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Inner-City Friars
Living Amid Crime and Poverty, Franciscans of the Renewal Find That Recruits Are Lining Up for Their Traditional Religious Life

By Jeff Diamant
Religion News Service
Saturday, September 1, 2007

NEWARK -- The thin stream of blood extended the length of the sidewalk running by the Catholic monastery's front door, trickled around the corner and ended midway down the block. The friars who live inside assumed a gunshot victim had collapsed. They gathered that night last summer and prayed as nearby residents looked on.

Two months later, the friars showed up in religious garb at a funeral for another young area gunshot victim, and they again drew stares.

Last autumn, a man at the door seeking a sandwich told a friar that area residents thought they were "good guys," recalled the Rev. Richard Roemer, 37, who has lived at the monastery since 2005.

The friars and their order have attracted attention outside the neighborhood as well by doing something that has become unusual for Catholic religious orders -- growing.

Even as Catholic religious orders worldwide are having trouble recruiting new members, the Franciscans of the Renewal, a young order founded in 1987, have been drawing a steady flow of recruits in their 20s and 30s.

To be sure, there are other friars who live in urban America, but part of what makes the Newark friars unusual is that their numbers are increasing: Starting with eight members, the order now has 107 friars.

The Newark priory was purchased for $1.5 million in 2004 by the nonprofit group Friends of the Newark Monastery. The priory had been used for 121 years by a group of cloistered Dominican nuns who had not let outsiders in except to pray at a chapel.

By the time they left the priory in 2003, the nuns had not drawn a new member for more than a decade. In the past 40 years, the number of Catholic priests, brothers and sisters in the United States has decreased from 214,932 to 85,284, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

This fall, the friars will open the European-style courtyard, spacious back lawn and other prayer space for religious retreats.

"For years and years, no one has been behind these walls," said the Rev. Glenn Sudano, 54, a founding member of the order. "People think it's a prison. I want people to come in, and to see how simply we live."

Eight friars, including Sudano, live in the space permanently, and novices live and train there for 12 months. The novices then take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience before leaving for the order's friaries in New York, Texas, Honduras, England and Ireland. Many eventually become priests.

The friars say the popularity of their order stems from its adherence to religious tradition. The Franciscans of the Renewal order, which split from a Capuchin order in 1987, was founded on the belief that other orders had lost their way after the liberal church changes of the 1960s. Unlike some larger orders, the Franciscan friars still live together, pray together and wear traditional garb. They do not have a television.

In a 2005 book about the order, "A Drama of Reform," its chief founder, the Rev. Benedict Groeschel, complained that most Catholic orders in the English-speaking world were "lost in the woods," and that some are even "filled with dissent from official Church teaching."

"The old proverb is relevant here: 'If the trumpeter sounds an uncertain note, who will follow?' " wrote Groeschel, who once was arrested for praying in the driveway of an abortion clinic.

Sudano's path to the Newark monastery passed through St. John's University and, 30 years ago, a CBS newsroom.

Working as a CBS desk assistant, he said, he came to believe that the world's problems too often involved people making bad choices. Rather than help a network report on these bad choices, he wanted to spend his life helping people stop making them, he said.

After a year teaching at a Catholic school in White Plains, N.Y., he joined the Capuchin order. In time, he said, he became frustrated, believing that the friars spent too much time running churches and not enough time helping the poor.

Sudano and seven other men, including Groeschel, then founded the Franciscans of the Renewal to help poor people and to try to stay true to Catholic religious tradition. The flow of novices into the order shows they were on to something, he said.

"People here are looking for a sense of community," Sudano said. "They want to belong to something, but not simply to an organization: They want to belong to a family . . . that has identity, parameters, a mission, ideals."

Still, the decision for a young man to live by the order's dictates of celibacy and poverty does not come easy. In interviews, the novices in Newark described varied paths to the monastery: a spiritual awakening after an illness; a restless heart after an Army tour in Iraq; and, for a former truck driver, a feeling that God wanted him to become a friar rather than a husband.

Behind the wheel of his big rig, "I had a lot of time to pray and listen to Christian music and Christian radio," said Brother Teresiano, 32, who grew up in Modesto, Calif.

"Every time I started to go out with a girl, my relationship with God started to become cold," he said. "And little by little, through the Bible and watching movies of the saints, I realized God was calling me not to marry but to live for him alone."

Friars and novices at the monastery, formally called Most Blessed Sacrament Friary, awake at 5:30 a.m. each day. Morning prayer lasts from 6 to 9, and then novices take classes, do manual labor to help run the facility or volunteer at a nearby soup kitchen. After night prayer at 9:15, the novices and friars are silent until they're through the morning prayer.

That is not to say quiet prevails.

"We have all the sounds of Newark, the helicopters with the occasional spotlight coming down to the courtyard," Roemer said.

The not-so-serene surroundings of their monastery do not bother them, the friars and novices say.

"We choose to live in areas noted for poverty," Sudano said.

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