Sunday, August 11, 2013

Clare of Assisi

Saints Francis and Clare are the two most famous saints of the hillside town of Assisi.

Image of Clare on a wall by San Damiano
The presence of Saint Francis is tangible in Assisi. Almost everywhere you turn there are images of the beloved Poverello, the Poor Man of Assisi. You can see Franciscans walking in the streets and praying in the numerous churches connected with Francis.

Though Clare lived in Assisi for more years than Francis you have to look for signs of her presence.

The basilica and convent of St. Clare, Assisi
The most obvious is the Basilica of Santa Chiara, which not only houses her tomb but also the crucifix that hung in San Damiano. Before that crucifix Francis sensed God calling him, “Rebuild my church, which, as you see, is falling into ruins.”

San Damiano was the first home of the religious community gathered around Clare. There she lived and died, strongly holding on to the call to poverty and non-possession that she got from Francis.

San Damiano
The sisters later moved up to the convent by the basilica and took the crucifix with them.
There I experienced a deep renewal of my call to mission. I asked the Crucified Lord, “What am I to do?” In my heart I heard a threefold call:  Love. Love my people. Love the poor.

There I prayed as the sisters sang Vespers one night. There I spoke haltingly in a mix of Italian and Spanish with a sister who gave me a pile of holy cards for the poor of the parish where I work here in Honduras.

The place is holy.

San Rufino Cathedral, Assisi
Another day I visited the cathedral of San Rufino where Francis and Clare were both baptized. I think Clare family lived near the cathedral and there is a little chapel there. But what is most delightful is the plaque of Clare by the right entrance to the church.

There are other images of Clare in Assisi.

But the witness of the Poor Clares is the most important sign of her presence – and her contemplative love of the Lord.

Fresco of Clare on a wall in Assisi
Thus, one of my fondest memories of Assisi is Vespers in the church of San Quirino. The last evening I was in Assisi I went to this very simple, unadorned church connected with a convent of Poor Clares.

Clare on the grounds of the Porziuncula
About twelve sisters were seated in the sanctuary and another old man and I were the only others present.

As Vespers began with a hymn, Adoro te, devote, one of the sisters brought a small monstrance with the Host to the altar.

Vespers was sung simply, accompanied by a string instrument (like a dulcimer).

It was a place of peace, a place where God’s presence was almost tangible.

It was, for me, a thin place, reminding me to be open to the presence of Christ in the little things - from the defenseless Eucharist on an altar in Assisi to the poor people at the margins of society, the lesser brothers and sisters with whom Francis and Clare sought to identify.

Clare, clear light of God's loving presence, pray for us.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Francis and Kinship with Creation

Today is Earth Day, set aside since 1970 to recall our connectedness to the earth and to call us to respond to the threats to the integrity of creation.

St. Francis of Assisi has often been invoked as a patron of ecology because of his love of all creation. He preached to birds and fish; he rescued worms from pathways; he established a truce between a wolf and the people of Gubbio.

Julien Green, in God’s Fool: the Life and  Times of Francis of Assisi, wrote of Francis’ mystical stance before the created world: 
Francis glanced around him like a lover who is forever wonderstruck.
Francis dictating the Canticle of the Creatures
But there is another element of Francis’ spirituality that would help us to foster an ecological spirituality: his kinship with all creation. This can be seen most clearly in his Canticle of the Creatures, he praises God through all creatures.

Francis has definitely moved beyond the dominion theology that sees the human person as the lord of creation, over it, with power to do what he wants. This theological approach dominated Christian thought for centuries and still is strong among those who see humans as above nature with unlimited power to do what humans want.

Francis also has moved beyond a more recent stewardship theology that sees the human person as the steward of creation which he has to care for, in responds to God’s command. Stewards see themselves in charge of nature, even if it doesn’t belong to them. In this model we humans are not dominating nature but we are the caregivers in charge of the garden of creation.

But Francis sees himself and all humans as within creation. We are part of nature, with our special part in it, as all beings also have a part in the created universe.

And so Francis praises God for Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Sister Mother Earth. We are interconnected, part of the web of life, of creation.

And so Francis sought to establish good relations with all animals and between animals and humans. The story of the wolf of Gubbio shows Francis seeking to establish a relationship of trust and reconciliation between the wolf and the people of Gubbio.

When we see ourselves as part of creation and nature, we can respect all creatures and recognize their part in the wonderful work God has made.

This will need humility, recognizing that we too are made of humus, earth. As the last line of Francis’ Canticle says:
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve him with great humility. 
And so this earth day, let us remember that we are part of the beautiful creation that God has made. Let us rejoice in our God who has made us all to rejoice in His love, to wait with all creation, eagerly longing “for the revealing of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19).

And let us love God and love and cherish all that God has made as our brothers and sisters.


This entry was inspired by the essay “From Stewardship to Kinship: A Franciscan Understanding of Creation” by Fr. Dan Horan, OFM, in his anthology of essays Francis of Assisi and the Future of Faith.

