Father Cantalamessa on Francis of Assisi's Method for Church Reform

1st Advent Homily: "to prepare ourselves for Christmas in the company of Francis of Assisi"

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Here is a translation of the first Advent homily, delivered today by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the pontifical household.

The sermon is titled "Francis of Assisi and the Reform of the Church by the Way of Holiness."

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The aim of these three Advent meditations is to prepare ourselves for Christmas in the company of Francis of Assisi. In this first meditation, I would like to highlight the nature of his return to the Gospel. In his study on the “True and False Reform of the Church,” the theologian Yves Congar sees in Francis the clearest example of the reform of the Church by way of holiness.[i] We wish to understand in what his reform by way of holiness consists and what his example implies in every age of the Church, including our own.

Francis’ Conversion

To understand something of Francis’ adventure it is necessary to begin with his conversion. Sources record different descriptions of this event, with notable variances between them. Fortunately we have an absolutely reliable source, which dispenses us from selecting among the different versions. We have the testimony of Francis himself in his Testament, his own ipsissima vox, as is said of Christ’s words surely reported in the Gospel. It says:

“The Lord told me, Friar Francis, begin to do penance like this: when I was in sin it seemed to me too bitter to see lepers and the Lord himself led me among them and I used mercy with them. And departing from them, what seemed to me bitter was changed into sweetness for me of soul and body. And shortly afterward, I left the world”.

It is on this text that historians rightly base themselves, but with a limitation that is insurmountable for them. The historians, including the best intentioned and most respectful of the peculiarity of Francis’ life, as was Raoul Manselli among the Italians, do not succeed in understanding the ultimate reason for his radical change. They stop – and rightly out of respect for their method – at the threshold, speaking of a “secret of Francis,” destined to remain so forever.

What can be proven historically is Francis’ decision to change his social status. From belonging to the well-to-do class, which counted in the city for nobility and wealth, he chose to place himself at the opposite extreme, sharing the life of the least, of those who did not count at all, the so-called “minors,” afflicted by all sorts of poverty.

Historians rightly insist on the fact that in the beginning Francis did not choose poverty and even less so pauperism; he chose the poor! The change was motivated more by the commandment: “Love they neighbor as thyself,” than by the counsel: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, then come and follow me.” It was compassion for poor people, more than the search for his own perfection that moved him, charity more than poverty.

All this is true, but it still does not touch the bottom of the problem. It is the effect of the change, not its cause. The true choice is much more radical: it was not about choosing between wealth and poverty, or between the rich and the poor, between belonging to one class rather than another, but of choosing between himself and God, between saving his life or losing it for the Gospel.

There have been some (for instance, in times closer to us, Simone Weil) who came to Christ out of love of the poor and there have been others who came to the poor out of love of Christ. Francis belongs to the latter. The profound motive for his conversion was not of a social nature, but evangelical. Jesus had formulated the law once and for all with one of the most solemn and certainly most authentic phrases of the Gospel:

“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it”.  (Matthew 16: 24-25).

By kissing the leper, Francis denied himself in what was most “bitter” and repugnant to his nature. He did violence to himself. This fact did not escape his first biographer who describes the episode thus:

“One day he stopped before a leper: he did violence to himself, approached him and kissed him. From that moment he decided to despise himself increasingly, until by the mercy of the Redeemer he obtained a full victory.” [ii]

Francis did not go by his spontaneous will to the lepers, moved by human and religious compassion. “The Lord,” he writes, “led me among them.” It is on this small detail that historians do not know – nor can give a judgment, but it is, in fact, at the origin of everything. Jesus had prepared Francis’ heart so that his freedom would respond at the right moment to grace. Preparing for this moment were the dream of Spoleto and the question if he preferred to serve the servant or the master, his sickness, the imprisonment at Perugia and that strange anxiety that no longer allowed him to find joy in amusements and made him search for solitary places.

