Saturday, October 3, 2009


(Solemnity of our our holy father Francis, deacon, founder of the three orders)

It’s almost overwhelming to have this beautiful opportunity to preach of the feast of our holy father Francis. You could make a lifetime hobby out of reading biographies of St. Francis. You could make a whole film festival out of St. Francis movies. Everyone seems to have something to say about him, and a lot of different people come to be attracted to Francis for a lot of different reasons. So where do we begin our reflection today for this memorial of his passing to eternal life, 783 years ago this night?

Well, for all that has been written, filmed, and said about St. Francis, we actually have precious little that he wrote about himself. Within that, we have still less that he wrote about his conversion, and what went on within him to make him into this great saint and founder not only of religious orders, but of a movement, of a family and style of Catholic spirituality that flourishes in the Church down to our own day. So one of the most precious documents in the Franciscan tradition is the Testament that Francis wrote for the friars at the end of his life. It’s a short, dense little document—hardly three or four pages in a modern printed book—but is full of the passion and heroic faith of our holy father. Today I though I would share a little of it with you.

Francis begins his Testament by recounting his conversion: “The Lord gave me, brother Francis, thus to begin to do penance in this way…” Notice that! When St. Francis tells his own story, who is the first character we meet? It’s the Lord! The main character in the story of Francis is not Francis, but God. That says so much. We do not really celebrate today the man Francesco di Bernardone, this spoiled son of a affluent merchant who became—perhaps much to his own surprise—someone celebrated for his sanctity in his own lifetime, but instead we celebrate the willingness of Francis to let the grace of God shine through him into the world. This is what it means, in this context, to “do penance”—simply to turn oneself back to God. It’s not, as people sometimes say in our own time, ‘this is how I found the Lord,’ or ‘I converted,’ but, “The Lord granted me, brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way.”

This primacy of God’s initiative continues in Francis’s life. A little further on, in one of the most beloved parts of the Testament, Francis writes that when “the Lord gave me some brothers, no one showed me what I had to do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel.” Here we see the beautiful simplicity of Francis. Did he make up a way of life for himself and his brothers? No. “The Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel.”

So, what is this beginning “to do penance,” and this living “according to the pattern of the Holy Gospel”? We return to the beginning of the Testament: “the Lord granted me, brother Francis to begin to do penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.”

The Lord himself effected Francis’s conversion by leading him among the lepers and inspiring him to have mercy on them. The lepers were those in Francis’s time who—because of their terrible suffering and disfiguring disease—were excluded from society. They had to live outside of the protection of the town, vulnerable and despised. By allowing himself to be led among the lepers, Francis reverses the course of his life; he turns, he converts, and begins to do penance. You see, Francis was born into the up-and-coming merchant class, those traders and bankers who were the first developers of the capitalist world we know today. In Francis’s time, this new class of merchants were beginning to have enough power—through their wealth—that they could sometimes challenge the old, hereditary power of the nobility. Indeed, this happened in Assisi when Francis was a younger man. So Francis arrived in this world as part of a group of people who were moving up. By going to the lepers, Francis reversed this process. He went from ‘upwardly mobile’ to ‘downwardly mobile.’

This turn is the core of the Franciscan spirit. The world tells us to become richer and more powerful, and Francis was on his way. But instead he chose to put himself below those who were least in his society. He became a lesser brother, a “friar minor” as he would decide to call the brothers who followed him. For me, this is why Francis and his vision and life continue to speak to us. We live in an increasingly aimless and violent world, and on this Respect Life Sunday we might call to mind some of the terrible crimes that have become normalized in our society because we have traded in the Living God for the cults of power, wealth, security, and convenience. Francis shows us the way out: renounce our idolatry of money and power and “begin to do penance” by making ourselves into the servants of the least.


pennyante said...

Thank you for this beautiful homily. It goes so well with the book I'm reading about Francis by Kazantzakis.

There is really so much more to St. Francis than his statues in the gardens of the world.

Brother Charles said...

I read Kazantzakis' Francis when I was a novice--an intense experience! Just beware of the hint of dualism.

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

And 800 years of the Rule of Francis! Yes! As a Secular Franciscan (well, almost -- I hope to profess soon), I try hard to follow St. Francis's rule and his exmaple, but what an example! It is so difficult at times -- and I am not sure it is just because of our times. Certainly, St. Francis was "out of tune" with his times, too. Maybe they were less violent, or just maybe our memories do not look at that violence and those selfish values in the same way that we look at our violence and our selfish values because history, like memory, is selective and present time is not. I think it is difficult because we are human, and we are attracted to all those things that society says we should be attracted to (selfish things), not the things that God says we should be attracted to. What a pleasure it was today to celebrate today's mass with the local Franciscans and our bishop in honor of St. Francis that would truly create peace on earth if all, or even most, would follow it.