If ever there was a time to rediscover the beautiful ministry and wisdom of St. Francis of Assisi, it is now. While we face the crisis of climate change, our devastating history of residential schools and even our anxiety in the pandemic, the life of St. Francis shines as hope for what can be.
“If your heart longs for God, but you have found aspects of your church experience to be less than the real thing – welcome to the club. But there’s good news: centuries ago, St. Francis led the spiritually hungry away from dead religion and back to God himself.” (Eric Metaxas, author of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy)
The quote above is taken from the back of an excellent book that I read several years ago: Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron. It is the story of an evangelical pastor who has lost his faith. An uncle, who is a Franciscan priest, invites him to Italy where he embarks on a pilgrimage to get to know St. Francis of Assisi. This is a wonderful story that moved me spiritually and heightened my fascination with this endearing saint.
If Francis were alive today, he probably would have begun by strutting down the carpet at the Met gala. In his young days, he was all about fashion and influence. He wanted to be a soldier, and bathe in the glory of victory in battle. Of course, this all came crashing down when he was captured and spent a year in prison. Upon returning home, and willing to face battle again, he heared the voice of God in a dream. He returned to Assisi and as he was in prayer in the chapel at San Damiano, he heared the voice of God saying, “Francis, go and repair my house.”
Of course we know that Pope Francis has guided his papacy through the influence of St. Francis of Assisi. He has worked steadily for reforming internal and external structures and bringing a spirit of fraternity and commitment to peace back to our hearts. Laudato Si’ is a cry out to the world to see that God is manifest in all of creation and we must protect and care for our common home. “All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made.” The words of St. Francis in the Canticle of the Sun call us to appreciate the gifts of God that surround us. There is much work to be done in repairing the house, “our common home.”
We are so blessed today that we benefit from the charism of St. Francis and his order of priests. The Order of Friars Minor (Ordo Fratrum Minorum) live out the spiritual direction of St. Francis to reach out to those who are on the periphery and give a voice to the voiceless. They are committed to being part of a family of “lesser brothers” who find strength in each other to carry out the mission of St. Francis. My life has been blessed many times with the pastoral presence of a Franciscan. At St. Lawrence parish in Scarborough, we had a wonderful pastor, Fr. Ambrose de Luca. Fr. Ambrose used to stand outside, winter or summer, in his sandals greeting everyone and laughing. He made us homemade lasagna and pizza in the rectory and turned the front lawn of this suburban parish into a garden of tomatoes. I would imagine St. Francis would have found solace in gardening as he faced the challenges of calling people to reform.
Recently, I have come to know my new pastor, who also is a Franciscan. Friar Maurice and I spoke about Saint Francis recently. He laughed about how Francis went from a fancy guy of fashion to giving it all up for his ministry. Sainthood is radical stuff. We look for it everywhere – the heroes who can show us the way.
We are so blessed to have the language of St. Francis in our tradition. “Make me a channel of your peace” is a prayer that can centre our whole lives. Francis recognized that God’s mark is on all of creation. Hopefully, we can continue to rediscover this and reconcile our relationships with the natural world and with each other.
St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us and help us repair our house!
Jan Bentham is a retired Religion Coordinator with the Ottawa Catholic School Board. She is a musician, serving in music ministry at St. Ignatius Parish in Ottawa. She currently works at St. Paul’s University with the Catholic Women’s Leadership Program.