By: Fr. Andres B. Rañoa, OFM

More than seven centuries ago, this mandate to rebuild the Church was proposed to St. Francis of Assisi before his conversion. In 1205, Francis was praying before the crucifix in a dilapidated wayside church of San Damiano in the outskirts of Assisi.


"Most High, glorious God, cast Your Light into the darkness of my heart, and grant me a right faith, certain hope and perfect charity, sense and understanding, Lord, so that I may know and do Your holy and true command" (St. Francis of Assisi: Prayer before the Crucifix).


It was there that Christ spoke to Francis from the crucifix, saying: Francis, go, repair my house which is falling into ruin. Francis restored this church (in 1206), begging stones on the streets of Assisi (cf L 3 24). This San Damiano experience became closely linked with the task of house-building.


A strong Franciscan charism is “Rebuilding the Church” with its focus on renewing the People of God. A Franciscan writer (Eric Doyle OFM) claims that the Franciscan family has a many-faceted charism: the third Order (regular and secular) emphasizes conversion and penance; the second Order (the Poor Clares) emphasizes contemplation and the first Order (the Franciscans) emphasizes minority or simple lifestyle.


In Rebuilding the Church, Pope Francis has embarked on a witness to simple lifestyle and simple ways, but a witness which inspires, which uplifts our spirits and which awakens our faith.


             ROLE OF THE CROSS


Here we see the role of the Cross as central to Francis` conversion journey. From the Cross, Jesus mandated Francis to “rebuild the Church which was falling into ruin.


Pope Francis prayed St. Francis` Prayer before the Crucifix last Holy Week for "a right faith, certain hope and perfect charity, sense and understanding” to really know and do God`s Will for him as he leads the Church.



So, when through prayer it became clear what God wanted him to do, before his father and the bishop of Assisi, Francis renounced wealth; he stripped himself naked.


Nudity was a form of humiliation canonically expected of a public penitent. Francis stripped himself naked; he stripped himself of the clothing in which he sang, danced, joked and participated with friends in the world. In so doing he said “no” to one life and took up a life of penance. In stripping and handing over everything to his father, Francis renounced any inheritance. He began a life totally dependent on God.


Then, he declared that from then on his father would be: Our Father in heaven.

Thus, Francis of Assisi became identified with poverty and a simple lifestyle, which is in keeping with the current period of recession and austerity.


The choice of name Francis could foretell the Pope`s priorities in striving to bring a sense of peace and calm to our Church in trouble, in crisis. Francis of Assisi was called by God to repair a church in ruins.


I did not refuse to preach today because one of the traits of St. Francis of Assisi is his obedience and loyalty to the Church and its leaders.  When Francis had eleven followers, (in 1209) they came to Rome for a papal audience with the powerful Innocent III to seek approval of their way of life, i.e, to live the Gospel in obedience, without property and in chastity. [Francis` Rule, composed of gospel texts, emphasizes to us the prominence of the Word of God for Francis.]

When the advisers of the Pope thought that Francis and his followers were asking to live an impossible way of life, one cardinal defended Francis and his companions and said that the Gospel life is the perpetual message of Jesus Christ.

Also, the previous night, the Pope had a dream: St. John Lateran Basilica was falling and there was one who looked like Francis supporting and rebuilding the Church.

Now before the Pope, Francis presented himself as a God-inspired and utterly honest/self-confident person with the strength of his inner spirit coming from long moments of intense prayer and this moved Pope Innocent III to approve his way of life.


The Pope gave verbal approval to the brothers` way of life, commissioned them to preach penance, and gave them the tonsure, installing them to then ministries of the Church – they were sent by the Church to the world. Francis` message from the crucifix at San Damiano (“Go, rebuild my Church”) begins to take on universal and global dimensions.


Francis promised obedience to the successors of Peter.


[Later on, the legislation of the Church will specify that the very rule of life of the nuns and sisters and brothers and other religious is to live the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.]




Why such fidelity to the Church and its leaders?


Francis clung to the Church because he saw that the Gospel of our Lord Jesus was entrusted to the Church and its leaders.


