The Year For Consecrated Life Has Begun

On the First Sunday in Advent, November 30, 2014, Pope Francis released a message inaugurating the Year for Consecrated Life, which will end on February 2, 2016, the Feast of the Presentation. In the message the Holy Father outlines a program for reflection and action that should be a source of renewal for individual consecrated persons and their institutes. Please support Pope Francis and all consecrated persons in this endeavor by taking the time to read his message. I offer a few reflections of my own here. Continue reading

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The Man in the Mirror

Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!

—St. Clare of Assisi

The “mirror of the cross” is an important image in the tradition of Franciscan spirituality.  The use of the image of the mirror was already in use among spiritual writers of the Cistercian school, when St. Clare of Assisi first took it up for Franciscan use.  St. Bonaventure used the image extensively in his masterwork, The Journey of the Soul to God.  The idea presupposes that the way in which we know Jesus is transformative.  To see Jesus, that is, to truly know him, is to become His reflection, His image and likeness.  This is the opposite of egoism.  Mirror gazing can be a very vain thing, but it can also be exactly the opposite.

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The Little Portion

The servant of God Francis, a person small in stature, humble in mind, a minor by profession, while yet in the world chose out of the world for himself and his followers a little portion, in as much as he could not serve Christ without having something of the world.  For it was not without the foreknowledge of a divine disposition that from ancient times that place was called the Portiuncula which was to fall to the lot of those who wished to have nothing whatsoever of the world.

—Thomas of Celano, c. 1244

The beautiful Feast of Our Lady of the Angels, commemorates the dedication of the little chapel known as the Portiuncula (Little Portion) or Our Lady of the Angels.  It was the third Church St. Francis rebuilt after Our Lord spoke to him from the Cross and ordered him to “rebuild the Church.”  St. Bonaventure says that the three churches prefigured the three orders he later founded: First Order (the friars); Second Order (the Poor Clares); Third Order (the secular participants in the life of the Order).  Thomas of Celano, the first biographer of St. Francis, quoted above, also writes:

For there had also been built in that place a church of the Virgin Mother who merited by Her singular humility to be, after Her son, the head of al the saints.  In this church the Order of Friars Minor had its beginning, there, as on a firm foundation, when their number had grown, the noble fabric of the order arose.  The holy man loved this place above all others; this place he commanded his brothers to venerate with a special reverence; this place he willed to be preserved as a model of humility and highest poverty for their order, reserving the ownership of it to others, and keeping only the use of it for himself and his brothers. Continue reading

Francis Interpreting Francis

I just noticed this quote from Pope Francis:

Let us all remember this: one cannot proclaim the Gospel of Jesus without the tangible witness of one’s life. Those who listen to us and observe us must be able to see in our actions what they hear from our lips, and so give glory to God! I am thinking now of some advice that Saint Francis of Assisi gave his brothers: preach the Gospel and, if necessary, use words. Preaching with your life, with your witness. Inconsistency on the part of pastors and the faithful between what they say and what they do, between word and manner of life, is undermining the Church’s credibility.

I have heard others a number of times take exception to both the attribution of the words emphasized above to St. Francis and to the soundness of the exhortation.  The argument has some merit.  The Franciscan sources do not support the attribution to St. Francis, and it is true that the words can be construed to mean that it is sufficient to be a witness to Christ by one’s life.  Efforts to evangelize are not essential.

But while St. Francis may have never said the words, they are an excellent summary of his spirituality. Pope Francis interprets the meaning of the phrase exactly.  Whoever first used the words did in fact understand St. Francis.  Perhaps it was one of the novices who were led by St. Francis through the streets of the town in their poor habits, telling them: “We are going to preach the gospel.”  After having returned to the friary without having spoken to anyone along the way, a novice asked St. Francis why they had not preached the gospel,  St. Francis simply answered, “We did.”

The Franciscan spirit is in the first place a way of life and a witness.  St. Francis was never afraid to speak out, but he was just as content to be driven out of town as he was to preach with apparent success.  He was not all that impressed by eloquence and declared to the friars that it was not the preachers who converted anyone but Christ alone and that the friars who were faithful to the Rule did more for the conversion of sinners than anyone else.  He called them his “Knights of the Round Table.”

At times when he got up to preach, he could not think of anything to say and just sat back down, and did so without thinking much of it.  The Franciscan Order has always had a tremendous commitment to the apostolic life, but has always been its best, when it hung its hat on nothing but fidelity to the evangelical way of life, by living “the gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ in obedience, without property and in chastity” (Rule, c. 1).

