Feast Day: October 4th
St. Francis would be pleased; October 4th is always his Feast, but this year it is trumped by a Solemnity, namely Sunday. Every week our Sunday celebration of Mass displaces every other feast because Christ’s resurrection is the most important day of history, way more important than a day associated with even the greatest of saints. Men and women are only saints because, at the end of their lives, they were united with Christ in His death, and thus, His resurrection.
We probably have already heard the story: Franceso grows up rich, popular, and charismatic, but gave all of that up, because one amazing day, his life having fallen apart, Christ stepped into that emptiness and said “Francis, rebuild my church.” Out the window went the dreams of being famous or victorious; his life was now God’s to direct. Francis gave everything away, even his earthly father, and began to rebuild that little church where the Crucified One spoke to him. Many thought him a crazy beggar as he lived in his little hut and nursed lepers, but a few were crazy enough to join him, and a year or two later (it’s now 1209) they walked to Rome to see if Pope Innocent III would approve their rule. It was not a long-winded document, actually it was only one line: “To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps.”
But that is precisely what Francis and his followers were radically about. The order was approved, women joined too, becoming the Poor Clares, and Francis began wandering the countryside, preaching the Gospel wherever people would listen (and when they wouldn’t, he would just speak it to the birds and fish). He would try to go to Morocco, but would only get to Spain; He wanted to preach throughout France, but was told to stay in Italy; and in 1219, though he was able to meet with the Sultan of Egypt during the 5th crusade, many would consider it another failure since the crusade continued and the Sultan didn’t convert.
I think they’re wrong.
Maybe the Muslim camp did not receive the Gospel, but the Franciscans did become custodians of the most beloved sites in the Holy Land for the 800 years since. And, we need to be clear, Francis was not looking for success, he was just looking to keep speaking about Jesus Christ. And so, though worldly standards would be horrified that we are already at the end of his life, even (and especially) in death he was still accomplishing that mission! In 1224, as he lost his eyesight, he gained the wounds of Christ (just like Padre Pio he had the stigmata!) And, as his health dwindled, he asked to be carried from town to town, unable to preach, unable to stand, but still a beacon of poverty, humility, and charity, and that is all that God ever asks of anyone.
As I said, I suspect St. Francis is happy with his feast being trumped this year because as he died on that evening of October 3rd, 1226, he asked to be moved to the floor and instructed his followers to not build him an impressive tomb (they conceded the first wish, but not the second…) More insightful, his last prayer was from Psalm 142: “I cry to you, O Lord; I say, You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.” It was a fitting conclusion to his life, which for all those years had been a model of total trust in the Lord.
All this is why he is the perfect man to open our discussion this month of the sacraments. A sacrament, the Catechism says, is “an efficacious sign of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us through the work of the Holy Spirit.” We only refer to the 7 sacraments as sacraments specifically, but in a larger sense, every place we glimpse God is a sacrament of sorts. St. Francis was that above everything else, a glimmer of God! He was canonized after only 2 years, and a giant basilica was built in his honor after another 2 because everyoneknew him to be an alter Christus, another Christ. Francis had his Lord’s wounds, His suffered his Savior’s rejection, He endured Jesus’ poverty, and He shone forth the grace of God in his life. That’s our call too.
St. Francis, pray for us, that we might become signs and sacraments of God’s love in the world!
– Fr. Dominic Rankin has preached the Gospel ever since he was ordained a deacon, like St. Francis, 3 years and 6 days ago. He prays that his preaching might be as bold as the humble hermit of Assisi.