Fr. Francis' Greetings - September, 2014

Dear Sisters and Brothers in St. Francis,Bartolome-Esteban-Murillo-Saint-Francis-of-Assisi-Receiving-the-Stigmata[1]

The Lord give you his peace!

The world seems inundated with tragedies of all kinds. The Middle East and Africa are plagued by severe persecutions against Christians primarily but also other minority religious groups. Refugees in the Middle East, Africa, as well as at the border of the United States and Mexico arouse multi-national concern for their safety and well-being. Natural disasters are occurring more frequently around the world displacing or killing thousands of people. These occurrences are only a few signs of the sadness and suffering happening around our world. The cross of trials and suffering is not foreign to anyone. Trial and suffering was the culmination of the life of the One we call Lord and Savior. His years of silence and short-lived ministry, were all in preparation for the reason for His Incarnation. The Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ is the throne of fulfillment where Jesus spoke His most eloquent sermon and fulfilled the Will of the Father. It is from the Cross that we were “washed in His Blood” (Revelation 1:5) and made “coheirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17) to the fullness of Life with the Father through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In the Name of Jesus, the Cross becomes a sign of hope not despair, of love not hatred, of life not death. How can we accept the “cross” experiences of life – sickness, persecutions, violence, death, uncertainties, and more – the “suffering moments” of life – as beneficial, though not necessarily desired, when they come our way?

It is the Cross of Christ Jesus that has been the strength of/for all Christians who believe in Him. As in the past, even today the Cross is the strength of our Christian sisters and brothers who refuse to accede to threats and immediate death at the hands of men who demand apostasy from their Faith in Jesus Christ. The cross of suffering manifests itself in diverse and even “subtle” ways. How many, for example, are ostracized, criticized, alienated from circles of friends or co-workers for holding fast to gospel values when the majority opts otherwise? How many have even lost jobs because they would not accept practices in the workplace or “extra curricular activities” they knew violated their gospel values? Whether it be outright persecution or subtle persecution, Christ and His Cross are always the a “sign of contradiction” (Luke 2:34) and the instrument of victory. Our trials and sufferings offer opportunities to live what we profess. We are challenged to view the Cross of Christ and our own particular crosses from the perspective of Jesus.

No one really likes suffering. Suffering is not a part of life people want to experience. We do all that we can to avoid it, or at least alleviate it in some way. Some sufferings, especially illnesses or disabling conditions, are to be alleviated or eliminated if possible. Suffering for the sake of suffering is not God-centered, unless we embrace and accept it for a greater good – God’s glory and the good of others. The Cross, in any form, whether the Cross of punishment and death like that of Jesus, or the crosses of illness, moral and psychological challenges, inabilities to overcome spiritual hurdles, and the like, are not the alluring and enticing “gift” that attracts us, nor is it what we readily would ask for ourselves.

The Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that both good and bad are facts of life. There is a time for both. Our attitude of gratitude for the good and our resignation and ultimate acceptance for what cannot be changed, form the soul’s response to God’s gift of life. Life becomes the timely gift that leads to its fulfillment in eternity. The Book of Ecclesiastes has a wisdom worthy of our consideration. The ancients were not the resigned stoics who accepted things because “they had to”. In their basic, “nuts-and-bolts” way, they were able to see things, all things, from a sacred or divine perspective, that gave value even to the less desirable experiences of life. There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the sun … time to heal and a time to tear down … time to rend and a time to sew … time to love … time for war … and a time for peace. (cfr.Ecclesiastes 3), and this “time” is the “gift of God” to each individual. “Time” is the “servant” of all people on the journey to Life. Thus, even less appreciable happenings are never negative, just more challenging. Both time and trials can be viewed from the perspective of grace as “gifts”. Gifts are given out of love, kindness, and affection. The “gift” of suffering is allowed, and at times possibly directly willed, by a loving God who only wants our best, and that He might manifest His glory in, with, and through us for ourselves and others.

