I joined religious life at the age of 18. Like any young person, I was full of enthusiasm, ideals and fears. It was a time when religious life was coming down from the great crest on which it had been riding. Changes were happening all around. The friars I belonged to seemed at that time to be keeping a fairly good balance during those couple of years (1975-77).
By 1978 I was becoming aware that there were serious problems in religious life generally, although I could not quite put my finger on what was wrong. Of course, being a 21 year old, I had enough personal issues to deal with to keep me busy.
It was not until 1993, three years after my ordination to the priesthood that I started taking serious steps towards a more radical and reformed religious life. I went to the General of the Order in Rome, to open my heart and seek his counsel. I was surprised at his encouragement. I told him that I felt called to live a more radical, simple and prayerful life, to faithfully live my vocation as a necessary response to the current crisis in religious life. I also wanted to be open to receive any whom God might send to live this life with me. He listened attentively, asked a number of questions and finally told me: "You cannot refuse God ... you must do this."
After seeking counsel back in Australia with bishops and the Apostolic Nuncio, I began.
Every part of the way required all my trust in God who opened many doors for me. His divine providence obtained for me as much as I needed at each step of the journey. Bishop Kevin Manning, then Bishop of Armidale, NSW (now of Parramatta), gave me hospitality and his blessing to test if this indeed was truly God's call.
Over the first five years it would be untruthful to say it went smoothly. Certainly a very rough and difficult road has been the beginnings with a number of men coming and then going; the problem of discerning how best to live the life in fidelity to the spirit of St Francis and to that of the Second Vatican Council; and dealing with the accusations and suspicions of many. But I was grateful for the extraordinary support of many more.
So, who are we and what are we about?
We are, as our name clearly states, Brothers of St Francis. We are a new community in the Australian Church, living a contemplative prayer life (but we are not enclosed) with an active apostolate of serving the Church in any way we are able (parish supplies, teaching, preaching, retreats, days of prayer, etc.). We are open to priestly or brotherly vocations. We strive to live the ideal and spirit of St Francis of Assisi, through the Evangelical Counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Our life is simple. We wear only the garb of St Francis, a simple "donkey-brown" (grey brown) tunic with a hood, a white cord, rosary and sandals. We wear this as a witness to Christ and His Church, to keep us faithful to holy poverty, and as a sign of our brotherhood.
It is interesting when we are out and about, on the streets or in shopping centres, or wherever, that we so often meet people whom we would never meet if we were dressed in secular clothing. It opens so many doors to communication, ministry and good old neighbourly love.
Our day usually starts at 6.00am. Beginning with the Prayer of the Church, we spend four hours spread throughout each day praying in common. This also includes meditation, Mass, Rosary, Exposition and Benediction.
Hospitality plays a very important role in our life. We welcome people to pray and eat with us. A day rarely goes by when we are not joined by young and old in prayer and food.
At present we are living in what was the old Marist Fathers Seminary (more recently known as the Marist Centre) in Toongabbie NSW. This beautiful 10 acres of peaceful land in the middle of Sydney was purchased from the Marist Fathers some months ago by the Diocese of Parramatta, which intends to use it for many ministries of the Church. Bishop Manning had asked us to set up the Chapel as a Chapel of Reparation for the Diocese.
In the less then one year we have been here, there has not been a dull moment. Among the many groups we have hosted was the Thomas More Centre's Spring School (see November 1998 AD2000). Another highlight for us was the St Francis weekend, which brought nearly 200 people to celebrate the weekend of his Feast.
Our future is in the hands of God whose divine providence keeps us alive. We are looking forward to growing in God's grace and the ability to serve the Church in greater ways. Our hope is to revive and preserve the essential elements of religious life in the charism of St Francis of Assisi.
The great encouragement for us is the new springtime of religious life which is beginning to dawn around the world. There are many new religious communities being born, as well as a number of reforms of established Orders. In the Franciscan family alone there are at least eleven reform communities of friars around the world, counting ourselves, each recapturing a deep communal prayer life, simplicity in living and great zeal for the Church. All of these new reforms, as well as almost every new community, have chosen to wear the religious habit. In almost every case I know of, it is a full length tunic for both men and women with the women wearing a veil.
In the history of salvation, religious have played a major role in the renewal of the Church: Francis, Dominic, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, and so on. I believe the Holy Spirit is calling on men and women in our age, who desire to live the consecrated life, to do so with extraordinary courage and complete abandonment to God's providence. It gives us all great hope for the future.
Fr Christopher Sharah can be contacted at Brothers of St Francis, PO Box 602, Toongabbie, NSW 2146 Australia, tel +61 (02) 9631 8198. Internet: http://www.fsf.org.au.