Koinonia: Saint Francis and changes of his time: reconciling the Gospel with history

The gospel experience of Francis, writes Eloi Leclerc, is not a simple episode in the history of Christianity. It has an exemplary and prophetic value[1]. Francis of Assisi lived during a time of great socio-political and economic changes. European societies were moving from feudal systems to communal cities. Financial economy founded on free trade was taking over from that based on land ownership. New associations of common interest were shaking traditional social equilibrium of relationships. There was great mobility of persons, a reality that seriously challenged the Church that for long had found her equilibrium on the monastic model of “stabilitas loci”. It was a time of crises and expectation. Therefore, what did Francis do to become such a model of Gospel witness transcending times and cultures? Eloi Leclerc outlines three features of Francis that we will consider here. First, Francis’ rich human nature. Secondly, the breath of the Gospel and, thirdly, Francis’ complicity with the movement of history[2].

Francis’ rich human nature: all the biographies bear witness to the rich personality of Francis even before his conversion, his passion for life and beauty and his love for his city that would take him to war against Perugia. This resulted in his experience as a prisoner. His ambition for social greatness sent him on the roads to the Puglia for a war expedition. His ability in business was such that he could sell both cloth and horse with no difficulty. In his joyousness, love for life and parties and poetry earned him the title of “king of the youth” in his city. His sensitivity to the needs of others, made him generous to a fault, though fear of lepers kept him away from this particular group.  He overcame this fear despite himself, through merciful service to the lepers, and this for him was a gift of grace as he narrates in his Testament. His experience of the fragility of sickness before conversion and at the end of his life was likewise an enriching experience. He could talk to the sick from the depth of their misery that he shared. Francis  incarnated in himself the life and aspirations of his contemporaries. He was one with them; he spoke their language and shared in their joys, sufferings, and dreams. The words of St. Augustine came true for Francis in a prominent way when he says of God: “Our hearts are made for you and they are restless till they rest in you”.

The breath of the Gospel: The Gospel has in it the power to renew the Church and bring new life to the world. It can restore life to dry bones (cf. Ez 37). As a river flowing from Christ, the Gospel brings abundant life to the world of men and cultures: “Flowing into the sea, it makes the waters wholesome. Wherever the river flows, all living creatures teeming in it will live” (Ez 47:7.9). Francis and the movement sparked by him is proof of this, thus confirming the promise of Christ Jesus who says: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn10:10). Inspired specifically by the Gospel of the sending out of the apostles (Mt. 10:1-10), Francis discerned for himself and his followers the specific mission to live the Gospel in its pure simplicity and to take the Gospel of peace to the people of his time where they were, on the roads, in town squares or battle fields. Eloi Leclerc puts it very beautifully when he says: “the world of men is a battle field. The messenger of the Gospel must not appear as a rival or a competitor in the scramble for riches and power[3]. The radical choice of poverty made Francis and his followers particularly harmless.

The flame of the Gospel was so strong in Francis that when he could no longer travel due to ill health, he resorted to writing and was so daring to the point of addressing a letter to humanity. He opens the Letter to the faithful in these words: “Brother Francis, their servant and subject, sends esteem and reverence, true peace from heaven and sincere love in the Lord to all Christian religious people: clergy and laity, men and women, and to all who live in the whole world. Because I am the servant of all, I am obliged to serve all and to administer the fragrant worlds of my Lord to them[4]. This letter is the basis for all the Rules of the Third Order down the centuries. He brought the breath of the Gospel to the people by every means available to him. The conversion to Christ and the Gospel rather sharpened the human qualities of Francis and opened up the horizons of his world. And that is how it supposed to be.

Francis’ complicity with the movement of history: “The salvation that God offers us is an invitation to be part of a love story interwoven with our personal stories; it is alive and wants to be born in our midst so that we can bear fruit just as we are, wherever we are and with everyone all around us”[5]. Eloi Leclerc observes that “there are times when excessive asceticism, and intense spiritual life, dampens sensitivity and renders persons more or less foreign to visible and tangible reality[6]. This did not occur to Francis. Francis used the movements of history to take him to his objectives in the same way a good surfer would use the waves of the ocean. This is certainly how Christian life is supposed to be. When one attains such a degree of faith, then there is no more space for lamentations. Every experience becomes an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel and an invitation to join in the dance of creation in praise of the Most High Glorious God. Docility to the Holy Spirit and attention to the changing times yet in total submission to ecclesiastical authority has marked the Franciscan movement from the beginning until date. In one of his last recommendations to his followers Francis clearly expresses this fact: “I have done my part; May Christ teach you that which is yours to do”. This is certainly the main reason for the diversity and dynamic creativity typical of all Franciscan groups, including OFS.

 

This is an extract from an article written by Br. Francis Bongajum Dor, OFMCap. Download and read the full text:

Koinonia 2020-1“The OFS Rule as a Response in Times of Great Changes”

N. 105

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[1]Éloi Leclerc, François d’Assise le retour à l’Évangile, Desclée de Brouwer, Paris 1981, ed. 2010, pg. 203, (my translation)
[2] Cfr. Idem.
[3]Eloi Leclerc, op. cit., p. 83. (Le monde est un champs de luttes. Le messager de l’Evangile ne doit pas apparaitre comme un rival ou un concurrent dans la course à la richesse et au pouvoir )
[4] Second Letter to the Faithful, 1-2.
[5] Francis, Post-synodal Apostolic exhortation Christus vivit to young people and to the entire people of God, n° 252.
[6] Eloi Leclerc, François d’Assise, op cit. p. 204.