Flavor of the month


by Father Cantalamessa.

Natale (19)a

3rd Avent Meditation

The Mystery of the Incarnation
Contemplated Through Francis of Assisi’s Eyes

ROME, December 20, 2013 (Zenit.org) – Here is a translation of the third and final Advent sermon by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the pontifical household. Father Cantalamessa gave the sermon today, continuing with his theme for this Advent, which has been St. Francis of Assisi. Today’s reflection is titled “The Mystery of the Incarnation Contemplated through Francis of Assisi’s Eyes.”

1. Greccio and the Institution of the Crib

We all know Francis’ story at Greccio where, three years before his death, he initiated the Christmas tradition of the Crib, but it is good to recall it for the highest leaders in this circumstance.  Well, Celano wrote:

“About two weeks before the feast of the Nativity, Blessed Francis called a man named John to himself and said to him: ‘If you would like us to celebrate Jesus’ day of birth at Greccio, precede me and prepare all that I tell you: I would like to represent the babe born at Bethlehem , and in some way see with my bodily eyes the hardships in which he found himself because of the lack of necessary things for a newborn, as he was laid in a manger  and how he was lying on the hay between the ox and the donkey.’ […] And the day of gladness arrived. Francis put on the diaconal vestments as he was a deacon, and sang the holy Gospel with a resounding voice: that strong and sweet voice, limpid and sonorous enraptured all with desires of Heaven. Then he spoke to the people and with very sweet words called to mind the poor newborn King and the little town of Bethlehem. “[1]

The importance of the episode does not lie so much in the fact itself or in the spectacular following it had in the Christian tradition; it lies in the novelty that it reveals of the Saint’s understanding of the mystery of the Incarnation. The excessive unilateral insistence, at times downright obsessive, on the ontological aspects of the Incarnation, (nature, person, hypostatic union, communication of languages) had often made one lose from view the true nature of the Christian mystery, reducing it to a speculative mystery, to be formulated with ever more rigorous categories, but far removed from the capacity of the people.

Francis of Assisi helps us to integrate the ontological vision of the Incarnation, with the more existential and religious vision. In fact, it does not only matter to know that God became man, it is important to know also what type of man he became. Significant is the different and complementary way in which John and Paul describe the event of the Incarnation. For John it consists in the fact that the Word who was God was made flesh (cf. John 1:1-14); for Paul it consists in the fact that “Christ, being of divine nature, took the form of a servant and he humbled himself and became obedient unto death” (cf. Philippians 2:5 ff.). For John, the Word, being God, became man; for Paul “Christ, though he was rich became poor” (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:9).

Francis of Assisi is placed in the line of Saint Paul. More than on the ontological reality of the humanity of Christ (in which he believed firmly with the whole Church), he insisted , to the point of being overwhelming, on the humility and poverty of his humanity. The sources say that two things had the power to movehim to tears every time he heard talk about them: “the humility of the Incarnation and the charity of the Passion.”[2] “He could not think about the great penury, in which the poor Virgin found herself that day, without weeping. Once, when he was seated for lunch, a brother reminded him of the poverty of the Blessed Virgin and the indigence of Christ her Son. He rose from the table immediately, broke out in sobs of grief and, with his face bathed in tears, ate the rest of the bread on the naked ground.”[3]

Thus Francis gave back “flesh and blood” to the mysteries of Christianity, often “disincarnated” and reduced to concepts and syllogisms in theological schools and books. A German scholar has seen in Francis the one who has created the conditions for the birth of modern Renaissance art , in as much as it sets free sacred persons and events from the stylized rigidity of the past and confers on them concreteness and life.[4]

2. Christmas and the Poor

The distinction between the fact of the Incarnation and the way of it, between its ontological and its existential dimension, is of interest to us because it casts a singular light on the present-day problem of poverty and the attitude of Christians to it. It helps to give a biblical and theological foundation to the preferential option for the poor, proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council. If, indeed, by the fact of the Incarnation, the Word has, in a certain sense, assumed every man, as certain Fathers of the Church said, because of the way in which the Incarnation happened, the Word assumed, in an altogether particular claim, the poor, the humble, the suffering to the point of identifying himself with them.

