Today we keep the anniversary of our parish patron’s death, as a Memorial. Over the weekend, we will keep it as a Solemnity, as is our prerogative to do.
As we celebrate Holy Mass to honor Saint Francis, we sing about how God has used the saints to call mankind back to our original holiness, to the innocence of the garden, before the Fall. Saint Francis’ totally Christ-like life has rescued generations of human souls from cynicism, from hopelessness, from self-centered self-destruction.
My dear mom is visiting the parish today, along with my tall and handsome brother. My mom and I have had the chance to visit Assisi. Twice. By the grace of God, many of us have been there. A trip to Assisi offers an antidote for cynicism and hopelessness, all by itself—just being there makes you feel like you’re breathing the air of the Garden of Eden.
We have the first pope who ever presumed to take Saint Francis’ name. And Pope Francis presides over a Catholic Church so grievously misgoverned that there’s hardly any earthly hope for Her survival.
But Saint Francis lived in such times, too. Granted, the prelates of his age weren’t quite as worldly and corrupt as the ones we have now. Nor were the popes of the first part of the thirteenth century quite as ineffectual as the first two popes of the twenty-first century have been. We have in common with Saint Francis that one of the popes during his lifetime wanted to resign. But, in the case of Celestine III, the Cardinals wouldn’t let him quit.
Anyway, my point is: Saint Francis had to soldier on in pure faith. Even while the upper leadership had more interest in worldly power than in shepherding souls. Saint Francis had to keep believing in Jesus, and living in union with Him, through all that.
We do, too, of course. With St. Francis’ help, we can do it.
Today we commemorate the 791st anniversary of the holy death of Francis of Assisi. At Holy Mass, we read from the gospel about how Lord Jesus renounced all possessions and lived as a penniless wanderer. St. Francis embraced the same poverty for the sake of the Kingdom of God. This led St. Francis to wander, also—around his home country, and further afield—all for the purpose of extending the reign of Christ.
But let’s pause and meditate on this: the poverty of Christ, which St. Francis embraced so thoroughly, went way beyond just the renunciation of worldly possessions—of home, and family, and security.
Yes, the Lord Jesus did renounce home and family and security, and that allowed Him to wander, and teach and heal. But Christ did not simply wander as an itinerant rabbi–as if that alone sufficed to fulfill His mission.
In all His wanderings, Christ had a final destination, towards which He proceeded tirelessly, without swerving to the right or to the left. Now, only He could fully perceive the unfolding of this path before Him; even His most-intimate companions could not see the path. But that doesn’t mean Christ didn’t walk straight down it. He did.
The road to the cross.
A Franciscan–a Christian—renounces everything not just because that gives you greater freedom to wander the world and spread the reign of Christ. No: a Christian lets go of everything because death is inevitable, and it’s the only way to God.
A Christian knows that the only thing worth having is God. And there is no way to “have” God during this mortal pilgrim life, except by faith. We “possess” the unknowable God only in the darkness of faith.
God Himself is the light that turns the darkness of faith into the brightness of understanding—but the only way to that light is to share in Christ’s death. His death.
That’s the poverty that liberates and makes us not just wanderers but pilgrims to the Holy Temple. We believe so thoroughly in Christ’s triumph over death that everything (most of all my self) utterly pales in comparison with the prospect of sharing in that triumph.
Not as hard to understand as we might think. Very straightforward in fact.
Anyone ever heard of St. Francis of Assisi? Little guy. Italian. Pope named himself after him.
St. Francis loved God, trusted God, wanted only God. Francis believed that everything the Lord Jesus said is true. The heavenly Father provides for the flowers of the field and the birds of the air, who neither toil nor spin, and He will certainly provide for us. The Father’s eyes are on the sparrow; He knows how many hairs are growing on our heads. Why worry? The Lord will take care of tomorrow; the Lord will take care of the rest of today. His will be done!
So St. Francis gave away everything he did not need. Then he gave away everything he needed. By doing all that, he cleaned his insides. Because all he wanted was God, and he did not want anything less than God.
God will take care of everything. Everything that I think belongs to me really doesn’t. It really belongs to the next person I see who could make good use of it. I am actually the UPS guy for all these people, employed by the Lord to deliver all the goods I have to the individuals who can make good use of them. Talk about logistics!
Let’s go one step farther. The most precious thing that I have is actually not a ‘thing.’ The most precious thing I have is my love. My genuine love for others: esteeming them, warmly engaging them, cultivating compassion for them, offering them true Christian friendship.
Guess what? None of this is ‘mine,’ either. True, constant, firm love comes from God, comes from the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ. It comes from Him into my heart for one reason: So that I will give it away. So that I will lavishly love, helping others bear their burdens, expecting nothing in return. Because indeed the greatest gift I myself can receive is to know someone worth loving. And every human being is worth loving.
