Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Visit from "Sister Death" - The Transitus of St. Francis *Updated with a cartoon*

I had the honour tonight to give a brief reflection on St Francis at a celebration of his Transitus in our beautiful chapel here at Bellarmine University.  We have three Franciscan friars from Kerala, India working in our campus ministry office, and they graciously asked if I would say a few words before the story of his death was recited.  I'm posting my reflection below.

St Francis of Assisi is, as you know, one of our most popular saints.  We place statues of Francis in our gardens, we bless our animals on or near his feast day, and we make pilgrimages by the millions to Assisi to pray in the presence of his holy relics and to soak in something of the life of this great man.  When we picture St Francis of Assisi, most of us undoubtedly have an image in our minds of a meek and kindly man with a bird perched on his shoulder.  And it was because we have this image of the kind and gentle St Francis that so many of us were excited last March when Cardinal Bergolio was elected pope and took “Francis” as his papal name, the first bishop of Rome ever to do so.
But I can’t help but wonder if we drastically misunderstand St Francis by ‘taming’ him in the way that we do.  For when we tame St Francis we tame Jesus.  It’s no accident that, on this celebration of the Transitus of St Francis, we read the story of Francis’ death alongside of the narrative of Jesus’ passion.  While we are all to be icons of Christ to others, while we are all to manifest Jesus’ gentle love, some have done this better than others.  And there have been very few indeed who have so vibrantly and beautifully manifested Christ-likeness as St Francis did.  Yes, it very good to remember the Francis who preached to the animals and to remember the unity that we humans have with Sister Mother Earth, with Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and with all who share our created existence.  But we mustn’t forget that St Francis, in his example and his teachings, advocated a truly radical way of relating to God and to one another.

We mustn’t forget the vigour with which Francis fully embraced Lady Poverty, giving up his desire for this-worldly ambition and prestige, giving up an attachment to wealth and property, giving up an attachment to things, in order to devote himself fully to God and to others.  He understood fully that Jesus Christ reveals to us a God who is primarily characterized not as all-mighty and all-powerful.  Francis saw, rather, that Jesus reveals a God who embraces Lady Poverty because humility and an utterly generous love characterizes God completely.  The same kind of all-consuming love demonstrated by God in creation and revealed most fully in the person of Jesus Christ, is the kind of love for God and for others that Francis himself tried to emulate in his life.

But living out a life of generous love is not an easy task, for such love calls us to abandon much of what we consider most important and calls us to embrace fully (and sometime literally) those who are generally excluded by our society and even by our church.  Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has endeavoured in the short time he’s been our Pope to emulate in his words and actions precisely the kind of generous love shown by his namesake, St Francis.  And we love to see this.  I have personally been moved, sometimes to tears, when I’ve watched Pope Francis greet pilgrims after his general audiences.  One time I saw him quickly tell the driver to stop the pope-mobile so he could go down and greet a physically and mentally disabled man.   And I saw Pope Francis, without any hesitation at all, embrace this man and kiss him.  The look on the man’s face when he had been kissed literally brought me to tears, and as I’ve thought about that embrace and kiss, I’ve thought that what I witnessed was nothing other than what St Francis did when he kissed the wounds of lepers.  Now all of this is beautiful to see…but it’s beautiful to see from a distance.  Our reactions change dramatically when we come to realize that what Pope Francis and St Francis are saying is that we must follow their lead.  It’s comfortable to watch others do the dirty work of love.  It becomes decidedly less comfortable to know that we ourselves have to do this dirty work. 

But it was because he loved so fully that St. Francis was able on this night to welcome Sister Death warmly, and so to fly to the embrace of the God who is love. I pray that we might follow his lead in his life and his death.

*Update* After reading my reflection above, a friend of mine sent me the following cartoon about our image of St Francis.  Excellent!

Caravaggio's "Ecstasy of St Francis" from the Web Gallery of Art

Image of Pope Francis from 

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