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Jesus from the Bronx

One night in New York, in the middle of the street, over fifty people are fighting. A Franciscan friar crosses himself, gets out of his car and launches himself into the fray. He cries as loud as he can: “In the name of God, stop it!” And indeed, the fight soon ends, although the friar is afraid of being stabbed or punched.

Jesus from the Bronx

The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, also known as the Bronx Brothers, carry Christ to places where nobody wants to go. The friars, however, believe that they do not do anything special: nothing beyond “proclaiming Jesus, giving out sandwiches and working with those rejected by society.” In reality, their work is very dangerous. The Bronx, one of the five New York boroughs, is regarded as a ghetto awash with violence, drugs and gang wars, and deprived of any hope. More crimes are committed there than in the slums of Moscow or Rio de Janeiro. Despite the many dangers, the friars themselves have never suffered any harm. Drug addicts, prostitutes and drug dealers often greet them with “God bless you!”

Beginnings of missionary work

The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal are a community founded in the US in 1987 by eight Capuchin friars, who wished to radically live the Gospel. “Do you wish to follow Christ Crucified?” they were asked then by Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York. He continued: “One can pray to God on snow-capped mountain tops or on the ocean shore, but if you wish to follow Christ as far as Calvary, as St Francis of Assisi did, why not descend to the very bottom of the ghetto?” The cardinal entrusted the brave men with a parish in the south Bronx.

The Franciscans shelter sinners with love, showing them how much Christ has loved them, offering His life for them

The friars started their hard work among drug addicts, homeless people, prostitutes, social outcasts, drug dealers and gangsters. Their only weapon has always been faith, poverty and prayer. In a former school building next to their monastery, they founded mutual aid societies for immigrants, furnished school rooms to teach English in and opened a high school for local teenagers. After only a few months, shortly before Christmas 1987, they set up a homeless shelter named after Padre Pio. Ten years later, there were already as many as fifty Renewal Friars.

The Franciscans are convinced that if you focus on Jesus, He really takes care of everything

The charisma of the order was inspired by the spirituality of St Francis, Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta and St John Paul II.

This is how one of the friars remembers the beginnings of their work in the Bronx: “Our beginnings were not easy. About 3 a.m. you could hear thumping on the building walls. Sometimes strange music could be heard. This lasted for a month. I think that the devil wanted to scare us away. We clung to Jesus. Every night, holding a baseball bat, I entered every room in the building to check if there weren’t any burglars, singing my head off: ‘I love You, Jesus, I love You!’ I did not feel reassured, though …”

Mother Teresa, when asked by the friars how to begin from scratch, replied that an hour of adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament every day was absolutely fundamental. The Franciscans know that, so they spend about five hours every day on prayer. Once a week they have a day of retreat, and once a month they spend one day in a hermitage in the woods. They are also expected to spend from five to eight days each year in the silence of the hermitage.

They are convinced that if you focus on Jesus, He really takes care of everything.

The poor feel the simplicity, love and peace which radiate from the monastery and friars. The friars have love, joy and peace because they are filled with God. The friars themselves say that they often are edified by the faith of people whom they serve: “I knew a cleaning woman who worked at a clinic. Within five days, her mother died, her house burned down and her sister died in a car crash. And she continued to trust God …”

Roads to Christ

Many fathers and brothers from the Bronx made the hard journey of returning to Christ and finding their calling. There is a Canadian who before his conversion was a drug addict. He spent a few years with the Moonies until one day in October 1979 when he heard John Paul II speak in Washington DC and converted. The first superior-general of the community was a Franciscan who dubbed himself the “Miserable Friar” or “Mad Monk”. He lives in an ordinary garage, but is an advisor to bishops and is responsible for the spiritual development of a huge diocese. Convicts in prison receive religious instruction from a huge Englishman from the working-class suburbs of London, who used to be a skinhead. He, too, could have spent a large part of his life behind bars, had he not found one day a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in a phone booth. Now, he negotiates the prison gates brandishing a guitar, in the company of missionary sisters of charity.

