Celebrating the Feast of Saint Francis
On October 4, the Catholic Church celebrates the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, a saint who is “known” to every Catholic, I believe. I suspect the image of Francis that most people conjure up is that of a monk in brown robes, surrounded by all sorts of God’s creatures and communing with them. Yet, when I worked at Marian University a few years ago and had the extraordinary privilege of being a faculty member chosen to go on a pilgrimage to Assisi, I learned so much more about Francis (and Clare). I spent those days (and many more), integrating that experience into our Sisters of Providence spirituality. I have to say, much of what Francis believed is, indeed, part and parcel of what we espouse.
Francis grew up in a family of nobility, loved the noble life, and dreamed of being a knight. Then, because of a series of dreams he had, he began to abandon the life of luxury. After his conversion, Francis began to embrace all of creation as precious, rejecting material accumulation and personal comforts in deference to “Lady Poverty.” His Canticle of the Sun (also known as Praise of the Creatures) was, in a sense, a statement of Francis’ theology. Francis believed that everything in the natural world was a gift from God and thus, deserved to be valued, appreciated, and respected. Just how much he reverenced creation can be construed from his terminology in the Canticle, in which he referred to the sun, wind, air, and fire as his brothers, and to the moon, stars, earth, water, and death as his sisters. I can’t help but wonder: What if every one of us who inhabit Earth had the same reverence for creation that Francis exhibited? Would the climate change issues be so critical? Would catastrophic weather events be so prevalent? Would our oceans be rife with plastic? I think Saint Francis would be right there with us, advocating for all of us to reduce our carbon emissions and make “green choices” so that all of creation on Earth can thrive.
It also dawned on me that Saint Francis of Assisi was a “pioneer,” if you will, in understanding intersectionality. He didn’t call it that, but he spent his life reaching out to the poor and to the lepers, and understood that they were a part of God’s creation who were victimized by those who “have.” On our pilgrimage, probably the most powerful moment for me was our visit to La Maddalena, one of the very small chapels that remains from the six leprosaria that existed outside Assisi. These leprosy colonies were outside the gates of Assisi, at the bottom of the hill on which Assisi rests. Because there were no sewage systems at the time, the poor lepers suffered not only from the physical disease of leprosy, but also from the effects of living outside the gates at the bottom of the hill. As I knelt in the chapel where Francis and the lepers had gathered and prayed, as I touched those walls and prayed for all people who are outcasts, the phrase “down and out” took on a whole new meaning for me. I just stood and wept … and continue to fill with tears every time I recall that moment. I ask myself: How am I complicit in creating a “caste” of people who are “down and out?” How can I/we understand, and help others to understand, the links between the choices we make as “those who have” (in comparison to most of Earth’s people) and the suffering of those who are “down and out?” What do I/we need to do to better understand how our choices relative to environment disproportionately affect the most vulnerable: Women, children, the economically poor, people of color? What can I/we do so that all of humankind and all of creation are reverenced and valued as Francis did? I can’t help but believe that if our hearts were so totally converted, as Francis allowed his to be, Earth might be an entirely different world!