Sunday, July 07, 2013

Francis, Rebuild My Church!

St. Francis of Assisi, before the crucifix 
in the Church of San Damiano

(14th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given on 6 July at St. Joseph Church in Pascoag, R.I.  See Galatians 6:14-18 and Luke 10: 1-20)

The Opening Prayer for the Mass (referred to as the Collect, for it "collects" or gathers together the people of faith for the Eucharistic banquet) is offered by the priest as a means "through which the character of the celebration finds expression" (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, #54).  In other words, what we pray at the beginning of Mass is not arbitrary.  It essentially sets the tone for the celebration we are entering. 

The Collect for the Mass this weekend, the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, addresses God and gathers the Church in a deeply theological and personal way:

O God, who in the abasement of your Son
have raised up a fallen world,
fill your faithful with holy joy,
for on those you have rescued from slavery to sin
you bestow eternal gladness.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

This prayer is a beautiful expression of the mystery of our salvation and the call we have received to eternal union with God.  Through the humility of God who, in the person of Christ has taken on our humanity, we have been raised up to eternal life.  Because Christ was willing to humble himself even to the point of His cruel death on the cross, we have been exalted to the heights of heaven with Him.

It is not the case that everyone quite naturally goes to heaven at the end of this earthly life.  We do not believe that those who have lived "decent" lives and have avoided most of the "notorious" sins have now deserved to dwell in a heaven of their choosing.  In fact, no one goes to heaven and no one enters eternal life except through the abasement and self-sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, God's eternally begotten Son (see John 14:6).  That is the glory of God and the greatest expression of mercy the world has ever experienced.  We, who have been "rescued from slavery to sin," have now been given "eternal gladness," a share in God's own Divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) which we could never have merited on our own.  This is the work of God, and how glorious that He—through the proclamation of the Gospel—allows us a share and a participation in that magnificent and life-giving work! 

Christ this weekend sends out seventy-two disciples to announce the Gospel message and to proclaim, "The Kingdom of God is at hand for you" (Luke 10: 9).  The men and women who are able to accomplish that work most effectively and most powerfully down through the centuries, of course, are the saints.  But their ability to change the world around them is a direct consequence of their willingness to surrender their lives to the power of the Holy Spirit in God's plan of salvation.  God, who in the abasement of His Son has raised up a fallen world, continues to do so though the self-surrender of the saints.  It is not our gifts and efforts that bring about the salvation of the world.  No, it was, is and always will be the Gift and the supreme self-sacrifice of God Almighty.  The saints are the ones that remind us of that in every age.

This weekend I would like to focus on one of the greatest saints who ever lived: St. Francis of Assisi.  A few short months ago the Cardinals of the Church elected Jorge Cardinal Bergolio to the See of Peter.  He could have chosen any name he wanted.  He chose to take the name of Francis.   Understanding the life of St. Francis of Assisi can perhaps help us understand why.

St. Francis was born at the end of the 12th century during a very difficult and turbulent time for the Church and the world.  People today are quick to use the word "crisis" when it comes to the Church; whether it be parish closings or a shortage of vocations, they express the situation as dire.  In many instances that estimation may be an accurate one.  Still, if we look at the Church beyond the borders of our own nation, in many places of the world parishes and vocations are thriving.  The word "crisis" does not want of an easy or facile application.  Nonetheless, in the time of St. Francis the Church was in much worse shape than some find it today.  It was not only the skeptics and the naysayers who lamented the Church's predicament.  God Himself expressed His concern over its sorry state!

The story takes us back to a small, abandoned and decrepit church in the foothills of Assisi called San Damiano.  A young Francis was praying there, alone, amidst walls that were crumbling and a roof desperately in need of repair.  Suddenly from the cross Jesus Christ spoke to him: 

"Francis!  Rebuild my Church, which as you can see is falling down around you."  

The simple Francis, interpreting that voice of command quite literally, began to shore up the walls and mend the roof of the Church of San Damiano.  But The Lord meant the whole Church, the visible Body of Christ on earth!  Because St. Francis was so humble and holy, God was able to accomplish that very thing in the course of time.  Through the abasement of the humble Francis, God was able to raise up a fallen world and to bring about a genuine renewal in the Church which began in his lifetime and continued for centuries.

St. Francis would come to be totally identified with Jesus Christ throughout his life and ministry.  He was referred to as an alter Christus, another Christ, because of his humility and deep love for God and man (not to mention more than a few animals). 

In our Second Reading for this weekend St. Paul is speaking about this mystery of identification with Christ.  His Apostolic ministry has been called into question by much lesser would-be disciples, and St. Paul does not hesitate to remind the Church of Galatia of all that he has suffered for Christ and the work of the Gospel.  He says, in typical Pauline fashion:

From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.
Galatians 6: 17  

The Greek word for "marks" that St. Paul uses is stigmata.  It means literally the wounds of Christ.  That word would take on a whole new significance in the life of St. Francis of Assisi who, towards the end of his life, received an experience in prayer in which the five wounds of Christ were translated into his very body.  Whenever you look at an image or statue of St. Francis you will see the wounds of Christ in his hands, his feet and his side.  He was that closely identified with our Lord Jesus Christ! 

How desperately the Church today needs disciples of Christ who are willing to be identified more completely with Him!  Not, of course, that we all need to receive the stigmata, but that we are willing to share in Christ's abasement and humility which allows the power of God to work in and through us to raise up our fallen world.  We lose nothing when we surrender ourselves to God in this way.  It is God who cares for us and insures that no sacrifice, no act of humility, no offer of surrender to Him for the sake of His Church and the benefit of world will go unanswered or unrewarded.

The seventy-two disciples in our Gospel this weekend return from their mission overwhelmed with joy and a sense of accomplishment.  They rejoice with Christ, saying "Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name" (Luke 10: 17).  Jesus rejoices along with them: "I saw Satan fall like lightening from the sky" (Luke 10:18).  The Devil's destructive reign is drawing definitively to a close.  There is indeed cause for rejoicing here!  Nonetheless, Christ appropriately focuses these disciples on the most important outcome of their missionary journey:

Do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.
—Luke 10:20

Satan and the demons have been cast out of heaven forever, but God, in His just providence and merciful love, has now replaced these fallen ones, writing the names of Christ's humble disciples permanently in heaven in their places.

In the upper level of the Basilica of St. Francis in the City of Assisi there is a painting by Giotto of a vision one of the friars had while St. Francis was still alive. In that vision the friar saw numerous thrones set up in heaven. Some were larger and more ornate than others, but one of them stood out among them all. A voice then said to that friar:

“This throne belonged to one of the angels cast out of paradise; now it is reserved for the humble Francis.”

How is God challenging us this week to walk in the footsteps of the humble St. Francis of Assisi?  How are we called to be more fully identified with Jesus Christ, whose abasement and humble service to the Divine will of His Father raised up our fallen world? 

Perhaps if we are willing to surrender ourselves to His glorious work more and more completely in our own lives we may also come to discover that God has reserved a place in heaven for us among the saints.