EMBODY THE GOSPEL
Stigmata of St Francis - September 17
The future of our Franciscan Family in the Church depends on our facing two challenges:
Our first challenge is that we must discover who we are called to be. We need to find the original Franciscan Family in the sources, through reading, reflecting, study and prayer, and we need to recognize our responsibility as the same Franciscan Family today. This involves us in formation, renewal and conversion. These activities are modern equivalents of penance, which was constantly practised by St Francis and St Clare and by the original Secular Franciscans, the Brothers and Sisters of Penance.
It is remarkable how the Franciscan Family has recovered its original self in the years since the Second Vatican Council. Franciscans, both religious and secular, took to heart the Council's direction: "Loyal recognition and safekeeping should be accorded to the spirit of founders, as also to all the particular goals and wholesome traditions which constitute the heritage of each community" (Perfectae caritatis, 2). This is an ongoing challenge for each one of us. We have to face it in our own place and time.
The Secular Franciscan Order in particular has rediscovered its true identity in the original Franciscan sources. Reduced largely to a sodality and to a pious association of people intent on their own sanctification, since Vatican II it has found its proper vocation and charism in the Franciscan Family and the universal Church. It still has a lot more space to fill.
Our second challenge is that we must show our renewed identity to the Church and to the world today. There is more to this than fostering good press relations and creating an attractive public image. No doubt, we need promotion brochures, but if our inner reality is renewed, the outward image will look after itself, and the press will be chasing after us, not we after the press.
We are called, like St Francis and the first Franciscans, to observe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Rules of the First, Second and Third Order begin in this way. For example, the SFO Rule, Article 4, reads: "The rule and life of the Secular Franciscans is this: to observe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ by following the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and the centre of his life with God and people."
The Gospel is not primarily a printed text of scripture or even a set of moral rules. The Gospel is the Word of God embodied in flesh and blood. The messenger is Jesus Christ, the man who is God. He embodies his message, to the extent of laying down his life for his friends.
Observing the Gospel is discovering Jesus, God in flesh, in our lives and in the lives of others. Following the Gospel is conforming ourselves to the example of living that he gave us. He calls us to follow the same way to life-with-God through death to our self-centredness.
The Gospel happened all over again to the first Franciscans. We have an example of it in the stigmatization of St Francis. He saw the Crucified in himself and in others, especially in the most needy.
Consequently, others saw Jesus in him, even the wounds of the Crucified in his flesh. They also saw the risen Lord in him as he rose above human frailty and gave a consistent response of love to them and to God. Friar Thomas of Celano pictures his resurrection in the commotion of the larks and in the vision of the friar who saw his soul rising to heaven.
We Franciscans today, religious and secular, have committed ourselves to observe the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, after the example of St Francis. He not only observed the Gospel, he embodied it as Jesus himself did. He became another Christ, to the extent of bearing physically, in his hands, feet and side, the wounds of the crucified Jesus.
He left us with the challenges that he faced and conquered: to discover who we are called to be, and to show our true selves to the Church and the world. He has done his part. May the Lord teach us what we have to do.