Tuesday, October 4, 2011

St Francis of Assisi

This article by Fr Richard Roemer of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal is from Good News Magazine, May/June 2002. Go HERE to their website.

Pope Leo XIII amazingly stated that "St Francis was called to reform the Church not in the way other saints had done, nor just for his own time, but for all time to come.. Whenever society strays from the right path, no other remedy is needed but to revitalise the spirit of the orders St Francis founded."

It is difficult to think of another saint who can match the popular appeal of St Francis (except perhaps the great finder of lost items, St Anthony, who was an early Franciscan anyway!) It is easy to see why St Francis appeals to so many people in every age. I recently met a fallen-away Catholic who is coming back to faith because he started reading about St Francis and discovered in him "someone without hypocrisy."

Giovanni, son of the wealthy merchant Peter Bernadone, was born in 1182 and given the name Francis "Frenchy") as a nickname. Growing up as a lad in Assisi, he displayed the passion one might expect from "the most saintly of the Italians and most Italian of the saints". He was party loving, generous, spontaneous, and chivalrous. He used these same qualities after his conversion ("sublimated" them we would say today) in his service to Christ. It was probably his passionate, whole-hearted character that made the communist leader Lenin remark that with 10 people like St Francis he could change the entire world. In fact, by the grace of God, St Francis notably impacted the world in his brief 20 years of converted life. He died at the age of 45, blind from weeping so many tears of love, soaring in perfect joy and praise of God, and transformed into an icon of Christ.

The highlights of his conversion helped to define his saintly character and his lasting impact upon the Christian world. When the Lord asked him in a dream if it would be better to serve the Master or the servant, the chivalrous Francis began to see his role as the "herald of the great King", not to be enslaved any longer by a superficial and petty society. The freedom that St Francis found in Christ at first made people think he was crazy, but soon attracted people of all backgrounds to him. His standard of judgement was totally centred in Christ, so unlike the "enlightened" Christian of today who tends to readily accept secular judgements upon the faith. St Francis often told his friars, "What a man is before God, that he is, and nothing else."

Jesus spoke from the cross in the Church of San Damiano and told him to "Go and rebuild my Church, which you see is falling into ruins." In his simplicity he first took these words literally and began fixing up little churches around Assisi. Later this truly Catholic and Apostolic man realised it was the universal Church the Lord was speaking of, and he carried out this rebuilding in a most humble and reverent manner.

In the church called the Portiuncula, when he was asking the Lord for further direction, he was given three Gospel verses relating to poverty. They were Mark 10.21 "sell everything and give it to the poor"); Matthew 16.24 ("deny yourself and take up your cross") and Luke 9.3 ("take nothing for the journey"). Known as "il poverello", the little poor man, it was this love for poverty in the imitation of Christ that particularly became his trademark and that of his followers, and a special gift for the Church. He made poverty attractive to men and women by showing how much God is attracted to poverty. He didn't see poverty as end in itself, but as a way to identify more closely with the poverty of Jesus. St Francis gave us the first Christmas creche because of his enthrallment with the poverty of the Word becoming flesh. He was also the first to receive the stigmata (not counting perhaps St Paul), because he was so conformed in his heart to the crucified Saviour. I've met many "card-carrying" materialists in our own day who continue to be intrigued and attracted to Franciscan poverty when it bears fruit in genuine joy, peace and love of others. I've personally found poverty to be a great help for growing in interior freedom.

St Francis' deeper conversion in love of neighbour occurred when he met a leper on the road. He was totally disgusted at the sight and smell of lepers until that day when he was given the grace to overcome himself, to get off his horse, give the leper a coin and a kiss. At that point, he tells us in his Testament, "what was bitter was changed to sweetness" and this reverent service to lepers and other outcasts marked the rest of his life, for he truly saw Christ in them. In our own day we continue to learn from his example not to serve others with a condescending attitude but with a sense of smallness and brotherhood in Christ.

Although he is still popular today, this "birdbath saint" has often been misrepresented and misunderstood. The best way to understand St Francis' heart ( and he was definitely more of a "heart" man than a "head" man) is to read his own writings. One might be surprised for example, that the greatest concern manifested in his letters to laity, friars, clergy and even government rulers is reverence for the Eucharist. He always speaks concretely of the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of the Lord.

In reading his prayers, one would definitely class him as a 13th century charismatic. He was not afraid to be passionate and emotive about God (something natural to Italians). His "Praises of God" would leave any champion charismatic breathless! He told friars in our Rule to "seek above all else the Spirit of the Lord and His holy operation in your life." His preaching and decision making were usually spontaneous and Spirit-led. He didn't plan so much as listen to God in the present moment, something we often need to be reminded of. He seemed inspired in some of the simple prayers he would often repeat, such as "My God and my all!" or "Who art Thou O Lord and what am I?" which are helpful prayer starters when we get distracted.

The essential elements of St Francis' life that are a "remedy whenever society strays" include poverty, charity to outcasts, love of the Eucharist and the Church, prophetic faith, passionate prayer and penance. In our own day, his gift for reconciling enemies and for revering God's work in the "Book of Creation" are also timely issues. No doubt, his whole-hearted, non-compromising Gospel life is a tough act to follow. A holy Capuchin Franciscan, Blessed, Bernard of Corleone, remarked that he wasn't afraid to face Christ on judgement day, but he was afraid to face St Francis! In St Francis' words, "May we begin to do good, for up to now we have done very little!"


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