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Rekindling the Spirit of St. Francis


'The Grace of Our Origins'
The Centenary Goes Beyond 2009
'Re-Incarnating' Francis' Spirit

In 1209, St. Francis of Assisi wrote in simple words a form of life and a rule, based largely on Gospel texts. Then he set out for Rome with his group of followers to seek approval for this way of life from Pope Innocent III.

Pope Innocent III, who then lived at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, gave his oral approval to Francis and his brothers’ form of life. The pope also granted them permission to go about preaching popular sermons of an inspiring nature.

Today, across the busy thoroughfare that passes in front of St. John Lateran, stands an imposing monument featuring a large statue of St. Francis with a group of brothers—and lots of pigeons. The monument commemorates the founding of the Franciscan movement that eventually came to include the Poor Clares, Secular Franciscans and many communities of Franciscan sisters, brothers and priests.

On December 8, 2004, Brother José Rodríguez Carballo, O.F.M., the minister general of the Order of Friars Minor, unveiled a plan in Rome outlining his ideas for celebrating the 800th anniversary of the foundation of the Order of Friars Minor.

According to Brother José’s plan, the observance was to begin in 2006 and culminate in 2009, the year which actually marks the eighth centenary of Pope Innocent III’s approval of that first simple Rule. To have the celebration of the Order’s foundation spread out over a three-year period makes good sense. Such a founding is always more than one simple event. Indeed, it represents a whole succession of events.


'The Grace of Our Origins'

Brother José refers to the blessed events leading up to the Order’s founding as “The Grace of Our Origins.” Our Franciscan “origins” include other events, such as St. Francis’ embrace of the leper, his praying before the crucifix at San Damiano and hearing the words of Christ, “Francis, go and rebuild my house, which is falling into ruin.”

Shortly after repairing the Church of San Damiano, Francis moved on to another chapel needing repair, the Portiuncula. According to Brother José, it was there at St. Mary of the Angels that Francis “understood his vocation better and received the gift of brothers, with whom he set out on the first itinerant missions.” These events and others between 1206 and 1208 were all part of a process that would culminate in the meeting of Francis and his brothers with the pope in Rome.

The Centenary Goes Beyond 2009

Pivotal events happened to Francis even after 1209—even to the hour of his death in 1226—that are also foundational to the Franciscan movement. The list below is somewhat arbitrary, but helps to round out and complete the picture of the Order’s founding.

¦ 1212—On Palm Sunday night, St. Clare joins Francis and other friars at the Portiuncula.

¦ 1219—Francis goes to Egypt to convert Sultan Malik al-Kamil. The two enter into a peaceful dialogue marked by mutual respect. The sultan gives Francis safe passage through the Holy Land.

¦ 1221—Francis begins the Secular Franciscan Order for lay Catholics.

¦ 1223—Revealing his deep devotion to the Incarnation, Francis reenacts the feast of Christmas near the town of Greccio, using an ox, an ass, sheep and real straw in a manger.

¦ 1224—On Mt. La Verna, Francis receives the stigmata in mid-September.

¦ 1225—Nearly blind, Francis is cared for at San Damiano by Clare and sisters, and composes the Canticle of the Creatures.

¦ 1226—Francis dies at the Portiuncula on the evening of October 3, surrounded by his brothers.

'Re-Incarnating' Francis' Spirit

Brother José expressed concern that those who are Franciscan and who are celebrating the eighth centenary of the founding of the Order should not simply become “satisfied with praising the works of our predecessors” as if only to bask in the glory of their stories. Instead, he insists that we “return to the essentials of our ‘form of life’ by rereading it and re-incarnating it in the cultural reality of today.”

Francis’ example challenges many beyond the Franciscan family. All of us, therefore, who desire to make the spirit of St. Francis come alive in our own day must go back to the early 1200s and study the inspiring actions of Francis and his companions so we can re-create those actions to meet the needs of our own times. Where Francis embraced the leper in 1206, we are called to serve those men and women most poor and ostracized in 2007. Where Francis restored broken-down churches and revitalized the Body of Christ in the early 13th century, we must work to renew Church life in the early 21st century.

Where Francis sought peaceful, respectful and loving dialogue with the sultan, we are challenged to replace walls of distrust and ignorance— existing today among nations, races, religions and classes—with a spirit of respect, love and collaboration.

Where Francis, in the midst of suffering, composed his joy-filled Canticle of the Creatures, we try to recapture that same joyful spirit, as well as a profound respect for the gift of creation in the face of our own environmental issues and concerns.

And to fill out this picture, all of us who admire St. Francis are challenged to draw on other key events in the life of Francis and of his first companions, and prayerfully consider how we can reincarnate his spirit to meet the emerging needs of our times.—J.W.

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