Then the whole lesson about giving alms comes to its final conclusion. Because we discover that the more Christian love we give, the more we have to give. The Sacred Heart of Jesus flows like an inexhaustible fountain of love. Loving with Christian love is like making an investment that pays 1000% interest.
So, to summarize…’Give alms’ means: Love my neighbor, and give my neighbor everything I have, including what I need to survive. Then I will wind up as rich as poor St. Francis.
Five years ago, your humble servant also paid a visit (which was my third). My dear mommy appears here, on the far left. Two of the fellow pilgrims pictured have gone on to meet Sister Death in the meantime. May God be merciful…
…“Lord, increase our faith.” Increase our faith. Increase our faith today. And for the rest of this Year of Faith. For the rest of the Redskins season. For the rest of our earthly pilgrimage. Increase our faith, Lord.
St. Francis of Assisi had some faith. To quite G.K. Chesterton’s biography: “To this mystic his religion was not a thing like a theory but a thing like a love affair.” Religion that is not a theory but a love affair.
To believe in God so much that my life is nothing other than my love affair with Him. I think maybe that explains St. Francis better than anything else I have ever read about him.
To us smaller, worldly souls, St. Francis can appear inconsistent. He caressed the wolf and sang to his friends the sun and moon, as if he were living in the Age of Aquarius. But Francis also fasted and did penance to the point that his body never recovered. He died when he was my age.
Francis embraced the leper and found Christ in every poor man. But, at the same time, no one has ever revered the hierarchical structure of the Church, the sacredness of the male, celibate priesthood, the office of the papacy—no one has ever revered these things more than Francis of Assisi revered them.
In our mind’s eye, we can see Francis dancing with joy through the trees and wildflowers of the Umbrian hills, a man as free as Jesus Christ Himself. But, like Christ’s freedom, Francis’ came from unstinting, self-sacrificing obedience to divine law. The perfectly free Francis never swerved from the path of perfect obedience.
Inconsistent? St. Francis? Again, Chesterton: “What seems inconsistency to you, modern man, did not seem inconsistency to him.”
…In Assisi today, venerating his namesake, our Holy Father quoted St. Francis’ prayer for his own hometown. The Pope used this prayer for Assisi, and for the nation of Italy (which has St. Francis for her patron). The prayer is like an echo of the prayer of the exiles of Jerusalm (first reading at Holy Mass today), a penitent acclamation of Christ’s dominion:
I pray to you, Lord Jesus Christ, Father of mercies: Do not look upon our ingratitude, but always keep in mind the surpassing goodness which you have shown to this City. Grant that it may always be the home of men and women who know you in truth and who glorify your most holy and glorious name, now and for all ages. Amen.
St. Francis prayed that his city would be a city of faith and service to the triune God. Pope Francis prays the same. This prayer reminds us of our Holy Father’s words in his encyclical on faith:
If we remove faith in God from our cities, mutual trust would be weakened, we would remain united only by fear, and our stability would be threatened. In the Letter to the Hebrews we read that “God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them” (Heb 11:16)… The intention is to say that God, by his concrete actions, makes a public avowal that he is present in our midst and that he desires to solidify every human relationship. Could it be the case, instead, that we are the ones who are ashamed to call God our God? That we are the ones who fail to confess him as such in our public life, who fail to propose the grandeur of the life in common, which he makes possible?*
The doctrine of St. Francis mesmerizes us with its simplicity: We all have one Father. We are all brothers. Simple.
And his doctrine convinces us by the intensity of his own experience of its truth. How do we know that we all have one Father and that we are all brothers? We know it because Christ taught us. How did Christ teach us? By His wounds, which He suffered for us. How do we learn it? By bearing His wounds in our bodies.
* This same paragraph of Lumen Fidei quotes one of our Hall-of-Famers, T.S. Eliot. In particular, his lyrics for “The Rock.” The long poem packs a punch, especially during these days of widespread federal furloughs.
A year ago our Holy Father Pope Benedict made a pilgrimage to Assisi to welcome guests from all over the world to pray together for peace. Together they marked the 25th anniversary of a similar pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Francis, which had been led by Blessed Pope John Paul II.
In Assisi, Pope Benedict contrasted the state of the world a quarter-century ago with the state of the world today. The great threat of violence between the world’s nuclear super-powers, which hung like a cloud over the 1980’s, had vanished without further bloodshed, God be praised. But violence still threatens us as much as ever, and the Pope cannily explained the two-fold source of this threat.
Anybody see a movie back in the late 90’s called “The Truman Show?” The true man of the movie had been the unwitting star of a reality show for his entire life. He had lived in a dome the size of a small city, which served as the set of the show. He was surrounded by hidden cameras all the time. His entire life was manipulated by the show’s producer. Everyone Truman knew was really an actor. The world loved Truman; his show was the most popular on television. The only person who didn’t know that Truman was a reality-t.v. star was…Truman himself.
In order to keep Truman from wanting to travel beyond the confines of the dome, the producer had managed to train him to fear the unknown and prefer the comforts of his day-to-day life.
