The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a community that was begun in the South Bronx in 1987, was raised to the status of a diocesan religious institute by Cardinal John J. O'Connor during a May 28 Mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral, following approval by Rome. It was the cardinal who had established the group as a public association of the faithful in 1990.

Father Benedict J. Groeschel, an author and preacher who appears regularly on Eternal Word Television Network, was one of the eight Capuchin Franciscans who started the community and he was its first superior. He spoke to the Register following the community's general chapter June 1 at St. Josaphat's Retreat House in Glen Cove, Long Island, where Father Glenn Sudano, CFR, was elected to succeed Father Andrew Apostoli, CFR, as superior. There are 50 friars in the community.

Register: What is the community's new status and what does it mean?

Father Groeschel: When a religious community begins, it is established as a public association of the faithful, but then, after there are approximately 40 members and evidence of stability and future growth, the association is made into a diocesan religious community. Both the association and religious community are under the authority of the local bishop, but the step of making it a diocesan community can only be done with the approval of the Holy See. The friars received that approval in about nine years because we grew rapidly and because many people, both religious and lay, supported us enthusiastically.

After you become a diocesan religious congregation, the next step is to become a religious order of pontifical right, which puts you directly under the Holy See. That is the highest designation and usually requires that there are 150 members and that the community is represented in a number of different dioceses.

Is the community eyeing that now?

We never have our eyes set on anything. We always go where the Lord leads us. We always try to be led, not to plan. I saw all the damage done to religious communities by planning, so we allow ourselves to be led by divine providence. And it works.

What were the reasons the community was started?

The original friars wanted to follow a more literal observance of the Rule of St. Francis and the old constitutions of the Capuchins. The Capuchins are a Franciscan reform begun as part of the Catholic Reformation in the 16th century. Their original work was the care of the poor and the homeless and evangelical preaching. Their first house in Rome was what was called a hospital at that time — really a shelter for homeless and sick.

Also, we found ourselves in some conflict with the general direction religious life was taking at that time in the United States, during the 1970s and 1980s. The particular things we wanted to emphasize were religious devotion, especially to Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the saints, with a special emphasis on Eucharistic devotion. Also, we wanted a firm commitment to traditional Catholic theology and the teachings of the Pope in the spirit of Vatican II. There is a spirit of Vatican II which I think has become a poltergeist, not the real spirit of Vatican II at all.

We wanted to be particularly loyal to Pope John Paul II, both in his office as supreme shepherd of the Church and his own personal teachings and approach to the Catholic faith. We particularly wanted to have a literal and authentic observance of the three vows — poverty, chastity and obedience. I think the pop psychology that was around in the '70s tragically undermined the religious commitment of many religious, and time has borne this pop psychology away, leaving a great deal of damage. All of this is discussed in my book, The Reform of Renewal.

Do you see other signs of hope, such as other new communities springing up?

Oh yes. In France, we are in touch with groups such as the Community of St. Jean, the Beatitudes, the Community of Emmanuel, the Community of Jerusalem and Taize. This has had a tremendous influence on the life of the Church in France. In the U.S., new communities are attracting most of the vocations. Eventually, I hope, this will put pressure on existing communities to re-examine the past two decades in light of the disastrous results that have occurred and also in light of the discrediting or disappearance of a great deal of pop psychology. People who will not return to any authentic interpretation of religious life now find themselves simply stuck in the doldrums or, what's worse, much involved in the New Age.

Do you think religious life will go back to what it was in the past?

I hope not. Although religious life was strong 40 years ago, it tended to be oppressive, not creative. If you visited us you would not see religious life as it was 40 years ago but as we think it was with the Capuchins 400 years ago. We like to be friendly, outgoing and at same time authentic and austere. I don't think the two are contradictory. If you came to visit you'd be startled by the amount of laughter and boisterousness. But our liturgies and prayer life are long and intense.

Are young people of our time able to respond to the call to religious life?

How many is not my problem; that's God's decision. But I do see a surprising, enthusiastic response, not only to traditional religious life but to authentic Catholicism, which is prayerful and filled with faith. Many young people associate with us who do not have a religious or priestly vocation but are obviously called to be part of a devout, believing Catholic minority in these unbelieving times. They are countercultural. In our out-reach to youth, such as through Youth 2000 retreats, young people seem to know what we're doing. We have a tremendous reaction from them precisely because of our traditional ways and devotion to the Eucharist.

What are your feelings on the recent election of a new superior?

Father Glenn was quite young when we began. He's 46 now. I'm absolutely delighted and have full confidence in the young friars to enthusiastically and faithfully continue the original inspiration of the community. As the old man — I'm 66 and looking forward to Purgatory — I have to say I think they do it better than we did. They're moving in the right direction.

Do the Franciscans of the Renewal have plans to expand into other territories?

We are going to England because we have a number of English brothers and hope to open a house in the slums of London — in an area Charles Dickens made famous. We also have several outreaches in Latin America. This summer, we will have several brothers working in Central America.

—John Burger