Category Archives: Francis

St. Francis as Peacemaker

By Bret Thoman, OFS

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

The Lord revealed to me a greeting, as we used to say: “May the Lord give you peace.” (Testament 23)

St. Francis was a man of peace. In everything he did, he always sought to create peace between people, families, and cities; most fundamentally, however, he hoped to reconcile God with man. And this during a period in which war and conflict were all too common: between rival towns, ruling families, Pope and Emperor, Majores and Minores, hierarchy and heretic, Christian and Saracen, Assisi and Perugia. Arnaldo Fortini, one of the great biographers of St. Francis, described well the violence during the time of Francis. 1 Fortini noted the number of wars fought between local towns, cities, regions, provinces, and he described with horror the brutality and atrocities committed both on the battlefield and towards captured prisoners.

Before his conversion, Francis knew such violence first hand. 1 He lived a youthful life doing things that did not bring him peace. His chivalric outlook on life led him to battle as a way to bring honor and glory to himself in his self-centered attempts at becoming a knight. His first attempt – a disaster for himself and the Assisian army – led to his capture and imprisonment for a year in a dungeon-prison in Perugia. A year after his release, he heard the call to arms, and he set out to Apulia to fight once again. However, this time, he never saw battle, as after only a day’s journey from Assisi, he had a dream in Spoleto. Francis heard a voice present him with a question: “Is it better to serve the Master or the servant?” Francis, in a society still feudal, responded that it was always better to serve the master. The voice then told him to return to Assisi where he would be told what to do. At that moment Francis became pacifist and never again picked up the sword. The next morning, he woke up, gave his armor and arms to a fellow traveler, and returned home.

After this experience, Francis would soon dedicate his life to peace as a peacemaker. Just before he died, he wrote in his Testament, “The Lord revealed to me a greeting, as we used to say: ‘May the Lord give you peace.’” 2 According to the words of Thomas of Celano, Francis began his sermons with a call for peace, “In all his preaching, before he proposed the word of God to those gathered about, he first prayed for peace for them, saying: ‘The Lord give you peace.’”3 In his Earlier Rule, he wrote, “And into whatever house they enter, let them first say: Peace to this house.” 4

In his Admonitions, Francis twice quoted Jesus’s Beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”5 In the thirteenth Admonition, Francis then wrote:

The servant of God cannot know how much patience and humility he has within himself as long as everything goes well with him. But when the time comes in which those who should do him justice do quite the opposite to him, he has only as much patience and humility as he has on that occasion and no more.

In another Admonition, Francis quoted the same Scripture, and then wrote: “The true peacemakers are those who preserve peace of mind and body for love of our Lord Jesus Christ, despite what they suffer in this world.”6

In these two Admonitions, Francis is saying that true peace does not take place when everything in the world goes well for us, but is something other-worldly. When our peace is centered not on receiving the things of this world that we desire – even when good and just – but on the will of God – even when God allows things to go badly – then the vicissitudes of this world do not affect us and cannot take away our peace. In fact, this is precisely what Jesus himself said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.”7 And, according to Francis, precisely when the things of this world do not go according to our own will, our peace is tested. And, the amount of humility and patience we have at that moment is the amount of peace we may have – and no more. This peace is a gift from the Holy Spirit – not a material one from this world.

Now let’s look at Francis’s attitude toward peacemaking. The Legend of the Three Companions says that Francis always counselled the friars to carry peace in their hearts:

As you preach peace by word, so you should also possess peace, and superabundant peace in your hearts. Anger no one, nor vex any man; but by your meekness urge others to be peaceful, meek and merciful. For we are called to heal the wounded, to succor the injured, and to bring back the erring to the ways of righteousness.8

Here Francis is saying that one has to be at peace before preaching about, teaching about, or trying to mediate peace. In other words: if you want to bring peace to others, you must have it in your own heart first. There is a well-known tune that begins, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” I will spare you my singing voice, but you know the verse. The message is that only after we have received the gift of peace, can we then become an agent of peace in the world to those around us. “You cannot give what you do not have,” goes the old saying. Think for a moment about someone you know who is peaceful. Don’t you want to have that person around when you want to talk about something that is troubling you? Don’t you want to ask him or her for their advice and counsel? Now, conversely, think of someone who is not at peace. You probably do not want that person around when you have a conflict; often their advice and attitudes will create more problems for you.

Francis’s attitude toward peacemaking was not one of diplomacy, statecraft, or realpolitik. For him, peace came simply from a personal and subjective relationship with the incarnate God in the Person of Jesus Christ. Francis believed that peace was not something that could be “made”; rather, it had to be “embodied.” If peace originates in God – and is fully manifested in the Incarnation in Christ – then it has to be personally received before being applied to conflicts. He did not necessarily intend to become a peacemaker, he simply set out to follow Christ. Francis’s attitude towards peace was no different than his attitude toward life: he was a Christian and his response towards life and its complexities was always in Christ. The Lord gave Francis peace which spread to those about him.

So the question is this: “How do we have peace in our hearts?” This is a valid question, and one we have been attempting to answer in these reflections we’ve been doing each month. I think that the story of St. Francis gives us answers. And in each reflection, we have spoken of how St. Francis arrived at peace.

Question: What are some of those ways?

By humbly surrendering himself to God, by seeking the will of God, by living a life of penance and by becoming willing to suffer, serving the poor and seeking justice, forgiving, having a humble and surrendered attitude toward personal desires and needs (including food, clothing, shelter, and property), Francis found peace. The same man who spent his youth in seeking worldly desires, entertainment, knighthood, money, fine clothes, after his conversion, spent the rest of his life serving and helping the poor – especially the leper. His life as a merchant – in competition, calculating, evaluating, planning – did not bring him peace. Only by leaving everything and embracing the poor did he receive peace. In all of this, Francis imitated Christ, and by doing so, he found peace.