In his times, when the Church was filled with scandals and abuses, there were many groups of well intentioned men and women, trying to live the Gospel in their own way. But many of them turned their vigorous return to the Gospel life into protesting against what they perceived as the abusive and unfaithful Church officials. They separated themselves from the Church. Since they were perceived as enemies of the Church, they were subsequently declared by the defensive Church leaders as heretics.


Francis was obedient and had deep respect for the Church and its leaders not because of their sinfulness, but because in spite of their sinfulness, they were entrusted with the responsibility of proclaiming and interpreting the Gospel. He would like to renew the Church from within.


Francis of Assisi lived in a time of wars. Francis was involved in wars between Assisi and Perugia. The fortress in Assisi symbolized the rivalries between the Pope and the Emperor, between Assisi and Perugia, between the “majores” or the landlords and the “minores” or the tenants.


[In his first war, he became a prisoner in Perugia. As he was marching to the second war, he realized the horrors of wars and returned home. Francis had to face his frustrated father who saw the lost opportunity in his being a soldier to provide the coveted title of nobility. ]


Out of this context of war Francis of Assisi opted for a ministry of peace and responded to the call to be a peacemaker and an ambassador of reconciliation. [Many writers conjecture that Francis sought out reconciliation with his father during the years following his renunciation of his father. ]


Francis at first pursued a life of war and violence, and together with the people used the stones of the fortress to build walls to keep people out. Following his conversion, he would spend the rest of his life breaking down walls to bring people in.




In the context of Francis of Assisi`s time, the merchant class was on the rise. In a real sense Francis` family background directed him to consumeristic spirituality: “I give so that you may give in return.” Money was given to the poor so that God`s favor might be given to the donor. The “minores” or tenants served the “majores” or landlords who took care of their needs.


Out of this context of trade and exchange of money, and rivalries among the “majores” or the lords who lived within the walls of Assisi and the “minores” or the tenants who lived outside the walls of Assisi, Francis opted to leave the walled city and lived and identified himself and his followers with the “minores” or the tenants or the poor of Assisi. The Franciscans were marginated from Assisi and worked among the lepers and the poor. [This reality was directly related to their formation and conversion process.]


Thus, the name Order of Friars Minor (OFM) is significant, because Francis wanted his followers to treat one another as brothers and that they were to be the lesser brothers, who identified themselves with and as the poor.


Pope Francis has opted to leave his papal palace and now live in simplicity among the other residents in another place within the Vatican compound. Let us remember that he called for the protection of the weakest in society.


Following St. Francis of Assisi, the challenge for us is not to become a Church for the Poor but rather to be a Church of the Poor. Our point of view should be that of the poor.




Before his conversion, when Francis visited Rome on a number of occasions, he lodged generally where the poor were gathered. [Francis would have preached and ministered to the poor who lived in this area.]


[In Rome,] Francis prayed at the tomb of Peter and asked Peter to help him discover the treasure of Gospel poverty.


In the piazza in front of St Peter`s, Francis changed clothes with a beggar and begged in the French language in his attempt to overcome shame (Cf. 2 Cel 8). It is at this point that Rome became important in his process of conversion.


Francis learned that the beggars and the poor confront him with the gospel. This challenged him with having to make a choice for or against the invitation of the gospel.


Francis learned that there is no substitute for direct contact with the economically poor, whether it be for an hour or for a lifetime.


Thus, the poverty of the human person is discovered in embracing one`s creatureliness in relationship to God Most High. We are invited to find our freedom by accepting this stance in life. We are to be women and men dedicated to the cause of justice and peace.


Francis challenges us to consider the role of the poor in our lives, and the role the poor play in the work of evangelization.


The poor invite us to recognize a sacredness in every human person and circumstance. Contact with the poor, therefore, provides its own kind of enrichment to each person.




St. Francis` respect and love for the least of God`s creatures, the poor and the lepers, would flow into respect and love for God`s creation.


