St. Francis for Today
Silence and solitude draw us deeper into contemplation and relationship with Christ
Last year, I was blessed to accompany a group of pilgrims traveling to the holy sites in Italy, especially to places associated with the life of St. Francis of Assisi. The pilgrims came from various locations and backgrounds. Their knowledge of Francis and his spirituality varied quite a bit. Some people had rather limited knowledge about Francis, while others had a deep understanding of “Il Poverello.”
Of course, we visited Assisi and the Minor Basilicas of St. Francis and St. Clare, the Church of San Damiano, where Francis was asked to “Go rebuild my Church,” and the Portiuncula Chapel where Francis was called home by the Lord.
While all of these pilgrimage sites are special places in Francis’ story, it seemed that most of the pilgrims were drawn to the places that are the lesser traveled and more remote. For example, there is something rather extraordinary about Greccio where Francis first reenacted the Nativity scene, the Carceri near Assisi where Francis spent time in seclusion while on hermitage, and, in particular, La Verna where Francis received the stigmata.
Each of these places is very beautiful, nestled in the mountains and very remote. They can be somewhat challenging to get to. It seemed to me that we all were seeking the silence and solitude of these places where we could experience not only the life of St. Francis, but the opportunity to draw deeper into contemplation and our relationship with Christ, which, of course, was Francis’ purpose in going there as well.
Mirror Christ to the World
I have to admit that when I entered our Third Order Regular (TOR) community, I did not know very much about Francis. Perhaps I should have spent more time getting acquainted with him by reading one of the many biographies written about him. G.K. Chesterton, in his biography of Francis, attributes his desire to be received into the Catholic Church to St. Francis. He referred to Francis as the “Mirror of Christ.”
That is, of course, what Francis calls each of us to do — to mirror Christ in our daily lives and to be His presence in the world.
Francis encouraged his followers to follow the example of Christ. He did not want any attention to be focused on himself. Even though later in his life Francis received the stigmata — the wounds of the crucified Christ present in his own body — he was very discreet about who would know about this great miracle. With all that Francis did and all that Francis taught, he fixed his attention on bringing others to Christ.
Go Rebuild my Church
Probably the most frequently recounted story about St. Francis is the request that he received to “Go rebuild my Church.” When Francis heard the voice of the Lord calling from the San Damiano crucifix, “Francis, go rebuild my house; as you see, it is all being destroyed,” (Thomas of Celano, “The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul), he first went around gathering stones to repair the Church of San Damiano.
It took him awhile to figure out that God was asking him to help with rebuilding the universal Church. Yet because of this, some people say that Francis was not wise and learned. I disagree.
Francis was the son of a cloth merchant; he worked in the family business. Although he was not formally educated at the university level, he had to be somewhat intelligent to manage the business when his father was away.
Rather, it was his complete trust in God, his dependence upon God and his willingness to be obedient to God that led Francis to rebuild the Church of San Damiano. It was his childlike simplicity that led Francis to put aside his own will and to do whatever God asked of him.
Francis knew that the more he embraced God’s will, the freer he would become, the happier he would become and the more Christ-like he would become — as became a reality when the Lord imprinted his wounds upon the body of Francis.
Francis of Assisi willingly embraced the Lord’s request to be the humblest of the humble. He even incorporated this concept into the name that he chose for his small group of followers — the Lesser Brothers, which have come to be known as the Friars Minor. Once I looked for an English translation of the Latin phrase fratres minores that Francis used to describe his group of followers. A popular online translator translated fratres minores with the general term “Franciscans” — perhaps an indication of the growth of the vision of Francis into so many religious communities throughout the world.
Francis himself would have been amazed at how many people would call themselves Franciscans. But in his humility he would have characterized his followers as people with a desire to follow Christ, to draw closer to Christ, to become more like Christ. Humility takes passion, courage and great sacrifice — qualities that are not frequently associated with young children. Yet these are the very gifts that we need to embrace so that we might become like Francis.
Francis grew up with many fine things, and he was presented with countless opportunities for the future. Gradually he became unsure of whether he was living his life in the way that God intended for him.
Later in his life, Francis wrote in his Testament: “The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And then the Lord himself led me among them, and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body. And afterwards I delayed a little and left the world.”
Thus according to Francis, it was his encounters with the lepers in the leper colony just outside of Assisi that led to his conversion. His encounters with the lepers pointed him to a reorientation of his life. As Francis showed mercy to the lepers, he came to experience God’s gift of mercy toward himself. What once was bitter became sweet. Francis became a new man. He found a new direction for his life and became filled with joy.
