- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - Dodging the slushy snow, Brother Joseph Maria runs back to the house on St. Joseph Street from one of his usual 2- to 3-mile jaunts through downtown, clad in sandals and a long, brown woolen robe.

He greets a reporter. Then, in a small parlor, he settles with his guest on a plywood bench, which is as fancy as the furniture gets in this rented old house for six Roman Catholic men, known as the Franciscan Brothers Minor.

In front of him a wooden placard rests on a table: “silence.” Joseph says it reminds the brothers while they are inside: “Speak only when necessary.”

Outside, they speak freely. Sometimes the sight of them running in public places goads people to gawk. Sometimes people ask: Why the robe? Why the shaven head? Why the beard? Why the sandals?

“The idea is to be as poor and simple as possible, for the sake of being at service to the Gospel,” the 27-year-old tells the South Bend Tribune (https://bit.ly/1R6LGNH ) of their lives of prayer and a lifestyle patterned after St. Francis of Assisi. “It makes us available.”

Even he questioned whether it was right for him to continue running after he took his vows in June 2012. Was he too vain, too focused his own health?

He’s always run for exercise. He ran in high school and in his one year of ROTC in college and then for three years in seminary in Fargo, N.D., where subzero winters are normal. “So running in winter is not such a big deal,” he says. “There’s a stretch in winter (in Fargo) when I wouldn’t run outside.”

As he prayed about his running quandary, his eyes fell on three words in the Gospel: “Great men exercise.” Granted, it was out of context, since the full verse says, “Great men exercise their authority ….” But it led him to think further.

“I realized there’s a lot of saints that exercise,” he said.

In this fledgling, 6-year-old group within the Franciscans, the friars go barefoot and use sandals only when necessary. That, Joseph says, actually saved his ankles from rolling, which happened once a week when he used to wear good running shoes. Barefoot jogs strengthened his tendons, he believes, and his ankles don’t roll anymore.

The exercise also meshes well with the brothers’ practice of walking whenever they can for transportation. They have no money. No income. If they need something, they beg for it. People bring them food, though thieving squirrels have pilfered goods that end up on the front stoop.

Motorists have offered rides when they see him running. A woman in Huntington, Indiana, has loaned the group the use of her van. Joseph, who looks after the house as its guardian, drives a few of the brothers in the household to classes at Holy Cross College, which they are taking to pursue priesthood.

The men moved into this house last June. There are many subgroups within the Franciscan order. Among them, the Franciscan Brothers Minor formed six years ago under Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. In the church’s lingo, they are a “public association of the faithful,” meaning that they are fully recognized by the church, but they are still going through the steps to gain more jurisdiction over themselves. They are such a new group, Joseph says, that much of their time focuses on prayer, aside from help they lend to a Mishawaka youth group and a parish’s religious education.

The group has a “mother house” and another house of brothers in Fort Wayne, plus a brothers’ house in Rome City, Indiana, and a hermitage with two brothers in Decatur, Indiana.

Then there’s this single house in South Bend, sitting in the same block as the Catholic Worker house for struggling women and the Dismas House for inmates returning to free life. Six brothers, or friars, live here. One comes from the African nation of Liberia. Another brother, Giles Mary, says he came from Pennsylvania, a Catholic who worked in his dad’s motorcycle business and is still discerning whether he wants to pursue the priesthood. Brother Pio Maria also runs regularly in the community.

Each of them take a second name of Maria, Mary, Marie or some version, a sign of their devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Joseph Maria grew up in the countryside of South Dakota. Now, having gone barefoot, he says the city’s concrete isn’t so bad to run on if it’s smooth. At first, it took his feet about two weeks to develop a protective layer of calluses.

When asked about the runner’s high and clear head that the sport can bring, he acknowledges, “There’s definitely an elevated spiritual aspect.”

___

Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com


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