Without thinking that it was Jesus in person under the semblance of a leper (as later they sought to do rethinking the similar case of the life of Saint Martin of Tours [iii]), at that moment, for all intents and purposes, the leper represented Jesus for Francis. Francis’ conversion is of the same nature as that of Paul. At a certain point, what for Paul had been before a “gain” changed and became a “loss,” “for the sake of Christ” (Philippians 3:5 ff.); for Francis what had been bitter became sweetness, also here “for the sake of Christ.” After this moment, both can say: “It is no longer I who live, Christ lives in me.”

All this obliges us to correct a certain image of Francis made popular by the subsequent literature and taken up by Dante in the Divine Comedy. The famous metaphor of Francis’ nuptials with Lady Poverty, which has left profound traces in Franciscan art and poetry, could be deviant. You do not fall in love with a virtue, not even poverty; you fall in love with a person. Francis’ nuptials were, as those of other mystics, a marriage with Christ.

To companions who asked him if he intended to have a wife, seeing him one evening strangely absent and luminous, the young Francis answered: “I will take the most noble and beautiful bride you have ever seen.” This answer is usually interpreted badly. From the context it appears clear that the bride is not poverty, but the hidden treasure and the precious pearl, namely, Christ. “Bride,” comments Celano who refers to the episode, “is the true religion that he embraced, the Kingdom of Heaven and the hidden treasure that he sought.” [iv]

Francis did not wed poverty or even the poor; he wed Christ and it was for love of him that he wed, so to speak “in second nuptials” Lady Poverty. It will always be so in Christian holiness. At the base of love of poverty and of the poor, there is either love of Christ, or the poor will be instrumentalized in one way or another and poverty will easily become a polemical event against the Church, or a display of greater perfection in regard to others in the Church, as happened also, unfortunately, with some of the Poverello’s followers. In either case, poverty becomes one of the worst forms of wealth, that of one’s own righteousness.

2. Francis and the Reform of the Church

How was it that from such an interior and personal event as was the conversion of the young Francis, a movement got underway that changed the face of the Church of his time and has had such a strong effect in history up to our days?

It is necessary to look at the situation of the time. In Francis’ time the reform of the Church was a need acknowledged more or less by all. The body of the Church experienced tensions and profound lacerations. On one side was the institutional Church – Pope, Bishops, high clergy – worn out by perennial conflicts and by its very close alliance with the empire. A Church seen as distant, involved in matters far beyond the interests of the people. Then there were the great Religious Orders, often flourishing because of their culture and spirituality after the various reforms of the 11thcentury, among them the Cistercians, but fatally identified with the great land proprietors, the feudal lords of the time, near and at the same time remote from the problems and tenor of life of the common people.

On the opposite side there was a society that began to emigrate from the countryside to the city in search of greater freedom from the different servitudes. This part of society identified the Church with the dominant classes from which they felt the need to free themselves. Because of this they would gladly line up with those that contradicted her and combatted her: heretics, radical and poverty movements, while they sympathized with the lower clergy often not at the spiritual height of the prelates but closer to the people.

There were, therefore, strong tensions that everyone sought to exploit to their advantage. The Hierarchy sought to respond to these tensions by improving its organization and suppressing the abuses, both within itself (fighting simony and the concubinage of priests), and without, in the society. The hostile groups sought instead to have the tensions explode, radicalizing the contrast with the Hierarchy, giving rise to more or less schismatic movements. All of them raised against the Church the ideal of evangelical poverty and simplicity, making of it a polemical weapon, more than a spiritual ideal to be lived in humility, going so far as putting in dispute the ordained ministry of the Church, the priesthood and the papacy.

