St Francis of Assisi - October 4
Pope Paul VI encouraged the friars at the OFM General Chapter in 1967 to show
their true heritage as anti-conformists: "This is your way, definitely not
ignored today by the capricious tastes of the new generation: anti-conformism.
Don't disdain the strange forms of your Franciscan way of life. Provided they
are carried with dignified simplicity, they can resume the efficacy of a free
and bold language which would be much more likely to impress the world than to
be less consonant with the imperatives of its taste and fashion."
This is heady incitement. So we Franciscans are expected, by people who know about St Francis, to be anti-conformists and revolutionaries. Lenin on his deathbed caps them all: "How wrong I was! What Russia really needed was a couple of St Francises."
Can we recognize ourselves as the spiritual sons and daughters of Francis? It is not as simple as lashing out in anti-conforming behaviour and inciting people to revolt. St Francis did not initiate revolution in that way, and those of us who love not to conform may be the very ones who can't handle anti-conformism positively.
St Francis alienated nobody. He belonged to the people, all the people. He mixed with high and low in a totally personal way, inspired by the example of Jesus in another place and time. He did nothing that revolutionaries do. He treated every man as his brother, both the dirty poor and the filthy rich, the priest, bishop, cardinal and pope, the Muslim, the bandit. He saw the image of God in each one. Each was Jesus Christ to him. Each was certain that Francis was really interested in him and took him seriously.
St Francis's stress on law and order (which he translated into doing the will of God), authority and obedience (model and follower), superior and subject ( minister and brother), challenges even conservative Franciscans today. The avant-garde tend to dismiss his attitudes as medieval, or just exaggerated. In fact they were anti-conformist and gospel inspired.
He held lawfully constituted authority in the highest esteem, even when it was invested in unworthy persons. Likewise, he showed reverence for the Church's hierarchy, including those priests most undeserving of respect because of their immoral public life. St Francis's attitude clearly set him apart from the numerous revolutionary and heretical fanatics who disturbed the peace and abused justice. His attitudes set him apart from most of the townspeople who were outspoken about the unworthiness of the clergy and the oppressiveness of the nobility.
Can we today capture the originality of St Francis? But we must, in order to be what the Church and the world expect us to be: dynamic, anti-conformist, and even revolutionary like our spiritual Father.
One thing that made St Francis daring and original was his experience of the presence of God in his daily life. This did not make his life easy. Rather, because of it, he met with constant opposition. His father was against him from the start. The people of Assisi mocked him. Cautious popes, cardinals and bishops fobbed him off. He met with opposition from his own friars from the time that their numbers expanded from the original twelve. Eventually, they dropped him.
Jesus, the Suffering Servant of God, accompanied Francis in trouble with family, society, Church and his own Order. His constant awareness of God's presence saved him from growing bitter, disillusioned or frustrated. He maintained a Christlike integrity throughout it all.
Francis was not revolutionary or rebellious in an aggressive way. He laid down his life for his fellows. He stayed in the Church, and in his Order. He won over secular society, and he is still converting his followers today, not least in the renewal of Franciscan spirituality that we are experiencing.
How did he do it? His prayers give us insight into how acutely he was aware of the presence and power of God in his life, and his need of God. The Praises of God, composed after St Francis had received the Stigmata, are the overflow of his spirit in waves of affection. Francis took refuge in God as a child in his mother's arms. His overjoyed patter is more affective than intellectual. He blurts out all the words he knows to try to express the essential "I am yours" of faith and love.
You are the holy Lord God Who does wonderful things.
You are strong. You are great. You are the most high.
You are the almighty king. You, holy Father,
King of heaven and earth.