October 4, 2020 - The Solemnity of Holy Father Francis of Assisi - Pastor’s Corner
This weekend we celebrate the feast day of the patron of our City, St. Francis of Assisi. Famously, St. Francis is associated with the care and love of pets, gardens, and the environment. Here at St. Dominic’s we’ll have our annual St. Francis’ Day blessing of the animals on Sunday October 4th at 4:00 pm in the parking lot outside the Lady Chapel entrance. All are welcome to bring pets and other furry friends to commend to the care of their patron!
In celebrating such a popular and well-known saint, there is a danger of over sentimentalizing his powerful patronage. Garden statues and birdbaths are lovely reminders of God’s care for creation, but the life and legacy of St. Francis goes well beyond birdbaths. In a time of cultural crisis and spiritual darkness, God called St. Francis be part of a movement to rebuild the Church. In a moment of silent prayer, in the dilapidated chapel of San Damiano, St. Francis heard the Crucified Christ instruct him to rebuild His Church. This task went well beyond the simple restoration of the physical building, but extended to the renewal of the Church itself. The life of St. Francis was powerful because of his willingness to embrace this mission of renewal. This mission was not easy or comfortable. It meant renouncing worldly goods and fame. It required leaving the comforts of home and family. In short, St. Francis was called to embrace the Cross and unite his own sufferings with Christ’s.
In the second reading, St Paul says: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.” (Galatians 6:14,18) St. Paul’s allusion to bearing the sufferings of Christ in his body was a reality for St. Francis. For more than two years, St. Francis bore the stigmata (the five wounds of Christ in his hands, feet and side). He received these wounds in a vision on the Feast of the Exultation of the Cross (Sept 14th) during a 40-day retreat in preparation for the feast of St. Michael the Archangel (Sept 29th). Though he attempted to hide these wounds of suffering, he embraced them as a tangible, if painful, reminder of the power of sacrificial love. The mediation of the Passion of Jesus gave St. Francis both great sorrow and delight. As he sorrowed in the recognition of his shortcomings and the sufferings of Christ, St. Francis took great delight in knowing that it is through the suffering and death of Christ that he was saved.
In his mission to renew the Church through embracing the Crucified Christ, St. Francis promoted the practice of the Way of the Cross. St. Francis popularized many devotions and practical ways of living our faith. For example, he created the first living Christmas creche in order that people might connect with reality of the birth of Christ in a concrete manner. So too, St. Francis had a great love for the Holy Land, and he wished that everyone could experience the places where Jesus lived, taught, and rose from the dead. In a particular way, St. Francis was drawn to the Via Delarosa, the Way of the Cross. From the time of the early Church, the significant places mentioned in the Gospel become places of prayer and pilgrimage. Yet in St. Francis’ lifetime, the Sultan governed the Holy Land; and these sacred places were not easily and safely accessible. According to tradition, St. Francis was able to gain an audience with the Sultan and the care of these Holy Sites were entrusted to St. Francis and his followers. To this day, the Franciscan Order has the custody of these holy places. (I well remember how my Franciscan brothers led a group of us pilgrims through the narrow streets of Jerusalem when I had the opportunity to visit the Holy Land after my ordination.) From this love of the Way of the Cross, the practice of erecting “Stations,” which symbolized these sacred places, grew up in local Churches. Because of the devotion to the Way of the Cross, which characterized St. Francis and his spirituality, most Churches have Stations of the Cross which one can follow. If we can’t go to Jerusalem, Jerusalem can come to us!
The stations of the Cross are a wonderful way in which we can enter into the way of Jesus’ love for us. Like St. Francis, when we unite our own sufferings and struggles with the power of Jesus’ saving suffering, we too experience the strength we need to continue. In today’s Gospel Jesus says: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) Notice Jesus does not promise that he will take away suffering. Nor does He promise that we can “handle any struggle on our own.” Rather, He invites us to take up the burden which He will help us to carry. Meditation on the Stations of the Cross is a powerful, practical prayer which opens our minds and hearts to embrace our daily crosses with Christ. No matter the burdens and struggles, the fears and anxieties we have, Jesus promises that we don’t journey alone. Just as he walked His way of suffering for love of us, so too, we journey with Him towards eternal life. This is the secret wisdom which St Francis knew: there is no life without death. By embracing the Crucified Christ, St. Francis experienced the fullness of life. The way of suffering is the way of love.
~ Fr. Michael