Today, October 4, the whole Catholic world celebrates with joy the Feast of St Francis of Assisi. But who is this once greatly rich young man who left everything to lead a poor and simple life?
Unfortunately Saint Francis is oftentimes mistakenly depicted as one who easily followed the Lord Jesus teachings. This facile rendition of his conversion erroneously portrays a man who did not have his struggles to let Christ be the Lord of his life. Fortunately his Testament amply shows how much Francis had to fight against his sinful attitudes in order that the grace of God would have its total reign in what he said and did. Saint Francis writes: “The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body”.
Francis’ life turning point was his continual courageous wisdom and humility to acknowledge how unworthy he was to serve the Lord. The Little Flowers nicely explain this cardinal aspect in the Poverello’s life, as the following significant episode shows.
“Once when Saint Francis was returning from the forest and from prayer, being on the way out of the forest, the one called Friar Masseo wanted to test how humble he was, and encountering him he said almost provocatively: ‘Why to you, why to you, why to you?’ Saint Francis answered: ‘What is it that you want to say?’ Friar Masseo said: “I say why does the whole world follow you, and every person seems to want to see you, to hear you, and to obey you? You are not a good looking man in body, you are not of great learning, you are not noble, why then does everyone want to follow you?’ Hearing this, Saint Francis, altogether overjoyed in spirit turned to Friar Masseo and said: ‘Do you want to know why me? Do you want to know why me? Do you want to know why the whole world follows me? This I learned that the most holy eyes of God did not see among sinners any one more vile, more insufficient, or a greater sinner than me’”.
The moral of this story is that God’s strength is shown in one’s weakness. God is ready to do great wonders provided that the person involved is open to his divine action. When the person truly recognizes how unworthy s/he is in front of divine grace then God can truly enter that person’s mind and heart and do his saving work. Saint Francis could say with Saint Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2: 20). The Poverello managed to let Christ live in him because he closely modeled his life to a powerful advice that the letter to the Galatians offers. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24).
Passions and desire stem from one’s uncontrolled ego. An ego that justifies its actions by useless rationalizations. The irony is that the more it tries to liberate itself from what is right the more it becomes a slave of its own ruthless master: pride. Nowadays pride is seen by the way we react when we are contradicted, corrected or criticized. We are becoming too preoccupied with ourselves and problems. We risk being annihilated by our self-centredness!
What does Saint Francis suggest to us? He teaches us to be open to Jesus Christ and let his words and deeds transform us from within. Those who put on Christ are immediately recognized by the way they behave. They are surely not arrogant, presumptuous or full of themselves. But they are meek and humble of heart.
It is only the latter who can respect creation, serve compassionately and generously the suffering ones, and work tirelessly for a world free from armed conflicts. They are the ones who can mince our shattered world with love, pardon and forgiveness.
Lord, free me from my pride in order to be relevant for our world as Saint Francis still is. Amen.