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EMBRACING POVERTY – JOSEPH EMMANUEL SSF

Austerity

Twenty-five years ago a momentous event occurred in the former Communist Republic of Czechoslovakia: the Communist Party relinquished power to be replaced by two multiparty parliamentary democracies. Unlike other former Communist countries, the transition from one mode of government to another was not characterized by violence and bloodshed, indeed, so smooth was the transition that it came to be known as the ‘velvet revolution’.

It would be silly, of course, to compare the change in the model of governance of the European Province of the Society of St Francis to such a momentous and far reaching episode in world history but there has, in the recent past, been a much more modest delegation of power from the elected Chapter (historically the ‘governing body’ of SSF) to the Annual Brothers’ Chapter/ABC (a meeting of all Brothers of the First Order held in Hilfield at the beginning of the summer). Like all such experiments, we are realizing that there are both advantages and disadvantages to this more devolved form of governance and we are still at an early stage in the process but, since 2011 some very significant resolutions (for us) have been brought forward, which have (hopefully) challenged us to think carefully and with a renewed focus on the way in which we engage with the materially poor through our Franciscan witness. In 2012 ‘… the ABC resolve[d] that a research group be set up… to enable a study of ourselves to consider… how… we engage with those who are poor [and] that a report be prepared for the ABC 2013…’.

Circumstances changed the scope of this Resolution during the year but from it came a small booklet entitled ‘Embracing Poverty: The Challenge before us’ consisting of an introduction by Matthew Carter (the humanitarian director of CAFOD) and five chapters prepared by four Brothers and a Sister inviting readers to think about various manifestations of poverty ranging from the poverty of Christ (expressed through the ‘kenotic’ hymn of Philippians 2) to the opportunities and challenges given to us who walk in the footsteps of Il Poverello to engage with the materially poor. The booklet concluded with a summary of the Pastoral Letter of the Ministers General (with which the booklet shared its name) in which the Ministers affirmed the centrality of Evangelical Poverty to our vocation as Franciscans and engagement with the materially poor as the defining practical outworking of that vocation. The booklet did not seek to answer questions but it did ask them and, as a result, the ABC of 2013 produced three further resolutions in which the Brothers reaffirmed our commitment to working with the materially poor and challenged each house to ‘… [identify] and… implement forward looking ways in which it engages with the materially poor and report back to the ABC 2014…’. The stage was set.

It is easy to make such resolutions and do absolutely nothing about enfleshing them. St Theophan the Recluse (nineteenth century Orthodox Bishop and translator of the Philokalia into Russian) wrote [of prayer] ‘… You ask yourself, “Have I prayed well today?” Do not try to find out how deep your emotions were, or how much deeper you understand things divine; [instead] ask yourself “Am I doing God’s Will better than I did before?” If you are, then prayer has brought its fruits…’ (quoted in Living Prayer by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom) This modus vivendi could, of course be applied to many aspects of life but how did the praxis of SSF match the resolutions of the ABC and the fruits of the poverty booklet? Were the Resolutions of successive ABCs real statements of intent or hot air?

In the case of the smaller houses, e.g. Leeds, the London houses and St Anthony’s Friary in Newcastle, the opportunities to minister to and be ministered to by the materially poor were already very

ESOL class at St Aidan's Leeds

ESOL class at St Aidan’s Leeds

much in evidence. In the Leeds house Kentigern John has seen a number of Brothers (most recently Christopher Martin and David) join with him in providing long term hospitality and support to sanctuary seekers from various parts of the world, including Iran and Guinea, a model of generous hospitality which is also present in the House of the Divine Compassion. Those who work with people seeking refuge in our country will realise that this sort of hospitality is both sadly lacking and much needed by those who are faced with the Kafka-esque situation of being denied not only benefits of any kind, unless their application for residency is being actively considered, but also the right to work (legally) for at least a year following their application for asylum. There are, many charities seeking to provide refuge to people who fall into this category but the provision of long-term accommodation for young men in particular is noticeably lacking. Despite the undoubted contribution of the Leeds house in this regard, Kentigern remains modest saying ‘… if I think of a response it would be along the lines of that I/we do what we can given our limitations and restrictions…’. In addition to providing this hospitality the Brothers of the Leeds house are active in various organisations and charities (including the Leeds Asylum Seekers and Supporters Network) and also seek to engage with the materially poor through various community and church projects (the Brothers are associated with St Aidan’s Church in Harehills) including a community-run Café that operates on a ‘pay as you feel’ basis.

But what of the larger houses? The opportunities in Alnmouth, Glasshampton and Hilfield are undoubtedly less, but nonetheless, moves have been made to engage with the challenges. Alnmouth in particular, is set in a privileged situation and as a former merchant’s home, constructed at a time when opulence was de-rigueur for people who had pretensions to belong to a certain social ‘class,’ it occasionally seems decidedly ‘un-Franciscan.’ Nonetheless – and thanks largely to a conference on poverty organised by the Diocese of Newcastle and attended by John (the Guardian of Alnmouth) along with Brothers from St Anthony’s Friary – creative and enriching links with a number of charities in Newcastle and the North East of England are taking shape. The otherwise genteel atmosphere of the Friary in Alnmouth has been energised (much to the pleasure of the Brothers who live there) by men, women and in particular children from inner city Newcastle coming to use St Anthony’s Chalet. The facility (originally the guest wing when there was a greater number of Brothers) was redeveloped for this purpose some six years ago but the Brothers then struggled, initially, to establish the necessary contacts to ensure the facility was used as they hoped and intended. Other possibilities are being explored with a charity who seek to find accommodation for families visiting inmates at HMP Acklington and with the Cedarwood Trust (which is based in the Meadow Well estate and with whom the Newcastle Brothers work). It still feels like early days, but for those who are based in the Friary at Alnmouth it is a (if not the) most rewarding aspect of ministry there and it is a joy to see this flowering of an authentic Franciscan engagement.

Our engagement with the materially poor, as the defining feature of our Franciscan vocation, is something we need to revisit and reflect upon constantly. The various ABC resolutions and the poverty booklet do not mark the end of our deliberations; instead, they mark the beginning. f

 

Joseph Emmanuel SSF currently lives at the Friary of St Francis in Alnmouth where he is the Guestbrother.