The Mystery of St. Francis’ Perfect Joy
Homily for the Mass of Rededication of the National Shrine of St. Francis
By Most Rev. Salvatore Cordileone, Archbishop of San Francisco
Solemnity of St. Francis of Assisi: October 4, 2014
This is certainly a very happy day for our Archdiocese, and it is my pleasure and my privilege to welcome you to this Mass of Rededication of this church, entrusted as a National Shrine of the patron saint of our Archdiocese and our City, St. Francis of Assisi.
The Person of St. Francis
As a national shrine, the significance of this moment extends far beyond our Archdiocese. St. Francis certainly has a universal appeal even beyond our Catholic family. In placing this Shrine under his heavenly patronage, it is especially identified with him and so is a place of spiritual refuge for all.
Francis, of course, was completely identified to his Lord, our Savior Jesus Christ. Perhaps no saint in the history of the Church is more celebrated for his identity to the person of Jesus Christ than St. Francis. This identity even manifested itself physically toward the end of his life. Francis’ final years were particularly difficult. In 1224, having the leadership of his community taken from him and seeing it head in a direction not to his liking, and being afflicted with a painful disease of the eyes, he took refuge atop Mount Laverna for a lengthy retreat. On September 14th, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, he underwent a profound and mysterious event, an encounter with the Passion of Christ so intense that it left the marks of the Crucified on his body. He bore the wounds of Christ, the stigmata, on his body. This is the literal word St. Paul uses in reference to himself in the passage we just heard from his letter to the Galatians: “I bear the marks” – the stigmata – “of Jesus on my body.” This word literally means a mark, a scar, a brand indicating ownership – just as a cattle rancher brands his cattle to identify them as his own. This was the physical manifestation of Francis’ entire life: his identification with Christ in his Passion. But what was it that got him there?
It was his whole-hearted ready embrace of the Cross, not just in theory, but in very real, practical ways that changed his life severely and permanently. Yes, we can think immediately of his radical embrace of “lady poverty.” But there was another embrace, a literal, physical embrace, that changed him for good. This is how he describes that moment in his own words: “The Lord granted me, brother Francis, to begin doing penance this way: When I was in my sins, just to see lepers was very bitter for me. And the Lord himself took me among them, and I showed mercy to them. And on leaving them, what seemed bitter to me had turned for me into sweetness of body and soul.”1
It was the embrace of the leper, what previously he had found repugnant, that was the pivotal turning point of his life that led him to embrace the Cross of Christ. In identifying himself with the lepers, loving them, being with them and serving them, and so finding in them “sweetness of body and soul,” he identified himself with Christ in his Passion. And so it was that St. Francis was so divested of himself that, similar to the tribe of Levi of old we heard about
in the Book of Deuteronomy in our first reading, his only heritage was his Lord Jesus Christ; he had no claim to anyone or anything else.
And yet, what probably most of us think of first when we conjure up the image of St. Francis of Assisi is a picture of simple joy, the “perfect joy” of St. Francis. This seems incongruous to the contemporary mentality: associating joy with the denial of all material comforts, with the embrace of that which is repugnant and the socially outcast? But it does not seem so for those who understand the wisdom of God: there is no perfect joy without embracing the Cross. And this was made possible for Francis because he always gave first place to – no, not Lady Poverty; no, not service to lepers; no, not to love of creation – but rather, to love of the Creator. He always gave first place to God and His majesty, and the reverence that we owe Him. For him, only the best, the finest, was to be set aside and properly maintained for the worship of the one, true God. And that worship, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, was to be celebrated with the utmost dignity and respect.
When Francis descended Mount Laverna after receiving the stigmata at the end of his life, he wrote his “Letter to the Entire Order,” “which was, in a way, Francis’ public farewell address.”1 His first concern in this farewell? The proper reverence for the Eucharist and the worthy celebration of Holy Mass. He had very harsh words for priests who celebrated Mass unworthily, even with the great reverence he had for the clergy. Indeed, as Father Augustine Thompson puts it in his celebrated work, “Francis of Assisi, A New Biography”: “In his final words to his followers, the issue [St. Francis] found most pressing was not poverty, not obedience, but proper reverence for the Eucharist.”2
The Mission of the Shrine
How many people today, far from embracing the Cross, flee the Cross? How many people today find the enduring of any kind of suffering for a just cause, any form of self-denial, even any inconvenience, incomprehensible, intolerable, and offensive? How many ignore God, how many, even if they intellectually acknowledge His existence, fail to give Him the first place in their lives that is His due and live as if He didn’t exist? And how much sadness and suffering has this produced, how much conflict and hurt – always the result of human pride?
And yet, how often, and in how many ways, do we, the supporters of this Shrine, do this ourselves? How often do we fail to identify with what we find repugnant, how often do we allow our ego to keep us from embracing it? How often do we fail in humility, fail to even ask God for the gift of humility, which all the spiritual masters teach us is always the first virtue on the path to holiness? Yes, conversion, identity to Christ, embracing the particular cross that he gives us, this requires great humility, the swallowing of one’s pride in order to embrace whatever it is that one once found repugnant. And yet, it is the path to healing, to wholeness, to perfect joy.
We come together today to rededicate this beautiful church, which stands next to the beautiful replica of the Porziuncola. All of this has been made possible by the kindness and hard work of very many generous and visionary brothers and sisters of ours, to whom I wish to take this opportunity to express my profound thanks, and that of our entire Archdiocese. In particular I want to thank Cardinal Levada, here present, for his inspiration to establish this beautiful and historical church as our country’s only National Shrine in honor of St. Francis of Assisi: thank you, Your Eminence, and thank you, all of you who worked so closely with him, to turn this spiritual vision into a tangible reality; and thank you, all of you who now have worked so hard and given so generously to renew it as a physical structure of beauty befitting the worship of the one, true God.
As we come together, though, to rededicate this church, let us see it as a sign of our commitment to rededicate ourselves, rededicate ourselves to the person of Jesus Christ and to the mission of this Shrine, that this Shrine may become all that it is called to be and capable of being, imbued as it is with the spirit of St. Francis, who was himself so perfectly conformed to Christ. Let us renew our efforts, our stewardship, for this Shrine to be true to its mission: a place of spiritual refuge, where people find healing and solace; a place that radiates and teaches peace, peace for our violent world and peace for our violent neighborhoods; a place where the weak are strengthened to embrace the cross in their own lives and receive forgiveness for their failures to do so; a place where the poor are lifted up and the marginalized find welcome because God is given first place, where His majesty is acknowledged and served through the beautiful and worthy celebration of the mysteries of our faith.
Let us move forward from here in a spirit of communion, recognizing that it is only together in Christ, sharing the spiritual and material blessings he has entrusted to us, that we – or rather, he through us – will advance the mission of this holy place. As I thank you all for helping us come to this point, let us thank God for bringing us here, and ask His grace to serve Him well as we now look to this jewel in Assisi by the Bay as our point of reference for all that is good, holy and true.
The Porziuncola: St. Francis’ “little portion.” We all have a little portion to give. But when we give it together, we give something beautiful to God, and God gives us something beautiful in return: the perfect joy of St. Francis. May the Poor Man of Assisi now intercede for us, that each of us, in the particular way that God calls us to, may embrace the cross and identify ourselves with Christ in his Passion, so that we, too, may be for others messengers of the peace, holiness and joy that we see in him.