Francis’s journey to peace initially began when he surrendered himself in obedience to God. He converted his life centered on vice and sin. Obedience represents one of the three knots on the Franciscan cord and around the Secular Franciscan TAU. A fresco in the upper basilica of St. Francis depicts the moment in young Francis’s life just after he had stripped off his clothes in front of the bishop of Assisi, his father, and the townspeople, declaring that his father was no longer Pietro Bernardone, but his Father who art in Heaven. An often-overlooked detail in that fresco is highly significant and symbolic of Francis’s obedience. Francis is standing toward the right side of the panel with the clerics and bishop behind him, while his father and the townspeople are depicted on the left side. Francis’s earthly father appears enraged, clenching his fist, reared back, as if about to strike Francis. Another man (perhaps Francis’s brother) holds their father’s hand to prevent the blow. Francis, apparently oblivious to the action surrounding him, gazes heavenward with his hands clasped together in prayer. At the top of the fresco, directly above Francis’s earthly father, however, is another hand – the hand of God – which protrudes from the clouds in the traditional form of a blessing. Francis has just taken his obedience away from his earthly father – and all his earthly pursuits – and given it to his heavenly Father. And his Father blesses him for it, while his earthly father curses him for it.

For Francis, the will of God was to take on a life of penance. His penance consisted in rebuilding churches, fasting, praying, giving away his possessions, prayer, living in community, and faithfulness to the Church. Perhaps his biggest penance, however, was in serving the poor – especially the leper. We have already spoken of penance, but suffice it to say that penance is any action we take – whether voluntary or involuntary – to convert from the “old man” in order to embrace the “new man.”9 Through penance, God takes our old nature, turns it upside down, and makes us into something new. We are no longer focused only on ourselves- our hurts, pains, feelings, etc. Those things have been renewed in Christ – the New Man – we are now open to turn to others’ hurts, pains. A number of years ago, I had the honor of serving on the Parish Mission Team of the Archdiocese of New York led by a wonderful priest named Fr. Tom Devery. Fr. Tom used to say, “You begin with penance; then, after you remove two ‘N’s’ which stand for ‘no-no’s’ and ‘nonsense’ what are you left with? Peace.” In all of his penances, Francis found peace.

Since Francis had peace within his own heart, he was able to transmit to those around him. We have numerous stories recounted of how Francis served as a peacemaker. One interesting aspect about Francis that does not receive much attention is how, through preaching and mediation, Francis was able to reconcile feuds and civil wars in various towns and cities throughout Italy. In the Little Flowers of St. Francis, the tale is told of Francis and Masseo journeying to Siena, which they found in a state of civil war. Francis preached a sermon and “brought all of them back to peace and great unity and harmony.”10 Another story is told –depicted in one of the frescoes in the upper basilica – how St. Francis drove out demons and stopped a civil war in Arezzo. Thomas of Celano recounts how Francis and Silvester arrived in Arezzo to find the city “shaken by civil war to the extent that destructions seemed very close.”11 Francis prayed and told Silvester to sing a hymn and command the demons to leave. The fresco in Assisi notes the demons fleeing the city. After peace was restored, the citizens of Arezzo underwent a change of heart. Another story is told how Francis brought peace to warring families in Bologna in 1222.12 Finally, in Assisi, just before he died, Francis reconciled the bishop and mayor.13 After this reconciliation, he added a stanza to his Canticle of Brother Sun:

Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love
And bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by you, Most High, they shall be crowned.

Another way that Francis contributed to peace was by prohibiting his followers from carrying arms and swearing oaths, including the non-Religious Tertiaries (today’s Secular Franciscans). This created not a few problems in medieval feudal society when public order depended on the oath of allegiance sworn to one’s liege lord backed up with a call to arms when necessary. The civil authorities were okay with monks and friars not bearing arms, but not the lay penitents. After rigorous defense on behalf of the Church hierarchy, the civil authorities eventually ceded and allowed the Franciscan prohibition against carrying arms for lay Franciscans to continue. Eventually, many people entered the Third Order of St. Francis precisely to avoid military service. This had the effect of lessening violence as there were fewer people willing to fight.

Question: what do you think it was about Francis that allowed him to be a peacemaker?
When St. Francis set out to mediate peace, he was simple and his message was simple. He arrived in towns in a simple manner dressed in poverty. As he had dispossessed himself of everything, he approached conflicts from the outside and people did not feel threatened by him; he had renounced everything – money, position, politics, and worldly honors. He did not stand to gain anything from the conflicts he mediated; people could sense peace within him. Thus, Francis’s approach to peace reflected his emphasis on being “minor,” or “lesser” in society; without power, wealth or social privilege. In the feudal system in which he lived, this struck people. And they listened to him. As he traveled around preaching – his example was much more convincing than the words he spoke.

Francis did not expect to bring peace into the world by simply withdrawing and praying for the world (which he did periodically); but, rather, by directly engaging the world where the world was. His attitude toward conflict was to get inside it. But always as a Christian and always with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as the Word became incarnate and came down into the world – in all its ugliness and sin – so did Francis get involved in the complexities and difficulties of the world. But always with Christ at the center. He did so by engaging the world through witness, service, patience, penance and suffering, prayer, dialogue – ultimately through love.

