Monthly Spiritual Message - February 2007




            In his Testament, St. Francis writes: "This is how the Lord granted to me, brother Francis, to begin to do penance. When I was in sin, it seemed to bitter a thing to see lepers. But the Lord Himself led me among them, and I showed compassion to them. And when I left them what before seemed bitter, was changed into sweetness of soul and body: and after that I hesitated a while, and left the world."


            Francis proposed a "life of penance" for his followers. They called themselves: "penitents from the town of Assisi." The Secular Franciscans were called the "brothers and sisters of penance." Obviously, penance had a great importance in the Franciscan beginnings and in the entire movement.


            For Francis, penance was not merely fasting, mortification, wearing hair shirts, and other external penances. These he did. But the life of penance for him was essentially the METANOIA of the Gospel, a change of mind and heart, the complete and unceasing renewal of a person who tends to God with his whole being.


            Francis' life of penance began with God, not with himself. He was filled with overflowing gratitude for the benefits the mercy of the Father had bestowed on him in His love, through Jesus Christ. He gave thanks for the great mercy of God, which began with our creation through Christ, which redeemed us through the Incarnation and Redemption in Christ, and which will reach its climax through the second coming of Christ in glory.


            Francis' gratitude does not suffice, so he pleads that Jesus Himself, the beloved of the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, will render God thanks in our name. He pleads that Mary and all the saints will also praise and thank the Father, because his thanks are so unworthy. He shows this gratitude in the twenty-third chapter of the "unconfirmed Rule", a beautiful prayer and exhortation of thanksgiving. Here is a very brief excerpt of his prayer:


            "Almighty, most high and supreme God, Father, holy and just, Lord King of heaven and earth, we give you thanks for yourself. Of your own will you created all things, spiritual and physical, made us in your own image and likeness, and gave us a place in paradise, through your only Son, in the Holy Spirit. And it was through our own fault that we fell. We give you thanks because, having created us through your Son, by that holy love with which you loved us, you decreed that He should be born, true God and true man, of the glorious and ever blessed Virgin Mary, and redeem us from our captivity by the blood of his passion and death.


            "We are all poor sinners and unworthy to mention you name, and so we beg our Lord Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, in whom you are well pleased, and the Holy Spirit, to give you thanks for everything, as it pleases you and them. There is never anything lacking in him to accomplish your will, and it is through him that you have done much for us. And we beg his glorious mother, blessed Mary, ever Virgin, Saints Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and all the choirs of blessed spirits (and all the saints) to give thanks to you, the most high, eternal God, living and true, with your Son our beloved Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, for ever and ever."

            This starting point, thanksgiving, places the focus on God, rather than on us. We easily judge everything from the human viewpoint, we emphasize the goodwill of the individual, we stress the psychological means. While there is value in this approach, Francis began with the Goodness of God. The Father's goodness and mercy is the starting point of his life of penance, the basis of his response.


            With the realization that our life of penance does not depend merely on our will, but on the action of God, we are less likely to strive for holiness only as long as we have the desire for holiness, or as long as our motivation towards holiness urges us on, or only within the limits which we set for ourselves. Francis' approach makes us put ourselves more and more in the background so that the grace of God may be perfected in us. A conversion from selfish concerns, so that the Lord alone may work in us, is the penance Francis achieved and wants us to achieve also.


Carmel Flora OFMCap

National Spiritual Assistant SFO - Oceania