In the poor there is certainly not the same kind of presence of Christ that there is in the Eucharist and in the other Sacraments, but it is a presence that is also true, “real.” He “instituted” this sign, as he instituted the Eucharist. He who pronounced over the bread the words: “This is my Body,” said these same words also of the poor. He said them when, saying what had been done or not done, for the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner, the naked and the exiled, he declared solemnly: “You did it to me” and “You did not do it to me.” This, in fact, is the same as saying: “I was that wounded person in need of some bread, that old man who was dying stiff with cold on the sidewalk!” “The Conciliar Fathers,” wrote Jean Guitton, lay observer at Vatican II, “have rediscovered the sacrament of poverty, the presence of Christ under the species of those who suffer.”[5]

The poor person is also a “vicar of Christ,” one who takes the place of Christ, Vicar, in the passive not the active sense. Not in the sense, that is, that what the poor person does is as if Christ did it, but in the sense that what is done to the poor person is as if it were done to Christ. It is true, as Saint Leo the Great wrote, that after the Ascension, ”all that was visible in our Lord Jesus Christ has passed into the sacramental signs of the Church,”[6] but it is equally true that, from the existential point of view it has also passed onto the poor and onto all those of whom he said: “you did it to me.”

Let us draw the consequence that derives from all this on the plane of ecclesiology. On the occasion of the Council, John XXIII coined the expression “Church of the poor.”[7] It has a meaning that goes, perhaps, beyond that which is understood at first sight. The Church of the poor is not constituted only by the poor of the Church! In a certain sense, all the poor of the world, whether they are baptized or not, belong to her. Their poverty and suffering is their baptism of blood. If Christians are those who have been “baptized into the death of Christ” (Romans 6:3), who in fact is more baptized than they are in the death of Christ?

How can they not be considered, in some way, Church of Christ, if Christ himself has declared them his body? They are “Christians,” not because they declare themselves as belonging to Christ, but because Christ has declared them as belonging to himself: “You did it to me!” If there is a case in which the controversial expression “anonymous Christians” can have a plausible application, it is in fact this one of the poor.

Hence, the Church of Christ is immensely vaster than what the current statistics say. Not by simply saying this, but truly, really. None of the founders of religions has identified himself with the poor as Jesus did. No one has proclaimed: “All that you did to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40), where the “least brother” does not indicate only a believer in Christ but, as all admit, every man.

Deriving from this is that the Pope, Vicar of Christ, is truly the “Father of the poor,” the shepherd of this immense flock, and it is a joy and a stimulation for all Christian people to see how much this role has been taken to heart by the last Supreme Pontiffs and in an altogether particular way, by the shepherd who sits today on Peter’s Chair. He is the most authoritative voice that is raised in their defense, the voice of those who do not have a voice. He certainly has not “forgotten the poor”!

What the Pope wrote, in the recent Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, on the necessity not to remain indifferent in face of the tragedy of poverty in today’s globalized world, brings an image to my mind. We tend to put double glazing between us and the poor. The effect of double glazing, so exploited today in the building industry, is that it impedes the passage of cold, of heat, of noise, it dilutes everything, it deadens and muffles everything. And in fact we see the poor move, agitated, screaming behind the television screen, on the pages of newspapers and missionary magazines, but their cry reaches us as if from very far away. It does not penetrate our heart. I say it to my own embarrassment and shame. The word: “the poor!” arouses in rich countries what the cry “the barbarians” aroused in ancient Romans: disconcert, panic. They were anxious to build walls and send armies to the border to keep them at bay; we do the same thing in other ways. But history says that it is all useless.

We cry and protest – and rightly so! – for the children who are impeded from being born, but should we not do as much for the millions of children born and left to die from hunger, sicknesses, children constrained to engage in war and kill one another for interests of which we in rich countries are not strangers? Might it not be because they belong to our continent and have our same color, while the latter belong to another continent and have a different color? We protest – and more than justly! – for the elderly, the sick, the malformed who are helped (sometimes pushed) to die with euthanasia, but should we not do as much for the elderly who die frozen from cold or abandoned alone to their fate? The laissez-fare law of “live and let live” should never be transformed into the law of “live and let die,” as is instead happening in the whole world.

The natural law is certainly holy, but precisely to have the strength to observe it we need to start from faith in Jesus Christ. Saint Paul wrote: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son” (Romans 8:3). With their customs, the early Christians helped the State to change their laws; we Christians of today cannot do the contrary and think that it is the State with its laws that must change people’s customs.

3. Love, Help, Evangelize the Poor

The first thing to do, therefore, in relation to the poor, is to break the double glazing, to overcome our indifference and insensibility. As the Pope in fact exhorts us, we must become “aware” of the poor, allow ourselves to be gripped by a healthy anxiety over their presence in our midst, often two steps from our home. What we should do concretely for them, can be summarized in three words: love them, help them, and evangelize them.

Love the poor. Love for the poor is one of the most common traits of Catholic holiness. In Saint Francis himself, as we saw in the first meditation, love for the poor, beginning from the poor Christ, comes before love of poverty and it was that which led him to marry poverty. For some Saints, such as Vincent de Paul, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and countless others, love for the poor was in fact their way to holiness, their charism.

