This week we resume the happy task of printing a bulletin for the people of St. Mary’s. The hope was to use an image featuring Our Lady. This year, however, the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time falls on October 4, pre-empting the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, an especially beloved Catholic saint among both Catholics and non-Christians. Is it possible to honor both?
Like many of the Saints, Francis was drawn to a life of pleasure in his youth. Born Giovanni to a wealthy Italian silk merchant and his French wife, the renamed “Francis” indulged in a life of pleasure, trade, and revelry with his companions, and even entered the military for a time. During his convalescence after a battle, he reflected on his life, which seemed increasingly rootless and shallow. So began an interior conversion inspired by the example of the saints and the paradox of the Gospel (receiving in giving, light in darkness, love in loving, life in death, etc.). The rest of the story is familiar (the vision in San Damiano, his renunciation of wealth, the dream of Pope Innocent III, the repairing of the Portiuncula, preaching to the birds, the stigmata, etc.).
Again, like most of the saints, Francis both captured the spirit of his time and held it up for critique. The 13th century saw the Church meet an external foe—Islam—in the Crusades. It also faced an internal struggle with the Albigensian heresy, a doctrine that, in a nutshell, denied the goodness of the created world. According to Fr. Sean Connolly (Catholic World Report) St. Francis took the insane risk of crossing enemy lines and shouting for an audience with the Muslim leader. He was presented to Malik al-Kamil, the Sultan of Egypt, who was impressed by his gentleness and courage. What ensued is a subject of debate, but it seems as though each explained the essence of his faith to the other. Catholics will say that the sultan wanted to convert but found himself in an impossible situation, while St. Francis declined to accept the gifts of his host. The sultan apparently did prevail upon him to accept a horn for calling people to worship: a gift that Francis himself might have used. As for the threat of Albigensianism, Francis infused his preaching about the goodness and beauty of creation with the spirit of poverty, which frees people from attachment to material things.
Fortunately, we can honor both the Blessed Mother and “God’s Troubadour” with the Vision of Saint Francis in the Portiuncula by Bartolome Esteban Murillo (c. 1675), presently residing in the Palacio Real in Madrid. According to the Prado Museum, “Murillo used the flowers, angels, clouds and light to create a link between everyday reality and the space in which the miracle took place.” It’s wonderful to see how the artist connects the ordinary with the extraordinary, so as to express a connection between the divine world and its concrete reflection.
Visiting Assisi once, I remember that St. Francis drew the greatest affection from the non-Christians. Who cares, they said, “what Francis accomplished? His joy in creation is beautiful!” A wise man once wrote that, beauty has no identifiable “purpose”; rather, it “captures the moral order of the universe.” Once again we see how, in God, goodness and beauty are one.