St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) is one of the most venerated saints in the Catholic Church. His vision of preaching the Crucified Christ to others has inspired countless followers throughout the centuries. While much has been written on the Poverello, there are still many lessons that can be learned from him. His life and teachings help us strive for holiness.
Priority of Christ
In order to strive for holiness, one needs a personal relationship with Christ. It is not enough to simply go through the motions. There needs to be a daily commitment to conversation with Him. It is not going toward Him when it is convenient. We must be willing to dedicate times of our day in order to know who Christ is. But there is more. We must be willing to offer ourselves to Him. St Francis of Assisi understood this. He desired to become an imitation of Christ.
There are times when the commands of the Lord seem too hard to accomplish. We may not have the strength to do them. But there is a secret. With God, anything is possible. He will give us the grace to overcome all difficulties. We only need to trust in him. St. Francis understood this, which is just one reason why he was able to attract so many followers.
Humility of Christ
As we are reminded in Philippians 2: 6-8, Jesus emptied himself taking the form of the slave so that he can be with us, humbling himself and offering himself on the Cross so that we may live. What great humility. The Lord became man and dwelt among us. There is a reason why St. Francis took great interest in the Incarnation. In one of many famous stories, St. Francis desired to pay tribute to the newborn Christ child. So, on a December day, St. Francis called one of the villagers of Greccio to make preparations for the solemnity. When the night of joy arrived, people came to see St. Francis partake of the sublime mystery of the Incarnation. In the course of the evening, people were able to experience that cold December night many years ago in Bethlehem. It was possible to smell the hay and animals who were in the manger. One could imagine what the Holy Family was experiencing. For St. Francis, the condescension of Christ had much to teach him and his followers.
For Franciscans, the concept of minority is important. As we are reminded in the Later Rule of 1223, a Franciscan is to be called a lesser brother. This is to be done by observing the holy Gospel living in obedience, without anything of one’s own and in chastity (LR 1:1). Among Franciscans, we are all brothers. While some may be called to ordained ministry, the heart of a Franciscan is to serve others. We are to humble ourselves so that Christ may reign in us. No matter what our position may be in a particular friary, we are called to witness to one another and to others whom we serve.
Fraternity with Christ
It is not enough to say that we love Christ. We need to show through our actions. For Franciscans, and in particular for Conventual Franciscans, we are called to be fraternal with one another. We are to enter the messiness of people’s lives. We are to do so humbly, with no judgment whatsoever. No matter the ministry that a particular friar does, he is to do so in light of the holy Gospel. We are to care for one another because Christ reminds us to love our neighbor. The question is who is our neighbor? The famous story of the good Samaritan comes to mind.
Our neighbors are not just the people we live with or live nearby. Our neighbor is all of humanity. As reminded by Pope Francis in his encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti, we are called to “acknowledge, appreciate and love each person, regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or lives” (No. 1). This is a great challenge for all of us and one that the Poverello knew deeply. It is necessary to open ourselves up to others. We must be willing to enter into other people’s lives regardless of the creed that the other follows. We must be willing to foster dialogue with one another. When one member of humanity suffers, the whole of humanity suffers. Are we willing to step up, instead of resorting to comfort?
The Challenge of the Poverello
There is so much that can be learned from the Poverello. While these are only a few elements of why the spirituality of St. Francis is so attractive to people, there is still much to be done. The road toward holiness is never meant to be easy, as St. Francis understood very well. We must be willing to suffer for the sake of Christ. We must be willing to offer ourselves completely. The radicalness of the Gospel is still here. The question is are we willing to commit to it, to become saints?
Brother Chris Garcia, O.F.M. Conv., is a friar of the St. Joseph of Cupertino Province of the Conventual Franciscan Friars.