St. Francis: a Way to Restoration
by Bro. Alexis Bugnolo
After the Second Vatican Council a terrible revisionism swept many parts of the Catholic Church. First the Immemorial Latin Liturgical Tradition was without reason jettisoned, to be replaced by an artificially and hastily authored New Rite. Then traditional forms of religious life were rejected in favor of the modern ideals of communitarianism and libertarianism. Next the Catholic priesthood was attacked directly by both ideological and practical exaggerations of the common priesthood of the laity and the erroneous practice of worker priests.
In this period of disorientation, the image of many a Saint suffered too. As reflections of the holiness of Christ and Our Lady, this is not surprising; and indeed, to a certain extent this was a continuation of the sentimentalization of devotion to the saints that began to appear before the Council.
The Poor Man of Assisi suffered much. He became an icon of the Reformer who opposed the corruption of the patriarchal, hierarchic Church; the stereotypic guru of the religious progressivists who in the name of returning to the pristine purity of the early Church, sought rather to radically re-define Catholicism. And so St. Francis became an idol of liberation theology, which saw in his charity for the poor, an example of the humanitarianism it advocated; of creation spirituality and environmental theology which saw in his harmony with creation an example of novel forms of religious relationships with nature and creation. So great, it is sad to say, was the inroad made by this new St. Francis that in very many Franciscan communities the real Saint was entirely forgotten or, worse, entirely rejected. Vocations plummeted as liberated vocation directors sought among recruits those who would gladly embrace the new Brother of the Poor and of Mother Earth.
The great consolation for the faithful, and for Franciscans themselves, is that there is only one Holy Spirit, and He is not with the liberals, the progressivists, the communists, the secularists, the humanists, the creation-spirituality gurus, etc.. He is with the Church and as Her quasi-Soul, when Her members depart from Him, He departs from them; their endeavors burn out into mediocrity and political rumblings. And nothing good at all comes of it. Religious communities die out and dioceses begin to count the days towards a priestess church.
The way of restoration therefore is to accept and put into practice once again a spirit of docility to the Lord and Vivifier of the Church. And there is no better example of such authentic docility, than the canonized Saints of the Catholic Church. By their life and words and deeds they proclaim loudly and most poignantly the truth of Christ's teaching and the only, actual path to true, authentic holiness of life. The fruitfulness and holiness of their endeavors is at once a twofold proof and example of the presence of the Holy Spirit in them and their corresponding and outstanding fidelity to Him in everything they did.
Among the most influential Saints in the Roman Catholic Church is St. Francis of Assisi. And this is without doubt attributable not to his genius, intelligence, prudence, virtue, personal success in founding three orders of religious, nor in their subsequent fruitfulness or long or widespread influence in Western Civilization; but simply and directly because God sent St. Francis into the world to restore the Universal Church.
It was in February in the year 1206 that St. Francis, still a layman, paid a visit to a decrepit church on the outskirts of Assisi, Italy. There in prayer an ancient icon of the Crucified Messiah came alive and spoke to him, saying: "Francis, Francis, go and rebuild My House which as you can see is falling down into ruin." With these words Christ Our Lord received St. Francis into the service of His Church militant and gave him the vocation and mission to apply an authentic and effective cure to the ills of the Church of all times: infidelity to God, through immorality and dissent: answered by fidelity to God, through penance and faith.
There is no other Saint in the history of the Church to whom God gave the mission of restoring His Church. Many false prophets and hesiarchs have come forward to lay their hands upon the Immaculate Bride of Christ and have done much damage, though She lives on. None of these men and women can even measure up to the holiness of the Poverello. In his humility of not even thinking himself worthy of the priesthood, in his docility of being made a deacon when impelled to this by the Pope; in his faith in the supreme authority of Christ's vicar and at the same time the proper authority of the pastors of the local parishes; his burning devotion for the Most Blessed Sacrament; his zeal for all things befitting the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; his regard for the protection and support of nuns; his great veneration for Sacred Scripture; his respect for faithful theologians; his compassion for the poor and homeless, for criminals, and lepers; his concern for using God's creation with respect and frugality; his patience in traveling by foot; his mortification by observing 280 days of fasting each year; his love of the poverty of Christ and Mary at Bethlehem, by sleeping on rock and hay for his entire religious life; of using only one habit and of being so very abstemious in food and drink; his very great devotion for Christ Crucified, always kneeling in salutation of the Cross; always meditating with tears upon His most bitter sufferings and loneliness; his very great love for the Most Blessed Virgin, to whom he confessed every day and whose Psalter he recited daily; his devotion for the Saints, Peter and Paul and James, especially, whose tombs he visited several times on pilgrimage.
It is ironical that in all his life, St. Francis who would found three religious orders (Friars Minor, the Poor Clares, the Third Order of St. Francis) never attempted or spoke of the restoration of the Church. Yet he fulfilled his mission and vocation nevertheless; simply striving to be a true and most devout Roman Catholic.
What is most striking and moving about this Herald of the Great King is the outstanding nobility and magnanimity of his heart. For St. Francis it was not enough to live without mortal sin; it was a horror for him even to commit a venial sin of neglect through lack of foresight; it was not enough to pray some prayers every day; he went to Mass daily and spent all his free time in silent meditation and conversation with the Most Holy Trinity, with Mary and the Saints and Holy Angels; it was not enough to live according to the laws of the Church; he gave away all his possessions to the poor and renounced his inheritance and went to follow Christ as a Catholic religious, in radical poverty, perpetual chastity, and in that obedience which is the renouncement of one's own will in all things; it was not enough for him to be a religious, or even a very devout and orthodox one, he strove and by the grace of God which beckoned him and supported him, succeeded in becoming a Saint, a great Saint; it was not enough for him to inspire and assist so many in his own lifetime, since his passing to glory he has worked innumerable miracles for the poor, for the sick, for those in sudden trouble, for sinners, for married couples, etc. that his tomb in Assisi is one of the important places of pilgrimage in the Catholic world.
Surely, Our Lord described St. Francis best of all, when, in appearing to St. Margaret Mary Alaqoque one day concerning devotion to His Most Sacred Heart, he brought along St. Francis, remarking to St. Margaret, that he was the Saint most conformed to His Sacred Heart. Surely, the impression of the sacred stigmata of His Passion has forever stamped the divine approval of the Most Holy Trinity on the life and example of the Seraphic Patriarch.
St. Francis then shows all Catholic faithful a way to authentic restoration; of the Church. It is through personal conversion and the pursuit of holiness. In this Year of Grace may God grant each of us the intercession of this wonderful Saint; that we too may step out of a worldly way of life and seek to live more intensely and harmoniously a life of faith, hope, and charity in Christ Jesus Our Lord.