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St. Francis' Charism of Simplicity, Service Still a Draw Today
Rhina Guidos
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Friday, September 27, 2013
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Postulant Iliana Maldonado sits near a statue of St. Francis outside the Monastery of St. Veronica Giuliani in Wilmington, Del.
WASHINGTON (CNS)—Up until a few weeks ago, Iliana Maldonado was a typical 20-something in the U.S.

She had a steady job and income. On her days off, she went out with friends her age, regularly posting and commenting on Facebook from a Samsung Galaxy smartphone that she rarely left behind.

But there was something more attractive to her than the smartphone and her group of friends. A man had entered her life. That man was St. Francis of Assisi.

These days, the 21-year-old is experimenting living in a community of cloistered nuns in a Wilmington, Del., convent, embracing the life of poverty, service and community that St. Francis and his followers, including St. Clare, began in the 12th century.

If all goes as planned, she will one day be a religious sister like the rest. Her life now means no money, no cellphone, no car, no night out with her friends—only a series of prayers, manual labor, and instruction about the Franciscan way of life as a postulant with the Poor Clare sisters at the Monastery of St. Veronica Giuliani.

It is a vastly different way of life from the one most of us live, but it is not surprising that people today still choose to follow the more austere way of Francis, said Franciscan Father Larry Dunham, guardian of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington.
Those who choose to follow St. Francis aim for lives of simplicity, with few material goods, an emphasis on serving others, communal prayer and fraternal brotherhood with God at the center.

Even though he died in 1226 and was canonized 1228, St. Francis and the charism he championed casts a long shadow in our time.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio embraced, not just Francis' name when he became pope this year, but also what the saint stood for. He bypassed the more luxurious papal digs at the Vatican and went to live in the nearby, simpler guesthouse where he could live near others, pray and interact with them. Like St. Francis, he speaks every chance he gets about the poor and tries to be inclusive of all—even nonbelievers.

In interviews about why he took Francis' name, the pope said he thought of the Italian saint when Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes embraced him and whispered, "Don't forget the poor," during conclave.

By choosing Francis as his name, Cardinal Bergoglio called much attention to "el poverello de Asis," or the poor man from Assisi, and what he and his followers stood for besides their love for animals and nature.

At the center is embracing a life of poverty for the riches of the kingdom of God. But when St. Francis spoke of embracing poverty, he wasn't just addressing getting rid of the material, Father Dunham said. Poverty meant getting rid of anything that harms us, including getting rid of prejudice, or of our lack of forgiveness, of our love of objects and things over people, Father Dunham said.

"He was saying, 'Don't let these things be your God,'" Father Dunham said.

So strict was he about changing the order of things that he didn't want to become a priest, to be superior to anyone, or to have someone be inferior to him or others. He did his best to shun any form of hierarchy, even when it came to founding an order, Father Dunham said.

He goes against the order of the world we live in, said Monica Zeballos, who belongs to the third order, the secular arm of the Franciscans.

"Our world is centered on the having, he was centered on the giving," she said of St. Francis. "It is a challenging feat in this world."

In a society that is so strict about hierarchy and one in which people strive to be and say that they are better than someone else, it's incredible to find those who would still choose Francis, Zeballos said. Members of the third order are no less beholden to the Franciscan way of life, which asks that they seek to help and serve anyone who may need from them, she said, to be brotherly, detached from the material and to form community.

You wouldn't think that was subversive, said Father Dunham, but in Francis' day, and even today, some of Francis' ideas, can still be considered controversial. It's important to distinguish, however, that Francis didn't condemn anyone, and he was a brother to all, the poor as well as the rich, the believers as well as the nonbelievers.

In our day, Pope Francis is embracing the same, Father Dunham said. Just as Francis chose to be a saint for all, Pope Francis chooses to be a pope for all, not a pope to the exclusion of others, Father Dunham said. He's reminding us to form relationships with all, to be a servant to all, not to condemn but to care for one another.

And that's why so many—Catholic and non-Catholic, believer and nonbeliever—express a love for Francis, said Father Dunham. The saint is honored not just by Catholics, but also by Anglicans, who also follow the order of Francis. Even the nonreligious have expressed a love for him, Father Dunham said.

Donning the brown robe comes with an understanding of his ideals said Friar Manuel Aviles, 33, who lives with a Capuchin community in Washington. At first glance, he said, the medieval dress, the long brown habit is not one of the most beautiful pieces of clothing to look at it. But what's beautiful is what it represents and to embrace it with your heart, he said. They're the vestments of one who begs but not for money.

"In that sense, we're all begging for something," he said. "We're begging for love, for mercy."

He reminds himself of this as he dons the brown robe each morning.

What would Francis think of all the attention he's getting in the modern world?

"He'd head off to a cave and go into seclusion," said Father Dunham. "He'd say, 'I don't want to be king.'"

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