To love the poor means first of all to respect them and recognize their dignity. In them, precisely because of the lack of other titles and secondary distinctions, the radical dignity of the human being shines in them in a more vivid light. In a Christmas homily given at Milan, Cardinal Montini said: “The complete vision of human life under the light of Christ sees in a poor person something more than a needy one; he sees a brother mysteriously clothed in a dignity, which obliges to render him reverence, to receive him with solicitude, to sympathize with him beyond merit.”[8]

However, the poor not only merit our commiseration; they also merit our admiration. They are the true champions of humanity. Every year cups, and gold, silver and bronze medals are distributed for merit or to the memory of someone or to winners of competitions. And perhaps only because they were able to run in a fraction of a second less than another 100, 200 or 400 meters over obstacles, and to jump a centimeter higher than others, or win a marathon or a slalom competition.

Yet if one were to observe what mortal jumps, what resistance, what slalom the poor are sometimes capable of, and not once but their whole life, the records of the most famous athletes would seem child’s play. What is a marathon in comparisons, for instance, with a rickshaw-man of Calcutta, who at the end of his life has done on foot the equivalent of several tours around the world, in the most enervating heat, pulling one or two passengers, through disordered streets, between holes and puddles, wriggling between one car and another not to have himself overturned?

Francis of Assisi helps us to discover an even stronger motive to love the poor: the fact that they are not simply our “fellow men” or our “neighbor”: they are our brothers! Jesus said: “You have one Father who is in Heaven and you are all brethren” (cf. Matthew 23:8-9), but this word was understood up to then as addressed only to the disciples. In the Christian tradition, brother in the strict sense is only one who shares the same faith and has received the same Baptism.

Francis takes up Christ’s word and gives it a universal significance which is certainly that which Jesus also had in mind.  Francis truly put “the whole world in the state of brotherhood.”[9] He calls not only his friars and companion in the faith brothers, but also lepers, brigands, Saracens, that is, believers and non-believers, the good and bad, above all the poor. He extends the concept of brother and sister  -and this is absolute novelty – also to inanimate creatures: the sun, the moon, the earth, water, and finally death. This, evidently, is more poetry than theology. The Saint knew well that between them and human creatures, made in the image of God, there is the same difference that there is between the son of an artist and the works created by him. But it is because the Poverello’s sense of fraternity is boundless.

This issue of brotherhood is the specific contribution that the Christian faith can make to reinforce peace in the world and the struggle against poverty, as the theme of the next World Day of Peace suggests: “Fraternity, Foundation and Path for Peace.” Thinking well, it is the only true  foundation. What sense is there in fact to speak of fraternity and human solidarity, if one begins from a certain scientific vision of the world which admits, as the only forces in action in the world, “chance and necessity”? In other words, if one begins from a philosophical vision such as that of Nietzsche, according to whom the world is only will to power and any attempt to oppose this is only a sign of the resentment of the weak against the strong”? Those are right who say that “if being is only chaos and strength, action that seeks peace and justice is destined inevitably to remain without foundation.”[10] What is lacking in this case is a sufficient reason to oppose unbridled laissez-fare and the “inequity” energetically criticized by the Pope in the Exhortation Evangelii gaudium.

To the duty of loving and respecting the poor there follows that of helping them. Here Saint James comes to our aid. Of what profit, he says, is it to be moved to pity before a brother or a sister lacking clothes and food and saying to them: “Poor thing, how you suffer! Go, be warmed and filled!” and you do not give them anything of which they are in need to warm themselves and be nourished? Compassion, like faith, is dead without works (cf. James 2:15-17). In his judgment, Jesus will not say to us: “I was naked and you had compassion for me,” but “I was naked and you clothed me.” It is not about getting angry with God in face of the misery of the world, but with ourselves. One day, seeing a small girl shivering with cold and crying from hunger, a man was seized by a feeling of rebellion and shouted: “O God, where are you? Why don’t you do something for that innocent creature?” But an interior voice responded: “I certainly have done something. I have made you!” And he understood immediately.

Today, however, simple alms are not enough. The problem of poverty has become global. When the Fathers of the Church spoke about the poor they were thinking of the poor of their city, or at most those of the neighboring city. They virtually did not know anything else,  and on the other hand, even if they had known it, it would have been difficult to bring aid in a society such as theirs. Today we know that alms is not enough, even though nothing dispenses us from doing what we can also at the individual level.

The example of so many men and women of our time shows us that there are so many things that can be done to help — each one according to his means and possibilities  — to help the poor and to promote their uplifting. Speaking of the “cry of the poor” in Evangelica testificatio, Paul VI said in particular to us Religious: “It induces certain ones among you to reach the poor in their condition, to share their piercing anxieties. On the other hand, it invites not a few of your institutes to reconvert certain of their works in favor of the poor.”[11]

To eliminate or reduce the unjust and scandalous abyss that exists between the rich and the poor in the world is the most urgent and most immense task that the millennium that concluded a short while ago consigned to the new millennium which we have entered. Let’s hope that it will not be again the number one problem that the present millennium leaves in inheritance to the next one.