Another friar dreamed of becoming an actor. Now he works with the poor in the Bronx, observing the rule: “the more one has, the less he gives; the less one has, the more willing he is to give”. One of the friars is a former jazz musician who continues to compose and record songs to raise money for burying the poor. The master of novices is a former journalist who was helped by an old begging woman to understand that the goal of the mass media should be the metamorphosis of the human heart and not merely the proclamation of the problems of the world and the provision of entertainment. Meals are cooked by a friar who used to be a bartender and an irresponsible biker. Today, he is an implacable foe of abortion and courageously defends the lives of conceived children. There are also two friars who share a love not only for the Eucharist but also for DIY: one is a Puerto Rican and a child of the Bronx ill-treated by life, while the other is the pampered son of a bourgeois family. Another friar was a Protestant who used to sell computers in Dallas. He travelled to Europe, to Medjugorje, to help those who suffered during the war; there, he converted to Catholicism and found his calling. Another member of the community is a twometre- tall friar with the physique of a lumberjack. He was helped to find Jesus by a happy poor man from the Appalachians.

Every man, especially a poor one, has infinite dignity and value

All these friars now help other people find their way in life by showing them Christ, who lives, teaches and acts through the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist. They radically shun all sin, but they shelter sinners with love, showing them how much Christ has loved them, offering His life for them.

Sons of St Francis

The friars treat the Poor Man of Assisi as their spiritual father. After his conversion, this saint discovered that every man, especially a poor one, had infinite dignity and value, because he was united with Christ. That is why, one day, he kissed a leper he met on his way despite the leper’s repulsive appearance. He also pressed his purse into the leper’s hand.

Sooner or later, appearing in front of each friar is a “leper” to be “kissed” — to be recognised as a bearer of Christ. Brother Stan’s “leper” was a mentally retarded homeless woman. She would not leave him alone for a moment, and she never uttered a single word. “She was driving me crazy. I couldn’t stand it anymore! […] One day, I’d had enough of it and I threw her out. Five minutes later, of course, my heart broke. Luckily, she was back the next day. I opened my door wide to her, hugged and kissed her, and apologised for the previous day. And she then spoke for the first time … God sometimes uses our sins to dispense his graces.”

Another friar, named Michael, once a high-ranking official, visited terminally-ill AIDS patients. A home for such people was opened in New York City’s gay district by Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The residents are those who have not been admitted to hospitals or have been rejected by their families. One night, Brother Michael saw a man lying on the floor — an emaciated and pale skeleton, covered in wounds. He was seized by great fear and the desire to run away, but he remembered St Francis’s meeting with a leper. Overcoming his revulsion, he delicately and very slowly put the patient back to bed.

Today’s lepers also include such people as Gaby, a seasonal prostitute, or Nicholas, addicted to heroin for fifteen years, who has hardly any skin left intact on his pricked arms, or a Hispanic member of some sect whom the friars are freeing from an evil spirit, while he “repays” them by stealing a huge blackwood crucifix. There are also mentally ill people who knock on the monastery door to talk to the friars, because other people move away from them when they start a monologue on the subway or in the street.

“Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier” (St Mother Teresa of Calcutta)

In the evening, when the monastery is relatively quiet, a prayer said by one of the friars can be heard:

Lord, thank you for the grace of serving you and touching you in your poor, in all those who are unpleasant, come at the wrong time, never say thank you, or stink. Without them I would be left at the mercy of myself and my selfishness. I know too, Lord, that I myself am a leper and that I must grow to love that sick part of myself, because you love it infinitely. Thank you for those poor who will open the gates of heaven for me.

The crisis of the family

The Bronx has been badly hit by the breakdown of the family. Seventy per cent of Bronx families are fatherless. Usually, the man who lives in the house is not the father of the children. Due to the crisis of fatherhood, young people look to gangs for acceptance. The friars often are a sign of hope for such young people, because — in keeping with St John Paul II’s call not to be afraid and to encourage families to live a life consistent with Catholic teaching — they work with young people and provide support to families. Neighbourhood residents appreciate this. Frequently, even non-Catholics tell them: “It’s good that you’re here”. For many young people, the Franciscans replace their fathers and are figures to look to for guidance.

One of the friars met an eightyear- old boy whose father, a drug dealer, had thrown him out of the house. He told the boy: “Go to the friars now, from now on they are your fathers”. The Franciscans take care of such rejected people. They try to implement the precept of Saint Mother Teresa: “Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier”.

The story of Luis

The story of Luis is similar to that of many other boys from the borough. When he was eight, his father died. His mother was left alone with seven children. To help his mother pay for his and his siblings’ school, young Luis began to deal in drugs. One day he tried crack and soon got addicted to it himself. While a drug addict, he never stopped thinking about his family and taking care of his siblings. One day he came to the monastery and told the friars: “I am already lost. But I entrust to you my brothers and sisters, and my mother. Do not leave them.”

