I mentioned in an earlier posting that I had always—with one exception—found the Franciscans of whatever stripe given to charity. The observant Greyfriars of Greenwich whom I had mentioned in some postings on Henry VIII were most notable in this regard. When Henry VIII sent his visitators to close the friary and disperse the friars, the visitators reported that the friars were bonded together so closely as brothers that no one could come between them. Fraternal charity is characteristic of Franciscans but, as I had pointed out, there is one notable exception of which I am aware and it occurred within the Capuchin branch of the Franciscan family.
Giotto's portray of Francis' soul being
taken to heaven
In 1987 a small group of Capuchin friars located in the Bronx (New York) led by Father Benedict Groeschel and with the encouragement of Cardinal John O’Connor, then Archbishop of New York, separated themselves from the Capuchin Order and established themselves as the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. The Capuchins themselves had been a reform movement with the observant Franciscans in the early sixteenth century. Father Groeschel and his disciples claimed that they were simply trying to return to a more authentically Capuchin way of life but the particulars of how they separated themselves from the Capuchins involve a certain about of duplicity and deceit that left their Capuchin brothers deeply hurt. Moreover, they represented themselves, or allowed themselves to be represented to benefactors and vocation prospects, as the authentic heirs of the Capuchin heritage so as to imply that the Capuchins had lost their charism. Though Groeschel and the others should have known better than to allow this to happen, the villain, if there be a villain, in this process was Cardinal O’Connor who despite having no idea of what religious life is about—he himself was a diocesan priest, not a religious—interfered with a number of religious communities, often sowing seeds of dissent.
Benedict Groeschel is, in addition to being a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal and a priest, a psychologist. Some of his fellow priests are skeptical of him as a confessor or a spiritual director claiming that he is, or was in the days of his active ministry, “controlling” of penitents and spiritual directees, forbidding them from seeing other priests or counselors for advice and otherwise establishing his monopoly over their consciences. He certainly has taken very unnuanced stances in regard to a variety of issues and especially those involving human sexuality and his approach could be considered to verge on the sort of control one finds in some cults.
Certainly the separation of various “reform” movements within religious orders is always a difficult process and often involves pain on both sides. The difference in the Vatican II era is that most groups have tried to stress not “reform” which carries certain judgment values but “renewal” which is a less onerous term and doesn’t reek of the sort of spiritual pride to which many “reformers” are given. Of course Groeschel’s group are known as Friars of the Renewal, but as in another community which Cardinal O’Connor set up, the Sisters of Life, there is also a certain smarminess in their attitude to those religious communities who see their role in the Church, and indeed who see the Church itself, in a different light.
When Francis of Assisi established his Friars Minor in 1210 (the year of their approval by Pope Innocent III—the original brotherhood had gathered around Francis in the year or two immediately prior—he maintained a critical distance from the hierarchical Church. Francis was by no means disloyal but neither was he complicit. He saw that the hierarchical Church had drifted far from the evangelical ideals of the Gospel. Humility and service had been abandoned for pomp and power. Francis established his brotherhood to be a witness to the Gospel in a Church that had so compromised itself with the world of its day that the Gospel was all but forgotten. Francis had a deep personal friendship with Pope Innocent III as well as with many of the prelates of his day—those who wanted to see reform in the Church, but he and his friars refused to compromise their vision of a Gospel Life to accommodate the power and the pomp of prelates. Habits and cords, or even austere poverty, don’t of themselves make one a disciple of Francis, or of Jesus Christ. The spirit of Francis today is found more among the “nuns on the bus” than some of those who claim to be his sons or daughters but have lost that critical distance from the institutional Church. Even further from Francis and his ideals is the failure of fraternal charity and the triumph of spiritual pride.