Saturday, October 3, 2009

Conform yourself to Christ

HOMILY FOR THE SOLEMNITY OF ST. FRANCIS O ASSISI, October 4, 2009:

Today we celebrate a glorious day – especially for we who are Franciscans – today is the Solemnity of Our Holy Father Saint Francis. And so, for us it is not another Sunday, or another Holy Day, but it is our Founder’s Day. And it is a day for us to remember who we are called to be as followers of Christ Jesus in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi.

It has been more than 800 years since the Saint walked the earth and yet it never ceases to amaze me at what an impact he has had on our Church and our world, and continues to have to this day. St. Francis is a holy man who transcends even faith. He is a holy man who finds popularity throughout Christianity – both Catholic and Protestant – and even beyond Christianity. And so, how right it is that we celebrate this holy man and renew ourselves in the attempt to imitate him in our common call to follow Christ.

St. Francis is known for so many things. We remember him for light things like his preaching to the birds so faithfully commemorated in bird baths on the lawns of many people. We remember him for the very serious things like his total acceptance of the life of poverty; his embrace of the lepers; his love of all creation and more. But, one of the most stunning things we remember him for is his reception of the sacred stigmata – the sacred wounds of Christ.

In our own day-and-age, we are still astounded by something so remarkable as receiving the wounds of Christ, but it is not unheard of for us. Many people today have tremendous devotion to Padre Pio, who lived in our own time. And there have been others who have born the wounds of Christ over the ages. But, St. Francis was the very first.

Upon his death in 1226, Br. Elias, who was the friend, companion and successor of St. Francis issued an
encyclical letter to announce that the Saint had died. This letter was also the first public proclamation of this new miracle. He wrote, “I announce to you a great joy and a new miracle. It is a sign which has been unheard of from the very beginning of time except in the Son of God, Christ the Lord. Not long before his death, our brother and our father was seen to resemble the crucified Lord, bearing in his body the five wounds which are the marks of Christ.”

The life of St. Francis can be characterized in a very simple way – he sought to conform himself to Christ. In 1993, Pope John Paul II visited Mount La Verna in Italy, the place where St. Francis received the wounds of Christ in 1224. There he spoke about this conformity to Christ, “By his life Francis proclaimed…the saving word of the Gospel. The reception of the stigmata on La Verna thus represents that visible conformity to the image of Christ which makes Francis the example to which every Christian can aspire in the process of drawing ever nearer to God the Creator and Redeemer.”

As we commemorate this holy man today, we can be tempted to think, what a truly remarkable person; what a beacon of light for the Christian faith – but, that could never be me. But we would be wrong. What St. Francis shows us is not a way of life that is so remarkable that it can barely be imitated. What St. Francis shows us is that the way of life that Jesus Himself has invited us into is within our reach. If he can do it, so can we. We too can be imitators of St. Francis in following the life of the Gospel.

And we too can be conformed to the image of Christ. As remarkable as the five wounds appearing on the body of St. Francis are, they are not the true stigmata – the true stigmata is in the soul; in the heart; in the day-to-day. If the sacred stigmata were merely about flesh-and-bones, it would be an interesting supernatural reality. But, this is something that came at the end of his life, not the beginning. It was a divine confirmation of a life lived in conformity with Christ, not the goal of it. In other words, St. Francis most profoundly conformed himself to Christ, not in the wounds in his hands, feet and side, but in the way that he loved; in the way that he lived. And so can we. St. Francis loved as radically as did Christ. And he shows us that we can too can take away all that keeps us from loving fully; all of the challenges, difficulties, hurts, pettiness, prejudices and pains – and make a choice to love others because God has first loved us.

Let me end with the words of the current successor of St. Francis, our General Minister José Rodríguez Carballo, who said, “Francis, come among us! We need you to tell us that true joy does not lie in human wisdom, riches, and rewards, but in being faithful to the plan of the Lord. Francis, come among us! We need you to help us learn that to follow Jesus, there is only one path to take: the path that was trod by him; the path of self-denial. Francis, come among us. We need you to teach us how to love those who make us suffer and what to do, so that Love may be expressed more fully every day and we may become true friends, imitators, and lovers of Christ. Come, Brother Francis! We need you.”

My friends, let us conform ourselves to Christ as did our Holy Father St. Francis.

May the Lord give you peace.

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