To be human and holy by following "the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ," otherwise characterized as "Christocentric," is the most significant theme in Franciscan tradition. The Order of Friars Minor (OFM) was founded in the early 13th century by young wealthy sinner turned destitute saint, Francis of Assisi. William J. Short (OFM) known as Brother Bill, a scholarly Friar at the Franciscan School of Theology in California, advances in his book Poverty and Joy that even though Francis seldom referred to Jesus as Christ his spirituality and relationship with Jesus is what made the Franciscan tradition "Christocentric." Two friends who began their spiritual journey in tandem mirrored Christ's way of life, Francis and Clare, by embracing Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God and the most important focus for Franciscans. The dynamic holy duo became St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi and millennials favorite mentors. Affectionately called "Brother Sun and Sister Moon" in the beautiful Franco Zeffirelli Italian film classic entitled the same name, taken from the inspirational poem written by Francis The Canticle of the Creatures.
Francis and Clare were born to affluent 12th century families in Assisi, Italy, yet both chose to relinquish their earthly ties and commit their lives completely to Christ. In asserting that their different experiences were derived from Christ, Franciscan author Short effectively argues that they shared the same vision and purpose, each with a unique ministry. Their word and example (verbo et exemplo) proved to be "Christocentric." Their conversion and "form of life" engendered the Franciscan movement which was a catalyst for the renewal of the Catholic Church at that time. Relevant in current times as evidenced by the Second Vatican Council's "call for religious families to return to the charism of their founders" and the "universal call to holiness" for all humanity.
Francis' personal conversion was a combination of many life experiences. Hearing from Jesus through the Gospels that "Jesus sends the disciples to preach the reign of God, instructing them to travel without silver or gold" caused Francis to cry out "this is what I want, this is what I desire, this is what I long for with all my heart." Seeing Jesus in lepers and experiencing "sweetness" instead of "revulsion" in their presence was an important stage of Francis' conversion according to the Testament he left before he died. Lepers moved Francis to understand the suffering of Christ in an intense, human way. Living in poverty and constant contemplative prayer, sometimes in his beloved hermitages, and at other times traveling on pilgrimages to faraway lands to preach the gospel were a distinct part of his way of life. Living the Gospel and a "Christocentric" life in every way humanly possible including love for all of creation was the foundation of the Franciscan order he established with twelve followers similar to Jesus and His Apostles. Francis experienced the ultimate "mirror" of Christ's human suffering when he was bestowed with the stigmata, the five wounds of Jesus.
While Francis was inspired by Christ, Clare's conversion was a fruit of Francis' conversion. She began her "form of life" saying "it was inaugurated by Francis himself to observe the Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ." She called her life a "mirror" of the Gospel. Clare and the community she established the Order of Poor Ladies (later called Poor Clares), lived the Gospel through a life of extreme poverty. Clare was a healer to those suffering from both physical and mental illness. An example of her humility was that she washed the feet of fellow sisters (nuns) as well as of poor sick people and she encouraged other women to establish religious orders like hers, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
Mother Teresa, recently canonized St. Teresa of Calcutta, founded the Missionaries of Charity to serve "the poorest of the poor," a modern example of the sustainable impact St. Francis and St. Clare have on the world through their "Christocentric" ministries which continue to bear fruit, inspiring vocations and conversions globally. Even Pope Francis, a Jesuit, was inspired by St. Francis to take his name and practice Franciscan "poverty and joy." After observing Clare and her community in the 13th century for forty years, the Vatican finally approved her "Rule of Life, which was the first of its kind, written by a woman for women. Although Clare referred to herself as "a little plant" of Francis, one can say she grew into a holy feminist fruit-bearing tree for Christ. St. Clare was an incredible spiritual warrior, very beautiful and extremely courageous.
Francis loved and championed all creation from the tiniest piece of grass to the birds in the sky and deer in the fields. He even preached to them and more surprisingly where most animals would fly or run off, they listened and responded to Francis. Perhaps why this year his Feast-day October 4th is celebrated as World Animal Day. Francis is also beloved for his peace efforts including traveling with only spiritual armor to Egypt to broker peace with Sultan Al-Malik Al-Kamil during the Crusades. The Peace Prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi is:
Lord make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred...let me sow love.
Where there is injury...pardon.
Where there is discord...unity.
Where there is doubt...faith.
Where there is error...truth.
Where there is despair...hope.
Where there is sadness...joy.
Where there is darkness...light.
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,
It is in dying...that we are born to eternal life.
Francis and Clare were like enlightened modern millennials, young "Christocentric" idealistic leaders desiring a better world, who through their example preaching and living the Gospel inspired others to follow the footsteps of Christ becoming the central theme of Franciscan tradition. Francis who chose to be a brother-deacon rather than a priest would proclaim, "preach the Gospel and if you must-use words." By surrendering their entire being to Christ, Francis and Clare obtained joy, humility, holiness and eternal life together where there is only "peace and good" -the signature of Franciscans.
In conclusion, I feel privileged to have visited the tomb of St. Francis at the Basilica in the charming village of Assisi while attending the canonization ceremonies of Mother Teresa in Rome one month ago. Assisi is one of the most awesome places I have experienced, especially the little sacred humble church where Francis, "the gay blade," received his epiphany and conversion while gazing at the uniquely painted San Damiano Cross. One can still gaze upon it and be inspired in this quaint chapel. This is where Clare lived in the convent and it was here on her deathbed she received the good news that the radical "Rule of Life" she wrote as the first woman to do so was approved by the Pope, a big step for women in the Church which we will discuss further in the future.
Recalling The Canticle of the Creatures:
Praise to You, my Lord, with all Your creatures,
Especially Sir Brother Sun, who is the day and through whom you give us light...
Praise to You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
In Heaven You formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
Brothers and Sisters, Alleluia. Amen.