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Brothers of Peace pray, serve.

The decline in religious community membership is old news. There is no indication this decades-old trend will reverse. The surprising news amid this slump is that new communities are sprouting, sometimes serendipitously, in response to signs of the times.

One sturdy young community of religious brothers is developing in the St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocese, where the Franciscan Brothers of Peace have 12 members, six of whom have professed lifetime vows. They have three houses: Queen of Peace Friary/Novitiate in a 22-bedroom former convent in St. Paul; Samaritan House, a hospice in south Minneapolis where three brothers care for AIDS patients; and St. Francis Friary in north Minneapolis, a small house where three more brothers exercise a ministry of prayer and presence in a neighborhood marked by poverty and violence.

On Jan. 1, 1994, the brothers received church approbation as a public association of the faithful, the second of three steps in becoming a religious institute. A public association is considered a "juridic person" that can operate in the name of the church, explained Br. Paul J. O'Donnell, the community's guardian overall.

Michael Gaworski, who founded the group, had no intention of creating a religious community when he and David Lehnen agreed in 1982 that they would find an apartment and live there for a year to discern what the Lord wanted them to do. They had met at the 1982 National Charismatic Renewal Conference, and both had previously looked into diocesan priesthood and existing religious communities.

Gaworski and Lehnen were recovering alcoholics who attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings together. They began to attend daily Mass and to pray together each day. Friends would come to pray with them. One was O'Donnell, then a seminarian, who discovered in their midst "a sense of fraternity, where people really care about each other, and a sense of peace and a solid prayer life."

The gatherings continued for weeks, then months, then years until "it kind of entered our minds that maybe the Lord was doing something here, something a little special," O'Donnell said. In 1985, "with fear and trepidation, we went to the archdiocese and met with the vice chancellor, who at the time was Father Urban Wagner, a Conventual Franciscan. We just shared with him what we were doing in our prayer life."

Wagner told the men that many people come to him with plans to start new communities, but "you didn't do that. You just came in and shared what your life was about and asked, in a way, for the church's approval."

O'Donnell said Wagner "set us on a course of action that would establish us" as a religious community. Wagner also chose their name, the Franciscan Brothers of Peace. Nine months later, July 28, 1986, St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop John Roach canonically established the group as a private association of the faithful, the initial step for a religious community in formation.

Approval can be significant for a fledgling community, so laypeople can feel confident about the group. "That's very important when you have a lot of different groups that seem real and legitimate and beautiful on the outside but can be religious cults," O'Donnell said.

He recalled his community's beginnings, when "we felt the Lord was calling us to live a contemporary Franciscan lifestyle." The young founders, "all post-Vatican II products," wanted to combine active and contemplative elements, to adopt some traditional aspects of religious life yet avoid pits into which some established communities had fallen.

"The vision we wanted was to live in unity together, to preserve that feeling of fraternal support," O'Donnell said. The brothers did not want to found big institutional ministries but to serve the poor free of charge and live among them in inner cities. "We decided to have a very structured prayer life," he said, and to spend 60 percent of the time in prayer, 40 percent in active ministry - ministry to anyone who needed it but especially the poor.

The brothers never accept salaries or stipends, but "we do beg, because Francis did'" he said. For support, they "trust in God. And the Lord never gives us enough for big savings accounts, but he always provides for our need. That's how we survive," with enough left to help people who need things such as rent assistance, funerals, school or gas money, enough to take a group of children to a baseball game or circus performance. Each of the brothers' three houses also has an emergency food and clothing shelf.

The brothers wear simple, ankle-length gray habits most of the time and cowl shirts with jeans and sandals when that is more appropriate. The brothers are never ashamed to wear their habits, a symbol of poverty, O'Donnell said, but they are free to wear street clothes to be more approachable in situations where the habit might cast them as "holier than thou."

"I would say we're kind of contemporary Franciscan, a modern community that's just slightly to the left of center, and that's on the cutting edge," O'Donnell reflected. Some would see the brothers as traditional, with their religious habits and praying together each day the rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours and the Mass. But their language is English, not Latin, and their music is modern.

"We love Marty Haugen and David Haas and Michael Joncas," all religious music composers from the Twin Cities area, O'Donnell said. "Brother Anthony was once in a rock band, so he's an excellent musician. The only Latin we know is some of the contemporary songs that Haas and Haugen have brought back in Latin," as well as Gregorian chant records that recently soared to international popularity.

