(article contributed by Dr. Paul Severn)
The Church celebrates St. Francis (1182-1226) on 4th October. In this year dedicated to the consecrated life we might consider St Francis a little more closely and if we do we might be surprised that the concerns of a man who died almost eight hundred years ago are not so different to our own concerns.
Francis went into his father’s successful cloth business, but one day he was so busy he neglected to notice a beggar who entered their shop. Later he reproached himself and went and found the beggar and gave him alms. How often do people say how busy they are? How often is being ‘o so busy’ considered a modern thing? But it is not! Even St Francis was busy and too busy to notice a beggar! But having overlooked the beggar Francis was seized by remorse. Like St. Francis we probably cannot avoid being busy, but if and when we are, perhaps we can learn from him that we can go and repair the situation later.
Reflecting more widely on the incident Francis came to believe that money was associated with power and the rich get richer at the expense of the poor. This was the seed of his vocation and in time he came to renounce his wealth and indeed all his possessions. To his father’s horror he stripped himself naked in public and ‘renounced the world.’ In recent election debates we hear on the one hand that as the rich get richer they take the poor with them through the payment of taxes and an increased standard of living. On the other hand it is regularly said that as the rich get richer the poor get poorer and the increased use of food banks in recent years is often cited as evidence for this. I suspect the real situation is more nuanced, but how very modern of St Francis. His concerns are our concerns! I suspect, things would quickly go wrong if we all renounced the world, but on the other hand those of us in the world, have to take extra care of those at the bottom of the social pecking order.
It is said that when Jorge Bergoglio was elected to the papacy, one of the cardinals sitting next to him whispered, “Don’t forget the poor” and Bergoglio broke with tradition and took the papal name Francis In the autumn of 1205 St. Francis was praying in the nearly ruined church of San Damiano when he heard a voice from the crucifix saying ‘Francis, repair my church’. He went with haste and found building materials and such like and repaired the little chapel. In time he came to realise that the voice was not really telling him to repair a building but an institution which was crumbling. The Franciscan Order did much to revitalise the medieval church.
Does our twenty-first century church need rebuilding? It clearly has had many problem in the recent past with which we are all too familiar. A call for renewal does not seem entirely out of place. Successive popes and the bishops under them have called for a ‘New Evangelisation.’ This is a call to stop sitting on our hands and to turn outwards – to proclaim in word and deed the joy of the gospel. Pope Francis urges us to go forth, to take the initiative to make that first step and get involved! (c.f. Evangelii Gaudium 24)
Finally in his later life St Francis sought to make himself completely like Christ. In 1224 at la Verna in Italy St Francis received the Stigmata: the wounds of Christ’s passion on his hands, his feet and his side. In the last years of his life he suffered much from these wounds and other medical ailments. This is a salient reminder that we cannot expect life to be without suffering. It is often asked why an all powerful, loving God allows suffering in the world, but this is perhaps the wrong question to ask. Rather when we suffer, as St. Francis did, we should see this as an opportunity to unite ourselves more closely with the One who suffered, died and rose again. In this year of consecrated life let us consider once again the wisdom that comes to us from St Francis.