July 2009

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

Generosity is the beginning of abundant life, the life of God. It is a form of participation in the self-effusive nature of God.

The desire to grow this generosity is at the root of Crib and Cross Franciscan Ministries’ (CCFM) outreach program, Hope for Africa. It has been a significant aspect of its apostolate since my first visit to Malawi in 2004, not just in the projects that CCFM has funded but to a much greater extent in the message that has been delivered in homilies, retreats and missions: Solidarity with the poor is the core of our humanity.

Generosity is the natural outpouring of love that flows from a compassionate heart. Compassion is a central theme in Franciscan theology and action. It may be said that Franciscan spirituality is an awareness of a deep desire to live in communion with others in fraternal love, following the example of Jesus Christ. Compassion is one of its essential qualities.

Recently, I revisited after five years the southeast African country of Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world. I saw with my own eyes what we have achieved and the joy and hope that it is bringing to those living under the crushing weight of poverty. In Karonga, I was met by 40 late teens, for the most part young men and women made orphans by AIDS. They were students at the trade school that we built with the help of St. Thomas A Becket parish in Pierrefonds. As we drove from Mzuzu, we were greeted by singing students carrying welcoming signs. We heard speeches and songs, saw a skit on AIDS and shared a meal after touring the buildings that house carpentry and tailoring workshops.

In Mzuzu, I met Standard 8 students who were in the two classrooms block that we built with donor support. Lunyangwa Girls Primary School has classrooms of 100. Those in their final year are in classes of 50 now, thanks to fundraising by the Catholic Women’s League at St. Thomas A Becket parish. They express their gratitude by sleeping on the floor in their final semester in order to be sure to succeed.

Also in Mzuzu, I interviewed the headmaster and students at Marymount Catholic Secondary School for Girls where we built a computer lab, thanks to donations made by Queen of Angels Academy in Dorval. This will give them an edge in the struggle to change their lives. Despite the fact that this is one of the finest high schools in the country, 650 girls live in what we would call deplorable conditions. In addition, at Marymount, twelve students received grants from the bursary find that we organized through a national appeal.

I reflected on why I was going to Africa, and why CCFM persists in keeping alive its Hope for Africa apostolate despite all the competition in the huge relief and development industry, I came to realize that it goes to the heart of what it means to be religious, to forget oneself, giving oneself to a cause or another person.

Though poorer in wealth, (Francis) was richer in generosity.
– Thomas of Celano, The Life of Saint Francis

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The foundation of compassionate love, according to Saint Bonaventure, is the image and reality of the crucified Christ. It is an awesome fact that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) But it is even more striking that he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:6-8). In a book about the mystical theology of Saint Bonaventure, Ilia Delio writes, “For it is in the brokenness of the cross that God pours himself out in the world in the form of compassionate love…The peace that is the fruit of union with Christ interiorly is the peace that Bonaventure envisions in the world when all Christians unite mystically to the Crucified and express their union in compassionate love.”

Compassionate love is not pity. It is a fully engaged participation in the suffering of another. This was Christ’s mission on earth. He could only authentically and effectively proclaim liberty, sight and freedom by becoming poor, captive and oppressed himself. (Cf. Luke 4:18) He could not be Love incarnate without intimately relating to another at the most pivotal point of human existence, in our vulnerability and suffering. For the mission that he was given, Jesus had to be born in poor and humble conditions and end his life in humiliation, not so much to “pay” for our sins but for the simple reason that the incarnation was to manifest the power, wisdom and goodness of God in the darkest realm of earthly reality, at the outer limits of hope.

Delio concludes, “Bonaventure never explicitly articulated a world view, still one is present in his writing where they are read with the Crucified Christ as the hermeneutical key.” That is not only the principle insight of Saint Francis of Assisi, which was validated by the stigmata, but it also represents the specificity of Christianity itself. Christ is central to our faith and not just an appendage to the Trinity or merely the protagonist in a narrative about morality. Jesus Christ is the epicentre of creation. Referring to Saint Bonaventure’s mysticism of the crucified Christ, Delio writes, “Simply put, the destiny of the created order depends on humanity and humanity’s relation to Christ the centre. Anthropology is bound up with Christology. Francis is not only her model, but he also reveals the profound role of the human person in the created world—a dynamic role that is kindled by the compassionate love of the Crucified.”

True piety drew (Francis) up to God through devotion, transformed him into Christ through compassion, attracted him to his neighbour through condescension and symbolically showed a return to the state of original innocence through universal reconciliation with each and every thing.
– Saint Bonaventure, Major Life of Saint Francis

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Authentic life is a fulfilling life. It is not achieved through the accomplishment of great schemes but by the intensity and fruitfulness of love that is patterned after God’s generosity, unselfish and unrestricted. Human existence, as a noted psychiatrist once wrote, “is always directed to something or someone other than itself, be it a meaning to fulfill or a human being to be encountered lovingly. Love is both life and death. It is the cause of life and the consummation of the self.

To live is to love. Abundant life is, by extension, the fullness of love. It is the highest point in our human journey from fear to fulfilment. The ultimate human tragedy is to refuse love because of fear that locks us into a death-dance of insensibility and isolation, passionless, without compassion.

Compassionate love does not demand deprivation but it does offer the opportunity to draw closer to those who are suffering and who can heal our own well-hidden woundedness, carefully covered-up fragility and foolishly denied vulnerability. Consequently, personal sacrifice may be the gift that we choose to offer in exchange. Compassionate love is the life-blood of human existence. The life of Jesus Christ is the story of compassionate love, and his humanity is precisely the model of our own. We err when we imagine Jesus as a sort of superhero whose extraordinary exploits are beyond us. The rich tradition of the imitation of Christ is based on the belief that many, albeit not all, of Christ’s attitudes and behaviours were for us to observe and adopt, with God’s grace. His love for us must be seen as having concrete and practical meaning and value.

Jesus always surprised his contemporaries by associating with the discredited and downcast of society. On the one hand, he said that it was for them that he came and, on the other, he ranted on against the hypocrisy of the privileged and the powerful. Very clearly, Jesus’ authenticity blossomed in his relations with the poor. There is perhaps a lesson here for us.

It is sometimes difficult to sort through the admonitions and prohibitions that are prescribed to guide Christian life. Yet, Jesus left no doubt about the criteria by which our lives will be judged. If we will have been compassionate in his holy name, we will have been faithful to the Gospel.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.
– Matthew 25: 32-40

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May the Lord Jesus Christ, reflection of the Father and exemplar of compassion, bless you abundantly with life in the Holy Spirit of Truth and Love.

Fraternally in joy and hope

richard

crib and cross Franciscan Ministries