandwich or a rosary”, explains Raphaël. Food aid is an important part of the activities. “Once a week there is a soup kitchen. We have to prepare a hundred meals, serve, do the dishes. We wouldn’t be able to do this without the help of many volunteers.”
Places to live and to change
The ‘Franciscans of the Bronx’ carry out two types of apostolate. First of all, they run a Youth Centre, where children and young people are welcomed for academic support. A large proportion of poor families come from immigration from Latin America. Some children don’t even speak English and have a lot of difficulty in school. In addition to English lessons, the brothers, who have many different skills, support them in subjects such as mathematics, science and music.
“They feel that we are not there to teach them lessons, but to bring them Christ”
A summer camp is also organized each year. “Many families cannot afford to go on vacation. They also strive to remove their children from the streets, where drug trafficking and gang violence are rampant,” continues the French priest, who has been involved in the community since 2002.
The convents of the ‘Franciscans of the Renewal’, throughout the world, also welcome the homeless. They can be accommodated there for up to six months. But not unconditionally. People housed must adhere to certain rules of abstinence and follow the proposed program. In particular, they are invited to perform small tasks inside the convent, which very often helps them to regain a sense of dignity. “These are not just places to live, but to change,” emphasizes Angelo.
A courageous apostolate
If Newark represents the new point of emergency in the New York area, the Franciscans of the Renewal are still active in the ‘motherhouse’ of the Bronx. However, the neighborhood has changed a lot in recent decades, explains Father Raphaël. “We started to demolish the old buildings to build more modern homes, but unaffordable for the poorest. These were therefore ‘chased’ to the outskirts, notably in Newark. The Bronx is now mainly populated by a largely Hispanic middle class, certainly less deprived, but who also has their share of problems”.
Gang warfare, drugs, prostitution are the main scourges affecting these populations. The two brothers admit that the contexts in which they live can be dangerous. “Sometimes it’s better not to know what the people we’re hosting have done,” notes Angelo, who currently lives in Bradford, Yorkshire, after working for years in East London.
The two religious, however, claim never to have felt in danger. And in nearly 40 years of mission around the world, not one Franciscan in the Bronx has been harmed. “I think that our religious habit arouses great respect among people, notes the French religious”. “Anyway, it’s the heart of our commitment to be among these people, even if it can be dangerous, we deliberately chose this path,” adds Angelo. “They feel that we are not there to teach them lessons, but to bring them Christ”.
The gift of relationship
Testimonials that attracted a large audience in Metanoia, and which did not leave the participants indifferent, assure cath.ch the organizers of the festival. The Franciscan conference was entitled “Choosing poverty in order to love Christ”. Reflections that Father Raphaël also developed in his book Convert released in 2021 by Editions du Cerf (Paris), which traces his experience in the community. “I felt the need to write it following the crisis that arose in the Church, particularly because of sexual abuse, and which established the need for reform. But it is important to say that if you want to reform, you have to start by converting yourself. And for that, you must return to the radicality of the Gospel. For us, this means in particular rediscovering the meaning of poverty”.
Angelo stresses that this return to basics is closely linked to solidarity and closeness with the poorest. “It is a question of living their difficulties by their side”. The American knows well, from his experience, that food is ultimately only secondary in what they can bring them. “Above all, they need connection, a relationship. A reciprocal gift, in which we too find healing”. (cath.ch/rz)
*fictitious first name
The festival Metanoia, which takes place every year over a week, in summer, in Vérolliez, near St-Maurice (VS), comes from the Théomania festival. The latter was launched in the 1990s by Eucharistein, based in Epinassey (VS). The community of faithful is no longer in the organizing committee, but still helps.
In 2022, Metanoia was scheduled for July 11-17. This is the third edition of the event, which began in 2018. It was canceled in 2020 and 2021, due to the pandemic. “We are very happy to be able to start the festival again and to see the whole team again”, testify the organizers.
Always benefiting from a rich panel of speakers, the edition of the Catholic festival 2022 also had an ecumenical touch, with an evening animated by pastors. “We want to try more and more to create bridges, also reflecting various faces of the Church”, underline the organizers, noting an increased presence of evangelicals and people not necessarily close to religion. RZ
© Catholic Media Center Cath-Info, 15.07.2022
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The Franciscans of the Bronx, “angels” of the outskirts – Swiss Catholic Portal
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