During October, we remember the life and witness of St. Francis of Assisi. In many congregations the observance includes the blessing of animals. Churches normally filled with the murmur of human voices find themselves enlivened by the various sounds, and other sensory manifestations, of the animal kingdom.
As expressive of the compassionate spirit of St. Francis as such occasions are, they don’t do him justice. It is insufficient for him to be remembered solely in terms of his love for creation and revered in the form of a garden statue adorned with birds and rabbits. Francis is more properly remembered as a witness to the transformative power of the gospel.
Francis underwent his transformation in part through the means of an unexpected encounter. Francis, we are told, had an especially strong aversion to lepers, who were perhaps the most isolated members of medieval society.
Because neither the cause nor the cure for leprosy were known, lepers were feared by all. At the first sign of the onset of this disfiguring disease, its victims were expelled from the community and forced to live in the virtual prison of a leprosarium. There are medieval liturgical texts for the committal of lepers that show little mercy and are undergirded by the assumption that leprosy was the fruit of sinfulness.
Then one day Francis found himself face to face with what he so feared. Instead of drawing back, impelled by a force beyond his own understanding, he found himself embracing and kissing the leper. At this point, it seems his heart must have been broken open, and the mercy of Christ flowed forth. Francis emerged from that encounter able to embrace not only the leper but also all that God had made.
His indiscriminate love for all creatures, including those regarded as the refuse of humankind, created antagonism and opposition. His father disowned him, and many former friends thought him insane. Ecclesiastics who viewed the church and their ministries largely in terms of power and domination felt called to account by a love so fierce and transparent that its very presence served as a judgment.
Francis also attracted disciples who looked on him with awe and respect, and learned from his example. Among his disciples was Clare, a young noblewoman of Assisi who had been deeply affected by Francis’ preaching and manner of life. Clare went on to become the prioress of a convent of nuns who joined Francis in his embrace of poverty as a way of life that bound them intimately to the Lord.
Another transformative experience for Francis occurred one day as he was praying in the crumbling church of San Damiano before a Byzantine representation of the crucified Lord. In this icon, Jesus is depicted with arms outstretched, not so much in a gesture of suffering, but rather as a way of gathering and embracing. Under each arm are figures representing all sorts and conditions of humanity.
As Francis prayed, he heard Christ speak to him from the cross. Christ’s words were: Francesco va, ripara la mia chiesa. Francis, go rebuild my church.
Francis at first responded to these words quite literally and set out to repair the church of San Damiano and various derelict chapels in the surrounding countryside. As worthy an effort as that may have been, the deeper meaning of Christ’s words revealed itself over time.
What became clear to Francis was that rebuilding and repair had to do not with stones and mortar but with the human heart. The compassion and love of Christ, which found a home deep within Francis’ heart, were the very energies by which Christ himself was rebuilding the church.
In the homily I preached on the occasion of my investiture as presiding bishop in January 1998, I told the story of St. Francis praying before the crucifix and the words addressed to him by Christ: Francis, go rebuild my church. I said that rebuilding the church was our challenge and that the church is a relationship to be lived: a relationship of the communion established by God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, which finds expression and is made incarnate in our communion with one another. Therefore, the church is always, in every age, being rebuilt and renewed out of the struggles and witness and fidelity of its members.
I said that this was true then and that it still would be true at the end of nine years. And, my dear brothers and sisters, nine years later it is still true: The church is being rebuilt and renewed. And the love that unites the persons of the Holy Trinity worked into our hearts by the Spirit is the energy by which this is accomplished.
Contemplating the San Damiano crucifix, I am reminded that the figures standing beneath Christ’s arms represent all of us in our various singularities and ways of being. As we look to the future, it is my prayer that the life of our church may be ever more fully grounded in that same love that flowed so freely through the words and deeds of our brother Francis.