Issue 1 - Tues 06 Oct
A Silver Lining by Richard Leonard SJ
October 4 is the feast of St Francis of Assisi. This year it fell on a Sunday and so was not publically observed. Only ten Solemnities and four feast days are observed when they fall on Sundays. St Francis of Assisi’s day is not one of them.
I am fairly certain the distributors of David Attenborough: A Life for Our Planet did not intentionally time the release of their excellent documentary around October 4, but they could have. Francis is famously the patron saint of animals, the environment and ecologists.
Peter Malone, one of Jesuit Media’s reviewers says of this film: “… David Attenborough is a man of moral stature, a celebrity that the world has welcomed over many years, a man who has invited a world audience to share his passion – and, in this witness statement, in this will and testimony, he invites us to continue to share and promote his passion into the future.” His full review is at: https://www.australiancatholics.com.au/article/david-attenborough--a-life-on-our-planet
Enjoying this 123 minute film would be a creative way of honouring the patron saint of creation. You can find film sessions at: https://au.attenborough.film/ and, at a later date, it will be streamed on Netflix.
“Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”
Given that this film focuses our attention on creation it seems appropriate to focus on Franciscan Spirituality. The Biblical tradition gives us multiple ways to communicate with God; and the lived tradition of the Catholic Church has expanded on these ways into what are grandly called Schools of Prayer. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that there is one way to God, one way of praying in private or public. The scriptures and the tradition of the church tell a very different story. In every ear of the Christian Church’s life, many charismatic individuals have emerged to challenge the church in its practices, it discipline or lack of it, and often in its prayer. No matter how much the Christians of their day did not like what they heard at the time, history has seen many of these individuals declared Saints, which is more than we can say for their poor detractors. Around holy men and women schools of spirituality developed, either in their lifetimes, or subsequently. There are scores of these schools, but the six longest and most popular are: Desert Spirituality; Benedictine; Franciscan; Dominican; Carmelite and Ignatian. I am brave Jesuit to summarise another School because there are libraries written on and around each of them, but here is taster on how we might start to realise how many rooms there actually are in the our spiritual home.
Nearly every major movement of spirituality in Christianity has arisen to answer a set of serious issues in the life of the church. No other school of prayer proves this more than the Franciscans. The church of the late 11th and 12th Century was split in many directions. The Holy Roman Empire and the Papal States were frequently at war, some churchmen were bloated on money and power and the abuse of both, the earliest Crusades were mounted, a mini-Renaissance flourished and several spiritual movements appeared to call the Church back from its worldly ambitions to the message of Christ. In 1209 Francis received a vision in which Christ says, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Later that year he was to write the Primitive Rule and his earliest companions joined him in the Orders of Friars Minor, the Little Brothers. By the time Francis died in 1226, he had 4,000 followers and by 1260 there were 30,000 Franciscans. Something powerful had been unleashed by Francis and Clare, and, ever since, the world inside and outside the church has been enticed and fascinated by it.
As nearly everyone would know, at the heart of Franciscan Spirituality is the love of poverty, simplicity, living in peace and being in harmony with the created order. Is it any wonder this spirituality still speaks to us today? What is less well-known, but central for Francis, is the constant call to being converted to the poor and crucified Christ, a deep communion with the Church, a life of prayer that was personal and liturgical, and a life lived in joy.
Anyone who wants to be a reformer has to take Franciscan Spirituality seriously inside or outside the Church. Francis even loved the broken church and unfair world of the 12th Century. He loved humanity so much that his way of reforming it was not to rant and rave (though later Franciscans became some of the best minds in Europe) but to model and embody, the very reform he sought. Francis is the patron saint of those who talk the talk and walk the walk. Even if his opponents were against what he was saying, they could doubt his personal integrity. Most of his enemies are lost to history. Francis is a Saint and the founder of world-wide movement that nurtures prayer across the faith-spectrum to this day.
In recent years, of course Francis and Clare have been reborn as patrons saints of living with integrity with the environment, and rightly so. Francis articulated the ethic of the seamless garment of life, long before the term was crafted. These days Franciscan spirituality reminds us that the issue of caring for the environment is an important part of our Christian commitment for justice, that while the earth has been entrusted to us as stewards, to be preserved, it is also given into our hands to be developed in such a way that there will be a productive earth for future generations to inherit.
We can see how Francis call to simplicity for all compliments the contemporary call to limit our consumption, change our priorities in regard to energy and trade and show the third world the way in developing eco-friendly industries. Whatever our take might be on how we care for the created order, most of us know that we cannot keep going as we are, with ever increasing unsustainable demands on our planet. Francis knew that the Old and New Testaments were filled with the importance of our relationships to the earth. In the book of Genesis humanity is told to care for and subdue the earth, not wreck it. Avarice is not one of the seven deadly sins for nothing.
Franciscan Spirituality is not just about finding God in nature. It is that, and may it keep calling us to it. It is also that our stand for justice always takes into account the care our earth requires so that we have a productive planet to hand on to our children, and we hand it on to them in better shape than we found it.
Franciscan Spirituality is the gift that keeps giving.
Rev Dr. Richard Leonard SJ is the author of Why Bother Praying? (Paulist Press, 2013) available at St Paul’s bookstore, (02) 9264 8630, Paulinebooks