June 2002 – Recalling St. Anthony and St. John the Baptist

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

June 2002

Dear Friends of St. Francis:

May the Lord give you peace.

Two major feasts occurring during the month of June afford us unique perspectives on the spirituality of St. Francis: St. Anthony of Padua (June 13) was the first priest to join the nascent fraternal community; and St. John the Baptist (June 24) prefigured the prophetic role that his namesake would play almost 1200 years later.

Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations
…and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you.

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Fernando, as St. Anthony was called originally, was born in Lisbon in 1195 into a reasonably well-heeled family, his father being a knight at the court of the king of Portugal. At the age of 15, he joined the Canons Regular of St. Augustine and was soon transferred to the monastery of Santa Cruz at Coimbra, which was renowned for its biblical scholarship. There is every indicated that he was well suited to this environment as it is said, for instance, that he committed Scripture to memory and was very adept at learning.

But a disturbing event shook him in his mid-twenties, and put his life on new course. The bodies of the first Franciscan martyrs were returned to Coimbra from Morocco. He was deeply moved. Wanting to die for Christ, he offered to join the new order on condition that they send him to Morocco. Permission was reluctantly granted by the Augustinian superior. Joining the Franciscans, he adopted the name Anthony after the patron of the friary at Coimbra.

Though he did sail for Morocco, he became so ill that it was decided that he should go home. During the return voyage, a violent storm diverted them toward Sicily. There, he found a group of Franciscans who were preparing to travel to the great Pentecost “Chapter of Mats” of 1221 at Assisi. He joined the thousands gathering there, where he would have met St. Francis for the first time. His biographers indicate that St. Anthony held a very low profile at this historic meeting. Afterwards, he lead a simple and rather withdrawn life in a small hermitage near Forli. Then, more than a year later, as though by chance, St. Anthony was invited to replace the scheduled homilist at an ordination at the local Dominican priory. Fired by the Holy Spirit, he made a momentous impact on those present. From then on, he became known as a brilliant and powerful preacher.

This fact caused St. Francis to reconsider his deep suspicion of learning. For him, devotion was more important than study, and study could serve to make a man proud and to seek special privileges. St. Anthony respected this. And while his sermons were electrifying and presented powerful arguments against the deviations of heretics, he always preached in the Spirit and from the Word, rather than from learned theological principles. This was consistent with the spirituality of the Holy founder.

The frequency and intensity of his preaching eventually undermined the health of St. Anthony. Very ill, he was transported by an ox-draw peasant’s car to his new home at Padua. On route, at Arcella, he stopped at the convent of the Poor Clares. His breathing strained, he died while chanting a Lauds hymn.

Perhaps the most poignant sign of the holy priest’s commitment to the spirituality of St. Francis is that he tends, despite his great learning, to be associated with simple acts of healing, devotion and charity. These define the Franciscan heart.

To Brother Anthony, my bishop, Brother Francis sends greetings. It is agreeable to me that you should teach the friars sacred theology, so long as they do not extinguish the spirit of prayer and devotedness over this study, as is contained in the Rule. Farewell. (Letter from St. Francis to St. Anthony)

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When St. Francis was born, his father – who was an affluent textile merchant – was in France on business. At his baptism, his mother named him John. Upon his return, his father had him name changed to Francesco, to mark his great love of France. While the comparison was probably not intended, we can readily see a resemblance between Francis and John the Baptist, and it even helps us to better understand who Francis was.

The dramatic manner in which both behaved made them both great prophets and teachers – heralds of God’s truth – projecting across vast expanses of space and time. There are great similarities too in the manner and content of their prophetic missions. Both adopted ascetic lifestyles; both preached about the need for conversion; and both, in their own way, pointed to the coming of Christ.

Laura Smit of Boston University wrote a paper on the aesthetic pedagogy of St. Francis, which points out that “Francis of Assisi was an effective teacher who intentionally illustrated the life of virtue in his own way of living. He was a teacher in the same sense as the Hebrew Prophets”. She goes on to add that “he was a performance artist for whom drama functioned pedagogically. His life was not always meant to be an example to his followers; sometimes it was a dramatic lesson, meant to be watched, not imitated(…) Francis’ dramatized life distorts the importance of poverty, but this is a distortion from which we may be able to learn if we are able to imaginatively identify with Francis. For Francis, asceticism was a form of obedience, and obedience a mode of knowledge.”

St. Francis, like St. John the Baptist, had many followers because of his great charisma and the wisdom of his teaching, but these he led to Christ saying that he was not worthy of lacing the true Master’s sandals. Both led with true humility, realizing at once their giftedness and their human limitations; both knew that whatever giftedness they enjoyed was conferred upon them as instruments of God’s creative action in their world.

A voice of one that cries in the desert:
Prepare a way for the Lord. Make his paths straight!

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Most people, when they hear the word “prophet”, are likely to think of someone who foretold the future. Such prophets seem to have abounded in Old Testament times. Practically one third of the Old Testament is made up of the writings of the prophets. Now, not all the prophets wrote. The great prophet Elijah was an “action” prophet who wrote nothing, yet his powerful words and deeds live on!

Yet prophets were much more than “future tellers.” They were “forth-tellers” of God’s message to His People. They spoke a forceful word that penetrated to the heart. It roused the people. Some responded positively: by reforming their lives, or working for social justice, or fighting in a holy war, or rebuilding the Temple of God. Others responded negatively: with anger, rejection and even violence to their message of “doom and gloom.” But whether their message met with openness or opposition, the prophets were a force to be reckoned with. Their deeds and words were definitely “anointed” with the power of the Holy Spirit. As the Nicene Creed states: “He spoke through the prophets.” In the New Testament, we also meet with “prophets.” St. John the Baptist proclaimed by his Spirit-filled father, Zechariah, as “prophet of the Most High.” Even Our Lord Himself is called a “prophet” (a man of God) by the Samaritan woman at the well, after He told her of the sinful life she was leading. Later on, St. Paul mentions “prophets” among various roles of service for building up the Mystical Body of Christ. In this sense, a “prophet” was not an established office, like that of bishop, but rather a charismatic-style ministry, exercised frequently by itinerant preachers in the early Church. Their role was important. Their powerful witness and word roused the people to love and fidelity.

God raised up prophets at critical times in salvation history. He still raises up “prophets” in the history of the Catholic Church, usually at a time of great need or crisis. St. Francis is certainly a prophetic figure in Church history. His faithful living of the Gospel restored the “Apostolic” form of spirituality in the life of the Church. This had largely been lost sight of for about 800 years, during which monastic spirituality held sway. St. Francis’ very lifestyle became a “prophetic witness” in a Church Jesus had called him to reform: “Francis, go and rebuild My Church which you see is falling into ruin.” His total poverty and reliance on Divine Providence, his renunciation of social power and dominance over others, and his loyal allegiance to the Catholic Church in her doctrine and authority, all made him a highly visible “sign of contradiction” in his own time and a looming “prophetic witness” for all times in the Church.

(Excerpts from St. Francis: Prophetic Witness in the Church, Fr. Andrew Apostoli, C.F.R.)

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May the good Lord fill you with the faith …in which hope grows, and from which love blossoms. May that faith, hope and love bear the fragrant fruit of freedom, and the nourishing goodness of truth and perfect joy. May it give you peace.

Fraternally, richard.