Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Saint Francis of Assisi - 4 October

Readings: Sirach 50:1,3-7: Psalm 15; Galatians 6:14-18; Matthew 11:25-30

There is a tradition that Dominicans preach in the local Franciscan church for the feast of St Francis and  Franciscans do the same in the local Dominican church for the feast of St Dominic. It is based on another tradition, that Dominic and Francis probably met in Rome during the Fourth Lateran Council at which their two Orders were officially recognised.

Whatever about the origins of these traditions, the two most famous mendicant orders of the early thirteenth century had a great deal in common. They were similar responses to the same set of questions and difficulties. It was a time that required a new evangelisation. Significant social, economic, political and educational changes created a new situation in which the preaching of the gospel had to be undertaken afresh. There was a new world, and new experiences, that needed to be converted to Christ. The methods that had worked before were no longer working. The Church's power had become an obstacle to the hearing of the gospel. Alternative spiritualities and movements of protest against Church power challenged believers with other ways of receiving the gospel and of organising Christian communities. One significant spirituality, that of the Cathars, seemed like a serious return to a more rigorous, evangelical Christianity, but at the price of despising the material creation. Dominic, in the south of France, and Francis, in central Italy, led two of the most important responses to these questions and difficulties.

The two orders stood side by side in defending their new form of religious life in the face of criticism from within the Church. The great friars of the second generation - Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, Bonaventure - all became involved in defending the mendicants from their detractors, from those who would deny them a place in the Church. But these 'brothers in arms' were also rivals and this rivalry showed itself early on. Francis died in 1226 and was canonised within two years. Dominic had died five years before and it was only in 1233, twelve years after his death, that he was declared a saint. Clearly Francis' sanctity was more eloquent, more obvious, and more compelling. The Dominicans tried, for a short while, to engage in debate about which founder was more like Christ but gave up very quickly, realising that this was an argument they were not going to win. To this day, the popularity of Francis, compared with that of Dominic, confirms this victory for the Franciscans.

But in the 1240s the Dominicans developed an alternative strategy, writing not about how Dominic might be like Christ but about how Jesus was the first Dominican. Francis may have been more obviously like Jesus, but Jesus was, in effect, the first 'friar preacher'. The most famous presentation along these lines is Thomas Aquinas's account of the lifestyle of Christ - poor, itinerant, living among the people, sharing life with his disciples, teaching publicly the truth about God - a lifestyle he chose, Aquinas says, 'in order to give an example to the preachers'.

Each order was renowned at the beginning both for preaching and for poverty. Later on these two things came to be separated, the Franciscans becoming more famous for their concern with poverty and the Dominicans for their concern with preaching. But at the beginning there was little enough difference in their lifestyle and preoccupations. Dominic was a priest, Francis a deacon. The Dominicans were keen on study, the Franciscans not so focussed on it at the beginning. But both were evangelical, apostolic movements, returning to the sources of Christian life in order to preach the gospel more effectively in their time. Both preached out of experiences of prayer, contemplation and fraternity. Both returned to the gospels as their primary sources, and both celebrated the creation, the other book in which God reveals his power and love.

We hear a lot now about a new evangelisation and within a few days the Synod of Bishops will begin to discuss this theme. John Paul II spoke of the need for a renewed preaching of the gospel that would be new in its ardour, methods and means of expression. Paul VI already anticipated this in his 1975 letter on evangelisation, Evangelii nuntiandi. The feast of Saint Francis reminds us that this is not the first time in the history of the church that there has been a need for new evangelisation. And we have much to learn from Saint Francis about the ardour, methods and means of expression that will support any new evangelisation.

Francis was called in his time to repair the Lord's Temple and to strengthen the sanctuary. His power to do this had its source in his union with Christ. He followed him not just by knowing about him or by imitating his lifestyle in a purely external way. He knew him from within, having the mind of Christ, carrying in his body the mark of Christ, moving and acting by the Spirit of Christ. This is the most important lesson for us today about the source or spring for any new evangelisation: it can only originate in the union with Christ we call 'holiness'. We can try to generate ardour, we can develop new methods, we can experiment with different means of expression, but the real source of any effective evangelisation is the human heart being healed by Christ, the human heart carrying the yoke of Christ, the human heart being transformed into Christ. Only such a person can help to bring about the encounter with Christ that leads to faith and love.

Francis reminds us of this most radical truth on the eve of the Synod on evangelisation. He is a living example of what Paul VI famously said, that 'modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses' (EN 41). Francis is a great teacher in the Church because he is a great witness to the truth of the gospel. He does not point away from himself, to Christ elsewhere, he points to himself and to Christ dwelling within, occupying his mind, marking his body, filling his heart, shaping his actions. He reminds us also, Dominicans, of this source of all preaching. As our brother Thomas Aquinas puts it, the Word we preach is the Word breathing Love. The yoke of the Lord is easy because it is carried in Love. The burden of the Lord is light because, once again, it is Love's burden. The great evangelisers of our time will be those who, like Francis, learn each day from their Lord who is gentle and humble of heart. This makes them powerful witnesses to truth, agents of peace and mercy, stars of the morning shining for all in the house to see and to admire.

We pray through the intercession of Saint Francis that God will bless the work of the Synod and inspire many to give themselves generously to the work of evangelisation.

This homily was preached for the feast of St Francis in 2012. Hence the references to the Synod of Bishops which began a few days later. Hence also the absence of any reference to Pope Francis who was elected five months later.

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