Sunday, 30 October 2011

No Hair Shirts!

 The most quoted passage from the Gospel in the writings was not any of the famous hard sayings of the Gospel about poverty or renunciation. Seven times Francis cited the “golden rule” of human relationships: “Whatever you would wish a person to do you to do, do you also to them” (Matthew 7:12). Francis did not present an ascetical system for his friars.

Jordan of Giano was a novice at the Pentecost Chapter of 1221 in Assisi. He tells in his Chronicle how Francis he went among the friars removal of the instruments of penance from among them. The saint knew it was easier to wear a hair shirt than live in patient kindness with others. Francis went straight to the Gospel. In his writings, love, humility, meekness, forgiveness, mutual service and courtesy were exalted to priority while programmes of ascetical exercises were lacking.

The friars’ approach must be to draw by attraction. In an exhortation to the friars Francis told them: “Since you speak peace, all the more so must there be peace in your hearts. Let none be provoked to anger or scandal by you. But rather may they be drawn to peace, goodness and unity by your gentleness. We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and bring home those who have lost their way.”

They were to be brothers who make credible in their lives the truth of the Gospel, who manifest in their deeds, great and small, the compassion of the God Jesus has made known and the beauty of the Christian, Catholic faith. 

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Carrying the Message

Throughout the month of October I am reflecting on the life and message of St Francis. As I wrote in the last post this is not an exercise in nostalgia. Yes, we look back with gratitude but we look forward with hope. The purposes of God, the faithfulness of Christ and the presence of the Spirit have not changed.

Pope John Paul was definite that the particular Franciscan experience and understanding of Christ and the Gospel are still more than relevant. Speaking to a Chapter gathering he said: “Franciscanism has much to say to contemporary civilisation, especially to those who are seized by consumerism and neglect the suffering of millions who die in hunger, to those, who, instead of building peace, are preparing for war, and to those who, rather than defending nature, of which Francis sung so wonderfully, contaminate it. It falls to you Franciscans, in the first place and because of who you are, to give an answer to the people of today, educating them to a correct vision and a proper use of things. You are the best interpreters of the message given by Francis to the people of his age, a message which is still relevant because of its capacity to renew consciences and society. It is up to you to proclaim it once again with Franciscan courage and daring.”

When we Franciscans celebrate the gift of Francis -  it means rejoicing in the Gospel calling that has blessed our lives, responding to that call ever-more deeply, and recommitting ourselves to share joyfully this Christ-centred vision with others.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Franciscans With No Nostalgia!

One of the risks in trying to live the Christian life as a Franciscan friar is indulging in a form of Romanticism about St Francis and the ''Franciscan Spring". This can lead to a certain nostalgia about the past, and a failure to see how God is working just as definitely in our own day.

Eight hundred years is a long time. Franciscans can look back with thanksgiving for the grace of God manifested in our story. But the story goes on and we are invited to continue that open-ended story. What was once, cannot be relived.

We are faced with our own choices and decisions. We cannot afford a rose-tinted nostalgia for the past. Our time is as much a time of the Holy Spirit as any previous age. So to copy slavishly the ways and methods of the past is to fail the people and Church of our day.

We want to go into the future with fire not with ashes. We are not caretakers of a Franciscan museum. Francis himself gives us this freedom. At the end of his life he told his brothers: “I have done what was mine to do – may Christ teach you yours.”

Saturday, 15 October 2011

A New Pentecost?

The questions asked of the Franciscans by a recent Minister General, Hermann Schaluck, get to the heart of living with hope in turbulent times.  Indeed, they could also be asked of the Church in Ireland and many other parts of the world at this time.

“The present situation of crisis can be seen as a threat of death or as a test of faith in the Lord of history and in His unfailing presence. In a time of great transition and rapid change, the need is all the more urgent to read the sign of the times.  Are we seeing the signs of collapse or the signs of a New Pentecost?  Or both? Is a New Pentecost still possible today in the Church, in our communities or in ourselves?" 

"Of one thing I am certain: if we are able to read these signs, to contemplate them from a perspective of faith, we shall discover many tracks of life – footprints of God and of the living Spirit. And we shall finally realise that the signs of crisis can be transformed into invitations to a new beginning and harbingers of new life. By placing the person of Jesus Christ at the centre of everything, by seeking above all to live the Good News of the Kingdom of God and its justice, we wish to reiterate our conviction that the following of Jesus Christ will open our eyes to a new vision, to new values, new priorities and new criteria. Our achievements will never exhaust the splendour and potential of the Kingdom of God.”

 I am reminded of the Jewish Hasidim definition of hope: “Living joyfully when there are no easy answers.”

Monday, 10 October 2011

Francis and the Pardon of God

St Francis knew that men and women cannot be harangued or bullied into the Kingdom of God. Rather Francis knew that people cannot only be loved into the Kingdom. What condemnation and accusation cannot do, gentle kindness, courtesy and understanding can achieve.

