Thursday, October 08, 2009

Homily for the Solemnity of St. Francis, October 4th, 2009


Today we celebrate the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. As you know, memorials of saints are normally not celebrated on Sundays, but we celebrate St. Francis today here at St. Joseph's because he is the founder and patron saint of the Franciscan Friars, under whose care St. Joseph's parish has been for 145 years... ever since Fr. Leo Rizzo da Saracena succeeded Fr. Daniel Mullen as pastor in 1864. And Holy Mother Church permits parishes run by the Franciscans and any church or diocese that has Saint Francis as its patron saint to celebrate his feast as a solemnity in place of the normal mass for this 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Today instead of focusing directly on the Lord, the liturgy presents to us a saint. Saints remind us of the wondrous ways God works in the lives of his people. Saints are examples to us of men and women who encountered God, who responded to God's call upon their hearts to accept His love, and who let that love transform them into instruments of peace. Seeing how they lived, the saints inspire us to also say yes to God and to put our trust fully in Him and in the good news we hear in the gospel, and to become heralds of the good news to others.

St. Francis was one such herald. Born Giovanni Bernardone in 1181 and nick-named Francesco by his father, Francis grew up in the Umbian town of Assisi at a time of social, political and religious turmoil. Besides the crusades, many heresies had become prevalent and not many Catholics loved God. The middle class was growing rich from textiles and trade and competing with the nobility for status. There were conflicts among those loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor, those loyal to the Pope, and those who wished to govern themselves.

The son of a middle class textile merchant, Francis aspired to become a knight so as to later become a noble. He joined the military campaign against the rival town of Perugia, but, taken prisoner, he contracted a fever that began turning his thoughts to God. After his release, Francis still sought earthly glory and wanted to join another military campaign. He had a dream that a large palace with many riches was in store for him and his followers. Francis thought this would mean he would become a great prince, but God had other plans in mind. While on the road to join the campaign, Francis' illness returned, and he had another dream in which a voice asked him “Francis, who can do more for you, the lord or the servant.” “The lord,” Francis replied. “Then why do you abandon the lord for the servant.” Asking what he should do Francis was told to return to Assisi where the Lord would tell him what to do.

Francis then began praying to know God's will. He would pray “Most high and glorious good God, enlighten the darkness of my heart, and give me right faith, certain hope and perfect charity, insight and wisdom that I may carry out your holy and true command.” In the church of San Damiano Francis received an answer to his prayer. While praying in front of the crucifix he heard Christ say to him “Francis, rebuild my church which you can see has fallen into ruin.” So thinking that this meant he should rebuild the churches like San Damiano that were literally falling into ruin, Francis began selling all his goods and buy or begging for building materials. When Francis' father found out he was selling his goods, he first tried to stop Francis and later he brought him before the bishop of Assisi to demand that Francis give him restitution. Francis then stripped himself of all he had and gave it to his father, declaring himself to no longer be his son but rather a religious.

Going about with nothing and joyfully preaching about God and the need to do penance, the people of Assisi initially thought Francis was crazy, and they would throw mud at him. During this time he began serving the lepers who he had thought repugnant prior to his conversion.

After some time people began to see that Francis was sincere and he attracted other young men to follow him as Friars Minor, St. Clare and other women of the area to follow his way of life as Poor Clares, and lay people like Lucius and his wife to follow him as secular Franciscans.

Francis' message and spirituality was simple. He saw the nativity and the passion of Jesus Christ as signs of God's love for mankind. For Francis, only an extraordinarily great love could make someone so rich and powerful like God choose poverty and weakness by becoming man and suffering an awful death on the cross. Francis sought with all his might to accept this great love and to return it to God through prayerful praise and love of his fellow human beings. Considering himself the troubadour of the Great King, Francis would preach to people trying to encourage them to also love God because of how much God loves them and to get them to practice virtue and turn away from vice. He would remind people of the glory that awaits those who love God and neighbor and who live lives of virtue. He would also lovingly remind people of the punishment awaiting those who continue to live in vice, inviting them to begin doing penance.

Like today's gospel, Francis trusted in God like a little child trusts in its parents. He saw God as the origin of all that is good and creation as an expression of God's providential concern. As such he revered nature because of how much it reminded him of God and His love. Animals were not afraid of Francis. He would speak to them and they would understand him, not only preaching to the birds, but even saving one town from a dangerous wolf. This was because, by the grace of God, Francis' holiness was reaching a point whereby he was beginning to experience the original harmony between God, others, creation, and himself that existed in the garden of Eden.

Loving the cross, Francis did not shun trials and tribulations but rather saw them as necessary for salvation and for spiritual growth. Though he had previously boasted in worldly things, Francis' encounter with God brought him to boast only in the cross as the second reading reminds us. Praying to know both the sufferings Christ endured and the love for mankind that spurned him on to endure them, Francis received the gift of the stigmata, the wounds of Christ in his hands and feet and side.

But most importantly, by his joyful and simple preaching, Francis was able to reconcile enemies and reconcile people to God, inspiring them to love God, to love and obey the Church and its ministers, even if they be sinners, and it was in this way he rebuilt Christ's church, converting people who had become heretics and reinvigorating the love of Catholics of his day and age for God and for their neighbors.

Let us follow Francis' example. Let us come to trust in God as the most high and all good Lord, the source of all good, the Father who so greatly loves us that he sent his only Son to take on our lowliness and to die for us so that we may share in His divine life by the gift of the Holy Spirit, but only if we turn away from sin and vice each day and strive to live in holiness in the pursuit of the perfection of true love of God and of our neighbors. Let us humbly accept that we need God and His church in order to have true wisdom and in order to come to fully live and understand our faith. Let us see the sacraments, especially eucharist and reconciliation as means of directly encountering God as Francis did and desire to frequent them often. Let us so love our Lord's passion that we willingly embrace our own trials and take up our own crosses, not only as a participation in Christ's passion, but also as necessary and helpful means for us to grow in love and holiness. Let us come to respect and revere nature because it reminds us of God's providence and love. Let us, like Francis, seek to be instruments of peace as we herald the good news through our genuine love and joy. As Francis sought to do God's will, let us too seek out what is ours to do, confident that the Lord is pleased to show us what He wills of us.

May the Lord give you His peace.

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