What St. Francis Heard in Assisi

This column comes to you from the Umbrian hill town of Assisi, the renowned and inspirational home of Il Poverello, “the little poor one,” St. Francis.

Assisi is one of my favorite places in the world, and this stay is even more uplifting since I am in the company of 50 of our wonderful priests from the archdiocese, here on a retreat-pilgrimage.

This has to be about my 20th visit here, and each time I wonder again why this little man had such a profound impact on civilization. The first time I came, in October 1972, as a new seminarian at the North American College, I read Chesterton’s classic biography of Francis, and nodded in agreement with his remark that the saint “lit a spark that became a bonfire.”

The first reason for his appeal, I suppose, is the attraction of his own story: a dashing, cocky, wealthy playboy, uninterested in anything but his own desires, suddenly converted to a life of primitive simplicity, service to dirty poor, and passionate commitment to Jesus and His Church. Those of us who wonder if God’s grace and mercy can ever triumph over our dark side, our sin and selfishness, have a radiant success story in St. Francis.

A second sparking feature of Assisi’s most illustrious citizen is his attachment to the humanity of Christ. See, sometimes we can get a bit embarrassed about our Lord’s raw earthiness. He is God, after all, so He really shouldn’t act too human. This was especially true in the time of Francis and Dominic, when certain popular movements began to deny that Jesus was really a man.

None of this for Francesco! For him, the divinity of Jesus shone in and through his humanity! This, of course, is the awesome mystery of the incarnation, that God took on flesh and became like us in all things but sin.

So, St. Francis bragged about those most human episodes in the life of Christ, the first to erect a crib scene in the town of Greccio, the first to organize a parade about His passion and death in the Stations of the Cross.

God knows what we’re going through, shouts Francis! He’s one of us! Yes, He’s true God, but He’s also true man! Francis encourages us to bask in the earthiness, the humanity of Jesus.

This flows into the third reason for his magnetism: all creation, and every creature, is a reflection of the Divine! God’s artistry is detected in the beauty of creation, so colorful in his rich Umbrian hills and plains; God’s work is evident in nature; God’s face is seen in the sick, the hungry, the crazy; God’s presence is even brewing deep within us. Yes, the world also has its sin and evil—Francis confronted that head-on—but that’s not quite what the Creator had in mind at the beginning. So, the world is not a distraction from God, but an attraction to Him. Creation, and creatures, are then to be treated tenderly, with love and care.

Even the Church! Yes, the Church, whose sinful, corrupt, lethargic side was so evident in the time of St. Francis. Could Jesus actually be alive, accessible, available, active in this scandalous, laughable, silly Church? Would I not be better off leaving it or starting a new one, Francis asked.

Il Poverello knew better. The Christ who revealed Himself in a barn surrounded by cows and asses; the Christ who was most powerfully God in the bruises, scabs, falls, and ugliness of the cross, is the same Christ who lives, loves, and lavishes grace in and through His Church.

You know the story: the falling-down little church of San Damiano, right down the slope from the Assisi town square, was in terrible shape: leaks, rats, dirt, empty of people, ready to collapse. Still, Francis used to go there to pray. And from the crucifix in the rubble he heard Jesus whisper, “Francis, rebuild my Church.”

“Sure,” Francis replied, and he started to sweep the floor and patch up the walls, thinking Jesus meant the building.

Oce again the voice came, “Francis, rebuild my Church!”—Church with a capital “C,” Church as in my mystical body, my bride, my beloved!

And the rest, as they say, is history. The Church has never again been the same. And the prescription for renewal was clear: raw, Gospel values, of simplicity of life, conversion of heart and penance for sin, love others—especially the poor—as Jesus did, and a reliance on prayer.

Jesus is always calling new “Franciscans” to “rebuild His Church.” Not to mock, leave, abandon, or ignore the Church, but to love her and help renew her. And not some “ideal” Church of our own making, but the one Christ gave us, because it is His Church not mine.

That invitation is so dramatic here in Assisi. That’s why we priests and bishops are here…