Now let’s look a little more deeply at Francis and peacemaking. When attempting to negotiate peace, Francis did not hope for merely an end to the struggle and violence, but something more concrete. He was attempting to bring peace that comes from an active spiritual experience, a changed soul, the peace that does not come from the world, but from God through Jesus Christ. So for Francis, peace was not simply the absence of war or tension, but was a concrete experience and expression of living the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”14 Pope Paul VI said the same thing slightly differently, “If you want peace, work for justice.”15 Isaiah says, “The work of justice will be peace; the effect of justice, calm and security forever.”16 In other words, true peace between individuals or groups in conflict with one another cannot be negotiated by merely removing the tension; instead, the presence of justice must take place. In some areas of the world, extensive walls are built up along borders to separate groups of people who have had long-simmering tensions. Taking away the possibility of conflict may temporarily remove the potential for struggle; yet, this only gives the appearance of peace. In fact, such a situation can actually foster more hatred and anger leading to more war in the future. So, if long-term, authentic peace is to take root, justice must be present.

So the next question we may ask ourselves is, “What is justice?” Justice involves respect, forgiveness, fraternal concern, compassion, and care for others. In effect, justice is love. Pope Paul VI elaborated on the statement (quoted above) during his speech on the Celebration for the Day of Peace:

It is an invitation [to celebrate peace] which does not ignore the difficulties in practicing Justice, in defining it, first of all, and then in actuating it, for it always demands some sacrifice of prestige and self-interest: Perhaps more greatness of soul is needed for yielding to the ways of Justice and Peace than for fighting for and imposing on an adversary one’s rights, whether true or alleged. We have such trust in the power of the associated ideals of Justice and Peace to generate in modern man the moral energy to actuate them, that we are confident of their gradual victory. Indeed we are even more confident that on his own modern man has an understanding of the ways of peace, sufficient to enable him to become a promoter of that Justice which opens those ways and sets people traveling them with courageous and prophetic hope.17

There is an old Latin saying, Amor omnia vincit, which means “Love conquers all things.” In fact, it is true love that brings true peace: wherever one works for the good of others, there is peace. Where there is love, there is God – Ubi caritas, Deus ibi est. And where there is God, there is peace.

When we begin to direct and order our lives towards love and justice, what happens? Do we focus primarily on our own needs, desires, problems, challenges, goals, etc.? Or do we open ourselves up to others? Having had a spiritual experience and having received the gift of peace, a desire wells up within our hearts to help and give to other people. We stop focusing on ourselves and begin to consider the needs of others. This is the Golden Rule, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” When we perceive difficulties, we desire to find a way to help resolve such challenges: this is working for justice. Working for justice is observing what is broken and seeking to rebuild it. And here is peace.
This is reflected in the Franciscan Peace Prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, the truth;
Where there is doubt, the faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

In this prayer, written by a French priest in the years leading up to World War I, we see how various negative attitudes or situations are countered with something positive. Each desire to “get” or “receive” something is responded with a desire to “give” the same thing sought. And precisely through giving, we receive. Here is peace.
Yet, there is another aspect to working for peace that is reflected in this prayer. When we begin working for justice, we find it necessary to sacrifice something of ourselves. In its most materialist sense, this sacrifice demands our time, energy, and resources. However, sometimes the sacrifice asks more. It may ask us to sacrifice ourselves. Mother Theresa said we must give to each other to the point that it hurts:

Jesus gave His life to love us and He tells us that we also have to give whatever it takes to do good to one another. And in the Gospel Jesus says very clearly: “Love as I have loved you.” Jesus died on the Cross because that is what it took for Him to do good to us – to save us from our selfishness in sin. He gave up everything to do the Father’s will to show us that we too must be willing to give up everything to do God’s will – to love one another as He loves each of us. If we are not willing to give whatever it takes to do good to one another, sin is still in us. That is why we too must give to each other until it hurts.18

“Giving until it hurts” is embracing the cross. When we have undergone our own spiritual transformation through the cross, and have walked the road from sin to redemption, and have moved from war to peace in our own lives, we can bring that peace to others. Just as God has embraced and redeemed the ugly aspects within us, we extend that to others.

In fact, perhaps the highest form of spirituality within the Christian life, is to sacrifice ourselves for those who have harmed us. We voluntarily make sacrifices to atone for the sin that others have committed against us. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. was striving for in his ways of non-violence. By voluntarily submitting to his oppressors who did violence against him – during marches, sit-ins, protests, etc. – he was able to show the righteousness of his cause and the wrongness of those harming him.

St. Camilla Battista da Varano, a 16th-century Poor Clare nun canonized in 2010, wrote about how she did penance for those who had harmed her. She suffered terribly when her father, a Renaissance duke, was murdered by agents of the Borgia family (possibly with the approval of the pope, also a Borgia). Camilla wrote in her work, Purity of Heart:

the prelates and pastors of our souls … to whom belong the care of souls … beat me with harsh words and wounded me with worse deeds and under a pretext of good, they took from me a father who was my refuge in my tribulations. These prying prelates are guardians of the ceremonial walls of religion, but not the walls of the good and holy life; … [nevertheless], we should not stop honoring these prelates because of this; rather, we must frequently pray for them … [and] I will dress in sackcloth and ashes of humility and patience [for them].19

She shows us how penance is sacrificing a part of ourselves for others. In this case – innocence for guilt.
Saint Bonaventure wrote in the Triple Way that only the zeal for martyrdom leads to the repose of peace. And is martyrdom anything other than imitation of Christ on the cross? Francis wrote of the cross in his Letter to the Faithful:

And, as the Passion drew near, He celebrated the Passover with His disciples and, taking bread, giving thanks, and blessed and broke it, saying: Take and eat: this is my Body (Mt 26:26). And taking the cup He said: This is My Blood of the new covenant which will be shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins (Mt 26:28). Then He prayed to His Father, saying: Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me (Lk 22:42). And His sweat became as drops of blood falling on the ground (Lk 22:44). Nonetheless, He placed His will at the will of the Father, saying: Father, let your will be done (Mt 26:42); not as I will but as you will (Mt 26:39). And the will of the Father was such that His blessed and glorious Son, Whom He gave to us and was born for us, should, through His own blood, offer Himself as a sacrifice and oblation on the altar of the cross: not for Himself through Whom all things were made, but for our sins, leaving us an example that we should follow in His footprints (cf. 1 Pet 2:21). 20

