When I was fourteen years old I was blessed to go on my first whirlwind tour of Europe. Of all the many fascinating countries, cities and villages we visited, the most captivating was Assisi, Italy. It is a beautiful small town on the top of a hill that is at once serene and exhilarating. Having attended Catholic school for elementary and high school, I was familiar with St. Francis of Assisi and on my initial visit, and every one since, I could not help but imagine St. Francis walking through the narrow cobblestone streets. Almost everything to be seen in Assisi is in some way associated with the memory of the saint. Assisi is truly a city on a hill which cannot be hidden because of St. Francis, his goodness, faithfulness and universal appeal.
Inspired by his life, I adopted St. Francis as my patron saint after my first visit to Assisi. Today, I count among my treasured possessions, a faded print of St. Francis which belonged to my beloved grandmother, a plaster statue of Francis that my best friend gave me when I was fifteen years old and a resin statue of St. Francis which stood in my now deceased father’s garden. Each of them are worn, tattered and inexpensive but priceless to me. To be sure, there is irony in the fact that I treasure these possessions which remind me of a saint who denounced possessions. And, I might as well admit that my computer screen-saver is a photo of Assisi which I snapped from an apartment window a few years ago and, my favorite place to vacation in the U.S. is Santa Fe, New Mexico!
No saint on the roster of Rome has as many admirers outside the circles of orthodoxy as the saint who went his way singing and preaching not in the official tongue of the Church but in the language of the people. By writers of every nation, representing varieties of religious belief, the “husband” of Lady Poverty, St. Francis has been proclaimed as an apostle of humanity. To elaborate on why I and so many people derive such inspiration from Giovanni Bernardone, the man who became Francis, I borrow the words of Roy M. Gasnick, O.F. M. (Order of the Friars Minor ; the Franciscans).
At a time when the Church had over identified with the state, when bishops, abbots and even popes, were more civil authorities than religious leaders, when Christians accepted feudal civilities and authority structures instead of the Gospel as the norm for religion, Francis of Assisi was touched by God to rebuild his Church; to be a witness to the truth and value of the Gospel itself. Though Francis was a witness to the whole of the Gospel, he tended to emphasize those aspects of it that had been least understood or least practiced in his time. God, for Francis, was no stern monarch to be obeyed in fear because he was continually counting up the number of transgressions against his laws. Rather, God was someone personally close, a Father wanting to see his sons and daughters succeed, offering his very own life as assistance but leaving it up to each to accept or reject.
There can be no doubt of Francis’ love affair with Christ. It was not the Christ of so many of the late medieval paintings—the judge at the last judgment. It was the Christ of Bethlehem who became a man because he loved man, and the Christ of Calvary, who died as a sacrifice so that man would be raised up from his own inhumanity. When one is overwhelmed at discovering that he has such a Father and such a Brother, no other response is possible except total conversion, a conversion that is more like a love affair—giving oneself totally to God—than a mournful rejection of one’s former life.
So it was with Francis. His conversion, his penance, were things of great joy, for he had found a bride greater than any other, a bride who gave him every fulfillment, a bride who would never abandon him. After such a conversion, Francis could no longer live the minimum obligations of a Christian. He went beyond the law, he assimilated the Christ-life in himself.
The challenge of the Gospel and the possibilities it opened up for man to rise above his own humanity and for the world to rise above its collective evil, struck so vibrant a chord in Francis’s musical soul that he cried out, ‘This is what I want; this is what I desire; this is what I long for with all my heart and soul.’ For him, anyone who accepts the Gospel life accepts the commission from God to continually bring forth Christ in his own portion of the world. Francis preached, ‘We are his mothers when we carry him about in our heart and person by means of love and a clean and sincere conscience, and when we give birth to him by means of our holy actions, which should shine as an example to others.’
Francis looked around him. Almost all of Europe had been Christianized but Christians had become apathetic. Missionary work—the challenge given by Christ to his apostles to preach the Gospel to all nations—was all but dead. Francis founded a new order in the Church, an order of apostles whom he sent out two by two as Christ had done, to shake up apathetic Europe. In naming his small band of followers, the Order of Little Brothers, Francis considered “little” as a repudiation of the drive for power, prestige, and status. It connoted a desire to become like God’s poor, helpless and defenseless ones; the ones Christ said were blessed, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Little” inferred a desire to serve and not be served, a desire to be available, to help, to be concerned, share with, suffer and rejoice with.
Wealth, affluence, engrossment with personal property and material goods—these were seen by Francis as deterrents to brotherhood and union with God. Those whose lives are dominated by money and what money can buy are more concerned with things than with people and can lead to the dehumanization of the individual. Francis’s poverty was intended to witness to this conviction.
G.K. Chesterton, perhaps, has the final word about Francis’s personalism. He wrote, ‘It is more true that he deliberately did not see the mob for the men. He honored all men; that is, he not only loved but also respected them all. From the Pope to the beggar, from the sultan to the ragged robber, there was never a man who looked into those brown eyes without being certain that Francis was really interested in him.’ “While you are proclaiming peace with your lips,” Francis told his followers, “be careful to have it even more fully in your heart. “
The Church will always be subject to human weakness and even fallibility in other than essential doctrinal and moral areas. The human weaknesses in the Church of Francis’s time were so vast that the Church was hardly a sign of God’s presence among men. The Church was feared because of its political power; many of the clergy were living scandalous lives; and anticlericalism, with good reason, was rampant. God called Francis to “repair my Church which you see is falling into ruin.”
The world has changed many times over since Francis’s time and yet, many of the same conditions and problems have returned in our time. Millions of words have been spilled out recommending how to solve these problems, how to change conditions, how to shake up the apathetic. So many of the words are clichés that fail to arouse; so many of those who speak cannot be heard because of the contradicting noise of what they do. When Christ says, “You too are to be my witnesses,” perhaps he is saying that the only truth people of our time will know is the believer, individually and collectively, the ones concerned about others, those who are loving, peaceful and faithful. To say it another way, We may be the only Gospel our neighbor will ever read.
“I have done what was mine to do; may Christ teach you what you are to do”. Saint Francis of Assisi Feast Day: 4 October