We are used to seeing Francis as the providential man who picks up these popular instances of renewal, to defuse them from every controversial charge and relates them or carries them out in the Church in profound communion and in subjection to her – Francis, therefore, as a sort of mediator between the rebellious heretics and the institutional Church. In a well-known manual of the history of the Church, his mission is presented thus:

“Given that the wealth and power of the Church seemed often a source of grave evils, and the heretics of the time furnished arguments for the main accusations against her, in some pious souls the noble desire was awakened to revive the poor life of Christ and of the primitive Church, and thus be able to influence the people more effectively by word and example.” [v]

Placed naturally in the first place among these souls, together with Saint Dominic, is Francis of Assisi. The Protestant historian Paul Sabatier, so meritorious of Franciscan studies, has rendered almost canonical among historians, and not only among the lay and Protestant, the thesis according to which Cardinal Ugolino (the future Gregory IX) intended to seize Francis for the Curia, domesticating the critical and revolutionary charge of his movement. In practice it was the attempt to make Francis a precursor of Luther, that is a reformer by way of criticism, rather than holiness.  

I do not know if this intention can be attributed to one of Francis’ great protectors and friends. It seems difficult to attribute it to Cardinal Ugolino and even less so to Innocent III, of whom is noted the reforming action and the support given to several new forms of spiritual life that arose at his time, including in fact the Friars Minor, the Dominicans, the Milanese Humiliati. In any case, one thing is absolutely certain: that intention never crossed Francis’ mind. He never thought of being called to reform the Church.

It is necessary to be careful and not come to mistaken conclusions from the famous words of the Crucifix of San Damiano, “Go, Francis and repair my Church that, as you see, is in ruins.” The sources themselves assure us that he understood those words in the rather modest sense of having to repair materially the little church of San Damiano.

It was his disciples and biographers that interpreted – and, it must be said, rightly so – those words as referring to the institutional Church and not only to the church building. He remained always with his literal interpretation and in fact he continued to repair other small churches that were in ruins in the outskirts of Assisi.

Even the dream in which Innocent III saw the Poverello sustaining with his back the falling Church of the Lateran does not say anything more. Supposing that the event is historical (a similar event is narrated in fact also in regard to Saint Dominic), the dream was the Pope’s, not Francis’! He never saw himself as we see him today in Giotto’s frescoes. This is what it means to be a reformer by way of holiness, being so without knowing it!

3. Francis and the Return to the Gospel

If he did not wish to be a reformer, what then did Francis want to be and do? In regard to this we also have the good fortune of having the direct testimony of the Saint in his Testament:

“And after the Lord gave me friars, no one showed me what I should do; but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I must live according to the way of the holy Gospel. And I with few words and simply, had it written, and the Lord Pope confirmed it to me.”

He alludes to the moment in which, during a Mass, he heard the passage of the Gospel where Jesus sends his disciples: “He sent them out to preach the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick. And he said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, no bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics” (Luke 9:2-3). [vi] It was a dazzling revelation of those that give direction to a whole life. From that day on his mission was clear: a simple and radical return to the real Gospel lived and preached by Jesus. To restore in the world the way and style of life of Jesus and of the Apostles described in the Gospels. Writing the Rule for his friars, he began thus: “The Rule and life of the friars is this, namely to observe the holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

Francis did not theorize his discovery, making it a program for the reform of the Church. He fulfilled the reform in himself and thus pointed out tacitly to the Church the only way to come out of the crisis: to draw near again to the Gospel, to draw near again to men and, in particular, to the humble and the poor.

This return to the Gospel is reflected first of all in Francis’ preaching. It is surprising, but everyone noted it: the Poverello speaks almost always of “doing penance.” Henceforth, narrates Celano, he began to preach penance with great fervor and exultance, edifying all with the simplicity of his word and the magnificence of his heart. Wherever he went, Francis said, recommended, implored that they do penance. [vii]

What did Francis intend with this word which he had so much at heart? On this matter we fell (at least I fell for a long time) into error. We reduced Francis’ message to a simple moral exhortation, to a beating of the breast, afflicting and mortifying oneself to expiate sins, while it has all the vastness and breath of the Gospel of Christ. Francis did not exhort to do “penances,” but to do “penance” (in the singular!) which, we will see, is altogether another thing.

