29 Sep HOMILIES OF THE MINISTER GENERAL FOR THE FEAST OF THE STIGMATA OF SAINT FRANCIS
HOMILY FOR THE VIGIL OF THE FEAST OF THE STIGMATA OF SAINT FRANCIS
La Verna, 16 September 2021
- At one time, the blessed and venerable father Francis, with worldly crowds gathering eagerly every day to hear and see him, sought out a place of rest and secret solitude. He desired to free himself for God and shake off any dust that clung to him from the time spent with the crowds. It was his custom to divide the time given him to merit grace and, as seemed best, to spend some of it to benefit his neighbours and use the rest in the blessed solitude of contemplation. He took with him only a few companions—who knew his holy way of living better than others—so that they could shield him from the interruption and disturbance of people, respecting and protecting his silence in every way. After he had been there for some time, through unceasing prayer and frequent contemplation, he reached intimacy with God in an indescribable way. He longed to know what in him and about him was or could be most acceptable to the Eternal King.
He sought this diligently and devoutly longed to know in what manner, in what way, and with what desire he would be able to cling more perfectly to the Lord God, according to His counsel and the good pleasure of His will. This was always his highest philosophy; this was the highest desire that always burned in him as long as he lived. He asked the simple and the wise, the perfect and the imperfect, how he could reach the way of truth and arrive at his great goal.
This evening we too have withdrawn to this mountain with Francis to get away from the noises that accompany us within and without. We come to remain in solitude and see and listen to what matters with different, new eyes.
In this solitude, Francis sought familiarity with God: it was not enough for him to believe in the reality of God. He wanted to meet it and know it, to allow himself to be touched and transformed by it. Why withdraw? Because he wanted to tune in to what pleases God. The search for what pleases God is at the heart of Francis’ solitude, a space open to encountering the Other. In this solitary space, Francis can perceive himself as “the most imperfect of all”. In this movement, Celano tells us, Francis “felt pouring down on him from above a sweetness and delight rarely given to even a few, and it made him lose himself completely”. (1 Cel 92)
This going out of himself is marked by listening to the Gospel. “So, one day Francis approached the sacred altar which had been built in the hermitage where he was staying and, taking up the volume where the holy Gospels were written, he placed it reverently upon the altar (…). Rising from prayer in a spirit of humility and with a contrite heart, he prepared himself with the sign of the holy cross. He took the book from the altar and opened it with reverence and fear. When he opened the book, the first passage that met his eye was the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ that tells of the suffering he was to endure. To avoid any suspicion that this was just a coincidence, he opened the book a second and a third time. Every time he found either the same text or one that was similar. This man filled with the spirit of God then understood that he would have to enter into the kingdom of God through many trials, difficulties and struggles”. (1 Cel 93).
Listening to the Gospel nourished Francis’ prayerful solitude and prepared him for the new encounter with the Lord that took place here on La Verna. That Gospel which Francis had opened on the altar at the beginning of his journey of conversion and evangelical life returns in this summit of his existence. At La Verna Francis does not have an aristocratic spiritual experience, but rather adherence to the Gospel in a renewed listening. And if back then the Gospel invited him to follow, now it immerses him in the Passion of the Lord. The same Gospel that in different ages of life opens up new paths.
At La Verna, Francis reaches conformation with Christ in pain and love; it is a spiritual experience, which in the Gospel finds its path and a guarantee of ever new youthfulness in the experience of God’s love.
“In these last times, a new Evangelist, like one of the rivers of Paradise, has poured out the streams of the gospel in a holy flood over the whole world. He preached the way of the Son of God and the teaching of truth in his deeds. In him and through him an unexpected joy and a holy newness came into the world. A shoot of the ancient religion suddenly renewed the old and decrepit. A new spirit was placed in the hearts of the elect, and a holy anointing has been poured out in their midst. This holy servant of Christ, like one of the lights of heaven, shone from above with a new rite and new signs.” (1Cel 89).
This evening, gathering at La Verna to celebrate the Stigmata of Francis brings us into a SOLITUDE, a space for an ENCOUNTER, to listen to the GOSPEL for a NEW YOUTHFULNESS of life.
The solitude that the pandemic has shown to us, together with so many men and women of our time, small and poor, makes us welcome this fundamental human experience in a different way.
Today, so much solitude can make us turn in on ourselves: every man for himself!
Can we instead find a path, a space in our own solitudes and the solitudes of so many? Can we leave the roadway open to encounter?
And within this reality, can we recognise the words of the Gospel, the fire of the Gospel, the features of the face and the life of Jesus Christ, in whom we are given in the Spirit, to share, right up to his journey of death and life, Easter?
If we are looking for a way to find newness of life, enthusiasm for our vocation, a renewed flowering of our form of life, here is the source to which we must return.
Is this desire, this tension, the ardour of this love – to become like the Beloved – familiar to us believers, laypeople and friars, of this time?
- Without this encounter, is faith not in danger of becoming irrelevant, to the point of dying out?
- Can we genuinely believe in a new rebirth and flowering in a time that seems to close off any possibility of a future, almost denying it, to live here and now?
- Is not coming as a pilgrim to this mountain an act of faith in this possibility?
- Was Francis not sent to warm a dying world, where faith itself seemed to be failing?
Today the challenge that reaches this mountain is great: an age in which God seems to have become a useless “accessory” for many. Non-belief is becoming widespread and a spirituality without God, without religion, finds its place…. could this be the right time for a more adult and personal faith? Motivated in a new way?
