Even today, several centuries after his death, St Francis continues to be esteemed by people of all backgrounds, religions and nationalities. Most recently Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio took on his name when he became Pope Francis and named his latest encyclical, Laudati Si, after the saint's canticle on creation. Pope Leo XIII exclaimed, "St. Francis of Assisi was called to reform the Church not in a way other saints have done, nor only for his own time, but for all time to come. Whenever society strays from the right path no other remedy is needed but to revive the spirit of the order founded by St. Francis." We were delighted last week to welcome Fr Gabriel whose new religious order, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, seeks to revive that spirit, sometimes in the most surprising ways!
What is it about this saint which is different from other's? What is it about this man who found the grace to kiss the leper, the man to whom he felt such repugnance? If St Francis is significant for our age, our speaker argued, it's only because Christ speaks to hearts in every age. St Francis's only desire was to live the Gospel with simplicity. In doing so, he was drawn out of himself, out of his own sense of self-importance, his own self-preoccupation, his own ego - to encounter the 'other', and in the 'other' he discovered Christ, often in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.
St Francis didn't make a stand against the Church on account of its wealth at the time. There were many groups at the time that railed against the corruption of the Church. But for Francis, he chose to be poor because Christ was poor. Francis did not fall in love with the virtue of poverty but with Christ. And he loved the Church, even with all its failings. Indeed, he sought the blessing of the Church for his work. He understood that true renewal of the Church only comes through holiness. Saints renew the Church. When Jesus renews the heart, it is startling what Jesus does.
In the twenty-first century it is striking how as much as the culture has tried to emancipate man, human dignity has been trampled upon egregiously. Do people know any longer what they are made for? With everything that we can do, do we know what the future holds? Do we know who we are? St Francis knew who he was in Christ.
Finally, our speaker, who has spent so much time in the ghettos of New York and is now servant of the community in Bradford, argued that God does not need a pristine world for the Gospel to thrive, He does not need a perfect world for salvation to break through. He is happy to come into the mess as he did in the stable, to be close to the poor, next to the marginalised, and to begin to restore peace from there. Mercy, then, is the doorway to the renewal of the Church. Our present Pope understands this well, describing the Church as a 'field hospital'. How, then, do we put this into practice? It begins with prayer. Is Jesus real to me, is he alive? Or is he an idea, a concept, a lesson. If he is only this, where will any of us get the strength to go forth and to kiss the leper, to find sweetness in what is repugnant?