1. Suffering encourages us to focus on Jesus.   –   When matters are going well, and especially when we are bogged down by some trouble, pain, or prolonged suffering, we often take our eyes off Jesus much too easily and quickly. Instead of fighting the good fight we pitch our tents on the sidelines and try to create for ourselves a life of comfort and ease. We fill our lives with things that the world tells us we need. The world offers these “distractions” in moments of suffering. Jesus is quickly forgotten, the Word neglected, and sin, often for the sake of distraction or relief, indulged. In the words of our holy Mother St. Clare of Assisi, we must gaze upon the Lord and see ourselves in that mirror. He must be always present in His Life and words especially in trying times. When suffering comes into our lives we must be roused out of our sleep to see things as they really are and understand that earthly blessings do not satisfy or save. We must cling to Jesus for all our needs and for Life itself. We must take up the armor of God and join in the battle against satan and evil in the world that seeks to ruin us. We are reminded of the gift of Jesus that we already possess; a Gift that is truly all we need.

2. Suffering opens our eyes to the sufferings of others.   –   We can say kind words to those who are suffering. We can “buy our responsibility away from suffering” by, for example, giving a few dollars to the needy but never really speaking with him/her who seeks our help. We can feed the hungry or possibly work in a soup kitchen. Like St. Francis who kissed the leper, we might even hug, shake the hand, or talk with someone who is needy or suffering. We could visit the sick and infirm. We might even stop for a moment to greet, smile or acknowledge someone who is socially, physically, psychologically, or otherwise repugnant to us; it might even be a heroic act we perform for a brief moment. But, until we have experienced suffering ourselves we cannot fully sympathize/empathize with a fellow sister or brother who is going through some tough times, however they are experiencing them. Our own suffering makes us sensitive to the afflictions of others. If we have found peace through our trials, we are able to comfort others with the comfort we ourselves have received. We can offer comfort with the “gift” we desired for ourselves but did not receive, and yet are able to offer others, while we ourselves experience little or no relief. This last act of love is spiritually grace-filled and fulfilling. We “become peace” for others in the Name of Jesus. Jesus is the “Wounded Healer” and we share in being “wounded healers” with Him.

3. Suffering is God’s tool for our sanctification.   –   The process of becoming more like Jesus is not an easy transformation. Sin digs in its heels and doesn’t want to let go. Our pride says that we know better, and our selfishness is constantly pushing Jesus aside. In order to look more like the humble, selfless Son of God we must go through some fire so that our impurities can be burned off – See, I have refined you like silver, tested you in the furnace of affliction (Isaiah 48:10). While the experience of suffering may not be pleasant at the time, we will shine more brightly once we make it through – Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance (James 1:2-4).

4. Suffering is an exercise of our Faith/faith.   –   The two words – “Faith” and “faith” – indicate both types of Faith we express when through trials we maintain a joy-filled soul and, when possible, a happy demeanor. “Faith” denotes “what” we believe (God is love, mercy, gracious, and so forth), and “faith” denotes “how” we believe (cheerfully in difficulties, persevering in trials, and so on). During “difficult or trying days”, when we may not understand why “this is happening to me”, it becomes necessary to remember what we have always professed about our God: Our God is the same yesterday, today, and always (Hebrews 13: 8).   Suffering encourages us to express in our actions the truths we know about God, truths that never change. We remember and believe in God’s wisdom, goodness, and sovereignty… we believe in God’s Eternal Extravagant Love! We live the conviction of that belief!

Since deep-rooted Faith inevitably leads to sure Hope, let us be careful that we not grieve like the rest, who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4: 13) at our moments or even years of loss and hardship. Such times are not occasions to shake our fists at God who seems somehow to have let us down. God never lets us down. It is we who forget His Extravagant Love and that God is our Tremendous Lover, Whose challenges allow us to discover the strengths and gifts hidden within the depths of our being. Nowhere in Sacred Scripture have we been promised an easy life. But God has promised to never leave us or forsake us – but be content with what you have, for He has said, I will never forsake you or abandon you (Heb.13:5). God has a purpose for us and all that takes place in our lives, both the good He sends and the bad He permits. Our suffering not only tests our faith, but it works it out and makes it stronger.

While keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before Him, He endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken His seat at the right of the throne of God (Heb. 12:2). Through Jesus’ suffering we have Life, and we have an example in the Son of God Who accepted human trials and suffering, even death, as a gift of loving obedience to the Father’s Will for those who would be redeemed in His Blood shed on the Cross. For to you has been granted for the sake of Christ, not only to believe in Him but also to suffer for Him (Philippians 1:29). War and its after-effects on society, persecutions, torture/death, violence, economic difficulties, contagious illnesses, social restlessness, immorality and amorality, take their toll on the spiritual life of God’s people. Even those of deep faith can experience a dryness and spiritual fatigue. God’s Word and healing grace are made more apparent and effective when we walk together supporting, encouraging, and nourishing each other through our loving example and care, rooted in Faith and Hope with our eyes fixed on the Cross of Jesus our Victorious Redeemer.

Our Seraphic Father St. Francis of Assisi was a living prophecy to a lethargic world suffering from spiritual dryness. To see St. Francis, signed with the sign of the Crucified, made Jesus come alive in the hearts of those he met and with whom he spoke. The Stigmata were a visible sign of reassurance, encouragement, life-giving. Isaiah spoke of the wounds of Christ centuries before Jesus’ Passion and Death – Through His wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53: 4-5). St. Francis of Assisi let those wounds come alive once again in his own body. He became a reminder of Jesus’ love and sacrifice for others. Similarly, we Franciscans are to be a sign of hope to others. The visible wounds on his body kept the reality of that One Great Sacrifice of Jesus vividly alive before the eyes of those who witnessed the sense of joy and unworthiness, not repugnance, of his acceptance of a share in the Passion of Christ. The great theologian to the Gentiles, St. Paul, speaks to the Colossians about participating in the sufferings of Christ: Now I rejoice in my suffering for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church… (Colossians 1: 24)

The Spiritual Children of the Poverello of Assisi continue his legacy. We are resolved to let Jesus come alive in us in a world grown cold to the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This same “world” often violently persecutes the message and messengers of the Gospel, as current events so vividly remind us. The ‘Good News’ that we preach with our lives is that God so loved the world He sent His only Son so that all who believe in Him might have life … He did not come to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him (John 3: 16-17). When we ‘climb Calvary’ with Christ and accept to receive ‘our own stigmata’, bearing joyfully our sufferings, trials, and burdens, we begin to rekindle the flame of faith in the hearts of others, as it grows stronger by God’s grace in our own. Let us imitate love, meditate on the sufferings and love of Jesus, love the cross, grow in Christian perfection …“climb Calvary”. Let us embrace everything with a cheerful soul. Let us be faithful, and place the world under our feet (as our Seraphic Father is portrayed doing in the beautiful masterpiece by Murillo of St. Francis and the Crucified) . The life of our Seraphic Father offers us a simple and powerful way to strengthen and deepen our spiritual lives by making the Cross of Christ the God-given Gift entrusted to those called to be living images of His Son. The impression of the Stigmata of Jesus on Saint Francis of Assisi challenges us to remember and live the words Per Crucem ad LucemThrough the Cross to the Light. May our hands be impressed with the marks of our suffering sisters and brothers whom we encounter and embrace (Matthew 25:31-46); our feet be those of one who bears tidings of peace (Isaiah 52: 7) moving toward others who may have estranged themselves from us; and our heart be opened by the piercing sword of love inviting all to enter into God’s loving embrace through us (John 19: 33-37). When we embrace others in their pain and suffering, we not only alleviate theirs but diminish our own.

May God bless you; my Our Lady guide, guard, and protect you; and may our Seraphic Father St. Francis of Assisi look upon each one of you, his Spiritual Children, with loving care. May the celebration of the Stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi help us to rekindle our love for the Cross so that Jesus may always be alive in us!

Peace and Blessings

Fr. Francis A. Sariego, O.F.M. Cap.

Regional Spiritual Assistant

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