18 Sep May I never boast except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ | Homily for the Feast of the Stigmata
Homily of the Minister General for the Feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi
“But may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation” (Gal. 6:14-15).
My dear brothers of the Province of San Francesco Stimmatizzato, my dear brothers and sisters in service to this sacred shrine of La Verna, distinguished civil Authorities, brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus, peace and health to you!
We once again ascend this holy mountain to enter into the mystery of the love relationship between God and Francis of Assisi. Our ascent comes at a particularly difficult time in the life of the human community and the natural environment, where all appear to be descending. The new Coronavirus pandemic has provoked countless deaths and untold suffering. It has left hundreds of millions of people without work, facing the brutal consequences of dehumanizing poverty and hunger. It has uncovered deep social and ecological fractures bubbling below the surface of our daily interactions. These fractures have erupted into expressions of hatred and violence on a global scale. The pandemic also has forced us to shelter in place in quarantine, creating great uncertainty, fear, isolation, and psychological instability. The environment continues to suffer from reckless exploitation by human beings.
Our human temptation might be to try to deny or run away from these crises affecting humans and the planet but there is no place for us to hide. The new Coronavirus has shown us this to be true. We have only one true choice: to allow the crisis to draw us into a serious reflection on the quality of our individual and collective lives, with the hope that we might discover a new way of living and acting with God, with one another, with ourselves, and with the created universe reflective of our true identity. The Lord Jesus seeks to accompany us on our journey. He is never far away from us, even if we are far away from ourselves, from one another, and from God.
Before we try to understand the meaning of Francis’s reception of the Stigmata, we must allow the humanity and fragility of Francis to speak to us. When he came to La Verna in the fall of 1224, he came as a person in deep crisis. He came to isolate himself from serious problems present in his life, in the life of the brothers of the Order, in the Church, and in the world around him. St. Francis came as a wounded man. He bore the pain of having been rejected by his brothers because his way of living the Gospel was seen to be too demanding. He came bearing the wounds of political, social, and religious conflicts that were dividing people, destroying any sense of the common good, leading, oftentimes, to violent clashes. He came bearing the wounds of the poor and marginalized who were cruelly exploited by the rich and powerful, enslaved in abject poverty, dehumanized. And he came bearing debilitating physical infirmities that probably created within him a sense of isolation and depression. This is the man who came to La Verna, who entered into spiritual quarantine in order to listen to the voice of the One who had called him to embark upon the evangelical way of life kneeling before the crucifix at San Damiano.
In his brokenness, his poverty, Francis came in search of new possibilities for rediscovering the liberating power of the Gospel. But Francis knew that this liberation does not come freely; it comes with a cost. What is that cost? We heard it proclaimed in the Gospel today: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he or she must deny self and take up his or her cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his or her life will lose it but whoever loses his or her life for my sake will save it” (Lk. 9:23-4). We are invited to undergo a spiritual death: death to those thoughts and attitudes within us that lead us towards death and despair instead of life and hope; death to those wounds we harbor in our hearts inflicted by those who pretend to love us – our husbands, wives, children, parents, brothers or sisters in our religious communities, friends – and wounds accumulated in the daily struggles of life; death to our quick tempers and rush to judgment of others; death to those fears and prejudices that prevent us from recognizing the face of God in all people, especially the poor, marginalized, the ‘strangers in our midst’, and that keep us from recognizing one another as brother or sister in the one family of God; and death to our unwillingness to let God love and forgive us, turning our stone cold hearts into hearts of flesh (Ezek 36,26) capable of receiving and sharing love.
St. Francis came to La Verna with the hope that through the cross of Jesus he would once again be healed of his brokenness, transformed into that ‘new creation’ announced by St. Paul in to the Christians in Corinth. He needed once again to touch the wounds of the crucified Jesus in order that by touching these wounds, his heart and spirit might be healed. But the story of the Stigmata does not end with Francis receiving personal consolation from Jesus, which took the form of the Stigmata. When he received this gift, Francis more fully recognized that he was being drawn more deeply into the mystery of God’s willingness to suffer with all who and that God had created. The wounds of Christ are the wounds of humanity and creation. We, like Francis, are invited to enter into this great feast not only to be spiritually consoled but in order to be transformed into agents of the ‘new creation’, messengers of love, universal fraternity, and restoration. Like Francis, we come to this mountain to be healed and re-energized. We come in order that we might once again have the courage to take up the cross in our daily lives, a cross that bears the sufferings of all of our brothers and sisters everywhere in the world and those of the created universe (Cf. Pope Francis, Angelus, August 30, 2020). Only those willing to undertake this difficult journey into the darkness and pain confronting humanity and the natural environment will experience the fullness of grace St. Francis experienced when he was marked by the wounds of Christ.
Let us conclude this reflection by praying together the prayer of Saint John Paul II during his visit to La Verna September 17, 1993:
O St. Francis, stigmatized by La Verna,
the world yearns for you as an icon of Jesus Crucified.
It needs your heart open towards God and man,
your bare and wounded feet, your pierced and imploring hands.
It longs for your weak voice, but strong with the power of the Gospel.
Help, Francis, the men [and women] of today
to recognize the evil of sin and seek its purification in penance.
Help them to free themselves
from the same structures of sin that oppress today’s society.
Revive in the conscience of rulers
the urgency of peace in nations and among peoples.
Transform into young people your freshness of life,
capable of countering the pitfalls of the many cultures of death.
To those offended by all kinds of wickedness,
communicate, Francis, the joy of knowing how to forgive.
To all those crucified by suffering, hunger and war,
reopen the doors of hope.
La Verna – 17 September 2020
Br Michael A. Perry, OFM