When St. Francis of Assisi formed his religious order in the 13th century, he called his community “Friars Minor” or “lesser brothers.” He urged his followers to minister to those in need and imitate the humility of Christ.
This humble approach to service is what drives the Conventual Franciscan Friars who minister in the Archdiocese of Louisville to this day.
Now in their tenth year of serving in Louisville, the Franciscan friars from India aim to celebrate the past decade with a Mass and celebration July 25 at Holy Family Church.
The friars arrived in Louisville in 2010 and initially lived and ministered at St. Paul Church on Dixie Highway.
Under the guidance of Father Adam Bunnell, who at the time served as the special assistant for international and interfaith affairs at Bellarmine University, and Dr. Melanie Prejean-Sullivan, former Bellarmine campus minister, the Indian friars moved onto Bellarmine’s campus and expanded their outreach to young adults.
Now, the friars — Father John Pozhathuparambil and Father George Munjanattu — live and minister at Holy Family Church on Poplar Level Road in addition to their work as campus ministers at Bellarmine.
Their focus is hospitality and service, particularly to young people who have drifted from the Catholic Church.
Father Pozhathuparambil — simply known as Father John to his parishioners and students — said in a recent interview that the last decade has had difficult moments but it has been marked by tremendous grace.
The duo live in the Holy Family rectory, or as they call it, the Ashram — meaning religious meeting place. They balance their time between the needs of the parish community and students at Bellarmine.
Laura Kremer Kline, director of campus ministry at Bellarmine, said Fathers John and George exude the charism of their Franciscan order. Their ability to make young people feel like their voices matter is one reason Father John has been so successful reaching students, Kline said in a phone interview.
“He definitely has a calling to work with young people. He is in his element when he is working with students,” she said.
Kline also noted the hallmarks of the Franciscan order are attractive to young people, including the emphasis on nature, social justice and contemplation.
Each fall, Father John holds a camping retreat at Red River Gorge near Stanton, Ky. The retreat is enormously popular with students, Kline said.
‘They enjoying being outside, going on a hike. A lot of that is appealing and translates well. While they are there, they engage in prayer, reflection and sharing,” she said.
In addition to their duties at Holy Family and Bellarmine, Father John has established a young adult ministry for those who have drifted away from the church for a variety of reasons — called YaFram (Young Adult Franciscan Ministry).
Father George ministers to the Syro-Malabar Catholic community. About 50 families worship in this Eastern Rite Catholic tradition at Holy Family.
Some of the greatest challenges and rewards, Father John said, have come from his work with the YaFram ministry. It is designed for young adults 24 to 35 who are disillusioned by the shortcomings of the church, who struggle with church teachings or who have been hurt by the church or its ministers.
About 20 to 25 young adults meet regularly on the last Friday of every month to engage in discussion, watch a movie and make connections. And, there is always Indian food, Father John said, noting Father George is “an excellent cook.”
The friars also offer one-on-one meetings, spiritual direction and camping retreats.
Father John said the group is successful because he tries to meet them where they are and does not set a specific agenda.
“The church doesn’t have a very good name among some of these people. I want to make a connection to bring them back to their faith and give them a community to grow in,” he said.
Establishing connections and relationship-building are at the center of Father John’s ministry. He approaches every interaction with the other person foremost in his mind.
“Pope Francis talks about growing without roots. It is very sad and heartbreaking to see people grow without the root of a religious background. We want to give that to them, to tell them they are important, that Jesus still loves them,” he said.