For the feast of St. Francis, a friar who taught systemic theology for nearly half a century at Christ the King Seminary in Western New York writes about the Franciscans’ patron saint.
Can St. Francis solve the severe problems that overwhelm us today in our Church, our country, and our world? Not directly. We created these problems, and we are responsible for resolving them. No easy task. But as we celebrate St. Francis and his way this week, we can receive inspiration, courage, and insight for the journey ahead.
What does it mean to walk with Francis today? Led by the Holy Spirit, Francis started a youth movement, fired by the imaginative adventure of living the Gospel of Jesus literally in his day. Like so many youthful ventures, it was bound to fall apart, especially when the members began to appear at the doorstep of their relatives and neighbors, begging for food. Guided by the Spirit, they persevered largely by being Catholic with the large and small “c” – Catholic by being subject to the wisdom of the pope, the bishops, and the doctrinal tradition, and catholic, or inclusive, by welcoming women, Clare and her siblings and Lady Jacopa (soon to be named Brother Jacopa) and eventually interested lay persons and couples to form an Order of Penitents living in the world. In the midst of our troubles today, ought we not to be attentive to the synod on youth (in Rome, Oct. 3 to 28)? Should we not also engage in a decision-making capacity competent laywomen and men in the Church’s efforts to address the clergy sex abuse scandal? Would this amount to walking with Francis?
Embracing the Leper in Ourselves
Walking with Francis calls us to embrace the leper in ourselves and in our society, the leper as symbol of brokenness, the pushed-aside, the misfit, what ought not to be, yes and even the sinful. In his greeting and kissing of the leper at the beginning of his conversion and in his work among them with his early brothers, he learned to experience not only radical limitation and sin-ruptured situations, but also the uplifting power of graced compassion and service. So, when he encountered sin in himself, in Assisi, in the clergy, and in the brothers, he was able to do this without anger or judgmental attitudes and always with the firm hope of gradual reconciliation in God’s love. The legend of Francis and the wolf harassing the townsfolk of Gubbio stands also as a parable for his confrontation with sin and his characteristic recourse to reconciliation. Who are the lepers in our midst to be embraced? What structures of sin must we address, starting always with ourselves?
Then there is Francis the builder – first with trowel and mortar, soon with the word of God and selfless service of the needy and also with attention to the teaching of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that called for the reform of Church practices, liturgical renewal, authentic preaching, and sound Catholic belief. “Francis, rebuild my Church,” an initial spiritual experience of his became a lifetime project. With an eye on Francis, how can we ignore the wide-ranging pastoral renewal sparked by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) in our present clamor for reforming our Church? Much has been accomplished, but clergy and laity must continue to collaborate in this work of rebuilding.
To walk with Francis asks all of us to live in surrender to the Spirit of Jesus. Such openness to the Spirit impelled him to embark upon a life of penance according to the form of the holy Gospel. His incessant prayer, fasting, and other ascetical practices sealed him in contemplative union with Christ and the Father. Francis the mystic emerged from constantly waiting upon and serving the Spirit that no pastoral or intellectual priority should overshadow. In his surrender to the Spirit, Francis lost all sense of personal power or importance. He and the brothers were to be humble and submissive to all; in this they attained true Christian freedom. Is living radically in the Spirit’s lead our priority as we address the problems of Church reform and credibility, political polarization and dysfunction, racism, poverty and unequal distribution of wealth? Francis walked in this path.
Celebrating God’s Creative Goodness
In his final years, Francis could not walk nor could he see, but he exhibited an insightful and joyful appreciation of all creation along with a vital communion with it, expressed in an abiding thankfulness and praise, including Sister Death. During this time of physical pain and darkness but also of graced enlightenment, he composed a hymn to celebrate God’s creative goodness; he and the brothers would sing it often, especially in sad or difficult circumstances. He left this earth naked on the bare ground assisted by his brothers and Brother Jacopa; he was stripped of everything but was clothed in the power and beauty of the Spirit in imitation of the crucified Jesus.
Walking with Francis, it seems to me, would mean resisting any temptation to dominate, exploit, and disfigure creation, particularly its nonhuman dimension, in such a manner that the divine presence is totally lost sight of. With Francis, however, we are invited to the care of creation in constant gratitude, wonder, wise use, and preservation (from recycling, composting, moving away from plastics to strenuous efforts to mitigate global warming). Reverence for the created order helps us to savor the rich fruits of the indwelling Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), especially love, joy, and peace.
Our times are troubled, deeply troubled. No quick fix will suffice. But walking with Francis in following after Jesus urges us – all Christians, and men and women of good will – to bring healing to the suffering, brokenness, and sinfulness of our day. And Francis encourages us, “My brothers [and sisters], let us begin to serve the Lord, for up to now we have hardly accomplished anything.” (1 Celano, 6/103)
— Fr. Gabriel, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., lives at St. Bernardine of Siena Friary in Loudonville, N.Y. He professed his first vows as a Franciscan in 1958. The previous in this series, by Joseph Nangle, OFM, was titled “A Franciscan Reflection on the State of the Church.”
Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic – a holiday, current event, holy day or other seasonal themes – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at email@example.com. Additional reflections by friars can be found on the Spiritual Resources page of HNP.org.
- “Christ the King Seminary Celebrates Gabriel Scarfia” – Nov. 30, 2017, HNP Today
- “The Appeal of St. Francis” – Oct. 4, 2016, HNP Today