With the exception of a few cases that we know, the Poverello wrote in Latin. And what do we find in the Latin text of his Testament when he writes: “The Lord gave me, friar Francis, to begin thus to do penance”? We find the expression “poenitentiam agere.” It is known that he loved to express himself with the very words of Jesus. And that word – to do penance – is the word with which Jesus began to preach and that he repeated in every city and village where he went:

“After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).

The word that today is translated as “be converted” or “repent,” in the text of the Vulgate used by the Poverello sounded as “poenitemini” and in Acts 2:37 yet more literally “poenitentiam agite,” do penance. Francis did nothing other than re-launch the great appeal to conversion with which Jesus’ preaching is opened in the Gospel and that of the Apostles on the day of Pentecost. What he meant by conversion he did not need to explain: his whole life showed it.

Francis did in his time what was intended at the time of Vatican Council II with the motto: “pull down the bastions”: break the isolation of the Church and bring her back to contact with the people. One of the factors of the obscuring of the Gospel was the transformation of authority understood as service, to authority understood as power, which produced infinite conflicts within and outside the Church. Francis resolved the problem on his own in an evangelical sense. In his Order, an absolute novelty, the Superiors would be called ministers, that is, servants, and all the other friars, namely, brothers.

Another wall of separation between the Church and the people was the science and culture of which the clergy and monks had, in practice, a monopoly. Francis knew this and that is why he took the drastic position that we know on this point. He was not concerned with science-knowledge, but with science-power; that which privileged one who could read over one who could not read and allowed him to command his brother haughtily: “Bring me the Breviary!” During the famous chapter of the reed mats he answered some of his friars, who wanted to push him to adapt himself to the attitude of the learned “Orders” of the time, with words of fire that, we read, left the friars penetrated by fear:

“Brothers, my brothers, God has called me to walk on the path of simplicity and he showed it to me. Hence I do not want you to mention to me other Rules, not that of Saint Augustine, not that of Saint Bernard or of Saint Benedict. The Lord revealed to me his wish that I be a madman in the world: this is the science to which God wants us to dedicate ourselves! He will confound you through your very science and learning.” [viii]

He always had the same coherent attitude. He wanted for himself and his friars the most rigid poverty, but, in the Rule, he exhorts them “not to show contempt and to judge the men that they see dressed in soft and colorful clothes and using delicate food and drinks, but rather each one should judge and despise himself.” [ix] Choose to be an illiterate, but do not condemn science. Once he was assured that science would not extinguish “the spirit of holy prayer and devotion,” he himself allowed friar Anthony (the future St. Anthony of Padua) to dedicate himself to teaching theology and Saint Bonaventure did not believe he was betraying the spirit of the founder, opening the Order to studies in the great universities.

Yves Congar sees in this one of the essential conditions of “true reform” in the Church, the reform, that is, that remains such and is not transformed into schism: in other words, the capacity not to absolutize one’s intuition, but to remain in communion with the whole that is the Church. [x] The conviction, says Pope Francis in his recent Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, that “the whole is greater than the part.”

3. How to Imitate Francis

What does Francis’ experience say to us today? What can we all imitate of him right now? Be it those that God calls to reform the Church by the way of holiness, be it those who feel called to renew her by way of criticism, be it those who he himself calls to reform her by way of the office that they hold? The same thing from which Francis’ spiritual adventure began: his conversion from the I to God, his denial of self. It is thus that true reformers are born, those who really change something in the Church, people who are dead to themselves. Better still, those who decide seriously to die to themselves, because it is an enterprise that lasts the whole of life and also beyond, if, as Saint Teresa of Avila said jokingly, our self-love dies 20 minutes after us.

