As the rain cleared and a new pope came out to St. Peter’s Square on the night of March 13, most of us had no idea who this man we now know as St. Francis was. But Francesco! Papa Francesco!, every Roman hotel attendent, restaurant owner, cab driver would exclaim for days. We all know St. Francis of Assisi, and the crowd around me knew it was this beloved Italian saint who Jorge Bergoglio had taken as his patron as he was tapped to succeed Pope Benedict … and St. Peter.
Today Catholics celebrate the feast of St. Francis of Assisi and the pope is in Assisi. Speaking with the poor of Assisi, he told the Church we must strip ourselves of worldliness. “If we want to be Christians, there is no other way,” he said. “The worldly spirit kills; it kills people; it kills the Church.”
During his homily in St. Francis Square, Pope Francis reflected on who exactly St. Francis of Assisi was and what his example teaches about Christian life: “His first and most essential witness is this: that being a Christian means having a living relationship with the person of Jesus; it means putting on Christ, being conformed to him.”
This has been a continuing theme of pleading – at the end of Pope Benedict’s pontificate and at the corer of Pope Francis’ homilies and, yes, even in interviews!
This morning in Assisi, Pope Francis continued:
Where did Francis’s journey to Christ begin? It began with the gaze of the crucified Jesus. With letting Jesus look at us at the very moment that he gives his life for us and draws us to himself. Francis experienced this in a special way in the Church of San Damiano, as he prayed before the cross which I too will have an opportunity to venerate. On that cross, Jesus is depicted not as dead, but alive! Blood is flowing from his wounded hands, feet and side, but that blood speaks of life. Jesus’ eyes are not closed but open, wide open: he looks at us in a way that touches our hearts. The cross does not speak to us about defeat and failure; paradoxically, it speaks to us about a death which is life, a death which gives life, for it speaks to us of love, the love of God incarnate, a love which does not die, but triumphs over evil and death. When we let the crucified Jesus gaze upon us, we are re-created, we become “a new creation”. Everything else starts with this: the experience of transforming grace, the experience of being loved for no merits of our own, in spite of our being sinners.
The pope warned against a “ saccharine” view of St. Francis and Franciscan spirituality – which tends to be the predominant one:
everyone who follows Christ receives true peace, the peace that Christ alone can give, a peace which the world cannot give. Many people, when they think of Saint Francis, think of peace; very few people however go deeper. What is the peace which Francis received, experienced and lived, and which he passes on to us? It is the peace of Christ, which is born of the greatest love of all, the love of the cross. It is the peace which the Risen Jesus gave to his disciples when he stood in their midst and said: “Peace be with you!”, and in saying this, he showed them his wounded hands and his pierced side (cf. Jn 20:19-20).
And his third point – he almost always has three points, both Trinitarian and accessible: is about true peacemaking, born of love of all creation:
“Saint Francis of Assisi bears witness to the need to respect all that God has created, and that men and women are called to safeguard and protect, but above all he bears witness to respect and love for every human being. God created the world to be a place where harmony and peace can flourish.” All throughout the summer and continuing now, he has been talking about weeping, hearing the cries of our brothers. We do not love – we do not know Christ, if we are indifferent to the cries of the suffering – in front of us, on the street corner, and a world away. “Let us listen to the cry of all those who are weeping, who are suffering and who are dying because of violence, terrorism or war, in the Holy Land, so dear to Saint Francis, in Syria, throughout the Middle East and everywhere in the world.”
He prayed a prayer from the Mirror of Perfection, a record of St. Francis:
“I pray to you, Lord Jesus Christ, Father of mercies: Do not look upon our ingratitude, but always keep in mind the surpassing goodness which you have shown to this City. Grant that it may always be the home of men and women who know you in truth and who glorify your most holy and glorious name, now and for all ages. Amen.”
The pope’s message this morningTrue gratitude of the gifts we have been given — the greatest being our lives, ordered to eternity – comes when we are conformed to Christ, transformed by His peace. Pope Francis’ prayer today is that we May we love more deeply and see the real call of Christianity, as St. Francis lived it. It’s radical. It’s Gospel living. It’s the Christian call. And the world could use more real Catholicism.
During his trip to Assisi this morning, the pope also met with disabled children. He compared their disabilities with the scars of Christ. He said “these scars need to be recognized and listened to.” And he pointed to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and in these children: “Jesus chooses to be present there in the simplicity and meekness of the bread. And Jesus is hidden in these children, these young people.” When he talks about the love of Christ, of the urgency of slaying indifference, this is it: Seeing the blessed dignity of every woman and man, all children of a loving Father. If we see this, if we know God’s love, we live differently. Policy looks different, culture looks different, we are not content being comfortable but are constantly challenged, going deeper into a mystery of love that transforms.