O'Donnell said the new community's charisms come from two sources: St. Francis of Assisi and the brothers' founder, Gaworski.

From Francis came humility and poverty, he said, describing a practical poverty in which brothers use community cars and checking accounts and do not have their own. From Gaworski came "mercy and compassion," qualities that have become more apparent in recent years, O'Donnell said. The young founder, as a recovering alcoholic, "had a lot of struggles to maintain sobriety. He really did suffer a lot," fighting his disease while trying to establish the community and live a holy life.

Gaworski's sufferings were to become much worse. On March 20, 1991, when he was 32, he contracted a bacterial lung infection that quickly progressed to lung dysfunction and cardiac arrest. After months in a coma, Gaworski emerged, "but today's he's severely brain-damaged, slightly above a vegetative state," O'Donnell said. "He recognizes the brothers and can turn his head and eyes toward them. He can acknowledge people and answer simple yes-and-no questions." But he cannot move, talk or feed himself. The brothers care for him night and day at the friary in St. Paul.

Gaworski "was the most compassionate and loving person you would want to meet." He was a dynamic and visionary leader, O'Donnell said, and now, because of his need, he teaches mercy and compassion even more. "I've gotten letters from various Franciscan communities," letters that say terrible sufferings are classic for new religious communities, O'Donnell said.

He is convinced, partly because of Gaworski's total dependence and the brothers' care for him, that "no human person could keep this together. It had to be the Holy Spirit."

Besides humility and poverty, mercy and compassion, the Franciscan Brothers of Peace are known for peace and reconciliation, O'Donnell said. In their ministry to the poor, they bring peace to their neighborhood in north Minneapolis and to people suffering from AIDS in south Minneapolis. "We can be as busy as all get-out," he said, but visitors to any of the three houses comment on the peace they sense there.

Reconciliation involves accepting and affirming people alienated from society, whether they be gay men with AIDS, women who have had abortions, "kids raising kids," young people involved with crack, cocaine and "some drugs I don't even know," he said. "You don't have to approve of what they may have done or where they may have been," he said, but a Franciscan Brother of Peace must accept and forgive them, "show them what Jesus is to you rather than just preaching it."

He gave an example of how the brothers befriended an AIDS patient and persuaded him to send his mother a Mother's Day card. That led, after years of alienation, to reconciliation with his family, who held his hands and feet as he died.

Not that peace and reconciliation come easily. O'Donnell spoke of the openness needed to transform introverts and extroverts, conservatives and moderates into community as well as to deal with belligerent guests or guests with grating habits, such as the man who annoyed some brothers by shampooing in the kitchen rather than a bathroom.

Men who enter the community are trained in the brothers' novitiate program as well as the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese's inter-novitiate program, for which 27 novices in such orders as the Jesuits, Crosiers, Dominicans, Poor Clares and Visitation sisters meet at Queen of Peace Friary for classes on scripture, religious vows and other subjects.

Each month about 100 to 150 people join the brothers for their first-Friday rosary for world peace, followed by a program with a guest speaker, video or slide show. The brothers also host Advent evening prayers and an August picnic, and they speak to prayer groups and women's clubs. O'Donnell serves on the archdiocesan Council of Religious and another brother works with the archdiocesan vocations office.

The brothers do not envision including priests, other than perhaps one at a time to serve community needs. They look forward to sharing their charism with a sibling, autonomous community of sisters one day, but no signs of that have materialized so far.

What has developed in the past year is a lay community, the Queen of Peace Franciscan Apostolate. Its 27 members range from younger than 20 to about 70. The laypeople, associated in a covenant relationship with the brothers, pray and work with them. Some want to move nearby, O'Donnell said, and some want to work, perhaps even full time, in the brothers' ministries.

Although he looks forward to community growth, he said becoming a religious institute - the third and final step in a community's maturity, one that currently cannot be achieved with fewer than 40 members - might happen soon or might happen long after he is dead. "I think we have to be careful not to be in a numbers game," he said.

More important, "we are doing what the Lord has called us to do. If we help one person or we help 50,000, so be it. The important thing is that we're here and we're living an authentic Franciscan life in the 1990s and into the third millennium," O'Donnell said.
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Title Annotation:Religious Life
Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 17, 1995
Words:1797
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