“… that we should follow in his footprints” – in the footprints that led to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The cross is the highest form of the love of God incarnate, a love which does not die, but triumphs over evil and death. The peace of Christ is love: love of others, love of God, love of the cross. Only through the cross can one change painful, even violent situations, into life-giving encounters. This is what being a peacemaker is: transforming the difficulties, tragedies, even violence that life can sometimes present into life, into peace. It is a peace that only Christ can give – a peace the world cannot give.

Francis’s Christian life began with his gaze on the crucifix at San Damiano and ended with the wounds of the cross on his body in Laverna. Just as Christ on the crucifix of San Damiano was not depicted as dead, but alive, and the wounds of Christ came alive in Francis’s own body, God is able to make life out of death. The Passion, crucifixion, and death of Christ did not have the final say – the Resurrection did! The cross was not defeat and failure; paradoxically, it gave life.

The cross is the martyrdom that each of us is called to – whether as Christians, Catholics, or Franciscans. For some of the early Franciscans – the protomartyrs who gave their lives in Morocco – their martyrdom was actual; Giles referred to embracing what he called the “martyrdom of contemplation”; for Clare martyrdom was illness and her desire to die a martyr. For others – perhaps Francis himself – martyrdom was and continues to be his work to build up the Kingdom of God in prayer, community, the leprosaria, penance, poverty, and in working to reconcile people with each other, with God, with themselves. This is working for peace.

When we have peace from the Holy Spirit, we can stand with St. Paul who was “convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”21
Francis – who stridently sought to follow Christ, namely Christ’s commandment to love one another as he loved us22 and who followed Christ all the way to the cross – received this true peace. It is the peace that the Risen Jesus gave to his disciples when he stood in their midst and said: “Peace be with you!”, and in saying this, he showed them his wounded hands and his pierced side.

Reflections:
How do you understand your life as peacemaker?
How have you concretely been a peacemaker?
What are some areas within your own life, family, parish, or community where there is a lack of peace? Can you think of a way to bring peace to that situation?
Very few of us can be like Francis, Clare, and the first followers who desired to die the actual death of the martyr. For most of us today, our martyrdom will consist in our struggles with our communities or family members, finances or jobs, health and illness. Yet, just the same, as we
“work out our salvation” in the throes of life, we find peace. Where do you find peace working through the difficulties of ordinary life? 23

1. Cf. Francis of Assisi, A Translation of Nova Vita di San Francesco by Helen Moak. 1985. Crossroad Publishing Company, New York. Pp. 53-63

2. Testament 23

3. 1 Celano, chapter X, 23

4 Earlier Rule, Chapter XIV

5 Matthew 5:9

6 Admonitions 15

7 Cf. John 14:27

8 Legend of the Three Companions, 58

9 Cf. Rom 6:6; Eph 2:15; 4:22-24; and Col 3:9-11

10 Little Flowers of St. Francis 11

11 2 Celano 108

12 from the writings of Thomas, Archdeacon of Spoleto; from Omnibus 1602-01

13 Legend of Perugia 44

14 As quoted in “Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr (1982) by Stephen B. Oates. MLK said this in 1955 in response to an accusation that he his activism was “disturbing the peace” during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.

15 MESSAGE OF HIS HOLINESS POPE PAUL VI FOR THE CELEBRATION OF THE DAY OF PEACE, 1 JANUARY 1972

16. Is 32:17

17. SPEECH GIVEN FOR THE CELEBRATION OF THE DAY OF PEACE, 1 JANUARY 1972

18 Speech of Mother Teresa of Calcutta to the National Prayer Breakfast, Washington, DC, February 3, 1994.

19 “Purity of Heart” and quoted in “From Worldly Princess to the Foot of the Cross.” by Bret Thoman, published by TAU Publisher, Phoenix, p. 205.

20 Second Version of the Letter of the Faithful. 6-13

21 Rom: 8:38ff.

22 cf. Jn 13:34; 15:12

23 cf. Jn 20:19-20

Transitus Service for St. Francis

THE TRANSITUS (DEATH) OF SAINT FRANCIS
Saint Francis died just after sunset on October 3. He recited Psalm 142 and, during the closing verse, he died. This event is solemnly recalled each year by Franciscans to honor their holy Father’s entrance into joy. We invite you to commemorate this night
 
TRANSITUS SERVICE IN ONE’S OWN HOME
The following observance may be done in the privacy of your own home or with a few others in your living room or parlor.  
Light two candles and have a relic or image of St. Francis available.

Begin with Evening Prayer 1 from the Liturgy of the Hours.  If you do not have the Liturgy of the Hours or do not know how to pray it, pray instead the Fourth and Fifth Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, ‘The Crucifixion of Jesus’ and “The Death of Jesus on the Cross.”
Read the following excerpt from Francis’s Testament given shortly before he died:

The Testament of Saint Francis (1226)

I worked with my own hands, and I am still determined to work, and with all my heart I wish to have all the rest of the brothers work at employment that can be carried out without scandal. Those who do not know how to work should learn, not because they want to get something for their efforts, but to give good example and to avoid idleness. And should the wages of our work not be given to us, we can turn to God’s table and beg alms from door to door. God revealed a form of greeting to me, telling me that we should say, “God give you peace.”
Pause for a few moments of silent reflection.