True to the Identity of Our Calling
In Jesus, we come to know the tender touch of our Savior. We are grateful for his presence in our lives. He is the one who comforts us, the one who gives us rest, the one who walks with us each day. He gave us Francis of Assisi — the humblest of the humble — as a model to follow so that we might walk in his footsteps while always pointing to Christ in all that we say and do.
Though Francis was not a priest, he encouraged priests to honor their vocation by being holy. “See your dignity, [my] priest brothers, and be holy because he is holy. As the Lord God has honored you above all others because of this ministry, for your part love, revere and honor him above all others” (“A Letter to the Entire Order”).
Francis’ words continue to ring true today. We who have been called to the sacred ministry of priesthood must remain true to the dignity of our calling despite the many distractions and temptations that we might encounter. Francis encourages us to be holy and to love the Lord above all others. When we are authentic in our ministry, the light of Christ shines brightly through us, a light that is so desperately needed today.
In Search of Renewal
Francis, too, lived in a troubled world that was in need of renewal. He was the instrument God chose at that time to help to rebuild the Church, to encourage others to grow in their love for Christ and to desire to be more Christ-like. Francis responded without reservation to whatever God asked of him, no matter the cost to him personally, to the point of turning away from riches and wealth, power and prestige. But in doing so he found peace, he found fulfillment, and he shows us a path to holiness in the troubled world in which we live.
In “The Life of St. Francis of Assisi,” St. Bonaventure wrote that as Francis saw the end of his earthly life drawing imminently near, he told the friars who were with him: “I have done what was mine to do. May Christ teach what is yours.” Francis used the gifts and talents that God had given him to live a life of conversion, to preach the Gospel and to draw others closer to Christ. He encourages us as well to use the gifts and talents that God has given each of us, through which we are able to give glory to God and to recognize that it is God who works through us so that we might also draw others closer to Christ.
Pope Francis on Choosing His Name
Following his election as pope in 2013, Pope Francis told thousands of journalists that he took to heart the words of Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes who, during the conclave, “hugged me, kissed me and said, ‘Don’t forget the poor.’”
Francis said this is how he chose to be named after St. Francis of Assisi, “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation,” the same created world “with which we don’t have such a good relationship. … How I would like a Church that is poor and that is for the poor.”
Every so often, we need to step back and ask the big questions. What are we doing with our lives? What do we look for? Do we chase after the things that we want? Are we focused on doing what God asks of us? Do we run after things that will lose their importance, or do we run toward our God who is passionately in love with us?
These questions come up again and again along this journey we share together, seeking to deepen our faith commitment to follow God’s will, to listen to the voice of the Lord whispering to us in the deep recesses of our hearts, to do whatever he tells us.
What does God want for you and for me? Perhaps too often we answer this question by saying that God wants what we want. But this is not always the case. To know what God wants, we need to listen and hear God speak to us, just like St. Francis did. To go deeper in our faith, we need to listen to what the Lord calls us to do to rebuild the Church and to embrace what he asks of us, just like St. Francis did.
What he asks of you may be different from what he asks of me or of other priests, your parishioners, the people with whom you minister, your friends or your family members. But he wants all of us to be happy in doing his will and moving deeper into relationship with him.
So how do we know to do whatever he tells us? Where are we invited to rebuild — to rebuild our lives, to rebuild the Church, to rebuild our world?
We must listen during prayer to hear the Lord speak. Open our minds and our hearts to the voice of the Lord as he invites us to deepen our faith and commitment to following him as disciples. We come to an interior peace in our hearts when we know that we are united with God and working to build up his kingdom. And when we embrace the will of God, we will know the greatest of all joys, because we will be united with Christ. Like Francis, the more that we embrace God’s will, the freer we will become, the happier we will become and the more Christ-like we will become.
Francis concluded his poem “The Canticle of the Creatures,” sometimes known as “The Canticle of Brother Sun,” by giving praise to Sister Death, who would welcome him into the heavenly kingdom to experience the fullness of God.
He continued: “Blessed are those whom death will find doing your most holy will, for the second death — judgment before the Lord — shall do them no harm. Praise and bless my Lord and give him thanks and serve him with great humility.”
May we, too, give thanks to God for the life of St. Francis and strive always to serve the Lord with greatest of humility.
FATHER SEAN SHERIDAN, TOR, is the vicar general of Franciscan Third Order Regular Worldwide.