Franciscan Spirituality - to become the Good News of Jesus Christ
The campus students were waiting for a priest. I was a graduate student in biochemistry at the time, and some friends of mine talked me into going to the campus Mass. They kept talking about a Franciscan priest who was great with the college students. To my surprise, a big heavy-set man came in. He was dressed in a brown robe with a rope around his waist and a large rosary dangling from his side. Over the months that followed, I got to know Fr John. He was man of faith and simplicity who deeply cared for us students. Before long, he had a group of us going out to visit the Franciscan monastery for retreat. He told us all about Jesus and St Francis, and the great ways we could help the poor. It was my first introduction to St Francis and Franciscan spirituality. Here was a man who lived the Gospel in a radical way. How refreshing!
I came to understand that St Francis was once a worldly and enthusiastic young man who dreamed of being a great knight. God showed him another way. When St. Francis opened his heart to Jesus, Jesus ignited the flame of love within him. Francis used to spend long hours just praying "My God and my all!" He was opening and offering his heart to God. He wanted nothing more than to imitate Jesus in all things. He renounced his possessions, and got in trouble with his own father for giving away his clothes and money. His father demanded them back, and wanted Francis to compromise his new love of Jesus and the Gospel. Francis would have none of that, and instead gave all his clothes back to his father - the clothes off his body. This encounter happened in the public square for all to see.
Jesus said to the rich man, "Go and sell all you have and give to the poor, then come and follow me." The rich man walked away sadly because he had many possessions. But Francis overcame this great obstacle with which we all struggle - our love of material possessions - and stood stripped of all things before God. The local bishop embraced him, and Francis embarked on a new journey of faith to rebuild the church.
Francis found Jesus in the poor, and he devoted himself to serving them and being poor with them. That is what the Gospel called him to do. When others started to follow his way of life, Francis made clear that their ’rule’ was to follow the Gospel. All the members of God’s creation were "brother and sister" to him. In many ways, Franciscan spirituality is Gospel spirituality, for it centers on Jesus Christ and on living as Jesus taught us. It means embracing the cross - "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny his very self, take up his cross each day and follow in my steps." (Luke 9:23) It means self-renunciation - "Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a grain, but if it dies, it produces much fruit." (John 12:24) It means being little - "Unless you become like a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matt 18:3) It means being a servant of others - "The greatest among you are those who serve the needs of the rest." (Mark 10: 44) It means love - "My commandment to you is love one another as I have loved you." (John 15:12) It is a spirituality that is familiar to all Christians because it so well echoes the Gospel. It is a bridge to all people of good will, for charity and goodness spring from its steps.
For our spiritual exercise this month, we will pray to be the Good News of Jesus Christ. We will need charity to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. Notice those are actions - the spirit of charity moves us to act and live as Jesus did.
Begin this month’s exercise by meditating for about 15 minutes on the prayer of St Francis. I have broken up the first part of the prayer to help with the meditation:
Prayer of St Francis
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
How was Jesus an "instrument of peace?" (cf John 20) When have I felt God’s peace come to me? Did reconciliation have a role in bringing me peace? Who has been an ’instrument of peace’ in my life? What do I need to change to be more peaceful?
Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon.
Have I ever been hurt by another’s words or actions? Am I ready to forgive them? When have I experienced love and pardon? How can I sow love and pardon? When did Jesus sow love and pardon? Look at a crucifix and pray this part of the prayer again.
Where there is doubt, faith;
When have I been in situations where the Catholic faith was challenged or misrepresented? What did I do? How did I feel? When have I seen or experienced lies or deceit? When have I misrepresented situations, or people?
Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; And where there is sadness, joy.
What dark times have I experienced? What was it like to receive hope and light? What situations of darkness and despair did Jesus face? How did Jesus bring hope to the hopeless and light to those who lived in the shadow of darkness?
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console. To be understood, as to understand. To be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
Now that we have prayed this prayer, we must put our prayer into action. Otherwise it is merely lip service. That is one of the big steps St. Francis took. He knew what the Lord was calling him to do - and out of his love for the Lord, he did it. When we put our prayers into action, we’ll experience spiritual growth.
There are people in our own communities who need food, shelter and clothing.. Reach out to them.
Many more are hungry for love, kindness and company. Our world can be a lonely place. Think of those closest to you - in your family, in your neighborhood, in your church community. Go and feed their hunger and thirst. You are God’s bread and water.