Finally, to evangelize the poor. This was the mission that Jesus recognized as his par excellence: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18) and that he indicated as a sign of the presence of the Kingdom to the emissaries of the Baptist: “and the poor have good news preached to them (Matthew 11:5). We must not allow our bad conscience to push us to commit the enormous injustice of depriving of the good news those who are the first and more natural recipients of it, adducing, perhaps, as our excuse, the proverb that “a hungry stomach has no ears.”

Jesus multiplies the loaves of bread and at the same time the word, in fact first he administered, sometimes for three days in a row, the Word and then he would be concerned also with the bread. Not from bread alone does the poor man live, but also from the hope and from every word that comes from the mouth of God. The poor have the sacrosanct right to hear the integral Gospel, not in a reduced or polemical edition; the Gospel that speaks of love to the poor, but not of hatred for the rich.

4. Joy in Heaven and Joy on Earth

We end on another tone. For Francis of Assisi, Christmas was not only the occasion to weep about Christ’s poverty; it was also the feast that had the power to make explode all the capacity of joy that was in his heart, and it was immense. At Christmas he literally did foolish things.

“On this day he wanted the poor and beggars to be satiated by the rich, and that the oxen and the donkeys receive a more abundant ration of food and hay more than usually. If I could speak to the emperor – he said – I would implore him to issue a general edict, so that  all those who do have the possibility, strew wheat and grain on the roads, so that on a day of such solemnity the birds, and particularly the sister skylarks, have it in abundance.”[12]

He would become like one of those children whose eyes are full of wonder before the Crib. During the Christmas function at Greccio, recounts his biographer, when he spoke the name “Bethlehem“ he would fill his mouth with sound and even more with tender affection, producing a sound like the bleat of a sheep. And every time he said “Babe of Bethlehem” or “Jesus,” he would lick his lips, almost as to relish and retain all the sweetness of those words.

There is a Christmas song that expresses to perfection Saint Francis’ sentiments before the Crib, and this does not astonish us if we think that it was written, words and music, by a Saint like him, Saint Alphonsus Mary Liguori. Listening to it in the Christmas season, let us be moved by its simple but essential message:

From starry skies descending,
Thou comest, glorious King,
A manger low Thy bed,
In winter’s icy sting;
O my dearest Child most holy,
Shudd’ring, trembling in the cold!
Thou art the world’s Creator,
Yet here no robe, no fire
For Thee, Divine Lord.
Dearest, fairest, sweetest Infant,
Dire this state of poverty.
The more I care for Thee,
Since Thou, o Love Divine,
Will’st now so poor to be.

Holy Father, Venerable Fathers, brothers and sisters, Happy Christmas!

1 Celano, Vita Prima, 84-86 (Franciscan Sources, 468-470).
2 Ib. 30, (FF 467).
3 Celano, Vita Seconda, 151 (FF 788).
4 H. Thode, Franz von Assisi und die Anfange der Kunst des Renaissamce in Italien, Berlin 1885.
5 J. Guitton, quoted by R. Gil, Presence of the Poor in the Council, in “Proyeccion” 48, 1966, p. 30.
6 St. Leo the Great, Discourse 2 on the Ascension, 2 (PL 54, 398).
7 In AAS 54, 1962, p. 682.
8 Cf. The Jesus of Paul VI, published by V. Levi, Milan 1985, p. 61.
9 P. Damien Vorreux, Saint Francois d’Assise, Documents, Paris 1968, p. 36.10 V. Mancuso, in La Repubblica, Friday, October 4, 2013.
11 Paul VI, Evangelica testificatio, 18 (Ench. Vatican 4, p. 651).
12 Celano, Vita Seconda, 151 (FF 787-788).

St. François

 2nd Advent Meditation

ROME, December 13, 2013 (Zenit.org) – Here is a translation of the second Advent sermon by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the pontifical household. Father Cantalamessa gave the sermon today, continuing with last week’s reflection on St. Francis of Assisi. Today’s reflection is titled “Humility as Truth and Service in Francis of Assisi.”

Francis of Assisi’s Humility

1. Objective and Subjective Humility

Last time we saw that Francis of Assisi is a living demonstration that the most useful reform of the Church is that of the way of holiness, which always consists in a courageous return to the Gospel and which must begin from oneself. In this second meditation I would like to reflect further on an aspect of the return to the Gospel, a virtue of Francis. According to Dante Alighieri, all the glory of Francis depends on his “having made himself little,”[1] namely, on his humility. However, in what did Saint Francis’ proverbial humility consist?

