Recently, on 4th October, we celebrated the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis the radical reformer of the 13th century, although in our time he is honoured principally for his love for creation. By his very name, Pope Francis, calls the Church to embrace the radical witness of this much loved saint. St. Francis’ life and mission, continues to inspire us all to live lives of love, justice and compassion with a particular bias to the poor.
His 13th century context was one of radical change. It was the time of the rise of early capitalism in Europe. City life was reviving, after many centuries of stagnation after the fall of the Roman Empire. Francis came from a wealthy Italian family since his father was a merchant. His baptismal name was John, and “Francis” was his nickname because he liked to wear stylish clothes from France.
The Church was in the midst of the renewal movement known as the vita apostolica. People wished to live the Christian life with the same intensity as it had been lived by the early Christians. Laity especially desired good preaching (sound familiar?) and people would follow dynamic preachers such as St. Peter Damian from town to town. Francis too was called to preach to the people of his time. One day while praying in the church of San Damiano he experienced Christ speaking to him from the cross and telling him to “rebuild my church”. Francis looked around and saw that the church building needed many repairs so he found rocks and stone and set to work. But he had misunderstood his call; Christ was calling him to re-build the Church, the Body of Christ, by preaching the Gospel values of compassion and love.
This he began to do, calling people to repentance, to poverty (in opposition to the desire for wealth in his time) and prayer. People began to follow him in great numbers, the most important of whom was a young woman, Clare of Assisi (who wanted to preach with Francis but Church authorities insisted she had to live a cloistered life) and so the Franciscan movement was born. The Poor Clare Sisters continue to live a radical witness of prayer and contemplation, their local monastery in Graiguecullen, Co. Carlow is a reservoir of spiritual blessing to all who call to visit this wonderful community.
In 1219 during the Fifth Crusade Francis and a few followers travelled to Damietta in Egypt to meet with the Sultan of Egypt, Malik-al-Kamil. He hoped to convert him which did not happen. But he and the Sultan became close friends. Francis had approached the Sultan in peace, not war. Because of Francis’ initiative, Franciscans and many Muslims have had close personal ties to this day. In our era, when often there is much emotion between Christians and Muslims, Francis shows us a peaceful way of dialogue.
Francis was a person of deep prayer and radical conformity to Christ, which is seen in the stigmata – the wounds of Christ, on his body. Francis believed that the most important way to preach was to witness to the Gospel by the way one lived. He used to tell his followers, “Preach the Gospel with your life; if necessary, use words.”
Francis’s life shows many dimensions which are important for us as 21st century disciples. The Franciscan family with all of its branches has lived the way of Francis for over 800 years. His protest against wealth is as relevant as it was in his day since our world is overwhelmed by greed. His love for all of creation has made him the patron saint of ecology. This witness is so needed in our world which is on the brink of ecological chaos thanks to global warming. His respectful dialogue with the Sultan of Egypt models inter-religious dialogue today.
Francis lived 800 years ago and his world and ours are profoundly different. But we can make many connections. He lived in the time of the vita apostolica; we live in the Church of the continuing renewal of Vatican II. He was a layman (later a deacon); he began to preach as a lay person. Vatican II emphasised lay ministry as indispensable in the life of the Church. His life shows us the unity of prayer and action. His critique of the economic injustice of his time through preaching poverty challenges us today to denounce injustice and oppression and build structures of equity and peace. In his day Christians waged war on the Muslims in the Holy Land in the Crusades; these warlike attitudes toward Muslims are still found amongst some Christians today. But Francis’s witness of peaceful dialogue with the Sultan gives us a very relevant model of dialogue. And as the earth, our only home, becomes ever more a planet in peril, his love for all of creation impels us to action to care for our home.
Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si,’” meaning “Praise be to You,” is deeply inspired by the vision and spirituality of St. Francis. Laudato Si’ takes it’s name from St. Francis of Assisi’s medieval Italian prayer “Canticle of the Sun,” which praises God through elements of creation like Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and “our sister Mother Earth.”
The 184-page encyclical covers a variety of topics, and has been one of the most highly influential papal documents in recent history. In addition to wading into controversial topics, Pope Francis gave beautiful reflections on life, humanity and our call to care for the world in which we live. “I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically.” St Francis of Assisi, pray for us.
In a troubled world, often blinded by its hectic pace, we need as residents on this beautiful planet to pause and reflect upon our own meaning and purpose in life. St Francis Peace prayer, offers a wider context, to trust and hope in the presence of our living God who calls us to trust….. All will be well.
Peace Prayer of Saint Francis
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light;
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