04 October 2014

Homily: Saint Francis: Preacher of Christ's Cross - 4 October 2014

Mass with Pilgrims from the U.S.A.
The Solemnity of Saint Francis of Assisi

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

May the Lord give you peace! Although you have been in Assisi now for only one day, you have been here long enough to realize that the common conception of Saint Francis is quite false (despite the images of him you see for sale in the shops). While it is true that the little poor man of Assisi maintained a great love for animals, this is only a very small part of his life. The birdbaths and gentle images of the Saint we are accustomed to seeing are caricatures at best. Better are those images that depict Saint Francis holding a cross or a skull; they get closer to the heart of Franciscan spirituality.

Caravaggio: Saint Francis in Prayer
What most people associate with Saint Francis, Saint Bonaventure, in the official biography, barely mentions. Far from describing Francis as a lover of animals, the Seraphic Doctor describes him instead as “the preacher of Christ’s Cross.”[1] Francis’ way of life began to take on definitive form when he heard the Lord speak to him from the crucifix at San Damiano. He chose the design of the habit because it resembles a cross. He prayed with arms uplifted in the form a cross. He even signed his name with the Tau.  Simply put, the cross stands at the center – as the goal and the form – of his life.

Even before his experience at San Damiano, Saint Francis kept the Cross close to his heart. Saint Bonaventure relates for us a vision Francis received after he kissed the leper:

One day while he was praying in such a secluded spot and became totally absorbed in God through his extreme fervor, Jesus Christ appeared to him fastened to the cross. Francis’ soul melted (Song of Songs 5:6) at the sight, and the memory of Christ’s passion was so impressed on the innermost recesses of his heart that from that hour, whenever Christ’s crucifixion came to his mind, he could scarcely contain his tears and sighs, as he later revealed to his companions when he was approaching the end of his life. Through this the man of God understood as addressed to himself the Gospel text: If you wish to come after me, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me (Matthew 16:24).[2]

It was only after his soul melted that the Lord called out to him, “Francis, go and repair my house, which, as you see, is falling completely into ruin.”[3] Here we would do well to ask ourselves two questions: At what does my soul melt? Is the passion of the Lord impressed deep within my heart?

Why was the Lord’s house falling completely into ruin? Perhaps because too many neglected the love of the Crucified. Not only did they neglect the love lavished upon them from the Cross, but they neglected to return this love. Is this situation very different from our own day? They neglected to look upon the Lord’s face to gain wisdom and knowledge, to learn to serve him and to walk in his light (cf. Psalm 119:135, 66, 91, and 130).

By his grace, the Lord called Saint Francis, him who had the simplicity of a child, to embrace the Cross as no one before him had done (cf. Luke 10:21). From the very beginning, this Preacher of Christ’s Cross called everyone to this same love of the Crucified. This is why “the Friars followed his teaching in every detail; and before every Church and crucifix which they saw even from a distance, they humbly prostrated themselves and prayed according to the form he had taught them.”[4] What is more, “Jesus Christ crucified always rested like a bundle of myrrh in the bosom of Francis’ soul (Songof Songs 1:12), and he longed to be totally transformed into him by the fire of ecstatic love.”[5]

So it was that, just before he received the grace of the Stigmata, Saint Francis prayed to the Lord for two graces. In his own words, he prayed:

My Lord Jesus Christ, I pray you to grant me two graces before I die: the first is that during my life I may feel in my soul and in my body, as much as possible, that pain which You, dear Jesus, sustained in the hour of Your most bitter passion.  The second is that I may feel in my heart, as much as possible, that excessive love with which You, O Son of God, were inflamed in willingly enduring such suffering for us sinners.[6].

Because Francis had already embraced the Cross with such a devoted love, the Lord granted his two requests and impressed within his body what he had already impressed within his soul. As Benedict XVI observed, “The experience of La Verna, where he received the stigmata, shows the degree of intimacy he had reached in his relationship with the Crucified Christ. He could truly say with Paul: ‘For me to live is Christ’ (Philippians 1:21).”[7]

Frederico Barroci: St. Francis Receives the Stigmata
It is to this same intimacy with the Crucified that you and I are each called; it is to this same relationship that Saint Francis longs to lead us. This is why, one year ago today, Pope Francis prayed here in Assisi, “We turn to you, Francis, and we ask you: Teach us to remain before the cross, to let the crucified Christ gaze upon us, to let ourselves be forgiven, and recreated by his love.”[8]

The way to do so is - as with all things in the Christian life – simple; it is simple, but it is not easy. The way to remain before the Cross, to allow the Lord to gaze upon us, is, as Saint Francis said, to “hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves so that He Who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally.”[9]

In everything he did and in everything he said, Saint Francis repaired the Church by placing the Cross back at the center of life, back where it belongs. Today, then, let us pray all the more earnestly to be conformed perfectly to him who is Crucified Love, that, we, too, may be known as preachers of Christ’s Cross and work to repair the Church. Amen.

[1] Saint Bonaventure, The Life of Saint Francis, 4.9.
[2] Ibid.,, 1.5.
[3] Ibid.,, 2.1.
[4] Ibid.,, 4.3.
[5] Ibid.,, 9.2.
[6] In The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, 190-191.
[7] Pope Benedict XVI, Meeting with Youth, 17 June 2007.
[8] Pope Francis, Homily, 4 October 2013.
[9] Saint Francis of Assisi, A Letter to the Entire Order, 29.

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