With a spiritual and economic crisis in Europe, groups like the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal show a better way for us to serve. Hope is about finding a way through the world, it is about showing the world a different way of living.
Brother Shawn from the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal
The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal are a new monastic movement, founded in the late 1980's in the Bronx, New York. In 2007, they established their newest friary in Ireland's most notorious neighbourhood - Limerick's Moyross estate. Robed and shaven-headed, the bearded brothers have won the hearts of the local population, plagued as they are by vandalism, drug crime and joy-riding. Journalist Rory Fitzpatrtick describes succinctly the appeal of these unexpected local heroes. "In an age of celebrity, they practise humility; in an age where everything is sexualised, they vow chastity; in an age of consumerism, they vow poverty. They walk through the world showing us there is another way."
Rocked by scandal
Like most European nations, Ireland has seen the congregations and credibility of its churches implode in recent years.The Catholic church is rocked to its core by scandal. Recruiting new priests has become all but impossible. In this crisis situation the Friars, Fitzpatrick writes, "provide hope that, against the odds, a better church might emerge"
What do these New York monks serving the poor of Ireland teach us about hope in our times?
They teach us, I believe, that hope is about the possibility of change. In a time of prosperity and growth, when all is well with the world and life just keeps getting better, the best we can hope for is more of the same. But in harder times, when our TV screens tell us daily that all is not well in our world, hope is about finding another way. For the rich hope and change are mutually exclusive. For the poor they are inseparable. The Friars of the Renewal speak hope because they physically and visibly embody a different way. They connect with a young European generation who are not looking for a new religion so much as for a new way to be human. If we are to speak a word of hope into the future in Europe, we will need to recover this powerful thread of the Gospel - as an announcement of the possibility of change.
Meeting the challenge
How does our ancient faith meet this new and thoroughly post-modern challenge? Firstly, by giving us power to deal with the most persistent enemy of all - the self. Consumer markets are built on the intentional creation of dissatisfaction, out of which human beings are persuaded to see wants as needs and spend for self-fulfillment. The resulting spiral of hunger and fullness has become an empty roller-coaster ride. Young Europeans have a deep and abiding hunch that there is something wrong in this system. But where can they turn to overcome the twin forces that trap them It is not enough to want to be different - someone has to offer us the power the be different. Enter the Christ of Philippians 2, the self-emptying King who glories in giving and rules to release.
Young Europeans have a deep and abiding hunch that there is something wrong in this system.
Secondly, the message of Christ invites us to stand tall in the dignity of being loved. As the late Henri Nouwen often said, we can only love others when we know ourselves as loved. To a fatherless and rootless generation the message of Christ invites us to participate in a meaningful story. Rooted in the depths of history; looking to the future's far horizon, this story positions human beings not as accidental tourists in a universe of chaos and collision, but as created beings, God-breathed in their dignity and task. It was a humanist rebellion against this message that forged the new European worldview of the past two hundred years. But it did not bring us freedom. It brought us Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Darfur and melting ice caps. Humanity free of the creator's grasp has not fared well. Might a humanity freed in the creator's love fare better? God's offer is to bathe us in the light of his love. His call to us is, in the same way, to love others.
The meek inherit
Thirdly, this message offers hope because it reframes the human will to power. Christ the Messiah, Son of God, by definition the most powerful figure in history, becomes pathetic; twisted; humiliated - and offers not a word in protest. The God who empties himself to the point of death turns inside out the meaning of power. Here it is those who serve who lead the way. Those who give, gain. The meek inherit. Post-modern culture revolves around questions of power, highlighting its every abuse with the zeal of an inquisition. For many, the will to power is the root of all our woes. What would happen if a generation were gripped by a story that called them to serve, gave them an example to follow, equipped them with servant skills and motivated them to multiply acts of love and kindness? Meekness is not weakness, it is a strength derived from the certainty that selfless love will ultimately win.
To overcome the drives of self; to know myself as loved and so love others; to redirect the power I am given towards the blessing of the poor - these are qualities of life our European cultures cry for. And buried deep in our shared memory is a story that carries just these qualities. Renewal is remembering. Will we continue in the aimlessness of our amnesia, or remember who we are and find our hope?
May 17th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Gerard Kelly