The image in the photo is on the wall of the friary attached to the church of San Damiano, which can be seen as one walks down from the town of Assisi to the church.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Francis stripping

April 10, 1206


If there had been tabloids in Francis's day, that probably would have made a great headline in Assisi.

Francis, son of a rich cloth merchant, had led a charmed life, but after a year as a prisoner of war in Perugia something seemed to change.

On his return he was ill and took time to recuperate. But there was something more that needed to be healed. Francis began roaming the hills and churches around Assisi. He even sold some of his father’s cloth to help repair the church of San Damiano.

His angry father had him jailed in the house, but his mother released him when his father was on one of his journeys.

His father sought to get his money from Francis and to disinherit him. But since Francis was a Penitent, connected with the church, the secular court had no jurisdiction. And so Pietro di Bernadone and his son Francesco appeared before Bishop Guido of Assisi.

At one point Francis stripped all his clothes and laid them at the feet of his father. “Before I called you ‘father,’ but now I only have one Father who is in heaven.”

Naked, he was covered by the bishop in his mantle and later given some workmen’s clothes.

Naked –

It makes me recall the primal innocence of Adam and Eve in the Garden.

But it also reminds me of the nakedness of the very poor who have only tatters to cover them.

Naked and vulnerable.

Naked, without protection. 

Naked and powerless.

Naked, like Christ on the cross.

Julien Green, in God’s Fool: The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi, p. 84, puts it well:

To get back to the scene of the stripping, in an age when shame had not yet been confused with prudery, this act was one of the forms of public penance. To strip oneself of the external signs of wealth, of the clothes in which he had tasted all the pleasures of the world – and the pleasure of a fine appearance meant a great deal to him – to abandon the pride of his youth, showed everyone that Francis violently repudiated his past. The renunciation in the presence of a crowd was in itself, according to the medieval mentality, a juridical act. From now on, Francis, with nothing to his name, was taking sides with the outcast and the disinherited.

Not many will strip themselves as Francis did, but all of us can take sides with the outcast and the disinherited.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

St. Francis and the Lateran

On Sunday, April 7, Pope Francis visited the Basilica of St. John Lateran for the first time and was officially “enthroned” on the chair – the cathedra – of the diocese of Rome.

The basilica was originally and officially called the Archbasilica of our most holy Savior, and later dedicated to St. John the Baptist and also St. John the Evangleilst. The church and the palace were first on land given by Constantine. It has been rebuilt and restored several times. the popes lived there until the 14th century.

I visited the basilica in February this year and found it a much more prayerful place than St. Peter’s. It helped that I arrived just in time for a Sunday morning Mass.

Though St. Francis would not have seen any of the present buildings he is present in art and in the history in and around the basilica.

About 1209, Francis went to Rome, probably with all his first followers, to get permission from the pope to continue their way of life based on the Gospels.

The pope, according to some accounts, had a dream in which the Lateran Basilica was falling down and a brother was holding it up. When Francis appeared, the pope recognized Francis as this man and verbally approved their way of life.
As Benedict XVI once said:
In [Pope Innocent III’s dream], he saw the Basilica of St John Lateran, the mother of all churches, collapsing and one small and insignificant religious brother supporting the church on his shoulders to prevent it from falling. On the one hand, it is interesting to note that it is not the Pope who was helping to prevent the church from collapsing but rather a small and insignificant brother, whom the Pope recognized in Francis when he later came to visit.

And so in the mosaic in the apse of the basilica you can see a small image of St. Francis.

But what really moved me is the sculpture of Francis and his companions which faces the Lateran. Erected about 1925 to celebrate the anniversary of Francis’ death (in 1226) it is often said to be Francis embracing the Lateran and offering homage to the mother of all churches, and acknowledging the authority of the pope, whose authorization he had come seeking.

Yet when I saw it in February I could not help thinking that it represented a subtle plea of Francis before the pomp and finery of the Roman Church of his day (and ours) to change.

Francis was not a vocal critic of the opulence of the Papacy, though I wonder what he really thought. For, I believe, that his life and his example, and the rule he had written based on the Gospels are unspoken critiques.

Francis respected the pope and all priests; he not only rebuilt fallen-down churches but he insisted that churches be clean and the vessels and altar cloths be worthy of the God who became human in Jesus and is present in the Eucharist.

But the opulence of the popes of his day was so much in contrast with his desire to be with the marginalized, the powerless, the poor of his day.

And so today, as Pope Francis sits on the bishop of Rome’s chair, I pray that he vision of “a poor Church, a Church for the poor,” may become a reality as “a Church of the poor.” where the poor have a privileged place and where we begin to see the world from the perspective of Christ who became poor for our sake and preached “Good News for the Poor.”

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sister Water

Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water; 
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
St. Francis, Canticle of Creation

Today is World Water Day. 

In much of the world, people do not have access to clean water. There are also places where people have to walk miles to get water, often from a polluted source. 

Polluted water leads to severe health problems, especially among children.

