Saint Francis: To Be Like Jesus
Saint Francis Embracing Jesus by Francisco Ribalta (c 1620)
In the latter part of the Book of Sirach, the author writes about various famous men in his survey of the history of Israel. The list of famous men is crowned by the figure of Simon II, son of Onias, as we heard in our first reading today. Simon was an exemplary priest who exercised his office about two centuries before Christ. Sirach writes of him as “the leader of his brethren and the pride of his people…who in life repaired the house, and in his time fortified the temple.” Indeed the priest Simon II repaired the temple in Jerusalem and carried out a rebuilding program. Sirach sings his praises, as we heard in the first reading, and says that Simon was “like the sun shining upon the temple of the Most High.” These words reminded me of Dante’s words in the Divine Comedy where he said, alluding to the birth of Saint Francis: “A sun was born into the world.”
Clearly, today’s first reading was chosen by the Franciscan Order for the feast of Saint Francis because of the words about Simon repairing the house of the Lord. That was the mission Saint Francis received from the Lord in the church of San Damiano. At that time, the Church was in great need of renewal. The faith had become superficial in the lives of most people. The clergy lacked zeal and there was not much love and charity in the so-called Christian society. There was also an interior destruction of the Church with the birth of various heretical movements. It was at that time that the Lord spoke to Francis.
The crucified Lord spoke to Francis at the center of a church in ruins. Yes, Jesus called Francis to the manual labor of repairing the small church of Saint Damiano, but that, as we well know, was a symbol of a much deeper call to repair and renew Christ’s own church. The Lord not only spoke to Francis about this mission of renewal; He also spoke to the Pope in the famous dream in which Pope Innocent III saw the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the mother of all churches, collapsing and a little insignificant religious brother supporting the church on his shoulders to prevent it from falling. Later, when Francis visited him, the Pope recognized that he was the small and insignificant brother he had seen in his dream. Saint Francis was called by God to renew the Church, not in opposition to the Pope but only in communion with him. It is important to remember that the two realities go together: the successor of Peter, the bishops, the Church founded on the succession of the apostles and the new charism that the Holy Spirit brought to life at that time for the Church’s renewal. Authentic renewal grew from these together (Pope Benedict XVI).
Your charism as Franciscan Friars Minor and Poor Sisters of Saint Clare is marked by this vocation of renewal. The Church needed great renewal in the 13th century. The church needs ongoing and continual renewal through the centuries and needs this renewal today. It is renewal in Christ, renewal in living the Gospel, renewal in spirit. This renewal must begin in each of our hearts, in our own conversion to Christ each day. Francis’ aim must be our aim: to be like Jesus. Saint Francis was truly a living icon of Christ. He has been called “the brother of Jesus.” That’s our calling. This call must begin with our own encounter with the Lord, contemplating Him in the Gospel. To love the Lord intensely and to imitate his virtues. That is what is most essential for the true Franciscan. Any rule or constitutions or customs must have this aim and not be seen as ends in themselves.
Why did Francis love poverty so much? Because it was a means to an end: a means to follow Christ with dedication and freedom. It was through his love for Christ that Francis grew in love for others and also for all of God’s creatures. If we wonder if our love for Jesus is real, we need to ask ourselves if we are loving our brothers and sisters and all God’s creation. As Saint John write in his first letter: “If anyone says, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” Saint John also says that “he who does not love does not know God.” “If we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us.”
An authentic Franciscan life, like an authentic Christian life, is a life of love in imitation of Jesus. Poverty or chastity or obedience without love loses its meaning and has no value. Saint Francis’ life was not fundamentally about poverty, as important as that was for him; it was fundamentally about love. Poverty was a means to love God and others. Francis loved Lady Poverty because she helped him to imitate Christ’s love. It was Francis’ love for Christ and his goodness to every man and woman that made him a saint. His faith and love brought him gladness and joy.
Pope Francis writes often about the joy of the Gospel. Saint Francis lived with this joy. In the present-day need of renewal in the Church, I believe that we need this joy in the Gospel. In our work of evangelization, nothing will attract people to the Church as much as the witness of the joy of our faith, the witness of the joy of friendship with Christ, a witness that springs from hearts touched by His incredible love.
My brothers and sisters, as we celebrate this feast of Saint Francis, let us pray for the grace to embrace Francis’ imitation of Christ, his simplicity, his humility, his faith, his love for Christ, for others, and for all God’s creation! May the Holy Spirit help all of us to offer a convincing witness to the beauty and joy of the Gospel! Saint Francis, pray for us.
--Bishop Kevin Rhoades, October 4. 2017