St. Francis of Assisi is arguably one of the most beloved and venerated Catholic saints (after Mary and Joseph, obviously).
However, by his own admission, Francis wasn’t always the radical, holy saint we revere.
He once said, “I have been all things unholy. If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.”
Growing up in a wealthy family in Assisi, Italy, Francis led a life characterized by pride and sin as a young man. While his journey to repentance and conversion unfolded over several stages, a pivotal moment occurred one day while Francis was praying before a crucifix at a run-down church. He heard Christ speak to him from the crucifix: “Francis, go and rebuild my Church.”
Francis’ yes to that call from God made a huge difference to the Church in his day. And guess what? We live in a world today that is similar to Francis’ time. Wars raging on in different parts of the world. Many corrupt clergy and church leaders. And a culture that encourages us to chase after power and money.
Francis’ message and way of life drew many followers during his time and injected new life in the Church back then. Any ‘rebuilding’ of the Church today can only start with each of us taking a single step towards repentance and renewal in our own hearts – that first step, and then another, and then one more…
“Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
– St. Francis of Assisi
Here are five things we can learn from St. Francis on rebuilding the Church today:
- Living simple lives that rely more on God’s providence: Francis took to heart the Lord’s message to sell all he had and to follow Christ. He renounced his worldly possessions and family inheritance and trusted God to take care of his daily needs.
All of us aren’t necessarily called to live similar lives of poverty. Yet, in the words of Francis, those who are overwhelmed with the concerns of the world and the cares of this life “are held captive by the devil.” Francis’ example ought to at least make us more mindful of the excesses we have in our lives, especially when millions of people live in abject poverty. A life that is less focused on ‘stuff’ is more likely to be more focused on God.
Do we have it in us to be able to give away the extra ‘stuff’ we have in our closets, refrigerators, homes, and dare I say it, even our bank accounts?
- Authentically love those around us: Love isn’t just a feel-good attitude. Love is a decision most clearly seen in the way it manifests in our conduct and life.
Francis once encountered a leper while riding on his horse. Though the smell and appearance of the leper were revolting, Francis got off his horse and gave the man a kiss of peace.
Sometimes love means giving someone a hug or affirming them with a kind word. At other times, it could call us to challenge someone to change their ways so that they are drawn closer to God. From the poor around us, to those in our community committing objectively serious sins, to teenagers with weird hair color and tattoos – our call is not to judge; our call is to love by both our words and actions.
- Share the good news about Jesus!: For the record, there is no record that Francis ever said, “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.” In fact, given Francis’ extensive preaching ministry, it is more likely that Francis would have preferred that we do actually preach the Gospel with words. If God has made a positive difference in our lives, we ought to be ready, willing and able to share God’s message of love, mercy and salvation with anyone at any time.
During the Crusades, Francis even went behind enemy lines, preaching to the Sultan of Egypt and Muslims within the Sultan’s territory. Historical accounts vary about the success of Francis’ preaching. Some say it had no effect on the Muslims; others report that the Sultan was drawn to Francis’ preaching, even to the point of expressing a desire to be baptized (some even go as far as saying that the Sultan had a death-bed baptism). No matter the success, our job is to share the good news about Jesus – how they respond is up to them, not us.
- A reverence for the sacred: Once, someone asked Francis if the Mass being celebrated by a priest who was openly living with a mistress was tainted. Francis responded by going to the priest, kneeling before him and kissing his hands – a sign that no matter how sinful or corrupt the priest, those hands held Christ, our Lord, in the Eucharist.
It is certainly challenging to distinguish between sinful priests who abuse their positions and the priesthood itself. Yet, there are a number of things that should be treated for what they really are, and not looked at for what they appear to be because someone has perverted or misrepresented them.
For instance, the holy sacrifice of the Mass takes us to Calvary where Christ died for our sins. It is neither a social gathering nor an event designed for our entertainment. Sacraments are essential to our Christian life and play a crucial role in our path to holiness and salvation – again, they are not just excuses to throw a party. The priesthood is a sacred office that should be respected, because when a priest acts – whether at Mass or in Confession – he is acting in the person of Christ. A greater appreciation for the sacred things of the Church will go a long way in any efforts to restore many aspects of the life of the Church that are decaying or have been forgotten.
- A renewed prayer life and relationship with God: Nothing in Francis’ life and mission would have borne fruit without his profound prayer life and love for God. There were times during his initial conversion journey that Francis would weep for his sins while in prayer. He also spent long hours reflecting on the word of God. He listened for, and then followed God’s instructions to him through prayer.
When God spoke to Francis in a dream and told him not to fight in the Crusades, he did what God said. When God asked him to rebuild his Church, Francis obeyed. No matter who we are or what we do, God calls us to follow him and to deepen our relationship with him. The source and sustenance of Francis’ work arose out of his prayer life and relationship with God – a pattern that would serve us well to imitate.