Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
May the Lord give you Peace!
A few weeks ago, I attended the International AIDS Conference in Toronto. My heart and mind overflowed with countless impressions. Chief among these was a deeper appreciation of conversion in the life of Saint Francis and of the Eucharist as the most succinct expression of it.
AIDS continues to cause devastation in sub-Saharan Africa where the vast majority of cases are found. The reasons for the rapid proliferation of the pandemic are numerous and complex, so the parallels between HIV infection today and the problem of leprosy in the days of Jesus or of Saint Francis must not be exaggerated. Yet there are several striking similarities.
Saint Francis’s conversion began the moment he came down from his horse and embraced a leper; an act which had previously filled him with fear and disgust, now filled him with joy. The very first paragraph of his Testament reads, “This is how the Lord gave me, brother Francis, the power to do penance. When I was in sin the sight of lepers was too bitter for me. And the Lord himself led me among them, and I pitied and helped them. And when I left them I discovered that what had seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness in my soul and body. And shortly afterward I rose and left the world.”
How similar is the opportunity that now stands before Christians to confront a disease that threatens lives and communities, and perhaps even nations! What has until now filled us with dread can be the cause of abundant grace, perfect joy and fullness of life as only Jesus can give.
Legend tells us that when Saint Francis got back on his horse, he looked back. The leper to whom he had given money— and also kissed—had disappeared. According to tradition, it was Jesus.
Jesus is with us today, in the Eucharist, in our community, but most especially in the poor, the marginalized and the suffering. Each one of us is being called in the name of Jesus to acts of charity and ultimately to conversion. We’re all called to love those in need as Jesus always has. Watch him at work in the midst of darkness. Taste and see the goodness of his love. He wants more for us than we dare even dream. Let’s pray for the courage not to just watch Jesus from a distance but to follow him—even to uncomfortable places.
At one point, Jesus shocked his disciples by saying, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Was Christ talking only about the Eucharist? Clearly, the disciples’ response to Jesus confirms the challenge was more far-reaching: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Indeed, we’re told, “many of his disciples turned back, and no longer went about with him.”
But it doesn’t end there. Jesus, seeing into the fragile heart of his disciples, asked those who stayed, “Do you also wish to go away?” I love Peter’s response. He said, perhaps even with reluctance, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
We are very familiar with Jesus’ self-emptying love. Yet we are troubled by the challenge that it represents. Usually, we dismiss it by saying that this was his mission, not ours. Ours is simply to love and adore him and to share in his mission by eating his flesh and drinking his blood in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Then, we go home and forget about it for a while.
Who can blame us? This teaching is too hard. If we were to believe that Jesus was modeling what it means to be fully human, it would be impossible for us to follow in his footsteps. Or would it? Without grace, yes, it would be impossible. But we have already been granted that grace—through the Holy Eucharist. That is its very purpose.
So back to the AIDS Conference. What set of ideas emerged that are relevant to this Gospel? I came away with a more profound understanding of the foundations of Christian giving. The first thing that happens to us as Christians when our hearts are touched with compassion for the poor, the marginalized and the suffering is to act. We allow ourselves to become instruments of God’s love by giving generously to a particular cause or project. That’s a beautiful thing. These are moments of real holiness. In them, we find consolation from the Lord who is well pleased.
But there is more to it. With time and attention to what we’re doing, and why, we develop a deeper level of spirituality—that of giving. In fact, our encounter with the poor and suffering can lead to the sudden realization that God is present in these very individuals we are trying to help. This epiphany brings us great joy. We might be shocked to find this presence in our neighbour nearby, or our brothers and sisters in Christ in some remote place half way around the world.
This is what I came to realize in Toronto: full participation in Jesus’ Holy Eucharist makes giving of ourselves an integral part of what it means to be a Christian disciple. Our giving then is no longer random but systematic. It is not even about money or material but the beginning of a response to move beyond pity, and even beyond compassion into the realm of solidarity with each human being. We are all made in God’s image, near or far.
It is the cross that brings us into solidarity with the suffering of people. It’s the Eucharist which celebrates its victory by condemning the causes of injury. It is a presentation of the cross as the embrace of the other in love, even in our differences. Finally, it’s the cross as a grace-filled empowering that drives us to participate in our own salvation through what we do for others.
A true theology of love, which is the purpose of the Eucharist and the cross, rests on twin foundations. Charity is the obvious one, but it cannot stand alone. It must also be about justice. Love of neighbour, as Christ taught, calls us to actively oppose discrimination, marginalization and the systemic roots of poverty. A true theology of Christ-centred love, for which the cross is the ultimate symbol, calls us to help build up the foundations of sustainable lives through education, health and fair trade policies.
We know from his writing that Saint Francis had a profound devotion to the Eucharist as a religious sacrament but we can assert with equal confidence that the life that he lived following his conversion was a Eucharistic sacrament that shone as a light for all to see. His body, mind and spirit were harnessed to become a radiant instrument of the Father’s will for genuine peace.
Moreover, it can be said that for Saint Francis, the objective of penance is to be transformed by Christ in order to see more clearly the purpose of our life in Christ – to empty ourselves entirely for others, as Jesus did, in the precise and unique manner that the Father calls us to do so.
All those who refuse to do penance and receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ are blind, because they cannot see the true light, our Lord Jesus Christ.
(Saint Francis, Letter to All the Faithful)
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A true theology of love also reminds us that if we are One Body, as Saint Paul told the Corinthians, our joy is one joy and our suffering is shared by all. When the least of God’s children suffer, we all suffer, whether we know it or not. Things are connected more than we realize.
At the conference, I heard an expression that seared itself onto my heart: “The church has AIDS.” That’s right, the church has AIDS. That’s a very profound statement because it says not only that we’re all affected in some way or other but that our inability to demonstrate to the world that the church is the principal agent of God’s compassion, healing and love speaks volumes about the brokenness of Christ’s body and about the unconverted parts of the human heart.
The effects of AIDS go way beyond matters of health. It profoundly alters lives, families and communities. And, because we haven’t seen the worst of it yet, AIDS is in the process of destabilizing our world and may ultimately pose a challenge to peace and security more than the forms of terrorism that now preoccupy so many of the world’s leaders. The issues that prevent us from dealing with AIDS around the world, as one body, are the same ones that prevent us from being one family under God—because of bad theology, exclusion or, worse yet, indifference.
AIDS is not from God; it is not God’s punishment upon individuals. Conversely, nor is the notion of sin, personal or social, irrelevant, because AIDS is indeed a challenge to the people of God and a call to conversion. Conversion in the Christian sense is a long process of following with ever greater fidelity the model of living that Jesus taught by word and action. Its ultimate goal is to say with Saint Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” As Saint Paul urged the Ephesians, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
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May God bless us with lasting hope amid the darkness of implacable problems such as poverty, disease and division. May Jesus, who dies so that we might live, teach us all to love those who are unwanted, rejected or overlooked. May the Holy Sprit of Truth and Love fill us with great joy.
crib and cross Franciscan Ministries