The hour to open ourselves to a faith of fire, thanks to the One who comes to meet us with a peaceful and loving gaze? Will we be able to allow ourselves to be wounded again so that we can descend from the world marked by this encounter and become more transparent and radiant witnesses to it?
We ask this of the Lord on this Vigil of the Stigmata through the intercession of St Francis: for the Church, for so many people searching, for the brothers of our Order and the brothers and sisters of our Franciscan Family.
HOMILY FOR THE FEAST OF THE STIGMATA OF SAINT FRANCIS
La Verna, 17 September 2021
This celebration began with an intense prayer: we told the Father that He Himself marked the flesh of Francis with the signs of the Passion and the intention is to inflame our spirit with the fire of His love.
Therefore, the Stigmata is not Francis’s “private” privilege but a burning and living reality for us today. The goal is to enable us to participate in the death and resurrection of Christ and, therefore, in his Passover. But is this not the heart of all new life according to the Spirit that we received in baptism? It is what Paul says: to share in his suffering (pain) in order to enter into his life (joy). To accept the rejection that Jesus faced, to allow ourselves to be touched and transformed by his love.
We find this tension between pain and joy, rejection and love, in Francis’ vision on this mountain:
When the blessed servant of the most High saw these things, he was filled with the greatest awe but could not decide what this vision meant for him. Moreover, he greatly rejoiced and was much delighted by the kind and gracious look that he saw the Seraph gave him. The Seraph’s beauty was beyond comprehension, but the fact that the Seraph was fixed to the cross and the bitter suffering of that passion thoroughly frightened him. Consequently, he got up both sad and happy as joy and sorrow took their turns in his heart. Concerned over the matter, he kept thinking about what this vision could mean, and his spirit was anxious to discern a sensible meaning from the vision.
Francis is seized by a new encounter with the Lord, so great that it overwhelms him and leaves him almost overwhelmed. He cannot understand. Rather he is called to allow himself to be embraced, to be touched in his deepest reality, where the conformation to Christ awaits him, the acceptance of his form, of his way of being, of living, of loving and dying.
Francis shows us not everything is clear and straightforward, accessible to our understanding in the life of the Spirit. It is necessary to accept that admiration and incomprehension mingle, that something eludes us, that not everything can be taken in.
We experience it in our own lives and in all that moves around us: how much pain and love mingle! How much searching and striving along with fear and uncertainty! And how much all this troubles and confuses us. We would like a straightforward and tranquil path, and instead, like the Seraphic one, our spirit is agitated because we cannot grasp the meaning of what is happening to us. As believers, this disturbance frightens us. Perhaps we do not have faith?
Or we are called to walk another path to grow in faith: the abandonment and surrender of ourselves to his living and active presence amid the contradictions and frailties of our mortal and limited existence. The call to Life, the Passover of death and resurrection happens precisely within the tangle of our poor lives, which we are called to welcome and recognise as a place of salvation. Today more than ever, precisely in that radical weakness that we have experienced at first hand as a result of the pandemic.
What enables us to move on to Easter joy? Undoubtedly the consolation that we can experience through trust in the Father that does not deceive us but wants us to enter into his intimacy of pain and love, offering us himself. Yes, because if the Seraphim shows himself like this to the Poverello, it means that in God Himself love and pain meet, in the logic of total self-giving, which in a certain sense takes the Lord out of himself, turns him towards the world and us, to the point of making him a sharer in our cry.
If the Seraphim turns to Francis in swift flight, the latter knows that the Lord will meet him, seek him out, embrace him and mark him forever.
Let us ask ourselves why in the Testament St Francis does not speak of this initiative of the Lord, while he recalls the others (lepers, priests, brothers, the church…). Indeed, he wanted to hide the secret of the great King on the one hand, and on the other hand, this encounter has no one else with him but is directed only to him, the little one, it is a seal for his journey and a powerful sign for those who will follow him.
Francis wants to feel in his soul and in his body the pain that Jesus sustained at the hour of the Passion, and at the same time, he asks to feel in his heart that excessive love with which the Son of God was aflame for us sinners.
Again, pain and love intersect and show in Francis – and in us – the logic of the Passover.
Taking up the cross and following Jesus in this way of pain and love is the incandescent core of Francis’ Christian experience. The rest is to be understood and enlightened from this centre. The glorification of God in creatures, the love for his brothers, the mission of peace: everything in him is a reverberation and fruit of the Lord’s Passover.
Here is the response from the Lord that Francis was waiting for, in the face of incomprehension and bitterness on the part of his brothers and the fear of having missed the mark with his choices: God invites Francis, once again, to cross the Passover of death and resurrection of the Son, so powerful as to leave its marks in Francis’ flesh.
He invites him to lose his life in the freedom of love, not to hold back, to let himself go, to find himself in a new way: gift and not hoarding, welcome and not possession. Only in this way does Francis’ person and our own come to its truth. A person who relates, who goes out of himself, finds himself in the freedom of love that can submit to the other and not assert himself at all costs.
Francis even let the Lord enter his flesh and leave him a sign, a fiery kiss of love, just as he had let the lepers embrace him, the sinful priests prevent him from preaching, the brothers welcome him, and the unbelievers speak to him. A man unarmed and poor because he was free to love and to serve. For this reason, free to let himself be loved.
The mystery of the Stigmata is then so close to us, so familiar. As we celebrate it in the memory of the Lord’s Passover, we ask to be drawn to it and transformed by it.