In loving memory of Saint Francis of Assisi, my next two reflections are a summary of the attributes of – and a warm invitation to all to ponder upon – the Franciscan way of the Christ-life.
Humility and Minority
Franciscans are exhorted to become lesser in their relationships with others, so that they may render obedient service to neighbor with genuine love. Franciscans are disciplined to be indifferent to the natural affinity for prestige and popularity, or to the natural abhorrence for criticism and humiliation, ever mindful of the Lord’s example of washing his Apostles’ feet. St. Francis therefore showed that the most powerful enemy of a Franciscan is his or her own pride.
Poverty and Simplicity
Franciscan poverty has been reevaluated and redefined through the centuries since Francis’ time. Today, Franciscan poverty means detachment or indifference to the natural affinity for material possessions, with the desire to live in simplicity, and to work to acquire adequate resources necessary to sustain one’s development or the development of one’s family or community. Franciscan poverty also recalls our Lord who was born poor and lived poor. Freeing oneself from the burden of having so many possessions makes available more resources for those who have much less or may be hopelessly destitute. It also opens one’s spirit to the graces of God. One who is not distracted by the allurements of earthly possessions becomes content and is not always anxious about the future; is more predisposed to receive – without expecting or demanding – divine gifts. Poverty is the requisite to charity and openness to the will of God.
Obedience is the fruit of humility and minority. Our Lord and Creator humbled himself by becoming one of us lowly creatures. He obeyed and was subject to Joseph and Mary. In the same way, we deem ourselves less than others, serving and even praying for those who may seem deserving only of hatred, because we also see our Lord serving and praying for them as well.
The perfection of charity is the goal of Franciscan life, the giving of one’s life for another. Charity is measured not by how much was given, but by how much or little remains; charity is being prepared to give everything, even one’s life for another. This is the essence of our Lord’s ministry until his sacrifice on the cross. Charity is also the fruit of humility and minority; charity is not only being able to do good for someone without expecting anything in return, but being able to bear the evil that someone does without premeditating anything in revenge. Evil, which is the fruit of pride and selfishness, cannot triumph over a love that is the fruit of sacrifice and selflessness, for how can one who thinks only of himself argue against someone who doesn’t? Charity, in imitation of Christ, can conquer all evil, and only by true charity can the world be converted.
Sharing in the Lord’s Sufferings
St. Francis himself prayed prior to receiving the stigmata:
“Lord Jesus, I ask of you two things before I die: first, that in my lifetime I may feel in my body and soul, insofar as is possible, the sufferings which you, dear Lord, had to endure in your cruel Passion; second, that I may feel in my heart, insofar as is possible, that fathomless love with which you, the Son of God, burned and which induced you to suffer willingly so much pain for us miserable sinners.”
St. Francis was not in love with pain itself, but with our Lord who loved and suffered for him. His love inspired him to continually share in the same sufferings which our Lord endured: he did penance for his own sins because he understood that our Lord suffered for all our sins; he labored as the Lord labored; he preached and served as the Lord did; he fasted and prayed as the Lord did; he wandered and endured hunger and thirst as the Lord did.
For St. Francis and for many Franciscans who came after him, the crucifix was the Gospel for the unlearned and the simple-minded. The mysteries of our faith, the wisdom and virtues of our Lord, what he taught us and what he exemplified for us, can be seen through a deep contemplation of the crucified Christ. The fruits are obedience, patience, meekness, humility, perseverance, prayerfulness and forgiveness. We begin to understand who God is and who we really are. We begin to understand the depth of God’s love and how he values – and how we should value – our souls. We begin to understand the gravity of sin and the selfishness of the world. We begin to understand why we must love God in return and why we must help him spread that love. We begin to understand the destiny he has laid out for us, in the glory of the life to come. For St. Francis, the crucifix is the school of the Christian faith.
Brother Jess Matias is a professed brother of the Secular Franciscan Order. He serves as minister of the St. Pio of Pietrelcina Fraternity at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Mandaluyong City, coordinator of the Padre Pio Prayer Groups of the Capuchins in the Philippines and prison counselor and catechist for the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.
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