In all the languages the Bible has gone through to reach us, namely Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English, the word “humility” has two fundamental meanings: one objective, which indicates in fact lowliness, littleness or poverty and one subjective, which indicates the feelingand recognition that one has of one’s own littleness. The latter is what we understand by the virtue of humility.

When Mary says in the Magnificat: “He has regarded the humility (tapeinosis) of his handmaid,” she means humility in the objective sense, not the subjective! Because of this, very appropriately the term is translated in many languages as “littleness”, not as humility. Moreover, how can one think that Mary exalts her humility and attributes God’s choice to it without by that fact alone destroying Mary’s humility? And yet at times it has been written rashly that Mary does not recognize in herself any virtue other than that of humility, as if, in this way, she did herself a great honor, and not instead a great wrong to this virtue.

The virtue of humility has an altogether special statute: it is possessed by those who think they do not  have it, and it is not possessed by those who think they have it. Jesus alone can declare himself “lowly of heart” and truly be so; this, we will see, is the unique and unrepeatable characteristic of the humility of the Man-God. Did Mary, therefore, not have the virtue of humility? She certainly did have it, and to the highest degree, but only God knew this, she did not. Precisely this, in fact, constitutes the unequaled merit, of true humility: that its perfume is received only by God, not by the one who emanates it. Saint Bernard wrote: “The true humble person wants to be regarded as vile, not proclaimed humble.”[2]

Francis’ humility is in this line. In this regard, The Little Flowers refer to a significant episode and, in its core, certainly historical.

“Once when Saint Francis was returning from the forest and from prayer, being on the way out of the forest, the one called Friar Masseo wanted to test how humble he was, and encountering him he said almost provocatively: “Why to you, why to you, why to you?” Saint Francis answered: “What is it that you want to say?” Friar Masseo said: “I say why does the whole world follow you, and every person seems to want to see you, to hear you, and to obey you? You are not a good looking man in body, you are not of great learning, you are not noble, why then does everyone want to follow you?” Hearing this, Saint Francis, altogether overjoyed in spirit […] turned to Friar Masseo and said: “Do you want to know why me? Do you want to know why me? Do you want to know why the whole world follows me? This I learned that the most holy eyes of God did not see among sinners any one more vile, more insufficient, or a greater sinner than me.”[3]

2. Humility as Truth

Francis’ humility has two sources of illumination, one of a theological nature and one of a Christological nature. Let us reflect on the first. We find in the Bible acts of humility that do not come from man, from the consideration of his misery or his own sin, but which have as their sole reason God and his holiness. Such is Isaiah’s exclamation, “I am a man of unclean lips,” in face of the sudden manifestation of the glory and holiness of God in the Temple (Isaiah 6:5 f); such, also is Peter’s cry to Jesus after the miraculous catch: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8).

We are before essential humility, that of the creature who becomes conscious of himself in the presence of God. As long as a person measures himself with himself, with others or with society, he will never have the exact idea of what he is; he is lacking the measure. “What an infinite accent,” wrote Kierkegaard, “falls on the I the moment it obtains God as measure!”[4] Francis had this humility in an eminent way. A saying that he repeated often was: “What a man is before God, that he is, and nothing more.”[5]

The Little Flowers recount that one night Friar Leo wanted to watch from afar what Francis was doing during his night prayer in the forest of La Verna and from a distance he heard him murmur some words for a long time. The next day the Saint called him and, after having reproved him courteously for having contravened his order, revealed to him the content of his prayer:

“You know, friar sheep of Jesus Christ, that when I was saying those words that you heard, my soul was shown two lights, one of information and knowledge of myself, the other of information and knowledge of the Creator. When I said: Who are you, O most sweet God of mine? Then I was in a light of contemplation, in which I saw the abyss of the infinite goodness and wisdom and power of God; and when I said: Who am I? I was in the light of contemplation, in which I saw the sad depth of my vileness and misery?”[6]

It was what Saint Augustine asked God and which he considered the height of all wisdom: “Noverim me, noverim te. Let me know myself and let me know You; let me know myself to humble myself and let me know You to love You.”[7]

Friar Leo’s episode is certainly embellished, as always in The Little Flowers, but the content corresponds perfectly with the idea that Francis had of himself and of God. Proof of it is the beginning of the Canticle of creatures with the infinite distance that he puts between God, “Most High, Omnipotent, Good Lord,” to whom is owed praise, glory, honor and blessing, and the miserable mortal who is not even worthy of “mentioning,” that is of pronouncing his name.