Venerate (kiss or touch) the Relic or image of St. Francis.
An appropriate hymn or song may be sung.

The following antiphon is said: 

Alleluia, Alleluia, Francis, poor and humble, enters heaven rich and is welcomed with celestial hymns. Alleluia.

Then follows Psalm 142:

1  A maskil of David, when he was in the cave. A prayer. 

2 With full voice I cry to the LORD; with full voice I beseech the LORD.

3 Before God I pour out my complaint, lay bare my distress.

4 My spirit is faint within me, but you know my path. Along the way I walk they have hidden a trap for me.

5 I look to my right hand, but no friend is there. There is no escape for me; no one cares for me.

6 I cry out to you, LORD, I say, You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.

7 Listen to my cry for help, for I am brought very low. Rescue me from my pursuers, for they are too strong for me.

8 Lead me out of my prison, that I may give thanks to your name. Then the just shall gather around me because you have been good to me.


Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

The Antiphon is repeated:
Alleluia, Alleluia, Francis, poor and humble, enters heaven rich and is welcomed with celestial hymns. Alleluia.

Blow out the candles to signify the death of Saint Francis.

Then, having in mind St. Francis’ devotion to the wounds of our Lord, and looking at the figure of the Crucified, with arms outstretched, say five times the prayer of Our Lord:

Our Father Who art in heaven, hallowed by Thy Name.  Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.

End with the following prayer:

O God, you granted our blessed Father Francis the reward of everlasting joy: grant that we, who celebrate the memory of his death, may at last come to the same eternal joy; through Christ our Lord.  Amen.
 
 

Francis of Assisi and Western Catholicism Without Gloss:

by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Address to Saint Francis of Assisi Conference Description:

This essay was written for the “St. Francis of Assisi and the Western Tradition” conference sponsored by the Thomistic Institute and delivered at the NYU Catholic Center on April 25, 2014.
Archdiocese of Philadelphia, April 25, 2014

I want to start with a simple statement of fact. All Christian life is a paradox.

What I mean is this.

In Isaiah 55, God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts [higher] than your thoughts” (8-9). Then in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples, “You therefore must be perfect, [even] as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).

Scripture tells us that God is utterly different from us, vastly higher than us. Then it tells us to become like him. Therein lies the paradox. The task seems impossible. And yet we know it to be possible. We know it through the witness of the saints. In Hebrew, God is called hakadosh, “the Holy One,” with the word kadosh meaning holy. Our English word “saint” derives from the Latin word sanctus, which means the same thing: holy. Holy does not mean “good,” though holy people are always good and often – though not always – nice. St. Jerome was certainly holy and good, but “nice” might not be the first word that springs to mind in remembering him.

Holy means “other than.” It means different from the world; set apart from the profane; sacred. The saints are ordinary men and women – persons with every kind of talent, weakness and personality – who took a different path, one step at a time, away from the routine habits of the world. They fell in love with God. They followed him. They conformed their lives to him in simple ways that became extraordinary ways. And now their example and their intercession give us hope that we can do the same.

I mention all this because my job today is to talk about “St. Francis and Western Catholicism.” I’m a Capuchin Franciscan, so I’m happy to do that. But I want to do it by posing three questions: Who is Francis, this pope? Who was Francis, the man of Assisi? And after 800 years, what, if anything, can a man from the Middle Ages teach us about being alive and free and human?

So first: Who is Francis, this pope? The short answer is, I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone really knows yet, outside the Holy Father’s friends and close coworkers. A number of Latin American bishops have told me how different the Pope now seems from his years as a bishop in Argentina – much more outgoing and ebullient than they remember. But these are their thoughts, not mine. I did have the privilege of working with him for a month in November and December 1997 when we were both delegates to the Special Assembly for America in Rome. He was an impressive man. He had a keen intelligence, a healthy realism about the problems facing the Church in our hemisphere and a strong emphasis on evangelization. But these are just anecdotes from a long time ago.

I do think we can draw some conclusions from the example he already gives us. He has a deep sense of the continuity of the Church. The respect he shows to Benedict, the Pope Emeritus, literally has no precedent. And his affection for Benedict clearly comes from the heart. On Sunday, he’ll canonize two of his predecessors; the two greatest men of the Second Vatican Council – Pope John XXIII, who had the vision and courage to convene it; and Pope John Paul II, who helped draft some of its key documents and who embedded the meaning of Vatican II in the life of the post-conciliar Church.

John XXIII and John Paul II are perfectly paired in sainthood. In canonizing them together, Pope Francis places them as bookends to one of the central events in Catholic life since the Reformation. They were untiring in their discipleship. Zealous in their love of God and God’s people. And also thoroughly human in their complexity. John XXIII saved Jews from the Holocaust as a Vatican diplomat. He radiated warmth, humor and a concern for peace. He worked a revolution in Catholic thought and life. And he also frowned on the worker-priest movement in France and forbade Catholics from voting for the Communist Party. John Paul II helped bring down the Soviet bloc. He worked vigorously for the purity of Catholic teaching. He defended the rights of workers, the suffering and the unborn. And he was also a profound shepherd of mercy – a message that runs through his whole pontificate, from his encyclical “Rich in Mercy” to his placing Divine Mercy Sunday on the universal Church calendar.

Pope Francis stands in this line of great recent popes. But in choosing the name “Francis,” he also makes himself distinct from it.
Until now, every pope of the last 200 years – no matter how gifted or how saintly – has been, in a sense, a prisoner of war. The Church has centered herself in Europe. Every pope in recent history has been a European. And the civil war for Europe’s soul that began before the Enlightenment and ran through the bloodiest century in history – the 20th century – continues today in Europe’s denial of its Christian roots and its self-destroying battles over marriage, family, sexual identity and euthanasia.

