I am invited to Coventry (rather than sent to it) for the priestly ordination of a Franciscan friar. The various subdivisions of Franciscans into their evocative-sounding allegiances of Observants, Capuchins and Conventuals is a somewhat specialised study, and to the outsider, one to be approached with a certain trepidation.
The Conventual Franciscans are more colloquially known in England by their colour-coded habits as the Greyfriars. They assure me on good authority (namely, their own) that theirs is the original DNA of the order and all others are scions.
Like so many religious orders they were undergoing a slow but seemingly terminal decline. The English province – or custody, as I believe it is called – was absorbed into an American province more than a decade ago. The Greyfriars had long had a Permanent Private Hall in Oxford which they closed and they also pulled out of the Franciscan study centre in Canterbury.
The haemorrhaging away of religious life in England is a sickness the effects of which will only be seen in tens of decades, but the landscape of the Catholic Church in England and Wales is changing significantly.
For this reason, it is wonderful to see that the Greyfriars in England are enjoying something of a revival of their fortunes vocations-wise. They moved to a wing of a former Anglican convent just off the Cowley Road in Oxford three years ago, where they have a house of formation with a fair-sized community of men exploring the vocation as postulants, or in vows as they complete theological studies at Blackfriars. From there they can be sent to one of the parishes the Greyfriars still run in parts of England and Ireland, or, like the priest who was ordained last week, to the re-established Greyfriars House in Walsingham. The friars are returning to Walsingham for the first time since the Reformation. This in itself is surely a sign of hope and part of a powerful revival which is happening there and which will spread throughout Mary’s Dowry.
As part of their observances, the Greyfriars have a powerful and touching devotion to the Mother of God. The newly ordained priest, at the end of the Mass of ordination, consecrates himself, his life, ministry and loved ones to the protection of Our Lady and the schoolchildren sing an arrangement of Hail, Queen of Heaven. Each friar couples the name of “Mary” to the name by which he
is professed, so Fr Gerard Mary is their newest priest.
It is a fool who is seduced by the allure of old stone, but there is something about both the Oxford and the Walsingham houses which seems relevant to their revival. It is about a reverence for their tradition, not in some defensive or polemical way, but in precisely the spirit mandated by the Second Vatican Council, which encouraged religious orders to examine their charisms in the light of the present day situation.
Fr Timothy Radcliffe has noted that the generations that followed the revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s actually want a religious life which is underpinned by characteristics which they themselves did not create: a demanding rule of life and commitment to the vows, a habit and a spirituality which draws on the treasures of theology and devotion bequeathed to them by saintly founders and members of their order.
All these characteristics the Greyfriars seem to me to be gently reclaiming. This is why they are attracting vocations. They have a flexible attitude towards the kinds of apostolates they undertake. They are anxious to preserve their life of prayer and community life as the bedrock of their work in parishes, prisons and street evangelisation. Their members tend to be men who have had secular jobs and searched out the way of St Francis from a lot of other options.
In a world confused about identity, the Greyfriars “brand” is highly visible and countercultural in a way that is thought-provoking: it announces to a gorged, materialistic world something of the romance of the time-honoured freedom which comes from following a Crucified Master in poverty and brotherhood.
They have attracted some fine young men and I sense that their own confidence in what they are doing is growing as others join them. The prospect of a restored English Greyfriars province with its spiritual heart in England’s Nazareth is something worth hoping, dreaming and praying for.