In this light, which I have called theological, humility appears to us essentially as truth. “I asked myself one day,” wrote Saint Teresa of Avila, “why the Lord so loves humility and suddenly there came to my mind, without any reflection on my part, that it must be because he is total Truth, and humility is truth.”[8]

It is a light that does not humiliate but, on the contrary, gives immense joy and exalts. To be humble in fact does not mean to be unhappy with oneself or to recognize one’s own misery, or even one’s littleness. It is to look at God before oneself and to measure the abyss that separates the finite from the infinite. The more one realizes this, the more one becomes humble. Then one begins to enjoy one’s own nothingness, because it is thanks to it that a face can be offered to God whose littleness and misery has fascinated the heart of the Trinity from eternity.

Angela of Foligno, a great disciple of the Poverello, whom Pope Francis has recently proclaimed Saint, exclaimed when close to death: “O nothingness unknown, O nothingness unknown. The soul cannot have a better vision in this world than to contemplate its nothingness and dwell in it as in a prison cell.”[9] There is a secret in this counsel, a truth that is experienced by testing it. One then discovers that this cell really exists and that one can really enter it every time one wishes. It consists in the quiet and tranquil sentiment of being nothing before God, but a nothing loved by Him!

When one is inside the cell of this luminous prison, one no longer sees one’s neighbor’s defects, or they are seen in another light. One understands that it is possible, with grace and exercise, to realize what the Apostle says, which at first glance seems excessive, namely, to “consider all others better than oneself” (cf. Philippians 2:3), or at least one understands how this was possible for the saints.

To be locked in that prison is, therefore, altogether different from being locked in oneself; instead, it is to open oneself to others, to being, to the objectivity of things, the opposite of what the enemies of Christian humility have always thought. It is to close oneself to egoism, not in egoism. It is the victory over one of the evils that modern psychology also judges ruinous for the human person: narcissism. In that cell, moreover, the enemy does not come in. One day Anthony the Great had a vision; he saw in an instant all the infinite snares of the enemy spread out over the earth and, moaning, he said: “Who then will be able to avoid all these snares?” And he heard a voice answer him: “Anthony, humility!”[10]. “Nothing, writes the author of the Imitation of Christ, will succeed in puffing up one who is firmly fixed in God.”[11]

3. Humility as Service of Love

We have talked about humility as the truth of the creature before God. Paradoxically, however, what most fills Francis’ soul with wonder is not God’s greatness but his humility. In the Praises of God Most High, which are handwritten by him and kept in Assisi, among God’s perfections– “You are Holy, You are Strong. You are Triune and One. You are Love, Charity. You are Wisdom …” — at a certain point Francis inserts an unheard of: “You are humility!” It is not a title put there by mistake. Francis grasped a most profound truth about God which should also fill us with wonder.

God is humility because He is love. In face of human creatures, God finds himself lacking in every capacity not only constrictive but also defensive. If human beings choose, as they have done, to reject his love, He cannot intervene with authority to impose Himself on them. He can do nothing other than respect the free choice of men. One can reject Him, eliminate Him: He will not defend Himself, He will let them do it. Or better, his way of defending himself and of defending men against their very annihilation, will be that of loving again and always, eternally. By its nature love creates dependence and dependence creates humility. So it is, also, mysteriously, in God.

Love furnishes, therefore, the key to understand God’s humility: one needs little power to show off, instead one needs a lot to put oneself aside, to cancel oneself. God is this unlimited power of concealment of himself and as such He reveals himself in the Incarnation. One has the visible manifestation of God’s humility by contemplating Christ who kneels before his disciples to wash their feet – and they were, we can imagine it, dirty feet — and even more so, when, reduced to the most radical impotence on the cross, He continues to love, without ever condemning.

Francis grasped this very close connection between God’s humility and the Incarnation. Here are some of his fiery words:

“Look, he humbles himself every day, as when from the royal seat he descended into the womb of the Virgin; every day He himself comes to us in humble appearance; every day He descends from the bosom of the Father on the altar in the hands of the priest.”[12] “O sublime humility! O humble sublimity, that the Lord of the universe, God and Son of God, so humiliates himself as to hide himself for our salvation, under the little appearance of bread! Look, brothers, at the humility of God and open your hearts before Him.”[13]

Thus we have discovered the second reason for Francis’ humility: the example of Christ. It is the same reason that Paul indicated to the Philippians when he recommended that they have the same sentiments of Christ Jesus who “humbled himself and became obedient unto death” (Philippians 2:5.8). Before Paul, it was Jesus himself who invited the disciples to imitate his humility: “Learn from me, who am gentle and humble in heart!” (Matthew 11:29).

In what thing, we could ask ourselves, does Jesus tell us to imitate his humility? In what was Jesus humble? Running through the Gospels we do not find even the most minimal admission of fault on Jesus’ lips, not when he converses with men, or when he converses with the Father. This – said incidentally — in one of the most hidden but also most convincing proofs, of the divinity of Christ and of the absolute unicity of his conscience. In no saint, in no great one in history and in no founder of religion, does one find such an innocent conscience.

