Tag Archives: St. Francis of Assisi

Francis of Assisi

This year St. Francis has become much more a center of my spirituality.

A visit to Assisi in February was central, but several books on Francis have been very helpful in focusing on who Francis is.

Jesus is central for Francis. Not just any Jesus, but the Jesus who is God made flesh, born into poverty, and dying on a cross.

Jesus, the compassionate, poor, suffering Messiah, called Francis.

Francis experienced Christ’ call to repair the church as he gaze don the cross in San Damiano. Francis experienced the wounds of Christ, as he was visited by the Seraphic Crucified Christ on Mount Alverna.

Francis on Alverna

Francis on Alverna

Francis experienced the poor Christ in the embrace of a leper and in his identification with the marginalized of his day.

Francis experienced the incarnate Christ as he reenacted the Nativity in Greccio.

Nativity Triptych with Benedict and Francis

Nativity Triptych with Benedict and Francis

Francis loved Christ present in the Eucharist – and prayed with great devotion in churches.

Francis saw the presence of God in all creation, as he wrote his Canticle of the Sun.

Francis Composing the Canticle

Francis Composing the Canticle

So, we who follow Francis are called to praise the Creator.

We are called to love the Eucharist.

We ought to identify with the marginalized of this world.

We need to remember that we are loved by a God who became flesh.

Thus we can turn from a world that ignores the poor, that seeks power and wealth, that uses weapons to dominate.

And we can do this with joy.

St. Francis, poverty, and Carlo Carretto

On the evening of October 3, 1226, lying on the ground, Francis of Assisi breathed forth his soul to the Lord. Every year, Franciscans celebrate his passing with a simple ceremony called the Transitus, the Passing of Francis.

Central to the prayer is Psalm 142 (141) which Francis prayed as he was dying. But there is a verse that strikes me as being central to the spirituality of Francis:

Francis, poor and humble, enters heaven as a rich man.

This might be what Paul meant when he wrote (2 Corinthians 8: 9):

you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ. Although he was rich, he became poor, to make you rich through his poverty.

Francis became poor, like his and our Lord. He then enters the presence of God enriched.

But I don’t think it was easy for him. In fact, I think that he was much like many of us from North America.

Carlo Carretto, a Little Brother of Jesus, a follower of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, died on October 3, 1988. One of my favorite works of his is I, Francis, in which he speaks in the voice of Francis.

Reflecting on Francis’ turn to God and the poor, and the desolation he experienced after being freed from prison in Perugia, Carretto has Francis say:

      Owing to the upbringing I had received at my mother’s hand, as well as the attitude of the church I had been attending up until that time, I had always thought that it was we rich and well-to-do who would be the ones to rescue the poor. The latter depended on us, it seemed, and our generosity was their salvation. Without us they would have been destined to death.
What blindness was ours and mine!

It was the poor who would be my salvation, and not I theirs.
It was they who would put me back on my feet.

The poor Christ teaches us that the poor teach us; they open up to us the devastating, yet hope-bringing, reality of the world, seen through God made flesh, offering himself up for us, in love.

What a hard message for us – but how redemptive when we begin to identify with the poor and accompany them. Then we might, like Francis and Carlo Carretto, be put back on our feet.

Bearing the marks of Jesus

May I never boast in anything,
except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
through which the world has been crucified to me,
and I to the world…
I bear the marks [stigmata] of Jesus on my body.
Galatians 6: 14, 17

Today the Franciscans celebrate the Stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi.

DSC01712In 1224, sometime around the feast of the Holy Cross (September 14), Francis was praying and fast on Mount Alverna. He witnessed a seraph, with the crucified Lord. After this his body was marked with the five wounds of Christ.

Much has been written about this first manifestation of the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. The discussion on Francis’s stigmata in Andre Vauchez’s Francis of Assisi: the life and afterlife of a medieval saint is very informative.

It is easy to get fixated on the physicality of Francis’ wounds or on the way that these make him into “another Christ.” But as St. Bonaventure  wrote, “it was not the martyrdom of his body but the love burning in his soul that was going to transform him into the likeness of Christ crucified.” It was the love of the incarnate and crucified Lord that transformed Francis.

In trying to understand Francis and the Stigmata, I have found Lawrence Cunningham’s Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel of Life extremely helpful.

He sees Francis as “more a performer of the Word of God than a commentator upon it… It would not be too audacious to say that the stigmata were a kind of writing on the body of Francis – a kind of reversal or mirror image of the passion story.”

Cunningham situates the imprinting of the stigmata on Francis in relation to the Christmas celebration of the previous December where Francis enacted the birth of the Lord in a cave at Greccio, seeing these as “two parentheses that summed up the evangelical vision of Francis.” These events reveal the deeply incarnational vision of Francis, as he sought to live out the life of his Savior.

The Pauline emphasis of identification with Christ [Galatians 6:17] as well as the gospel theme of the following of Christ [Matthew 16: 24] is evident in the life of Francis through his desire to follow the poverty of Christ from his poor birth in a stable through his desolation on the cross.

In contrast to the debates about literal poverty among the early Franciscans, Cunningham suggests that we look at how Francis saw poverty:

as a self-emptying whose meaning had to be anchored in the reality of the gospel message whose center is the cross. That self-emptying began, of course, when the Word became flesh, when the Son of God was born of Mary in a simple stable in Bethlehem.

And so, what are the marks of Christ we should bear on our body?

Not the physical stigmata, but the love of Jesus God made flesh in the poor man of Nazareth and the identification with those at the margin as Jesus did.

That is perhaps the best way to follow Christ – and to remember Francis of Assisi.

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The  painting, from the 15th century Umbrian School, is in the Vatican Museum.

 

 

Ozanam and St. Francis

Many older Catholics have heard of the St. Vincent de Paul Society that responds to the needs of the poor. But not many know of Blessed Frederic Ozanam, one of its founders.

Frederic Ozanam died on September 8, 1853, at the age of forty. He studied law and literature, writing a dissertation on Dante’s philosophy. He taught and wrote with a passion. But he also had the sense that faith needed to be related to daily life, especially responding to the poor.

Even though his initial response to the poverty around him in France was charity, he also saw the need to change the social systems that keep people poor and create massive inequality. He supported the aims of the 1848 uprising in France, even though he abhorred the violence.

In some ways he promoted what we call today solidarity, which is well described in this quote from Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, ¶28:

Solidarity is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all….
Solidarity helps us to see the “other” — whether a person, people or nation — not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our “neighbor,” a “helper”, to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God.

A year before his death, in a book on Franciscan poetry, Blessed Frederick Ozanam wrote, about the genius of St. Francis of Assisi in this regard:

By making himself poor, by founding a new order of poor like him, he honored poverty, which is the most disdained and most common of human conditions. He showed that one can find peace, charity, and happiness therein. He thereby brought calm to the resentments of the indigent classes; he reconciled them with the rich, whom they learned to envy no longer. He eased that old conflict between those who do not own against those who do own and strengthened the bonds already loose within Christian society.

Let us today honor the poor, treat them as our equals, and work for a society where people are reconciled with God and with all others, sharing with those in need.

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The quote from Frederic Ozanam is taken from Andre Vauchez’s Francis of Assisi, p. 240.