Grey friars are not a sight one associates with 21st century America. Yet the followers of St Francis are now a common sight on the streets of New York. In the Bronx, St Crispin's Friary is the headquarters of one of many new religious communities growing in the Church.
Emerging from the Capuchins, the Congregation of Franciscans of the Renewal, approved in 1986, number more than eighty friars and a dozen sisters. Founded by a group led by Fr Benedict Groeschel, they are attempting to return to the Franciscan ideal of poverty and service, working with the poor and the young, with a particular apostolate towards personal renewal. In September 2004, twelve men, priests included, joined their ranks.
Accustomed to hearing of the decline in religious vocations, and seeing orders diminishing in numbers and apparently set to die in some Western nations, you could be forgiven for thinking that religious life is disappearing in the Church: the truth, however, is somewhat different.
Every reform brings with it a wave of renewal which is expressed most strongly in the revitalisation of consecrated life. The 16th century Church provides a good comparison with our times.
A glance at that period reveals not only the difficulties of implementing the reforms of Trent, but also the foundation of numerous religious orders. The Jesuits are well known; as are the Discalced Carmelites and Capuchins as reforms of older orders, but they merely represent many others which sprang from the same renewal. It seems we are also living in such an age.
Vatican II did not want to bring religious life to an end: it sought to renew it. To see Vatican II only as the age of the laity is to miss much of what the Council was doing: it was looking for reform in all areas of Church life to meet the challenges of the modern world with the undiluted teaching of Jesus Christ.
The Council asked the orders and congregations to return to the authentic charism of their founders and recover that spirituality and way of life which had brought them into existence. It was a call heeded, ignored and misunderstood. Some returned, and are still returning, others reinterpreted what their founders intended under various other influences, contemporary psychology and humanism included, and they are now in crisis.
Meanwhile new communities and congregations are being founded in abundance and new forms of religious life are developing: secular institutes, personal prelatures and eccesial movements; older forms, such as consecrated virgins and hermits, are also re-emerging.
The community of the Beatitudes is one example. Founded in France in 1973 by a group of Protestants who felt called to a more religious life. And, studying Vatican II, they found themselves called into the Catholic Church. Today the community numbers 1,500 priests, deacons, sisters, brothers and consecrated lay people.
Their apostolate is varied but centres on evangelisation, even in novel situations: the Community in Cannes is known to evangelise on the beach. Other new communities include the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, the Chemin Neuf, Fraternity of Mary Immaculate Queen and the Community of St John.
Of the existing congregations which are renewing, the Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, are notable. Receiving Pontifical approval for their reform in 1973, they recommitted themselves to the charism of Catherine McAuley, returning to the habit and distinctive Mercy way of life focussing on various apostolic works while maintaining an intensive program of community prayer which includes daily Eucharistic Adoration. The sisters teach in schools, seminaries and universities, and care for the poor and the sick. They have foundations in the US, Italy and Germany.
What is at the heart of these new religious communities? And why are they, and not the already established and modified congregations, attracting young members? The only problem these communities have with vocations is that there are too many.
In reality they have emerged out of the authentic renewal of Vatican II. Eucharistically centred, the Mass and Adoration are at the heart of their day. Devotion to Our Lady is seen as vital as is respect and loyalty to the Pope and the Magisterium.
They also foster a deep respect for Tradition and a keen awareness of the cultural aspects of Catholicism. Most of the communities also wear a distinctive habit while observing the traditional vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. They are apostolically vibrant and have particular charisms for attracting the young.
And why are the young joining them? Speaking with Fr Glenn Sodano, Community Servant (Superior) of the CFRs, he points out that the young are looking for a way of life which is counter-cultural, a way of life which is both challenging and human and centred on God; an unworldly, but not unearthly way of life: these new communities provide that.
With such renewal in consecrated life, it appears that the Church is beginning to move out of this period of crisis. Vatican II's vision of the renewed Church is becoming a reality and the new springtime for the Gospel has finally arrived. While much work has yet to be done, we can be confident that the new communities will help in this New Evangelisation.
For more information on some of these communities see their websites:
Fr John Hogan is a priest of the Meath Diocese. His article first appeared in 'The Irish Catholic'.