On October 4, more than one million Catholic men and women, committed to the Franciscan way of life stop to praise God for what he has done through the life of Francis of Assisi. Eight-hundred years later and on a bad day, when vocations are down, the number of Catholic Franciscans is well over one million. United to us there are Lutheran, Episcopalian and Anglican Franciscans. Then there are those who are not members of one of the many Franciscan communities, but are spiritually united to the family through their devotion, veneration and love for our Seraphic Father. Among these there are Christians of other ecclesial communities, Jews and Muslims. This man made few trips far from Assisi. Compared to the number of people who followed him during his time, very few people actually met this man.
One has to ask, “What is it about Francis of Assisi it? Who is this man? Why do we follow him?” To make it easier to reflect on this question, allow me to reflect on my journey and that of those few courageous men who have chosen to walk the path of St. Francis with the Franciscans of Life, either as secular brothers or consecrated brothers. To try to answer this question for an entire globe would require much more work than this short paper can cover.
For me, this day is always like Christmas. It inspires a sense of joy and gratitude in my heart, one that I cannot explain. I always experience a humble sense of pride to be able to say that I’m a member of the Franciscan family. It’s almost embarrassing to say, “I’m a son of St. Francis of Assisi,” because I know my sinfulness. I know my unworthiness.
Did I choose to follow Francis? I don’t know that I did. We can argue that the Creator has bestowed on man a free will, which is true. But there are times when the free will caves in the presence of that which is utterly irresistible, like a smore. In other words, one surrenders to the invitation.
To walk in the footsteps of St. Francis is an invitation from God. He makes it so delectable that’s it’s almost impossible to decline. In the middle of our restlessness, God places before us a teacher, a master, a spiritual father, a guide, and a brother who has traveled this journey. As Christ promised, the Holy Spirit guides us along the way.
In reality, it is Francis’ Trinitarian spirituality that draws us to walk in his footsteps. To walk in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi is to consciously live in the presence of the Most Holy Trinity every day of one’s life. Like Francis, we acknowledge that we are sinful and sorrowful. To a certain extent, we’re pitiful, because we cannot atone for our own sins without the help of the offended party, the Lord God Himself.
Our life is one of atonement, a life of constant penance, and constant conversion toward almighty God who has loved us from all eternity. Francis understood this very clearly and in a very simple way, without too many theological convolutions. “He is God. I’m a sinner and without the Cross, I cannot save my soul.” It was that simple. It is this great simplicity in the face of eternal life that attracted me to Francis of Assisi. Eternal life becomes so simple. Embrace the Cross and it’s yours. No questions asked. For me, there is such relief and joy in knowing that there is hope without complicating my life any more than what it already is. In fact, to embrace the Cross as Francis did, I am called to simplify my life by detaching from everything that does not lead to the Father, from everything that obstructs my view of Christ, from everything that blocks out the voice of the Holy Spirit. This is where Francis’ love of Lady Poverty enters into the picture. Only by being poor does one become rich. We cannot take all of our attachments into heaven.
Many people complain about the airline industry, because they charge you for your baggage. Some carriers are slightly generous and allow you one free bag and one free carryon. That’s it. Without realizing it, in their own way, they’re being prophetic. Heaven is very much like this. You can’t get past the gate weighed down by attachments. One or two gets you into Purgatory. It’s like getting past TSA at the airport. You’re on your way, but not there yet. The next time you travel, remember the lesson that St. Francis of Assisi teaches us. Eternity is a journey to the Father, following the Son, listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Only he who is detached can is ready to go on the journey. Too many unnecessary attachments are like too much luggage.
Attachment can be to sin, material possessions, security, power, pleasure, people, places and anything else that we place as Number One in our lives. Franciscans of Life embrace life in this world and in the next, because it is sacred. It comes from the hand of the Father and leads back to the Father. There is one caveat; we must become poor along the journey. If we’re too attached to other things, it becomes impossible to embrace the life that God has given us when our arms are weighed down by baggage and impossible to be the voice of the voiceless Christ.
To walk in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi is to go back to school. He is the teacher whom the Holy Spirit puts before us. He teaches us how to become poor as Christ was poor and to surrender to the Will of the Father out of pure love. Francis was like the waiters at the wedding of Cana who listened to Mary’s advice, “Do whatever He tells you.” If we pay attention to Francis, he will teach us how to listen to Christ’s words. The rest is up to us.
Is Francis the only spiritual master or spiritual teacher? No. Like in any school, in the School of Holiness there are many teachers. Is he the best teacher? Only for those who can learn from him. If God has placed him in your path, there must be a reason. Pay attention.
Br JR, FFV