Due to wars, due to wasteful use of the fruits of the earth, due to the destructive manner by which massive constructions of roads, bridges and buildings have destroyed the earth, globing warming effects are now felt by the whole world: floods, landslides, pollution, poisoning the lakes and the seas.


A new challenge is for us to have creation spirituality or what the secular world would say: Go Green.




The poet and artist in St. Francis is shown in his composition of the hymn “Canticle of the Creatures,” in which the Saint from Assisi poetically praises God in and through the various elements of the created order.


What led to the composition of this Canticle of Creatures? Francis had received the stigmata and was becoming blond and in such intense suffering. "For God`s praise," Francis of Assisi said, "I wish to compose a new hymn about the Lord`s creatures, of which we make daily use, without which we cannot live, and with which the human race greatly offends its Creator" (The Legend of Perugia, 43).


The basis message of the Canticle is that each aspect of God`s creation gives glory and praise to God by being what it was created to be. Brother Sun praises God by giving the world light; Sister Moon and the stars, Brother Wind praises God by bringing every kind of weather, Sister Water, Brother fire, Sister Mother Earth praises God by sustaining us through producing fruits, flowers and herbs.


The second section of the Canticle, concerning pardon and peace, introduces human persons. The verses were composed a short time afterward in an attempt to successfully unite the quarrelling civil and religious authorities of Assisi. He writes:


Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love, and bear infirmity and tribulation. Blessed are those who endure in peace,for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.


Human beings give praise to God -- they live most authentically as they were created to be -- through loving one another amid difficult times and by being peacemakers who seek reconciliation. Just as the Sun is most genuinely itself when providing light and warmth, women and men are most truly themselves when they love, forgive and make peace. Reconciliation was a critical element in Francis` spirituality.


But living after the example of St. Francis, whose whole life was modeled on the life of Jesus Christ, means putting others first and caring for the rest of creation in a way that reflects our interdependence and family relationship.


It is a call to remember who we really are in the eyes of God, see who others are from that same perspective, and act in a way fitting our identity as human beings.

The final verses of the work, which constitute the third section, were written at the death of Saint Francis. Before his last breath, St. Francis of Assisi asked this Canticle to be sung. Then, he enthusiastically sang the praises of Sister Death and welcomed her embrace.


This magnificent hymn expresses the mystical vision of the Saint of Assisi and, since it springs from the depths of his soul, provides us with many insights into the profundity of his life of faith in the Triune God, Who so deeply enters into creation. In this vision, however, the Little Poor Man does not lose himself in space or in the vastness of the created world. He becomes so intimate and familiar with the wonders of creation that he embraced them as "Brother" and "Sister," that is, members of one family.


While these were created for the benefit of us, men and women, we need them and without them, we die. As Francis himself said about these creatures: “of which we make daily use, without which we cannot live, and with which the human race greatly offends its Creator"


St. Francis once wrote to his fellow friars: "All creatures under heaven serve, know, and obey their Creator, each according to its own nature, better than you" (Admonition V). Unlike the Sun or wind or water, you and I have the capacity to choose to live in accord with our truest selves, or ignore it; to praise God by our words and deeds, or not; and to recognize our place in the family of creation, or pretend that we are above and apart from it.”]



St. Francis of Assisi spent almost half of his converted life in hermitages to pray which sustained him in his life of dedication to God.

If Francis spent one half of his converted life in hermitages, what does this say to us involved in very active ministry?


Before they finally preached, Francis of Assisi and his first companions clarified God`s call for them. They went to a mountain [(Poggio Bustone) and greeted the people of the area with: Buon giorno, buona gente. Francis recognized the good in others through his greeting: Good Morning, Good People. He praised the goodness of God in the goodness of the people.]

There they prayed and experienced God (cf. I Cel 26).

There they found restful solitude.

There they were sent, two by two, to preach.

There they were assured of peace and forgiveness for all his sins.

There, God revealed the future of the Order of Friars Minor to Francis.


Thus, we can sum up Francis` experience at that mountain (Poggio Bustone) in four words: solitude, forgiveness, peace, preaching. May solitude, forgiveness, peace and preaching be the simple signs of your priestly ministry.