Silvanus of Mount Athos, a holy Orthodox monk, said: “To be truly free, it is necessary to begin to bind oneself.” Men such as these are free with the freedom of the Spirit; nothing stops them and nothing frightens them anymore. They become reformers by way of holiness, and not only by way of office.

But what does Jesus’ proposal mean to deny oneself? Can it still be proposed to a world that speaks only of self-realization, self-affirmation? Denial is never an end in itself, or an ideal in itself. The most important thing is positive: If one wants to follow me; it is the following of Christ, to possess Christ. To say no to oneself is the means; to say yes to Christ is the end. Paul represents it as a sort of law of thespirit: “If with the help of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live” (Romans 8:13). This, as we see, is a dying to live; it is the opposite of the philosophical vision according to which human life is “a living to die” (Heidegger).

It is about knowing which foundation we want to give to our existence: if our “I” or “Christ”; in Paul’s language, if we wish to live “for ourselves” or “for the Lord” (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:15; Romans 14:7-8). To live “for oneself” means to live for one’s own comfort, one’s own glory, one’s own advancement; to live “for the Lord” means to always put in the first place, in our intentions, the glory of Christ, the interests of the Kingdom and of the Church. Every “no,” small or big, said to oneself out of love, is a yes said to Christ.

We must avoid deluding ourselves. It is not about knowing everything about Christian denial, its beauty and necessity; it is about passing to the act, to practice it. A great ancient spiritual teacher said: “It is possible to break ten times one’s will in a very brief time; and I will tell you how. One is strolling and sees something; his thought tells him: “Look there,” but he answers his thought: “no, I will not look,” and thus he breaks his own will. Then he meets others who are talking evil about someone and his thought tells him: “You, too, say what you know,” and he breaks his will by being silent,” [xi]

This ancient Father gives, as we see, all examples drawn from the monastic life. But they can be easily updated and adapted to the life of each one, clergy and laity. You encounter, if not a leper as Francis, a poor man that you know will ask you for something; your old man pushed you to go to the opposite side of the street, but, instead, you do violence to yourself and go to meet him, perhaps giving him only a greeting or a smile, if you cannot do more. You are given the occasion for an illicit profit: you say no and you have denied yourself. You are contradicted in an idea; wounded in your pride, you want to fight back energetically, be silent and wait: you will have broken your I. You think you have received a wrong, a mistreatment or an office inadequate to your merits: you would like to have everyone note it, closing yourself in a tacit reproof. You say no, you break the silence, smile and reopen the dialogue. You have denied yourself and saved charity. And so on.

A sign that one is at a good point of the struggle against one’s I is the capacity or at least the effort to rejoice for the good done or the promotion received by another, as if it were for oneself.

“Blessed is that servant,” writes Francis in one of his Admonitions, “who does not become proud over the good that the Lord says and works through him more than for the good that He says and does through another.”

A difficult aim (I certainly do not speak about it as one who has arrived there) but Francis’ life has showed us what can be born from the denial of oneself made in response to grace. The final aim is to be able to say with Paul and with him: “It is no longer I who live, Christ lives in me.” And it will mean full joy and peace, already on this earth. With his “perfect happiness” Francis is a living witness to “the joy of the Gospel”, the Evangelii gaudium.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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i Y. Congar, True and False Reform of the Church, Milan, Jaka Books, 1972, p. 194.

ii Celano, Vita Prima, VOO, 17 (FF 348).

iii Cf. Celano, Vita Seconda, V, 9 (FF592).

iv Cf. Celano, Vita Prima, III, 7 (FF, 331).

v Bihhmeyer – Tuckle, II, p. 239.

vi Legend of the Three Companions, VIII (FF 1431, f.).

vii FF, 358; 1436 f.; 1508.

viii Legenda perugina 114 (FF 1673).

ix Sealed Rule, chapter II.

x On the conditions of a true reform see Congar, op, cit., pp. 177 ff.

xi Dorotheus of Gaza, Spiritual Works, I, 20 (SCH 92, p. 177).