It is recorded what delight Saint Francis had in presiding before the first crib at Greccio: he would love to preach wearing alb, vested in dalmatic and stole. The crib or presepio was one of his many gifts to the Christian dispensation.
Francis was ordained as a deacon but never considered himself worthy of the ordained priesthood. He was particularly attentive to how the altar vessels were to be cleaned, polished and prepared to receive the Son of God, and the linen was clean, crisp and lovingly laid on the Body of Christ as if he was present at Calvary. There is a literalness about Francis in how all that was sacramental was to be kissed by God, and he would hold that the King of all time and places needed to be prepared as if eternity depended upon it. His attention to the very word of Scripture and its feeding of everyday life would not allow for idle discussion or divisive interpretation. Both spoke of the closeness and immediacy of God.
This autumn, I was able to walk from La Verna (where Francis received the stigmata) to Assisi where I made my retreat. The “Franciscan Way” encourages an immersion into the life of il Poverello as it embraces so much of his graced journey throughout Umbria. It speaks of brigands, lepers and wolves, and of how Francis in the Holy Spirit embraced and tamed them.
The wolf of Gubbio – we know from archaeological investigation – is buried at the threshold of the Church of San Francesco della Pace in the same city. It is told how despite warnings, Francis went to meet the wolf beyond the city walls. This beast had scared, attacked and killed residents of the town. It was one of the worst of its kind. In no way expert on such furry “friends”, Francis meeting him made the sign of the Cross and looked at him with intense and unconditional love that he had in turn met in the stigmatisation at La Verna. The chap was tamed and for the next two years wandered the streets of Gubbio where its residents now happily fed and greeted him.
Of course the benign and unbelieving are drawn to “the little poor one” but as Catholics we have to reach beyond to ask the question what it was about Francis which allowed him to strip and stand naked before his two fathers (spiritual and temporal) in the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli – also the resting place of Blessed Carlo Acutis – to confront the wolf and to preach Christ before the Sultan in Cairo. The unconditional and enveloping love of Christ for which Francis was the perfect vessel is the first answer but there is something which continues to breathe to this day and add to our understanding, it is Assisi.
The basilica in Assisi remains one of the most visited of all in Italy. It is noble, refined, beautiful and dominant to the surrounding countryside. It has survived earthquakes and wars with its exquisite Giotto frescos telling the story of il Poverello. It was built and he was canonised some few years after his death while memories of him marrying “Lady Poverty” and his radical and self-emptying life would have been strong and vivid to many. Despite all that, his resting place was then, and remains to this day, enormous and somewhat countercultural in its splendour and wealth. So how to explain it? After nine days of retreat, I went to say goodbye early in the morning of my final day. All was quiet. There was a heavy mist in the town and the friars were yet to start the office.
His tomb and the neighbourly Blessed Sacrament in the empty chapel gave a strange, gentle and warm light. Seemingly it was lit only by candles and, at the same time, there emanated a beautiful and unconditional love and tenderness. There was the Blessed Sacrament and his mortal remains but there was something more or something which God desires to share. All I can iterate is that it was the embodiment and real presence of the Sacred Heart, a heart that has loved so much, one that has received so many blasphemies but one that is bursting forth in tenderness and mercy.
We might call it co-penetration, admixture or a perfect nuptial bond. Francis in his poverty shows to the world of yesterday and today that love, tenderness and mercy crucified and purified in the crucible of suffering and obedience ultimately is the only true motive for belief, repentance and conversion for all time.
The walk to Assisi and the beautiful Umbrian “campagna” are redolent of how Francis blessed and sung of creation and nature. However, all point to that mystery of all mysteries – the Mass, Blessed Sacrament and Adoration. May this time of Advent and Christmas as we gather around Francis’ presepio in Greccio, dispel the darkness and bring many to love and adore Christ.
Rev Canon Alexander Sherbrooke is the parish priest of St Patrick’s Church in Soho, London
This article is from the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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