Europe has exhausted itself. Europe has exhausted the world. And so, when John Paul II called for a “new evangelization,” maybe he spoke more prophetically than he could know. Maybe a genuinely new evangelization can never be achieved except by a new voice with a new spirit from a new world. Pope Francis is no stranger to poverty or violence, the plague of corrupt politics or the cruelty of human trafficking. But neither is he a child of the Old World, with its cynicism and despair, its wars and its hatreds.

Francis seems to be something different. He embodies a Christian spirit older than Europe’s civil war and younger than its fatigue and loss of hope. He’s a surprise; disarming, improbable, the kind of man no one could have predicted – a surprise that keeps unfolding into more surprises.

There’s something stunning about a pope who – for the first time in history – takes the icon of Christian simplicity and poverty as his namesake, and then tries to live like he means it. There’s something exhilarating about a pope who worries about “Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.”{i} Who warns that “an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral.”{ii} Or who takes a detour in a teaching document to talk in plain language about the mechanics of a good homily.{iii}

I asked a few moments ago, Who is Francis, this pope? The answer is an anomaly. He’s a Jesuit with a Franciscan heart. What does that mean?

The early Jesuits played an immense role in the Counter-Reformation and the intellectual renewal of Catholic life. Their legacy goes well beyond the Society of Jesus. It still helps to shape the life of the Church. Our two previous popes – Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger – were world class, formidable minds by any secular standard.

But we live at a time when science, in the name of reason, seems to undermine the credibility of reason itself. We live in a time that’s not just anti-ideological, but in many ways antiintellectual. It’s not that people have forgotten how to think. Rather, too many of us think badly, or just don’t like thinking at all. We have no common body of beliefs to inform our public logic and discourse. As Alasdair MacIntyre might say, we’re all emotivists now. And religion, when it’s not portrayed as a dangerous source of hatred, is cast instead as a kind of organized sentimentality; an outlet for pious good will.

Pope Francis is so intensely popular because he embodies what the world imagines St. Francis was like: a mendicant and troubadour, not a judge and not a scholar. The Holy Father clearly has a sophisticated mind formed in the spirit of Ignatius. But what appeals to the world about Pope Francis are his serenity and informality; his passionate embrace of the poor and the outcast; and his studied avoidance of condemning anyone.

Whether that popularity can last in the face of the pastoral challenges facing the Church is an issue for the future. How the Pope speaks and acts over the next 20 months on matters like marriage, family and sexuality – issues of burning interest to the media of the developed world – will have a big impact on the way he’s treated by the press. In the end, Popes lead. It’s the nature of their ministry. And leaders inevitably displease somebody; sometimes a great many somebodies. But of course the real St. Francis never turned away from a task simply because it was hard.

That brings me to the second of the three questions I posed for this talk: Who was Francis, the man of Assisi?

Francis Bernadone – born 1181 or ‘82, died 1226 – has been a magnet for pious stories almost since the day of his death. The wolf of Gubbio is a legend – lovely, but not true. And there’s no evidence that the saint ever said, “preach the Gospel always; when necessary use words.” And the famous Prayer of St. Francis – “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace” – dates only to 1912, when it appeared in La Clochette, a small French spiritual magazine.

We do rightly remember Francis for his joy and freedom of spirit. These qualities deeply marked the man. And through the man, they’ve left a lasting mark on Western Christianity. But there was a great deal more to Francis than a gentle love of nature. A Capuchin friend of mine once said that if the real Francis were alive today, quite a few moderns would see him as a religious crank. He was demanding on himself and demanding on his brothers. Poverty, chastity and obedience are wonderful ideals when we read about them in the foggy past. Living them is another matter. And Francis took his vows and the Rule of his community utterly seriously. He expected his brothers to do the same.

Actually, Francis battled with his brothers quite often, especially when they wanted to water down the inspiration that God had given him. In the year 1221, just a few years after the Franciscan community began, some 3,000 friars gathered with Francis for a general chapter. And the ministers – the brothers who led the community – wanted to change the Rule. They wanted to modify it to the times, and make it less demanding.

Francis fought that vigorously. He chose the following verse from Scripture as the theme for his preaching that day: “Blessed be the Lord my God, who trains my hands for war.” He spoke those words to his brothers as he began his sermon. And he won the day. The Rule was later modified anyway, but not that day, because Francis knew how to fight zealously for what he believed was right. Like Mother Teresa and so many other saints all through Church history, Francis was holy and good and kind – but when it came to matters of faith and principle, he was never soft.

The key to Francis was a kind of holy radicalism. He liked to say that “the saints lived lives of heroic virtue, [but] we are satisfied to talk about them.” Francis himself never felt satisfied with pious words. He wanted to act on the things he believed. He called his brothers to live the Gospel with simplicity and honesty. And that’s why he used the words sine glossa – “without gloss” – in his Testament. He saw that the Gospel wasn’t complicated, but it was demanding and difficult. The theologians and Church lawyers of his day had written commentaries called glosses. And these glosses were very good at either explaining away the hard parts of the Gospel, or diminishing our need to follow Christ’s demands. Francis wanted none of that. He wanted to experience discipleship at its root.

Francis lived in an age of political confusion in Europe; a time of the great, inhuman heresy of Catharism in France and Italy, and constant warfare between Christians and Muslims around the Mediterranean. It was also a time of deep corruption and clerical infidelity within the Church. But the medicine Francis used against that corruption was a witness of obedience, encouragement, reverence and service – not rebellion. He knew instinctively that people are converted by love, not by rejection or fear or anger.

