The Joy of Saint Francis
I’d like to continue the theme of joy as we celebrate with joy the feast of St. Francis.
A principal theme of the pontificate of Pope Francis is joy. The Pope's first apostolic exhortation was “The Joy of the Gospel.” His first papal homily, on Palm Sunday 2013, began, “Here is the first word I wish to say to you: joy!” (pp 131-132)
Joy must be the hallmark of our life – like Mary who sang “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The author of this joy is the Holy Spirit. Joy is the second fruit of the Holy Spirit, right after love. Joy is a gift from God. It fills us from within. It is like an anointing of the Spirit. And this joy is the certainty that Jesus is with us and with the Father. It’s a grace we must seek. It’s not simple frivolity; it’s more, deeper. No holiness is sadness. “A sad saint is a sorry saint,” said St. Teresa of Avila. Joy is in the Lord, not in possessions. This is the joy that St. Francis discovered.
In July 2013, Pope Francis spoke to seminarians, religious and novices about joy: “I would like to say a word to you and that word is joy. Wherever there are consecrated persons, seminarians, women and men religious, young people, there is joy; there is always joy. Don’t be afraid to show the joy of having answered the Lord’s call, of the choice to love and witness His Gospel in the service of the Church. And joy, real joy, is contagious; it infests…it makes us go forward.”
In life, there is suffering, sorrow and grief. Joy can still endure, even a flicker, when we keep the faith that we are infinitely loved by God. Joy can be restored. In self-absorption, we don’t accept the gift of joy. Joy comes thru an encounter with Jesus.
Evangelization, Pope Francis says, is sharing the joy of knowing Jesus. This is missionary joy! When we live the Gospel joyfully, we attract people to the Church. Do we show by our lives that Christ is risen? That we have been forgiven? Joy is the doorway through which we announce the Good News!
“No one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.” (EG3) Bring joy to the people of this neighborhood and wherever you go! Nothing attracts like joy.
Pope Francis teaches on joy by his own joy! I think one of the reasons Jorge Bergoglio chose the name Francis was because of St. Francis’ joy. The joyful troubadour of the Lord!
Joy was a hallmark of St. Francis life. He censured friars who went about with a sad and gloomy face. He exhorted them to have a cheerful demeanor. This was St. Francis' habitual outlook, even in trials. When robbers and thieves beat him up and through him in a snowy ditch, he jumped out and joyfully sang praises to God.
St. Francis shows us the joy that comes from following and obeying Jesus, the joy that enables us to endure suffering and persecution.
You may remember the classic story about perfect joy. St. Francis is discussing with Brother Leo about what is perfect joy for the Christian. When they were walking together from Perugia back to the Porziuncola on a bitterly cold winter day – in snow, rain and sleet--St. Francis was telling Brother Leo what perfect joy is not. It’s not attained, he told Brother Leo, by a Friar Minor healing all illnesses, driving out all demon powers, knowing all the mysteries of nature and all the teaching of Sacred Scripture, or even converting all unbelievers. Brother Leo was amazed and puzzled. He asked St. Francis, “Father, I beg you, in God’s name, to tell me where perfect joy is.”
Only one who is a “fool for Christ” could understand St. Francis’ explanation of perfect joy. Here’s what St. Francis said to Brother Leo.
If, when we shall arrive at Saint Mary of the Angels, all drenched with rain and trembling with cold, all covered with mud and exhausted from hunger; if, when we knock at the convent-gate, the porter should come angrily and ask us who we are; if, after we have told him, "We are two of the brethren", he should answer angrily, "What ye say is not the truth; ye are but two impostors going about to deceive the world, and take away the alms of the poor; begone I say"; if then he refuse to open to us, and leave us outside, exposed to the snow and rain, suffering from cold and hunger till nightfall - then, if we accept such injustice, such cruelty and such contempt with patience, without being ruffled and without murmuring, believing with humility and charity that the porter really knows us, and that it is God who maketh him to speak thus against us, write down, O Brother Leo, that this is perfect joy.
And if we knock again, and the porter come out in anger to drive us away with oaths and blows, as if we were vile impostors, saying, "Begone, miserable robbers! to to the hospital, for here you shall neither eat nor sleep!" - and if we accept all this with patience, with joy, and with charity, O Brother Leo, write that this indeed is perfect joy.
And if, urged by cold and hunger, we knock again, calling to the porter and entreating him with many tears to open to us and give us shelter, for the love of God, and if he come out more angry than before, exclaiming, "These are but importunate rascals, I will deal with them as they deserve"; and taking a knotted stick, he seize us by the hood, throwing us on the ground, rolling us in the snow, and shall beat and wound us with the knots in the stick - if we bear all these injuries with patience and joy, thinking of the sufferings of our Blessed Lord, which we would share out of love for him, write, O Brother Leo, that here, finally, is perfect joy.
This may seem a rather exaggerated and strange account. But it conveys a great truth that St. Francis knew deeply in his heart because of his total devotion to Jesus and his ardent love for Him. He had a burning desire to imitate Jesus who endured rejection and suffering for the love of us. So suffering with Jesus was what he considered “perfect joy.”
St. Francis’ conclusion was this: And now, brother, listen to the conclusion. Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ grants to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt; for in all other gifts of God we cannot glory, seeing they proceed not from ourselves but from God, according to the words of the Apostle, "What hast thou that thou hast not received from God? and if thou hast received it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?" But in the cross of tribulation and affliction we may glory, because, as the Apostle says again, "I will not glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." Amen."
“Perfect joy!" Francis knew that perfect joy is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It makes us rejoice in sharing Jesus’ humiliation and suffering, knowing we will share in His resurrection and glorification.
St. Peter wrote: "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you." (Peter 4:12-14)
Today, on this Feast of St. Francis, I invite you to reflect on his spirit of joy, a joy that sprung from his devotion to Jesus. It is the joy we see in Pope Francis. It is the joy of our Mother Mary. It is your Franciscan mission, the mission of the Church, to witness to the joy of the Gospel. The world is so sad oftentimes – people need to see our joy as disciples of Jesus like people saw St. Francis’ joy, the joy of knowing Jesus and His love.
May you and I respond to our call to live the Gospel joyfully and to proclaim it boldly with joy.
St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us!
--Bishop Kevin Rhoades, October 4, 2015