Summary: Francis stands out as an example of radical following of Christ, and an impulsive drive to rebuild the Church.
Monday of 27th week in Course
Testimony of the Saints
Saint Francis of Assisi
3 October 2011 (one day early)
Tomorrow we celebrate the day of St. Francis of Assisi, and on this note I will take a long break from this series on the Testimony of the Saints, and, God willing, begin next week a series of reflections on the Pope’s exhortation, Verbum Domini. But St. Francis gives us an incomparable exclamation point in our one-paragraph review of God’s saints, because he is, without doubt, unique among the unique panorama of holiness that manifests God’s abiding presence on earth.
For your meditation I recommend G.K. Chesterton’s little book about St. Francis, because few understood this saint of paradox more than Chesterton, the paradox-writer. Francis was a rich man whose glory is his poverty, a priest of God’s glorious creation who was only ordained a deacon, the first Franciscan whose way of life was rejected by the second generation of Franciscans. And he was all these things because all he ever wanted was to be like Jesus Christ.
The popularity of Francis began in his youth. He was naturally attractive to those around him. His dad was a cloth merchant, prosperous in worldly goods but untitled–not even a citizen of his town. That prosperity made Francis able to be generous. The story is told of him haggling over some bolts of cloth with a buyer, when he was approached by a beggar, who imprudently interrupted the sale. Francis concluded the transaction and then looked for the mendicant, who had disappeared. He abandoned his goods and ran through the town until he finally located the poor man, to whom he gave alms. Later, the more famous story tells how he encountered a leper on the road, one whom he naturally feared like death itself. But, impulsively, he leapt from his horse and embraced the leper, to whom he gave alms. As he rode off, he turned around and saw no one.
Grace builds on nature, and Christ’s grace built on Francis’s natural virtues as in no one else. He was unconsciously imitating the Good Samaritan when he embraced the leper. He lived the Great Commandment even when his energies were wasted on high living, before his conversion. But when he heard the voice of Christ telling him to rebuild his house, and sold his father’s property–first making the sign of the cross over what he had stolen–to repair the church of Santo Damiano, he learned firsthand that following Christ had a price. His father put Francis into jail as a common thief. Summoned before the bishop, he hear the prelate address “some remarks to him, full of that excellent common sense which the Catholic Church keeps permanently” as antidotes “for all the fiery attitudes of her saints. He told Francis that he must unquestionably restore the money to his father; that no blessing could follow a good work done by unjust methods.” (58) Francis answered obediently that not only would he restore the money, “but everything that can be called his I will restore to my father, even the very clothes he has given me,” and he threw all his clothes except the undergarment–a hair shirt–on the floor, and the money on top of them. He got the bishop’s blessing and left everything to cast himself on the mercy of God, in the snow. “And as he went under the frosty trees, he burst suddenly into song.”
He had misinterpreted the divine voice to rebuild God’s house. The house Christ meant was the whole Church, which, like any living organism, has times of flowering and other times of decay. The Church had grown fat and complacent, and needed a jolt of spiritual vitality. So God inspired Francis and Dominic to adopt lives like Christ’s, radically poor, mendicants, spreading the Gospel of charity and faith to a world in need of both. Toward the end of his life, Francis even undertook a campaign to convert the Muslim world single-handedly, and somehow managed to preach the Gospel before the Sultan’s court, and escape without being harmed. His rash nature gave him the strength to respond to the grace of Christ without fear of human respect, to go boldly where no sane man would dare go, and to become an instrument of Christ’s peace.
This boldness is needed in a world of pusillanimity. We Catholics are caught between twin assaults: the empty secular culture is void of transcendent meaning, but is not content with ignoring the Gospel. It persecutes those who live it. The latest assault is HHS’s command that all insurance plans pay for contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs. Radical Islam tells us to convert or die, and mistakes secular culture for Christian culture, condemning those who accept Christ to death. To both, Francis stands out as a figure of hope, so that our prayer must be for a rebirth of his rash devotion to Christ, his radical acceptance of poverty of spirit, in a new generation armed for a conflict of faith and love.