G.K. Chesterton said that Francis “walked the world as the Pardon of God.” It was as if,  in him, their little brother, people could glimpse the smile on the Father’s face, see how much they were accepted and cherished, and so felt free to come home. This is the approach of redemptive compassion that Francis wanted the friars to adopt – revealing a compassion that lifts people up with the hope of change, that life can be different.

The Rule told how the friars are to go among the people as humble brothers. “I counsel, admonish and exhort my bothers in the Lord Jesus, that, when they go about the world, that they do not quarrel, or fight with words, or judge others. Rather, let them be meek, peaceful and unassuming, gentle and humble, speaking courteously to everyone, as is becoming.”

Francis, in choosing to side with the outcasts, the lepers, ascended low enough so as to discover the Incarnation writ everywhere. The Franciscan vision is about the dignity of the human person. It is about making the language of the human community a language of “brother and sister.”

Francis called us to bend low in love, to find the humble goodness of God in the simple and oftentimes broken hearts in the world.

Friday, 7 October 2011

St Francis - Herald of the Great King

In one of his admonitions to the friars St Francis described evangelisation as using “the most holy words and deeds of the Lord” to lead “people to the love of God in joy and gladness.” Francis’ experience of Christ flowed with great energy into mission. He told the friars that they had been called by the Lord “not for themselves alone but for the sake of others.” God had sent them “into the entire world for this reason that in word and deed you may give witness to his voice.” 

The way Francis viewed Christ had an impact on how he and the friars exercised their ministry of evangelisation.

Francis knew that the friars were in the communication business, meant to be bearers of Good News, as is the whole Church. We forget that at our peril. The friars were called to be “heralds of the Great King” and “troubadours of the Lord.”

God’s pastoral strategy was Francis’ guide. He recognised a progression whereby God enters into ever deeper communion with men and women, accommodating himself to our needs:

- The image and action of God impregnates all creation
- The Son of God took upon himself our flesh
- The glorified Christ becomes Bread for the life of the world.

Francis saw that the Eucharist is the last step in the long path of God’s humble “condescension” towards us  – creation, revelation, incarnation, Eucharist.

Francis wanted the way of ministry, of witnessing to the Gospel, to be rooted in how God works among us - drawing close to us, adapting to our needs.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

St Francis - Experiencing God

Over the centuries St Francis has often been co-opted by different causes and projects. On his feast day it is good to recall to the core of his experience and message.

At its heart, the origin of the Franciscan movement is a rediscovery and revitalisation of the Christian experience. Inspired by his own life-changing encounter with the Risen Christ, Francis sought to meet men and women in their own milieu with a joyful witness to God who has come to us in Jesus. He wished to make the faith present in an explicit and visible way, without fear or calculation, in all the spheres and situations of life.

With overflowing joy in God, Francis expressed the goal of all life and service in the following passage from the Earlier Rule:
'Let us desire nothing else,
let us wish for nothing else,
let nothing else please us
and cause us delight
except our Creator and Redeemer and Saviour,
the one true God who is the fullness of good,
all good, every good...
Let all of us
wherever we are, in every place,
at every hour, at every time of day,
everyday and continually
believe truly and humbly
and keep in our heart
and love, honour, adore, serve,
praise and bless, glorify and exalt,
magnify and give thanks
to the most high and supreme eternal God,
Trinity and Unity,
the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,
Creator of all, Savour of all
who believe in Him, and hope in Him and love Him.'

Saturday, 1 October 2011

St Therese - Little before God

St Therese of Lisieux, whose feast day is celebrated today, is one of my favourite saints; her message continues to be as relevant as the Gospel.  Unfortunately, her 'little way' is often presented in a pious manner that robs it of its depth.

St Therese’s approach to the Christian life could be named as a spirituality of imperfection. She was a woman who experienced profoundly her own powerlessness, the reality of human brokenness. Therese suffered not only great physical pain during her short life, but also mental anguish coming from her sensitive personality. She could so easily have ended up an obsessed neurotic.

Persistent experiences of her weakness put her in the position either to despair of wholeness and holiness or to surrender herself entirely to the Lord. In the light of God’s mercy, she came to grasp the truth that God is not concerned about the limitations of being human, but about love.

As she sought to open herself fully to love, Therese was ruthless in recognising religious vanity. She resisted the narcissism of self-absorption. To a novice who spoke of her desire for more strength with which 'to practice virtue' Therese answered: 'And suppose God wishes to have you as feeble and powerless as a child? Do you think that would be less worthy in God's eyes? Be content to stumble, or even to fall at every step; consent to bear your Cross feebly. Love your weakness. Your soul will draw more profit from that than if, sustained by grace, you vigorously performed heroic deeds which would fill your soul with self-satisfaction and pride.'

For Therese her imperfections became an essential part of her life with God. Instead of being obstacles, they were a privileged place to experience the powerful compassion of Christ. She was content to be little, vulnerable and open before the living God.

There is no despising or belittling of weaknesses in self or others because God does not belittle or despise.