But stating that fact that witness has more power than words has never been an excuse in Franciscan circles to omit the work of evangelization.  The fact that the idea is misinterpreted is not the fault of St. Francis, and neither is it a reason to deny its validity.  Pope Francis, who is obviously committed to evangelization and reform, far from being confused about St. Francis is showing himself to be very astute in Franciscan spirituality.

The Franciscan Papacy: Rebuilding or Demolition?

The life of St. Francis is subject to much sentimental hype because of his love for creation and his identification with the poor.  The saccharine images on holy cards and sculptures in gardens don’t help the matter.  And Zeffirelli’s hippie-revolutionary film version of the saint is positively infuriating.  Pope Francis seems be subject to the same kind of misinterpretaion.

The media and the Catholic propagandists on the left and the right will continue to mythologize about St. Francis and Pope Francis’ selection of the name.  The pope himself has said the reason for the choice of name has to do with “peace” and “poverty.”  Oh, those two words: two little threads out of which the propagandists will weave a rope to hang us all with.  Sandro Magister puts it well:

In the pseudo-Franciscan and pauperist mythology that in these days so many are applying to the new pope, imagination runs to a Church that would renounce power, structures, and wealth and make itself purely spiritual.

But it is not for this that the saint of Assisi lived. In the dream of Pope Innocent III painted by Giotto, Francis is not  demolishing the Church, but carrying it on his shoulders. And it is the Church of St. John Lateran, the cathedral of the bishop of Rome, at that time recently restored and decorated lavishly, but made ugly by the sins of its men, who had to be purified. It was a few followers of Francis who fell into spiritualism and heresy. Continue reading

Francis and the Holy Spirit

The people of St. Francis’ time, both the hierarchy and the simple faithful, recognized him as a particular prophetic instrument of the Holy Spirit.  He created a movement that set the world on fire and it spread like fire.  His movement was both traditional and innovative.  I wonder if in the providence of God Pope Francis’ name has a significance beyond what even himself might have anticipated.  St. Francis was an instrument of the Holy Spirit to reform the Church in difficult times.  But his innovation was not without its own problems. Reform typically initiates a crisis from which equilibrium only emerges after time and much difficulty.

St. Francis’ spirit of obedience to the Church manifested itself, not only in an evangelical desire for reform and the simple gospel life.  It also showed itself in a docility to the prescriptions of reform promulgated by the Fourth Lateran Council.  In fact, St. Francis made sure that the simple gospel life of the friars was protected from pride and error by his instance, stated at both the beginning and end of his Rule, that the friars remain humble and submissive to the Holy Roman Pontiff. Continue reading

St. Francis, the Sultan and Pope Benedict

The following excerpt is from yesterday’s Wednesday audience of the Holy Father in which he offered a reflection on the life of St. Francis.  This particular passage concerns St. Francis’ meeting with the sultan in Egypt in 1219, (my unofficial translation from the Italian):

Also the successor of Innocent III, Pope Honorius III, with the bull Cum dilecti of 1218 supported the singular development of the first Friars Minor, who went opening missions in various countries of Europe, and in Morocco. In 1219 Francis obtained permission to go and speak, in Egypt, with the Muslim sultan Melek-el-Kâmel, in order to preach the Gospel of Jesus there also.  I wish to underscore that this episode of the life of Saint Francis that has great relevance.  In an age marked by an ongoing conflict between Christianity and Islam, Francis, armed only with the faith and his personal gentleness, effectively followed the path of dialogue. The reports speak about a benevolent acceptance and cordial reception to us from the Muslim sultan.  It is a model that even today must inspire relations between Christian and Muslims: promote dialogue in truth, in reciprocal respect and mutual understanding.  (cfr Nostra Aetate, 3).

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St. Francis, the Sultan and the President

I wrote the following essay some weeks ago, but never found time to edit and post it.  Since today is the feast of the Protomartyrs of the Franciscan Order, St. Berard and Companions, I thought it would be an auspicious time to bring this to light.

While I realize the historical figure of St. Francis lends itself to romanticizing and mythologizing because of the singularly extraordinary nature of his person, as a Franciscan it irritates me to see his life used as a political tool.  Paul Moses on the CNN Opinion website, does precisely this as he attempts to have St. Francis sucked into vortex of Obama-mania.  In addition to being the author of the CNN article entitled “Is Religion about War—or Peace?” Mr. Moses is the author of a new book called The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace. Mr. Moses is at pains to state that he does not “mean to liken Obama to Francis,” but, goes on to do precisely that and, in the process of expressing his admiration for Mr. Obama, he historically misrepresents the Seraphic Saint. Continue reading