Franciscans: Yay! We're in Last Place
Sports are a quite dominant feature of American culture. There are a lot of positive things about sports: physical exercise, healthy competition, and just plain fun. We all have our favorite teams and sports. Maybe you’ve attended a big game of a team that’s at the top of the league, successful, and moving toward a championship. The enthusiastic crowd chants “We’re number one.” It can be really exciting as we join in this happy chant: “We’re number one.” But, maybe your favorite team is in last place. You faithfully attend their games with hope that maybe they’ll win at least one game. In this situation, I’ve never heard the fans chant “We’re in last place!” We’re so proud of our team; they’re doing their best. So why not chant “We’re in last place!”'
As Christians, especially as Franciscan Brothers Minor and Poor Sisters of Saint Clare, isn’t this really your chant? “We’re in last place!” Isn’t this what Jesus teaches us – “the first will be last and the last will be first?” Isn’t this the way of Saint Clare and Saint Francis? Jesus taught and lived this reversal of values in the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in spirit and the meek! Jesus spoke about riches and power and earthly gain as obstacles to entering the kingdom of heaven. Are not the evangelical counsels you profess in your vows a living proclamation of the words: “We’re in last place!”
Poverty, chastity, and obedience as lived and taught by Jesus, as followed by Clare and Francis, have great meaning and purpose if and only if, they are rooted and grounded in love and humility. From thence comes their fruitfulness. Pride corrupts the evangelical counsels. Living poverty, chastity, and obedience without love, without charity, bears no fruit. It makes one a Pharisee, a hypocrite. As you seek to imitate the poverty, chastity, and obedience of Saints Clare and Francis, you must always seek first to imitate their love and humility.
Saint Clare renounced her noble status and her family’s wealth to live in humility and poverty, adopting the lifestyle of Saint Francis. She was fascinated, not by money, material riches, or earthly delights, but by Christ, His beauty and the beauty of His Gospel. Saint Clare had a profound love for Jesus and His holy poverty, as well as His chastity and purity. She received in humility Jesus’ love, and she embraced it in her espousal to him. With joy, she embraced the privations of the cloistered life because they allowed her to share in the self-giving of her beloved Spouse: the poor, humble, chaste and obedient Jesus. Our Poor Sisters of Saint Clare are learning from Saint Clare to receive in humility the love of Jesus and to embrace that love through living their vows with this end, always with this end: of entering into profound communion with Jesus crucified and as Saint Paul teaches, “In the power of the resurrection.” I pray at this Mass especially for our Poor Sisters of Saint Clare, who are a gift to our diocese, that they may live in joyful fidelity to the heritage of Saint Clare.
The opening prayer or “collect” of this Mass, the prayer of the Church on this feast of Saint Clare, speaks of how God in His mercy led Saint Clare to a love of poverty. The Church prays that, through her intercession, following Christ in poverty of spirit, we may merit to contemplate God one day in the Kingdom of heaven. Notice how the Church speaks of both poverty itself and poverty of spirit. Poverty itself without poverty of spirit loses its value. The heart of the vow of poverty must always be poverty in spirit--humility--the humility of love – the humility of the Incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus that is love, pure love, and self-giving love. I think today of how important poverty of spirit is for a community of Franciscans and Poor Clares, for the health and holiness of the community, especially the poverty of spirit, the love and humility of superiors, of those in authority, of ministers and guardians in the community. They are to guard the life and serve with love those entrusted to their care. Yes, they guard the rule, but always with wisdom and love for each member of the community. This means genuine care for and protection of the physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual well being of each member.
The good superior avoids unhealthy scrupulosity in the observance of the rule. The good superior respects the God-given freedom of each member and never exerts pressure in the process of discernment, thus respecting the inner sanctuary of the member’s dialogue with God in freedom. The good superior does not use his or her authority in a way that misuses and corrupts the virtue of obedience, distorting the beauty of obedience into a servile submission that is unjust and oppressive. Saint Francis and Saint Clare never used their authority in this way. Their love for the friars and nuns and novices was always their motivation and end. The joy of the Franciscan life becomes diminished, and even can become extinguished, when poverty of spirit is missing, when there is not humility and love in the life of the community. Think of Saint Clare: she was a woman who loved poverty, but she lived it with great tenderness and love for her sisters and for the brothers. It was her poverty of spirit that motivated and grounded her material poverty. She is a saint because of her poverty of spirit, because of her love and humility that gave substance and merit to her material poverty.
My brothers and sisters, I invite you today to consider these words of Saint Paul to the Philippians from our first reading today. They seem appropriate to your life at this point in your young history. Saint Paul writes of “forgetting what lies behind but straining to what lies ahead.” He says “I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” I invite you to focus on this prize for completing the race – to arrive at what God the Father is calling you to, nothing less than to be glorified with Jesus. Your live of poverty, chastity, and obedience is meant to help you in this race. The evangelical counsels help us if we are truly poor in spirit, loving and humble servants and friends of the Lord. When we are, we can joyfully and enthusiastically chant not “we are number one,” but “we are in last place.” For as Jesus teaches us: “the first will be last and the last will be first.”
--Bishop Kevin Rhoades Feast of Saint Clare – August 11, 2017 (Saint Andrew Church, Fort Wayne)