June 2011 – Letters from Assisi VI

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

June 2011

Dear Friend of Saint Francis,

There is in the Gospel of Saint Luke a clear call to preach the Good News. We know that the incarnation of that vocation takes many forms. In fact, for the most part, it consists of living in a way that gives witness to the Good News. Saint Francis is reported by some to have said, “Preach always; if necessary use words.” Even if he never uttered these precise words, they clearly reflect his sentiment, judging from what he has written. Actions speak louder than words; they are more believable and inspirational.

Some people have an explicit role to play in the propagation of the faith through the written and spoken word. Saint Luke tells us that Jesus sent out the twelve apostles “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal…They went through the villages, bringing good news and curing diseases everywhere.” (9: 2, 6) He also instructed them to do so without hindrance: “Take nothing for your journey.” (9: 3) He gave the same advice to “seventy others.” (10: 1-4) To them, he gave a particular message: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house.”

Good news, God’s kingdom, peace: these are the core of the Christian message to be proclaimed boldly and confidently; hopefully and lovingly; respectfully and thoughtfully. The Gospel is good news but it is more than just pleasant news; it is a key—sometimes difficult to apply—to the hidden meaning of life, which leads ultimately to true and spiritual joy. It is the lens through which we can see and understand, against all worldly misconceptions, the truth about love.

The kingdom of God is precisely that: a state of truth and love. Peace is the proof of truth and love. God so loved the world that he gave us Jesus, who is truth and love, so we might be rescued from the tyranny of self-centred fantasies.

Preaching the good news, by word or deed, is the responsibility of each follower of Christ. By one expression or other, our purpose is to be the good news to one another and, in so doing, play our part in constructing a kingdom of truth and love; authenticity and peace. This will be achieved first by evangelising the shadows in our selves and living the gospel, and then by witnessing to the joy that comes from that conversion. Walter Burghardt, an authority on the art and craft of preaching, wrote, “(Preaching) should proceed from conversion, express conversion, promote conversion.”

At some level, conversion calls for the purification of the heart; a turning to God that is free and focused. It is necessarily a turning away from what distracts, delays or obstructs our spiritual development. That is why Jesus instructed his disciples to shed accessories, to travel light. (It is interesting to note that the list of proscribed items is longer for the apostles in chapter nine than it is for the disciples in chapter ten.) Purity of heart, not perfection in rhetoric or even life, is the key to effective preaching—by word and deed.

The heart must be empty of all other things; because God will possess the heart alone; and as he cannot posses it alone without emptying it of all besides, so neither can he act there, and do in it what he pleases, unless it be left vacant to him.
Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God

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Padua, a short distance west of Venice, greets pilgrims from all over the world with purity, peace and a grandeur that contains their endless petitions. Some are idle tourists, others curious Christians, but notable among us are those whose hope rests in the miraculous reputation of Saint Anthony, public preacher and Franciscan teacher, who died here in 1231. They have come, sometimes desperate, for healing of heart and soul, if not for curing of their ailing bodies.

The city is very picturesque, with its dense network of arcaded streets opening into large communal piazza, and many bridges crossing the various branches of the Bacchiglione River, which once surrounded the ancient walls like a moat. At its centre stand a remarkable basilica dedicated to Saint Anthony, a vital destination for pilgrims for centuries.

The present edifice, constructed on the site of the saint’s original friary, has grown under a variety of different architectural influences. Externally, the brick facade has a Romanesque central section, which was extended outwards when the aisles were built, acquiring four deep Gothic recesses and an elegant arcaded balcony that stretches across the broad front of the building. The numerous domes, like the domes of St. Mark’s basilica in Venice, give a Byzantine appearance to the building. The many small belfries recall Turkish minarets.

I join visitors who pray fervently, my head and hand placed on the back of the grey wall of the saint’s tomb before moving to the chapel of the reliquaries. There are dozens of ornate containers holding the habit and cord of the saint, chalices and missals used during his lifetime. I gaze with a mixture of amazement and reverence upon his lower teeth, tongue and vocal chords, all symbols of his gift of angelic preaching.

The basilica contains several important masterpieces, including those that represent the Virgin Mary: the Madonna Mora, dating from 1396; the Madonna del Pilastro, a mid-14th century fresco; and, in the high altar area, the bronze Madonna with Child and six statues of saints by Donatello, who also executed four reliefs with episodes of the life of il santo—all this to honour a man who shunned wealth and fame his whole life.

I ask that if you find anything edifying, anything consoling, anything well presented, that you give all praise, all glory and all honour to the Blessed Son of God Jesus Christ. If on the other hand, you find anything that is ill composed, uninteresting or not too well explained, you impute and attribute it to my weakness, blindness, and lack of skill.
Saint Anthony of Padua, Epilogue

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Saint Anthony of Padua is the first in a long line of eloquent Franciscan preachers. Certainly Saint Francis before him had been an effective communicator in his own way, but his style was less sophisticated. As Saint Anthony had been trained as a theologian by the Augustinians, his style was an innovative blend of influences, drawing on the schools of Saint Augustine, Saint Gregory, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and Hugh St. Victor. As varied as these were, the content of his sermons was clearly Franciscan, challenging prevalent mores founded on lust, avarice and doctrinal heresies. He spoke sweetly of the love of God and the gift of Jesus.

Purity of heart was the hallmark of his preaching. Saint Anthony made extensive use of the Gospels in his homilies. In one, there are at least 183 passages from Scripture. He understood these clearly as well as the circumstances of people to whom he preached. His thoughts, motives, desires, dispositions, emotions, decisions and actions were all focused on one thing only, God’s love. He spoke with grace. Indeed, he displayed, in the words that Blessed John Henri Newman used to describe the pure in heart, “the uncontaminated heart, open countenance, and untroubled eyes of those who neither suspect, nor conceal, nor shun, nor are jealous.”

His intimate use of Scripture in preaching was such that he brought Jesus to life in the hearts of his listeners. This is illustrated by the popular statue of the saint holding a bible on which stands the child Jesus. The point of this image is that Saint Anthony reveals Jesus to the world in the way he preached the word of God. That is the ultimate goal of evangelisation: to show the heart of Jesus. Burghardt said it well in a book entitled Sir, We Would Like to See Jesus.

The spirit of il santo whose preaching was widely admired still resonates within the high walls of this unique sanctuary. Here, I bought the first volume of his sermons for Sundays and festivals. In the prologue, Saint Anthony explains his method. Each Sunday commentary begins with the Gospel of the day and is then explained allegorically, morally and “anagogically,” meaning that it also refers to the life of the world to come. Notwithstanding their complexity, the homilies of Saint Anthony are marked by simple language and inspiring tone rather than the polished and studied rhetoric that was esteemed in his day. They were noticed for their quiet beauty and persuasive effect.

To each heart, his gentle words whisper still those of Jesus, “Peace be to this house.”

In 1228 Saint Anthony was asked to Rome to preach to the papal curia and the throngs of pilgrims. People from various ethnic backgrounds were in attendance…and they each heard (his) sermon in their own language.
Lucinda Vardey, Traveling with the Saints in Italy

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May God bless you with the wisdom to proclaim the Gospel boldly, and if necessary to use words. May Jesus be the inspiration for a new evangelization that is based on truth about love. May God grant you courage to overcome obstacles and be an instrument of his hope where there is despair; joy where there is sadness.

Richard Boileau

Crib and Cross
Franciscan Ministries