Don’t you find that good Catholics embarrass you? The BBC documentary Bronx to Bradford: Friars on a Mission (available on iPlayer) left me feeling morally inadequate. The show follows the lives of the Franciscan Brothers of Bradford, a town that tells the story of Catholicism in modern Europe – a tale of decline and, one hopes, resurrection. In the 19th century, Bradford was colonised by Irish labourers who put everything they had towards building a local church. The 1960s, however, brought immigration, white flight and a collapse in Christian belief. St Patrick’s Church fell into disuse.
Then came the Franciscans. What a crew. They look at first glance like imams; they have long beards and cassocks with deep hoods, in which one of them hides his biscuits. Another raises carnivorous plants on the roof.
Two, I regret to say, play the guitar. They speak of previous lives of promiscuity and consumerism – before they decided to put Christ first. They’ve chosen probably the hardest of monastic rules to live by. So exact is the poverty they live by that they hold a regular check of their belongings to ensure they haven’t got more than they need. Out go saucepans and cutlery, even a RoboCop DVD.
Bronx to Bradford is admirably honest about the challenges of radical charity. The homeless sometimes exploit the Brothers’ generosity; a neighbour complains that their yard has become a toilet. One can give and give and give and yet, as Jesus says, the poor remain with us. What motivates the Franciscans to persevere with love is their faith. Without it, says one, “I’d just be a social worker”. The documentary deserves an award for showing what motivates Christians, apart from their acts: prayer and Mass are at the heart of everyday life.
The Brothers decide to reopen St Patrick’s and the laity set to work cleaning it up. There’s a touching moment when an old lady watches a statue of St Patrick being erected in the church. She kisses it. Later she says that she hopes her funeral will be held there. Her faith is every bit as profound as that of the holy men around her – and that should give all of us hope for the salvation of our own, weak souls.