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The gratitude of St. Francis

September 30, 2015
Fausto Gomez, OP

Our dear Pope chose the name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi. For three simple reasons: St. Francis would remind him of the poor, whom he wanted to remember always; of universal peace, to which the new Pope wished to be strongly committed, and of ecology that would be one of his papal concerns: the care of and responsibility for creation, for our common home.

St. Francis is born in Assisi in 1182. Two events among others mark the life of Francis: First: the vision at the ruins of St. Damiano Church, where the crucified Lord tells him: “Francis, please repair my falling house,” meaning, renew my Church. Second event: Francis’ encounter with a leper, whom nobody loves, and whom he embraces and kisses and thereafter sees in him the face of Christ. The son of a rich merchant, the young Francis chooses to be poor and a close friend of the poor. He works ceaselessly for peace in Italy, Europe and the world.

In the life of St. Francis, who is the most popular saint ever, there is a virtue that describes well his whole life: gratitude: The humble saint of Assisi was a grateful son of God, a brother to all neighbors, and a creature of the universe. One of the stories I love on Francis is this one: Young Francis breaking with the world of his father, a rich man, and the gang of his young rich friends whose icon was the medieval knight. He had just come out of jail, where he was after participating in a war and losing the battle. It was the year 1206. Francis was then about 25 years old, and appeared a changed young man – as a consequence of God’s call and personal soul-searching.  A day in winter, a cold day in winter, Francis uttered these luminous words before his father, the Bishop and the people of Assisi: “Up to now I have called Pietro Bernardone my father; but from now on I am the servant of God my Father in heaven. Not only the money, but everything that is his, I give back to my father, even the very clothes he has given me.” Thus, Francis breaks away from his old past as a licentious youth and starts a new life, a life totally dedicated to God. Faithful to his words, Francis says good-bye to his father, asks the blessing of the Bishop, and starts walking toward the forest. And while he is walking barefooted on the cold snow, under the trees, almost naked, young Francis, now God’s servant begins to sing. He begins to give thanks!

A Franciscan writes: “A monk should own nothing but his harp.”  The Poverello of Assisi says: “Poor is he or she who spends the whole day saying thanks.” Francis, poor in spirit and in fact, lives his gratitude in radical poverty and, above all, in his deep love of God. He is the poet of love: “You are Holy Father. You are Triune and One, Lord God, all good. You are all our wealth. You are our hope. You are our faith. You are our eternal life.”

From his poverty and love, Francis gives thanks to God for the incomprable gift of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Crucified and Risen Lord, and the Savior of the World. Francis is, before anything else, a follower of Christ. Francis built the first Belen, which afterwards became the center of the Christmas celebrations. Praying one night in the forest with Brother Leon, he petitions the Lord to allow him to share in his passion and is given the stigmata, or the wounds of Christ on the cross.

He is grateful to the Lord, moreover, for giving to us his Mother Mary, whom Francis greets as the Most Holy Mother full of the plenitude of grace and of all good, the holy Queen, Virgin, palace and tabernacle of the Son of God

Francis practices his constant gratitude to God, to Jesus in his love for his brothers and sisters, for all humans, in particular, for the poorest, lepers and beggars. He, the universal brother tells us: “My preferred ones will be the marginalized and the more marginalized they are, the more they will be promoted in my heart.”

Francis practiced his love of God and neighbor also in his love for all God’s creatures. In his enchanting Canticle of the Sun, Francis proclaims: “Praise be to God, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Brother Sun. Praise be to you, my Lord, for sister Moon and the Stars, for brother Wind, for sister Water, for brother Fire (whom he asks to be kind to him).  Praise be to you, my Lord, for our sister Mother Earth!”  He requests God’s creatures: “Be grateful for his gifts. Sing to his creation!  All creatures, praise my Lord!” Francis preaches to the little birds: “Dear birds, my sisters, you do the most beautiful thing of creation: flying … What beautiful scenery may be contemplated from the heights!  You are the preferred creatures of the Most Holy Father. Be careful not to commit the sin of ungratefulness.  Praise, bless and thank eternally the love of the Lord.” 

The Poverello of Assisi gives thanks to the Lord on behalf of the plants because – he says – “they do not know how to speak.” Once, Francis asked a gardener to leave a bit of land uncultivated. So that the grass and the wild flowers could give glory to God, too. In 1979, Pope Saint John Paul II declared St. Francis of Assisi the patron saint of ecologists. In 2015, Pope Francis writes: “Francis was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself” (Encyclical Letter Laudate Si’, 10).

Francis is also grateful for “our sister bodily Death.”  One day in winter, while he walked half-naked in the cold snow, under the trees, the young Francis began to sing hymns of thanksgiving. Another day in autumn, October 3, 1226, the Poor One of Assisi, 45 years old, almost blind and suffering terribly asks the brothers who are keeping him company: “Please, take me from my bed and place me on the ground!”  Francis wanted to end his life of radical loving poverty giving thanks to God from his nothingness: he had lived his life as “one who had nothing and was nothing.”

Following Jesus radically, St. Francis, whose feast is celebrated every October 4, invites us to be grateful. From time to time, let us make pauses in our often-hurried life to say “Thank you.”  Thanks to the persons who live with us, to the poor, who accept graciously compassionate help. Many thanks for life, for our vocation, for joy, for the cross. Thank you, Lord, for the rain, for our mother, for the serene face of an old man, for the shining smile of a child. We give thanks to the Blessed Trinity: to God the Father, through Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, and with Mother Mary.

Dear God, a million thanks for giving us St. Francis of Assisi, who taught us, above all that every human being is our brother or sister. May St. Francis help us treat each other as a brother or a sister! We all have the same Father: “Our Father who art in heaven.”

PHOTO Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata (Jan van Eyck, c. 1430–32, Turin version)