Memorial of Saint Francis of Assisi


But when he, who from my mother’s womb had set me apart
and called me through his grace,
was pleased to reveal his Son to me,
so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles,
I did not immediately consult flesh and blood,
nor did I go up to Jerusalem
to those who were Apostles before me;
rather, I went into Arabia and then returned to Damascus.


Recently the United States marked “nine-eleven,” an anniversary we can neither ignore nor forget. Most of us remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard the tragic, disturbing news. American life, which is both communal and very personal, was altered by those incidents and we experience solidarity in our anniversary grief.

Similarly, on October 4, Franciscans throughout the world remember the grief of 1226. Saint Francis of Assisi died after sunset on October 3, 1226 and so we celebrate his “birthday in eternity” on the fourth of October. I was especially touched by that grief in September 1997, when Assisi was struck by a major earthquake. In the Basilica of Saint Francis, “where the Renaissance was born”, ceilings collapsed, some frescos disintegrated and several people were killed by falling debris. For a while we wondered if the basilica could be rebuilt, the basilica which had been built specifically to preserve the spirit, the memory and the controversy of the Poverello. At that time I had never visited the city or the church but they were nonetheless precious to me. Could we keep his spirit without that anchor in central Italy?

But, of course, our grief, like our disagreements, is a reassuring sign of our fidelity. Friars can be quarrelsome when we try to define evangelical poverty. We are still fascinated by this beautiful man, by his poetry and his zeal, by his contagious joy; we are still unsure how to live his spirit in a radically different world. And like him, we're still convinced we should be trying harder.

In today’s first reading, Saint Paul reflects on his call, when God “was pleased to reveal his Son to me.” He insists that he did not turn to the apostles for guidance until much later. Rather, his first response was to go to Arabia, perhaps to a Jewish monastery in the desert, to ponder what had happened to him. He was well equipped for this trip by his deep knowledge of the scriptures. He had heard enough of Jesus even before his conversion to see him as the fulfillment of the law. But he had lacked insight, that gift which only the Holy Spirit could give.

The young Francis, smitten with the love of God and profoundly unsure of what it all meant, also avoided the advice of traditional mentors. No priest, bishop, monk or canon could tell him how to love poverty. No one had ever considered walking “in the very footprints of Jesus.” He experimented with his new idea even before making a public commitment. He travelled alone to Rome and swapped clothing with a beggar, then found a place among the Roman panhandlers and waited on the compassion of strangers.

It worked! He had never felt so close to Jesus in all his life. With that he knew he had been set apart from his mother's womb and called through grace. He also knew, as he stood in the shadow of Rome's great churches, that he must take his place within the Roman Catholic Church. His insight was too value to be isolated in a splinter group of Christians.

As the same church celebrates Saint Francis of Assisi these many centuries later, in a world that is evolving before our eyes, we ask the Lord to speak to each of us. We need close direction; and mentors of the past -- even of the recent past -- often have little insight into the present reality. Only God's spirit can guide us and keep us together in these challenging times.

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I love to write. This blog helps me to meditate on the Word of God, and I hope to make some contribution to our contemplations of God's Mighty Works.

Ordinarily, I write these reflections two or three weeks in advance of their publication. I do not intend to comment on current events.

I understand many people prefer gender-neutral references to "God." I don't disagree with them but find that language impersonal, unappealing and tasteless. When I refer to "God" I think of the One whom Jesus called "Abba" and "Father", and I would not attempt to improve on Jesus' language.

You're welcome to add a thought or raise a question.