In his biography of Francis, Augustine Thompson – the Dominican author – notes that Francis had a passionate devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. It was the heart of his life. The Mass was the grounding for all his work. There’s no way of reinterpreting Francis in generically do-gooder or humanitarian terms. He had hard words for those who oppressed the poor, but even harsher words for those who ignored the Eucharistic presence. Francis had a special horror of “the cheap and tarnished chalices and filthy linens that [many priests of his time] considered good enough for use in worship. Francis’ sense of beauty and decency, which he had mortified by choosing to live amid poverty and outcasts, had not been deadened. Its object was no longer fine garments and meals for himself, but items dedicated to the Lord who died for him.”{iv}

He goes on to say that Francis

“demonstrated his devotion [to the Church] by kissing the hands of any priest he met . . . He begged the brothers who met a priest on horseback, especially one carrying the Blessed Sacrament, to kiss the horse’s hooves rather than wait for the priest to dismount. Francis wanted that ‘subjection to all’ which was so much a part of his conversion, to be a lived reality among the brothers.”

Again: Who was Francis, the man of Assisi? G.K. Chesterton, his other great biographer, put it in these words:

“St. Francis [was] a Lover. He was a Lover of God and he was really and truly a Lover of men . . . [And] as St. Francis did not love humanity but men, so he did not love Christianity but Christ . . . [To Francis] his religion was not a thing like a theory, but a thing like a love affair . . . What gave him his extraordinary personal power was this: that from the Pope to the beggar, from the Sultan of Syria in his pavilion to the ragged robbers crawling out of the wood, there was never a man who looked into those brown burning eyes without being certain that Francis Bernadone was really interested in him; in his own individual inner life from the cradle to the grave; that he himself was being valued and taken seriously and not being added to the spoils of some social policy or the names in some clerical document.”{v}

This is the love that the apostles must have seen when they looked into the eyes of Jesus. It’s the love, I suspect, that Pope Francis wants people to see in the eyes of every Christian and in every element of Catholic life.

That brings us to the third and final question I posed for this talk: After 800 years, what, if anything, can a man from the Middle Ages teach us about being alive and free and human? That term “Middle Ages” is a curious one. It’s implicitly negative. It consigns an entire civilization to a kind of trough between waves. And it fits perfectly with the vanity, the ignorance and the amnesia of the modern era – an era which clings to its delusion that reason precludes religious faith, in the same way drowning sailors grab for a life raft.

The philosopher Rémi Brague once wrote that

“Christianity was founded by people who could not have cared less about ‘Christian civilization.’ What mattered to them was Christ, and the reverberations of his coming on the whole of human existence. Christians believed in Christ, not in Christianity itself; they were Christians, not ‘Christianists.’”{vi}

We need to remember that simple lesson. The Catholic faith is not an ideology. It’s a romance. It’s a love affair with God. We’re a people who believe in Jesus Christ – not the ideas, but the person of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for our sake purely out of his love for us. And living the Catholic faith should be an experience of gratitude and joy that flows from a daily personal encounter with God’s son and a communal relationship with God’s people.

There’s a reason the Church calls St. Francis the vir Catholicus, the exemplary Catholic man. Francis understood that gratitude is the beginning of joy, and that joy in this world is the aroma of heaven in the next. He reveled in the debt he owed to God for the beauty of creation, for his friends and brothers, and for every gift and suffering that came his way. He treasured his dependence on the love of others, and returned their love with his own. He gave away all that he had in order to gain the deepest kind of freedom – the freedom to pursue God, to share God with others, and to experience life without encumbrance or fear.

Maybe the best way we can spend our time together during this conference is to compare what we know about Francis with the terrain of American life all around us – terrain we adults, including we adults in the Church, helped to create. We worship autonomy. We’re jealous of our time and our privacy. Our economy runs on a steady catechesis of entitlement and dissatisfaction. And billions are spent every year on a nonstop creation of one new appetite after another. That’s not living. That’s not even really human.

A young married friend once quipped that having fun is to joy, as having sex is to love – they ought to go together in a rightly ordered way. And when they do, life is beautiful. But too often they just don’t, because fun and sex become things to take, things to consume. And joy and love can only grow in a heart that gives.

Acquisitiveness makes us poorer and hungrier in the only things that matter. In turning away from that kind of life, Francis became fully alive; a man free to think and act without excuses, without compromise, without glosses to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ more comfortable and less liberating. Here’s the point: We can make the same choices Francis did, one person, one family, one Christian community at a time. And if we do, that begins a revolution, the only kind that achieves anything that endures. This conference is the proof. Eight centuries after he died, here were are, still moved and still drawn to the life of an Italian poor man in rags. So are millions of others.

Scripture says, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things shall be yours as well” (Mt 6:33). We need to consider two simple questions: First, do we believe the Word of God or not? And second, if we do believe, then what are we going to do about it? We renew the witness of the Church, not with techniques or programs or resources, but with the zeal and purity and obedience of our own lives. That path leads to the kind of freedom and joy that no one could ever take from Francis, and no one can ever take from us.

From the cross at San Damiano, Jesus said to Francis: Repair my house, which is falling into ruin. Those same words are meant for every Christian life and home and parish. How we respond is up to us.

http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=10563

Endnotes

i Evangelii Gaudium, 6

ii Ibid., 10

iii Ibid., 137-159

iv Augustine Thompson, O.P., Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 2012; p. 61 Kindle edition

v G.K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi, in the combined volume St. Thomas Aquinas/St. Francis of Assisi, Ignatius, San Francisco, 2002, p. 196-197, 266-267

vi Rémi Brague, The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism and Islam, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2009, p. 21-22

The San Damiano Cross

The San Damiano Cross is the one St. Francis was praying before when he received the commission from the Lord to rebuild the Church. The original cross, fashioned about 1100, hangs in Santa Chiara Church in Assisi. When in 1257 the Poor Clares moved to Santa Chiara, they took the San Damiano Cross with them and still guard it with great solicitude. The crucifix now hanging over the altar of the ancient church or San Damiano is a copy. All Franciscans cherish this cross as the symbol of their mission from God to commit their lives and resources to renew and rebuild the Church in the power of God.

