Photo by Patrick Dunford
Convivium: For those who are unfamiliar, who are the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal?
Father Emmanuel Mansford: We are a new religious community, founded in 1987 in the Bronx. We were founded by eight Capuchin Friars, members already of a Franciscan order, who desired to live a more intentional Franciscan life. They desired to live with the poor in poverty. They desired to live a little more concretely and also do some sort of itinerant preaching. This was something of a return to the original Capuchin way of life. They sought to carve out a little bit more time of prayer.
There were eight Friars then, and they were given permission to leave and begin something new in the South Bronx. This has since become our main way of life, a life of prayer, fraternity, living with and serving the poor, and preaching the Gospel. There are about 130 of us now. We have two houses in England, two in Ireland, one in Nicaragua, one in Honduras, and then the rest of our houses are in the United States.
How did the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal come to be part of your story?
I was raised Catholic in England but had a conversion experience where I came to know Jesus personally when I was 18. I started to pray and perceive that God might be calling me to be a priest. I went to seminary for my diocese when I was 20.
In seminary is where He began to speak to me. I read the life of St. Francis and a book by one of our founders, Father Benedict Groeschel. I was really attracted by his way of life, and I thought, "Gosh, there's these guys that live at least something of this in New York City. Then I met Father Stan Fortuna, one of our Friars at conference in England.
I didn't know what I was going to do, so I came to America. We traveled to retreats and our last diocese was Newark, New Jersey. I knew that the Friars were in the Bronx. I knew it wasn't far away. So when I had a free weekend I visited. That was in May of '96.
I see this journey like stepping-stones: God gently leading me to St. Francis and into a more radical way of life. I don't know anyone that lives it today. These Friars are attempting to. So when I visited, I just seemed to fit. I liked the way the brothers had a kind of easy way being but a serious way of seeking the Lord. They were living an honest, sincere poverty and living with the poor. It was just attractive to me.
You served for seven years with the Franciscan Friars in the UK before coming to serve in Harlem. I believe in the theology of space; how have these different cities affected the realization of your enduring ministry?
I am from England, so it was a real blessing to be sent back to England right after ordination. I think there's a way in which, when you're from a particular culture you're able to evangelize it from within. You understand more of some of the nuances that people. The trick is, you can also be imprisoned by and become fearful by that same reality.
Our Friary in London worked with the very poor, with people who are street homeless. That's not so much the case here in New York. We ran a soup kitchen there. I also ended up doing a lot of confirmation retreats.
My experience of Canada would lead me to say that it is quite similar to England in that it's very secular. I think, particularly in England, the power of witness is quite striking. Especially for young people when you wear the habit. They are struck by our chastity, our poverty rate, our lack of internet, and no cell phone. These realities are kind of a provocation to them to think again. I loved living in England. I loved the fact that our witness was radical, especially for young people who don't perhaps have the baggage of Church and are saying in response "What is this? This is kind of new and weird and interesting.”
You are a vocations director. Vocation is a word that is very particular to religious life and faith communities. Could you define the word vocation for our readers?
Vocation comes from the Latin word “vocare,” to call. The first thing is, there is somebody else that calls. It's not just me figuring out, it's not a career choice.
The first step is an encounter, an experience of Christ, when a person makes the impression "Christ is real!” Now he has a will for me, right? A person has a will. I might want to eat at McDonald's, they might want to eat at Chipotle – we have to different wills. But if we're going to eat at the same place, we have to talk about it.
Similarly, with the Lord, that was my experience. I had this experience of Christ when I was 18, and I thought "Gosh, I need to pray. I need to be in a relationship with Him", and it was a response. I think that's another thing about vocation, it's a response to being loved. A knowing it of being loved. Then I decided to ask this person, "What do you want?", and this step was essential to St. Francis, you know. We ask, "What do you want of me? Gosh, I never knew about this stuff. It seems like you love me. What do you want?" And then I have to trust.
I didn't want to be a priest initially, it wasn't part of my plan. I think that's also part of vocation, is wrestling. Either wrestling with God, wrestling with this idea of a call, wrestling with something that doesn't immediately seem to be what I was thinking about, or what I was because I'm called by someone else. Then there is the trying to listen aspect of this process. If it's a call, then I'm trying to listen to that call. I begin to ask, “How is God speaking to me and how can I learn how to listen to Him?”
How do you accompany those who are discerning their vocation for religious life?
A friend of mine is a vocations director in London, and he had this little tag line. He said, “Discipleship discerns vocations.” That would be our first thing, is when someone gets in contact with us is where are they at in their discipleship? Even before their discernment. Are they trying to live some kind of a communal faith? Are they trying to give their life away? So that's the first thing that we would do, just try to accompany them.