The friars regularly assisted the family financially and prayed for Luis. When his mother came to collect bags of food, they tried to console her: “Take care, Sylvia, be brave, Luis will get out of it.” Although it seemed impossible, Luis indeed kicked the habit. He received a three-month prison sentence for dealing drugs. While behind bars, he was forced to undergo detox. He thought he would go mad when going through withdrawal, but somehow he managed. Upon his release, Luis went first to the Franciscans and begged: “Do not leave me alone, brothers. If I fall again, I’ll be finished.” The friars helped him. He made up his mind to go on the evangelisation trip Youth 2000, where, during adoration, he was miraculously healed completely! When a priest came up to him holding the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance, Luis fell to the floor weeping. In a single moment, it dawned on him how much worth he had in the eyes of God. The next day, he confessed, left behind his soiled past and reconciled with God and himself. From then on, Luis’s life changed radically. He broke off his old acquaintances and travelled with the Franciscans to give testimony of his conversion and the miracles that had taken place in his life. Some time later, Luis was murdered by drug dealers. Before his death, he forgave his killers.

The struggle for the life of the unborn

On Saturdays, the friars join pro-life activists in front of New York clinics. They include clergymen and representatives of all walks of life: bishops, warehousemen, pizza sellers, mothers of families, etc. They defend those who have just been conceived but are already threatened with execution. In a single year, in the State of New York, thanks to such people, 400 children were saved. When a peaceful pro-life demonstration is held outside an abortion clinic, twenty per cent of the planned abortions are not performed.

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40)

The friars look for women going to the clinic. A few of them pray on their rosaries, others try to start a conversation by offering free help to those who choose to give birth to the child. The following words can be heard: “Please, don’t kill this tiny baby, we can help you. We will help you absolutely free of charge, but please just don’t kill it! Jesus loves you, whatever you do!”

Brother Conrad has been imprisoned several times for trying to persuade women outside clinics to give birth to their children. Countless times, he has listened to the stories of those who had an abortion. One of them, twenty-eight years old, told him: “When I was sixteen, I had two abortions. The pangs of conscience will torment me until death. I heard a whisper inside me: ‘You’ll see, you’ll be free’. That was exactly what I wanted to hear at the time. But when I was leaving the surgery, the same voice told me: ‘You killed your child, now it’s too late!’ All sins are false promises of liberation: they first seduce and then enslave.” Through such conversations, the Franciscan discovered the extent of the damage caused by abortion in not only the psychological sphere, but also the spiritual one: “I realised ever more clearly that the abortion controversy was primarily not a political dispute but a spiritual struggle. Satan is sly: he attacks God through his creation — by ricochet. He reaches God in his fatherly interior by destroying a child created in his image when it is at its most defenceless, most innocent and weakest. He uses arguments that are ostensibly the most magnanimous and altruistic. Abortion is a distorted parody of love. One of God’s names, appearing hundreds of times in the Bible, means in Hebrew ‘mother’s interior’. God carries us in Him like a mother. It is Him that the Adversary wants to harm by destroying His child.”

The friar answers women who have had an abortion that only the truth can free their hearts. He advises them to confess this sin, because absolution by a priest will be forgiveness from God himself and from the child. He asks them never to doubt God’s mercy. For such women, he celebrated in secret, in his prison cell, the compensating sacrifice of Holy Mass.

Seeing Christ in the needy

Appearing to Saint Mother Teresa, at the beginning of her service of the poorest, Jesus was sad because the poor were often forgotten in today’s world. He said that the poor did not know Him and expressed His great desire for their love. He told Mother Teresa: “Go and take me to these poor people. Go and be my light. I cannot go there myself; they do not know me, so they do not need me. So you go and take me to them. I want very much to enter their dark and sad homes.” The friars, inspired by these words, try to see the dignity and greatness of every man. Their strength is derived from the power of their faith. They see Christ in the needy and treat the great and the small alike, because for them all people are equal as the children of God. Remembering Jesus’ words, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”, they take loving care of those who see no sense in their life. They try to show that every man is created from love and for love, and they stress that on their own they cannot do a thing, that it is God who does everything and uses them to show his love.

Source: Des fleurs en enfer. Fioretti du Bronx (Paris: Editions Presses de La Renaissance, 2000)


The article was published with the permission from "Love One Another!" in September 2020.

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