16 Feb Francis: A Saint for Our Times

When Cardinal Bergoglio was elected pope in 2013 he took the name Francis and became the first Pope Francis in the history of the Catholic Church. There is a tradition with men elected to the papacy to chose a new name. Often they chose the name of a saint who they would like to emulate in their papacy. This tradition of changing names goes back to Scripture where we find numerous examples of God changing someone’s name when He calls them to play a special role. We have Abram who became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Jacob became Israel, Simon became Peter, and Saul became Paul, just to name a few of the key figures. When a man is elected pope, by the cardinals, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he is being singled out for the special role of leading Christ’s church, here on Earth, and he choses a new name which is meant to signify the type of pope he will be.

After the election we learned that Cardinal Bergoglio chose the name Francis because he would like to emulate St. Francis of Assisi. I was thinking about this today and decided I would share some insights that I have based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi and how I think St. Francis is a man we should all emulate.

St. Francis was born in Italy in 1181 A.D. In his early life he was known for drinking too much and causing trouble when partying with his friends. He was trained as a knight, and after fighting in a battle between Assisi and Perguia, Francis was captured and held prisoner until his ransom was paid. While he was in prison he began to have visions from God. When he was released from prison he abandoned his life of luxury and lived a life of poverty. One day while praying he heard the voice of Jesus, speaking to him from a crucifix, telling him to “build my church,” a message which Francis initially took literally and began to rebuild the church of San Damiano using whatever bricks and stones he could find. After this Francis began to preach the Gospel in Assisi and the surrounding cities and was shortly joined by several other men. This was the beginning of the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, a religious order dedicated to a life of poverty and sharing the Gospel. Later in his life St. Francis received the stigmata of Christ, that is the wounds of Christ, marks on his hands feet and side that resemble the wounds Christ received during his crucifixion. St. Francis was the first person in recorded history to receive the stigmata. St. Francis died on October 3, 1226 and was canonized a saint just two years later on July 16, 1228 by Pope Gregory IX. St. Francis’ feast day is October 4th. He is the patron saint of ecologists and merchants.

So what can we learn from the life of St. Francis of Assisi?

There are many things we can learn from St. Francis of Assisi but I want to focus in on just a few. First, God calls each one of us to build up his church. This can be done, as we see in the life of St. Francis, both literally and figuratively. We can contribute to the physical building up of the Church through sharing our time, talents and treasure with our local parish. We may chose to volunteer our time at the parish. This will help to ease the burden on the parish staff and priest so that your parish can minister to more people. We have all been blessed with specific talents such as a trade, musical ability, a talent for design, an eye for beauty, an intellectual mind, etc. and we can offer our talents in service to our parish communities. And finally we can build up the Church in a literal sense by donating our hard-earned money to help the parish to cover their expenses.

To build up the Church in a figurative sense is to help people to encounter Christ and to walk with them on the journey of faith, following after Christ, through His passion and death, to the joys of the resurrection in Heaven. In order to understand what this means it may be helpful to look more closely at St. Francis’ rebuilding of the church of San Damiano.

When he was rebuilding San Damiano St. Francis began by clearing away the rubble. Anything that was broken or could no longer be used was cleared away in order that the new construction could begin with a good foundation. Likewise when we give our life to Christ we must begin by clearing away the rubble of sin in our lives through the sacrament of penance. By confessing our sins to the priest we confront our weaknesses and brokenness before God, and ask pardon for the times we have turned our backs on Him, so that we can enter into a new relationship with Him. The sacrament of confession gives us the graces we need to begin a new life in Christ.

Next St. Francis went out to the town and asked for stones and bricks to use in rebuilding San Damiano. The stones in our lives which we use to draw closer to God are Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. By reading Scripture and learning more about our faith, we are able to begin building a home for God within our hearts. Scripture and Tradition are the raw materials that become the walls and roof of what St. Paul calls “the temple of the Holy Spirit within you.

Finally, once St. Francis had all the stones and raw materials he needed, he laboured to fit them together, so that they formed a solid and unified wall. We too need to fit the stones of Scripture and Tradition together so that they form a solid wall, and an unshakable faith. We do this through an active prayer life. Frequent reception of the sacraments is the best place to start when attempting to fit Scripture and Tradition together, because in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, we find Christ who is the fulfillment of all Scripture and Tradition. We can also embrace other practices that help draw us deeper into a relationship with God such as praying the Rosary, fasting, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, reading the lives of the saints, etc. All of these actions are, in a sense, the mortar that holds together the stones of Scripture and Tradition, and they make our faith a solid structure that can be the foundation of our whole lives. Without a good foundation our life can seem meaningless and dull but with the rock of faith we have hope in the saving power of God’s grace and He gives direction to our lives and empowers us to live according to His plan.

Like St. Francis we are called to build Christ’s Church and we do that by building a solid faith within ourselves so that God has a dwelling place within our soul, then when God calls us to share the Gospel with others they will see not us, but Christ within us, and be more receptive the good news which we proclaim because of the example of our lives. A saying often attributed to St. Francis is “preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary, use words.” The idea is that our actions should indicate to those around us our love for God, and that will be a greater testament to the Gospel than any argument or teaching we give. Holiness attracts, so by living a holy life ourselves we will draw others to Christ and his Church.

St. Francis, pray for us!