DEVOTION TO THE SAN DAMIANO CROSS

In the early days after his conversion, Francis was living a penitential life alone in the countryside outside the walls of Assisi. One day, while passing the run down church known as San Damiano, Francis heard an internal voice from his spirit tell him to go in and pray. He entered and knelt before the cross in contemplation and ecstasy. While gazing at the cross, Francis saw the lips of Jesus move and he heard the words, “Francis, go repair my house which as you see is falling into ruin.” At first Francis concentrated on repairing the church buildings of San Damiano and nearby churches. Then when the Lord sent him many followers, he understood his commission to build up the lives of God’s people. Pope Innocent III confirmed this commission. The Pope had a dream of the Church in the form of the Basilica of St. John Lateran. In the dream he saw the church leaning as if to fall and one little man holding it from falling. When the Pope recognized Francis as the little man in his dream he approved the Franciscan order and its rule of life. Throughout the centuries the cross has symbolized for Francis a mission to bring renewal to the Church.

TYPE OF CROSS
The cross is called an icon cross because it contains images of persons who have a part in the meaning of the cross. The tradition of such crosses began in the Eastern Church and was carried by the Serbian Monks to the Umbrian district of Italy. The Byzantine style was common in Italy before Cimabue and Giotto. The San Damiano Cross was one of a number of crosses painted with similar figures during the 12th century in Umbria. The purpose of an icon cross was to teach the meaning of the event depicted and thereby strengthen the faith of the people.

CHRIST CRUCIFIED

Jesus Christ is represented both as wounded and strong. He stands upright and resolute. His halo already includes the picture of the glorified cross. The bright white of the Lord’s body contrasts with the dark red and black around it and, therefore, accentuates the prominence of Jesus. He projects the life of divine nature in a body pierced by nails in the hands and feet, by the crown of thorns on his head, and by the soldier’s lance in his side. This representation contrasts with the regal Christ portrayed on the cross in earlier centuries and the suffering, dying, crucified Christ depicted generally throughout the church beginning throughout the 14th century. Christ is represented in full stature while all the others are smaller in stature. Above the head of Christ is the inscription in Latin: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

MAJOR WITNESSES

The next largest figures are the five witnesses of the crucifixion and witnesses of Jesus as Lord. On the left side are Mary, Mother of Jesus, and St. John the Beloved, to whom Jesus gave his mother. On the right side are Mary Magdalene, Mary, Mother of James, and the centurion who in Mark’s gospel proclaims, “Truly this is the Son of God.” Both Mary and Mary Magdalene have their hands placed on their cheeks to reflect extreme grief and anguish. The first four witnesses are saints who gave their lives for the Lord and are therefore represented with halos of sanctity. The names of the five major witnesses are written beneath their pictures.

MINOR WITNESSES
The three smaller figures are represented as witnessing the crucifixion. On the lower left is Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced the side of Jesus with a lance. He is represented here holding the lance and looking up at Jesus. The blood running down the arms of Jesus begins at the elbow to drip straight down. It will land on the upturned face of Longinus. In the lower right is Stephaton who is identified as the soldier who offered Jesus the sponge soaked in vinegar wine. From the posture of his figure, you can see that he holds the staff and sponge in the same way that Longinus holds the spear. Peering over the left shoulder of the centurion is a small face. A close look at the face reveals the tops of the heads of three others beside him. In accord with the conventions of the time, this may be the face of the artist who was claiming authorship and immortalizing himself as a witness to Christ.

THE ANGELS
Six angels are represented as marveling over the event of the crucifixion. They are positioned at both ends of thecrossbar. Their hand gestures indicate they are discussing this wondrous event of the death and calling us to marvel with them.

THE PATRON SAINTS
At the foot of the cross there is a damaged picture of six figures, two of which are represented with halos. In accordance with the traditions of the day, these six are the patrons of Umbria: St. John, St. Michael, St. Rufino, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter and St. Paul.

THE HEAVENLY WELCOME
On the top of the cross, we see Jesus now fully clothed in his regal garments and carrying the cross as a triumphant scepter. He is climbing out of the tomb and into the heavenly courts. Ten angels are crowded around. Five of them have their hands extended in a welcoming gesture to Jesus, who himself has his hand raised in the form of a greeting.

THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD
At the very top of the cross is the right hand of the Father with two fingers extended. Jesus is being raised from the dead by the right hand of God the Father. This can also be understood as the blessing of God the Father on all that Jesus has done.

THE BIRD AND ANIMAL
On the right side of the picture next to the left calf of Jesus is a small figure of a fowl; some art historians have interpreted it to be a rooster, representing the sign of Jesus’ betrayal. Other commentators see it as a peacock, a frequent symbol of immortality in early Christian art. Along the lower right side of the shaft, there is a small animal, possibly a cat.

PRAYER WHICH FRANCIS USED TO RECITE OVER THIS CRUCIFIX
Great God, full of glory and Thou, my Lord Jesus Christ, I beseech thee to illuminate me and to dissipate the darkness of my spirit, to give me a pure faith, firm hope and perfect charity. Oh my God, grant me to know Thee well and to do all things according to Thy Light and in conformity with Thy most holy will. Amen.

(Adapted from Michael Scanlan, T.O.R. The San Damiano Cross: An Explanation, Franciscan University Press, Steubenvile, Ohio, 1983)