In the parish of Dulce Nombre de María in Honduras, about half the communities do not have water projects. Some get their water from a source by means of rubber hoses. Only two communities have potable water that you can drink from the tap.

This year I hope to begin to work with the people in the communities to see what we can do to provide water.

Then they can really praise the Lord for Sister Water.

Public water spigot in Assisi


Thursday, March 21, 2013

St. Francis, Pope Francis, and me

Francis, in the Lateran
As a Franciscan associate of the Dubuque Franciscan Sisters, I was overwhelmed to see a new pope named Francis. I had been praying that we would have a pope more like Francis than a Renaissance grandee.

The simplicity, the tenderness, and the warmth toward children are welcome signs of a different vision of the Church, much closer to those of Francis. His kissing of the man with disabilities in St. Peter’s Square and the pictures of him washing the feet of mothers, drug addicts, and the sick remind me of St. Francis kissing the lepers.

But there is no single idea of who Francis really is, as André Vauchez’s book on St Francis notes. But in Assisi I could see and feel the differences.

When I arrived, my first visit was to the tomb of Francis in the crypt of the great Basilica. A lot of people were moving about and so my attention was distracted. After about half an hour I left, attended Mass, and then left without touring the rest of the building.

In the afternoon my first visit was to the Basilica of Santa Chiara, St. Clare. There I spent time before the San Damiano Cross from which Francis heard the call to restore the church.

The place was prayerful and as I knelt I asked Christ, “What would you have me do?”

In my heart I heard: “Love. Love my people. Love the poor.”

My eyes filled with tears and I remained there for I don’t know how much longer.

After this, I walked through the rest of the basilica and went to get a few holy cards to bring back to the people here in Honduras. I put a few euros in the box and took a few. As I did this I spoke with the Poor Clare sister, trying to communicate in Spanish with a tiny bit of very broken Italian. She proceeded to give me a huge pile of cards to share with the poor here in Honduras.

Then I walked down to San Damiano, where the Cross had first been and where the Poor Clares first lived.

I sat down in the back of the small church, which was unoccupied. There is a poor copy of the Cross in the church but that didn’t affect me. I found myself overwhelmed by the love of God and the call to love. I sobbed in the silence of the church.

I returned twice to San Damiano, once for Ash Wednesday Morning Prayer and Mass. As the friars and the visitors (mostly women) chanted Lauds, as the ashes were sprinkled on our heads, and as we celebrated the Eucharist, I experienced a deep peace.

When I returned the third time, I found an exquisite statue of Francis sitting and meditating near the church. I treasure this image as a call to prayer.

Two other places in Assisi were also thin places, where I felt the presence of God.

The first was the Carceri, the hermitage a few kilometers up the hill. I took a taxi up and sat in the church, beginning to read Carlo Carretto’s I, Francis. Though two groups came in and listened to talks, I was not distracted.

Later I walked through the grounds and found the caves of Brothers Rufino and Masseo. I walked down the slippery side of the cliff, on an icy path, to Masseo’s cave. I entered and stood in the back, looking out at the hill and chasm in front of the cave. A deep peace fell on me.

I walked down the hill to Assisi and marveled at the beauty of the fields, even in winter. Even the city of Assisi appeared before me with an austere beauty.

The last night I went to Vespers at the little church of San Quirico, a Poor Clare monastery. The twelve or so sisters sang before the exposed Host, accompanied by a type of psaltery. The Host was not in a fancy monstrance but in a simple stand, which revealed the vulnerability of Jesus, present in the Eucharist.

There I felt a foretaste of heaven.

My time in Assisi was not all sweetness and light, though. On Ash Wednesday I experienced a deep dryness of soul, accompanied by a homesickness for Honduras.

Perhaps this was to remind me, as a Jesuit retreat master once asked me, “Are you seeking the consolation of God or the God of consolation?’

Assisi could have been – and was, primarily - a place of consolation.

But there was also the call to mission – to show that love and consolation to a world in need.

Now I’m back in Honduras, preparing for Holy Week, with a new pope named Francis and a pastoral administrator of the parish where I work who has a deep Franciscan spirit.

They both inspire hope for change – especially Pope Francis. His actions speak of a different kind of church, a church of service, a church that lives out Christ’s giving of himself on the Cross.

The people I work with have hope. He’s one of us, from Latin America. But even more, they are touched by his simplicity, by his commitment to a Poor Church, a Church for the Poor.

Francis lived as a Poor Man and showed us not only a Poor Church, but a Church of the poor.

Francis lived poor so that there he might identify with those at the margins of society, as our Lord Jesus did. He gave up property so that his brothers and sisters might live in a spirit of solidarity, sharing with those in need, and depending on the generosity of other. He wanted nothing, so that he and his companions would live with trust in the loving providential care of God.

Not many of us can live as Francis did, but we can find ways to start. Pope Francis has done a few small things and I hope for more serious efforts. But all of us can and must.

It is part of our vocation, our way of repairing the church.

With love.



I have written on Francis and on Assisi in posts on my Hermano Juancito blog.