But as Truman grew older, his desire to know more about the world became increasingly intense. He commandeered a boat on the shore of the staged ocean, and he sailed into the unknown. Truman managed to reach the outer wall of the concrete dome in which he had lived his whole life. The prow of the boat crashed into the cinder blocks that were painted to look like the horizon. Then Truman found a hidden emergency exit door in the wall that he had always thought was the sky. The producer got on a microphone, trying to convince Truman not to walk out the door. But Truman would not be stopped. He stepped through the dark threshold into the outside world that he had never known.
Thank you for all the good wishes upon our arrival here. We have received the prayer requests. Count on our prayers.
This morning we had Holy Mass in the lower Basilica of St. Francis, just a few feet from his tomb.
Then we toured the upper and lower Basilicas, visiting St. Francis and admiring the beautiful frescoes, especially those by Giotto. We were guided by a local expert, with a son named Francesco.
We visited the nearby chapel of San Damiano, where St. Francis heard our Lord speak to him from the cross. Christ told St. Francis to “re-build my Church.” This is also the place where St. Clare lived her life as a nun and inaugurated the Poor Clare way of life. We visited the original Poor Clare convent.
Then we visited the Basilica of St. Clare, where the saint rests in peaceful splendor, awaiting the resurrection. From there we walked to the town square, where there was an ancient Roman temple to the goddess of wisdom. Now the building is a church dedicated to our Lady.
Then it was time for a delicious Italian lunch.
Just to give you an idea of what a small world it truly is: By noon today (Assisi time, of course–six hours ahead of EST) I had already run into two priests I know.
Also, we all knew by breakfast about the unfortunate outcome yesterday evening in Washington. But we do not care, since we have bigger fish to fry. A pilgrimage can even put football into perspective.
It has been something of a slog through airports, bus parking lots, and hilly Umbrian streets…but we pilgrims have made it to the town of St. Francis.
Upon arrival in Assisi, we went straight to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels. This massive sixteenth-century church houses the Portiuncula, the small chapel where St. Francis and his first followers prayed. This is also the site where St. Clare became the Bride of Christ, as our guide Elizabeth pointed out. And it is the place where the Troubadour of Christ breathed his last.
For followers and friends of St. Francis, this is the holiest of sites. It was not just sleep deprivation that made us emotional as we celebrated Holy Mass in the chapel of St. Clare. The Lord has drawn us here to meet Him, to renew ourselves in contemplation of the mystery of holiness.
Tomorrow we will visit both St. Francis and St. Clare. The Basilica where we were earlier today is in the lower town of Assisi, at the bottom of the hill. It was open country and woods at the time of St. Francis and St. Clare.
The churches of the saints of Assisi are in the thousand-year-old town at the top of the hill. We came up the hill by bus after Mass, just in time for supper.
Our accommodations are right between the churches of St. Francis and St. Clare, in the middle of the old town. The hotel dining room afforded us a splendid dinner this evening, complete with bottles of delicious Umbrian wine. We are now well-fed and hope to be well-rested soon.
We thank the gracious Providence of God for getting us here safely. And we thank Him, and all the wonderful geeks of the world, for making it possible to share this with you. The Geeks are alright!
St. Therese of Lisieux is a Doctor of the Church, which means she is a pre-eminent teacher of Christian wisdom. When her death was imminent, her superior ordered her to write an autobiography. Story of A Soul contains her sublime doctrine, applied to herself.
The book recounts that, shortly before Therese entered the convent, she went on pilgrimage to Rome. She went with the Bishop of her diocese, her father, her sister, and other Catholics from her part of France. She was not quite fifteen years old. On November 4, 1887, they departed by train from Paris. They visited Assisi and other towns in Italy. On November 20, they went to the Vatican to see the Pope.
Is this, dear friends, an uncanny coincidence? Your humble servant and his 35 fellow pilgrims will be going to see the Pope on almost the exact same day! (God willing, we will see Pope Benedict next Wednesday, November 19.)
We do not believe in coincidences. St. Therese is watching over us. This is part of a Plan.
Can we hope that the Holy Doctor Therese has special graces for us pilgrims when we follow in her footsteps AT THE EXACT SAME TIME OF YEAR?
We can hope for this. And you, dear reader, can hope for a share of these graces, no matter where you may be next week. The Preacher and Big Daddy team intends–with the help of Almighty God–to bring the pilgrimage to your computer screen.
If all goes as planned (which is, as we know, a very big IF), we will be blogging from Assisi and Rome. We have brought a trusty photographer on-board for this ambitious project.
Our first stop on pilgrimage will be the ancient hamlet of the Troubadour of Christ, in the heart of the province of Umbria. Did you know that there is a Litany of St. Francis? We will pray it as we make our way to Assisi to visit the tomb of the most beloved saint of all time, after our Lady. May he intercede for us, along with St. Therese. May heaven smile upon all of us!