All acknowledge, more or less, having committed some error or of having something to be forgiven, at least by God. Gandhi, for instance, had a very acute awareness of having on some occasions taken erroneous positions; he also had his regrets. Jesus never did. He could say addressing his adversaries: “Which of you convicts me of sin?” (John 8:46). Jesus proclaims he is “Teacher and Lord” (cf. John 13:13), to be more than Abraham, than Moses, than Jonah, than Solomon. Where, then, is Jesus’ humility to be able to say: “learn from me who am humble?”

Here we discover something important. Humility does not consist principally in being little — one can be little without being humble; nor does it consist principally in feeling that oneself is little, because one can feel oneself little and be so really and this would be objectivity, but not yet humility — without counting that feeling oneself little and insignificant could stem from an inferiority complex and lead to withdrawal into oneself and to despair, rather than to humility. Therefore humility, per se, in the most perfect degree, is not in being little, it is not in feeling that oneself is little or proclaiming oneself little. It is in making oneself little, and not out of some necessity or personal utility, but out of love, to “raise” others.

Thus was Jesus’ humility; He made himself so little, in fact, to the point of “annulling” himself for us. Jesus’ humility is the humility that descends from God and that has its supreme model in God, not in man. In the position in which He finds himself, God cannot “elevate himself”; nothing exists above Him. If God comes out of Himself and does something outside the Trinity, this cannot be but a lowering of himself and a making himself little; in other words, He will only be able to be humility, or as some Greek Fathers said, synkatabasis, that is, condescendence.

Saint Francis makes of “Sister Water” the symbol of humility, describing it as “useful, humble, precious and chaste.” Water, in fact, never “elevates” itself, never “ascends,” but always “descends,” until it has reached the lowest point. Steam rises and that is why it is the traditional symbol of pride and vanity; water descends and is, therefore, the symbol of humility.

Now we know what Jesus’ word means: “Learn from me who am humble.” It is an invitation to make oneself little out of love, to wash, as he did, the feet of our brothers. However, in Jesus we also see the seriousness of this choice. It is not in fact about descending and making oneself little every now and then, as a king who, in his generosity, every so often deigns to come down among the people and perhaps, also, to serve them in something. Jesus makes himself “little,” as “he made himself flesh,” that is permanently, to the end. He chooses to belong to the category of the little ones and the humble.

This new face of humility is summarized in one word: service. One day – we read in the Gospel – the disciples discussed among themselves who was “the greatest”; then Jesus, “sat down” (so as to give greater solemnity to the lesson he was about to impart) called the Twelve to himself and said to them: “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). He who wishes to be “first” must be “last,” that is, must descend, must lower himself. But then he explains immediately what he intends by the last: he must be the “servant” of all. The humility proclaimed by Jesus is, therefore, service. In Matthew’s Gospel, this lesson of Jesus is corroborated with an example: “even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:28).

4. A Humble Church

Let us draw some practical considerations on the virtue of humility in all its manifestations, whether in relations with God or in relations with men. We must not be deluded thinking we have attained humility just because the word of God has led us to discover our nothingness and has shown us that it must be translated into fraternal service. The point to which we have attained humility is seen when the initiative passes from us to others, namely when it is no longer we who recognize our defects and wrongs, but others who do so; when we are not only capable of telling ourselves the truth, but also of gladly letting others do so. Prior to acknowledging himself before Friar Matteo as the vilest of men, Francis had accepted, gladly and for a long time, to be derided, held by friends, relatives and the whole country of Assisi as being ungrateful, exalted, one who would never have done anything good in life.

The point we are at in the struggle against pride is seen, in other words, by the way we react, externally or internally, when we are contradicted, corrected, criticized or left aside. To pretend to kill one’s pride by striking it oneself, without anyone intervening from outside, is like using one’s arm to punish oneself: one will never do oneself harm. It is as if a doctor wished to remove a tumor from himself on his own.

When I seek to receive glory from a man for something I say or do, it is almost certain that he who is before me seeks to receive glory from me because of the way he listens and the way he responds. And thus it is that everyone seeks his own glory and no one obtains it and if, perchance, he obtains it, it is nothing but “vainglory,” that is, empty glory, destined to be dissolved in smoke with death. However, the effect is equally terrible; in fact Jesus attributed the impossibility of believing to the search for one’s glory. He said to the Pharisees: “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another, and do not seek the glory that comes from the one God?” (John 5:44).