My view is that if someone wants to be a friar, they have to at least engage with the fact that this is how they may end up living. They have to try to catch us on our landline or wait for that response to the email. It's very much step by step. I literally just try to see where they are in their own relationship with God, and then try to help them growing in that.
If someone seems like they’re in a good spot with their prayer life and their own kind of journey, then we invite them on a visit. One of things I would talk to them about is what their desires are. What's the desire of their heart. When they're actually close to the Lord, at least trying to follow him, they can trust that desire is from Him.
When I related, Father Glen, he's one of our founders, he was the Vocation Director and he gave me a great word. He said, "Your heart is like a barometer; it will move but you have to pay attention to what it keeps coming back to." What is your heart keep coming back to?
How do you accompany those for whom the answer is no?
That’s the hardest part of this for me - telling someone no after they’ve invested and sincerely sought the Lord. I try to remind them that “no” here means He still has something else for them. The deeper invitation I think from the Lord is to trust, know He has something for us even if we don’t know what it is right now. Trusting that he will work through this circumstance. And
Vocation Directors aren't God, you know. I don't get it a hundred-percent right, I'm sure. Like in any vocation, you trust that God is working through the process in His providence.
Talk to me about the role of trust in religious life?
I was asked recently to be a chaplain for a trip during spring break into the Utah desert. It was backpacking, rock climbing, rappelling. I thought, “It’ll be fun, it'll be a laugh a minute, and they need a priest.” So, I went, but I'm not a fan of heights. I was like, “Oh, well, okay, I don't really need to do all the stuff they're going to do.” But when I got there, I said, "Gosh, I don't want to be just sitting here,” so I engaged in it.
One day we rappelled 120 feet, and I was just afraid, and thought, "I don't want to do this.” I spoke to the guide, who was 20 years younger than I. I said, "Zack, I'm afraid,” and he said "What are you afraid of?" What was I afraid of? And he said, "Falling?" I said no, because we'd done some rock climbing the day before and I knew that the harness was safe and... I just said "I'm afraid of doing it,” the sheer drop. And he said, "Well, you can't mess it up.”
He said "If you freak out, I will lower you down." I had to trust him, trust the harness. First, I had to walk backwards over this cliff. And I did it! I had to start walking backwards and over the ledge. I remember Zack saying, "Father, in about three feet, it's going to get much better." And it was so encouraging because at that point I was really struggling. But it did get better in three feet. I think it's a great analogy with discernment. I have to trust that Jesus is going to lead me. But I have to do some stuff, you know?
What most often surprises people about the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal?
Often we can look quite austere. You know, you have the short hair, the beard and yet, apart from that, people will comment on this sort of humanity of the Brothers.
I think that's really important in our day and age that we can look very different, but there can be this great connection with ordinary people. I think that's actually a very Franciscan thing, sort of incarnational.
You mention that you were surprised by our joy. Again, I think people don't expect that necessarily. Sometimes, when I sit in a place with someone, they expect me to be holy. They don't expect me to be human. That's fascinating for them, once we start a conversation and then they're like, "Gosh you seem like a pretty ordinary guy." Normally their question is, "What made you do this?"
I think that is the beautiful thing about Jesus. He was Divine. This was clear with the miracles etc., but he was also having dinner with tax collectors and prostitutes. He was with the Apostles and walking everywhere and He was very approachable. That is the beauty of the incarnation. Maybe that's what we're talking about a little bit – the joy or the humanity that allows for people to say, "Oh, I can relate to this, to these guys."
What strikes me most often is the commitment that your community has to telling the story of the love, accompaniment, and transformation that is unfolding in your community. You have Instagram, explanatory YouTube videos, and this film, Outcasts. Can you share a little about your vision for communicating/inviting the outside world into your story?
I think this is what Jesus did, you know. He's God but He came among us. He could have simply settled for giving us help, but He wanted to be with us. And I love that He wanted to be with us. I love that Love really wants to be with a person, with a beloved. And so, God comes to us. That is fundamental for us as Christians.
For us to live with the poor is so important on so many levels. One, it was the experience of St. Francis. He encountered a leper. He believed it was Christ. He experiences Christ. Then he comes back to Jesus' words in Matthew 25; "You did it to me. Whatever you do to the least of my Brothers, you do to me." There's a presence of Christ there in that He has identified Himself uniquely with the poor.
There is a gift in their honesty, in their joy in being loved. Very often, many people we know have suffered a lot, and so to be someone’s neighbour is important. I was not there, but last week we took some of our neighbors to the zoo. It’s free in the Bronx on a Wednesday and among the five neighbours we took was a blind lady. It was something so simple but she asked us to describe where she was at every point and said things like, "Oh, I remember what monkeys look like."
So there’s a joy in being with others and communicating with others because this is a gift for everyone. We have to invite people into this relationship with Christ, especially in our age. People don't really listen to words much anymore. It's a kind of word weary society, there's so many voices.
But, people do look at witness.
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