Festivals/Seasons & Holy Days

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‘Francis preaching to the birds’ from the 13th Century Chronica major of Matthew Paris

In order to get a handle on Franciscan Evangelism, we need (as so often) to start with Thomas of Celano. In the recently Rediscovered Life, (see footnote), Celano confirms that after their form of life had been approved by Innocent III, Francis and the brothers stayed for a while near Orte. There they made an ‘alliance with sacred poverty and signed a perpetual pact that they might more sweetly cling to her’. This was a resolution not to return to the cut-throat values of the mercantile and aristocratic society that they had all left, not without a struggle.

There in Orte, Celano goes on, ‘they discussed together whether they should live among men or gather together in solitary places’. Bonaventure, in his account of this, makes it clear that the deciding factor was the example of the Son of God who did not choose to pass his life in contemplation, but chose the exhausting and stressful path of sharing the Good News with the rest of us. Celano then slips in the challenge that ‘first Francis persuaded himself by his works, then he persuaded others with words and, fearing no rebuke, he boldly spoke the truth’. The truth, as we all know to our cost, needs to begin with ourselves. When that condition of integrity is established within us, then everything re-orders itself around us.

At this early point, Francis began to speak with the bird and animal kingdoms, an aspect of his ministry which, quite rightly, filled his contemporaries with wonder. It is not by chance or sentiment that there are so many early artistic representations of these incidents, beginning with our own English author and artist, Matthew Paris, in 1244. While none of us can take shortcuts to this harmony, our contemporaries certainly look to Franciscans to show how to care for our planet and those who share it with us. They rightly expect concern and involvement from us. In the Rediscovered Life, Celano shows that for Francis this renewed relationship was not an emotional response, but something more profound and evangelical, based on the Gospel of St Mark, which ends with the clear injunction to ‘preach the good news to all creation’.(Mk 16.16) Our current ecological crisis reveals that we have failed to do this in too many respects and Pope Francis has gone so far as to say that our planet is now one of the poor, and care for Mother Earth is a corporal work of mercy in the truest sense. Francis, through Celano, shows us a wholly new relationship with the kingdoms of flora and fauna, which is exactly what our Sister Mother Earth and all who live here with us, need at this time.

Even a cursory reflection on this raises two profound questions, and both are relevant to Franciscan evangelism. One is about fidelity to the Gospel, asking if those who work to protect and cherish God’s work in creation are not also evangelists in the true meaning of the word. The second challenging question is whether Franciscans are in the forefront of this evangelisation and these works, at least by example in daily living, and if not, why not? There is room here for a profound theological exploration of what Christ Jesus meant by preaching the good news to all creation. We have the first ground plan for such a study in Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. That gives us a radical foundation but it needs further unpacking theologically and philo-sophically.

This is surely part of the Franciscan challenge for the coming years. Undoubtedly, there is much wrong in our attitudes to the animal, plant and feathered world. It is also easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the problems and vested interests, but each one of us, like Francis, preaches more by example than by words. Even in Franciscan houses, we have not always been good news for creation. This gospel imperative is not necessarily a summons to be in the forefront of demonstrations and protests (though it might include that). Rather it is a summons to live as people who truly and deeply believe that we have all come from the hand of one Creator. Every living being is a brother or sister. Too often we have been toxic members of our family. The question is not ‘What would Francis do?’ but rather ‘What do we do in the light of what we have learnt from Francis’?

The way into this integrity must lie through obedience to the Spirit. Celano says that ‘as the glorious father, friend of Christ, walked along the way of obedience and perfectly embraced the yoke of divine submission, he obtained great dignity before God in the obedience of creatures’. Celano was of the opinion that by obedience, Francis was restored to original innocence. While we might not be clear about the meaning of that, the message is unmistakable, that he had come into a wholly new relationship with creation because he had completely internalised his belief that everything comes from the hand of God. The evangelical question is this: do we manifest this conviction as we interact with creation, or are we a toxic member of the family of Mother Earth? Does every being on the land entrusted to us receive respect and space? Clearly this poses practical and difficult problems especially for gardeners, land owners and farmers, but we have to grapple with them. Franciscan evangelism will have no impact if respect and justice are not in place. Francis has cleverly manipulated us, because almost every person in the world knows he had a special relationship with creation, and they look to us to show the same. There is a great desire for Franciscan evangelical leadership and more hangs upon it than ever before.  f

Jacques Dalarun, The Rediscovered life of St Francis of Assisi, translated by Timothy Johnson, Franciscan Institute Publications, 2016.

Sr Frances Teresa is a Poor Clare sister and lives in Holllington. She has written and translated several books on Saint Clare.