When we find ourselves snared again in thoughts and aspirations of human glory, we must throw into the mixture of such thoughts, as a burning torch, the word that Jesus himself used and that he left us: “I do not seek my own glory!” (John 8:50). The struggle for humility lasts the whole of life and extends to every aspect of it. Pride is able to nourish itself, be it of evil or good; in fact, as opposed to what happens with every other vice, the good, not the evil, is the preferred terrain of cultivation for this terrible “virus.” The philosopher Pascal wrote wittily:

“Vanity has such deep roots in man’s heart that a soldier, a servant of armies, a cook, a porter, boasts and pretends he has his admirers and the philosophers themselves desire him. And those who write against vainglory aspire to boast of having written well, and those who read them, boast of having read them; and I, who write this, nourish perhaps the same desire; and also, perhaps, those who read me.”[14]

So that man “will not rise up in pride,” God often fixes him to the ground with a sort of anchor; He puts beside him, as He did to Paul, a “messenger of Satan to harass him,” “a thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). We do not know exactly what this “thorn in the flesh” was for the Apostle, but we know well what it is for us! Everyone who wants to follow the Lord and serve the Church has it. They are humiliating situations through which one is recalled constantly, sometimes night and day, to the harsh reality of what we are. It can be a defect, a sickness, a weakness, an impotence, which the Lord leaves us, despite all our supplications; a persistent and humiliating temptation, perhaps, in fact, a temptation of pride; a person with whom one is constrained to live and that, despite the rectitude of both parties, has the power to expose our fragility, to demolish our presumption.

However, humility is not a private virtue. There is a humility that must shine in the Church as institution and people of God. If God is humility, the Church must also be humility; if Christ served, the Church must also serve, and serve out of love. For too long the Church as a whole has represented before the world the truth of Christ, but perhaps she has not represented sufficiently the humility of Christ. Yet it is with humility, better than with any apologetics, that hostilities and prejudices are placated in her confrontations and the way is smoothed for the reception of the Gospel.

There is an episode of Manzoni’s The Betrothed which contains a profound psychological and evangelical truth. Friar Christopher, having finished his novitiate, decided to ask forgiveness publicly to the parents of the man that, before he became a friar, he killed in a duel. The family aligns itself, forming a sort of Caudine Forks, so that the gesture would be the most humiliating possible for the friar and of greatest satisfaction for the family’s pride. But when they saw the young friar proceed with his head bowed, kneeling before the brother of the man killed and asking for forgiveness, the arrogance fell, they were the ones who felt embarrassed and asked for pardon, so that in the end all crowded around the friar to kiss his hand and to commend themselves to his prayers.[15] These are the miracles of humility.

In the prophet Zephaniah God says: “I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord” (Zephaniah 3:12). This word is still timely and perhaps the success of the evangelization in which the Church is committed will depend on it.

Now it is I who, before ending, must remind myself of a saying that was dear to Saint Francis. He usually repeated: “Charles emperor, Orlando, Oliviero, all the paladins reported a glorious and memorable victory … However, there are now many that, only with the telling of their feat, want to receive honors and glory from other men.”[16] He used this example to say that the saints practiced the virtues and that others seek glory only by recounting them.[17]

So that I will not also be of their number, I make an effort to put into practice the counsel given by an ancient desert Father, Isaac of Nineveh, to one who was constrained by the duty to speak of spiritual things, which he had not yet attained in his own life: “Speak, he said, as one who belongs to the class of disciples and not with authority, after having humiliated your soul and making yourself smaller than any of your listeners.” With this spirit, Holy Father, Venerable Fathers, brothers and sisters, I have dared to speak to you of humility.

1 Paradiso XI, 111.
2 St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the Canticle, XVI, 10 (PL 183, 853).
3 Little Flowers, chapter X.
4 S. Kierkegaard, The Mortal Sickness, II, chapter 1, in Works, published by C. Fabro, Sansoni, Florence1972, pp. 662 f.
5 Admonitions, XIX (FF 169); cf. also St. Bonaventure, Major Legend, VI, 1 (FF 1103).
6 Considerations of the Sacred Stigmata, III (FF 1916).
7 St. Augustine, Soliloquies, I. 1, 3; II, 1, 1 (PL 32, 870.885).
8 St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, VI dim., chapter 10.
9 The Book of Blessed Angela of Foligno, Quaracchi, 1985, p. 737.
10 Apophtegmata Patrum, Antonio 7: PG 65, 77.
11 Imitation of Christ, II, chapter 10.
12 Admonitions, I (FF 144).
13 Letter to the Whole Order (FF 221).
14 B. Pascal, Pensees, n. 150 Br.
15 A. Manzoni, The Betrothed, chapter IV.
16 Admonitions VI (FF 155).
17 Celano, Second Life, 72 (FF 1626).

The first Advent meditation

by Father Raniero Cantalamessa

Rome, December 06, 2013 (Zenit.org) 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.”

Francis of Assisi:
the nature of his return to the Gospel

he 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.

1. 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 11th century, 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.”

4. 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 the spirit: “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.

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).