May 2024 – Monthly Spiritual Assistant Greeting (Fr. Francis Sariego, OFM Cap)

St. Katherine Drexel Regional Fraternity

Regional Spiritual Assistant

St. Francis of Assisi Friary

1901 Prior Road

Wilmington, Delaware 19809 

tel: (302) 798-1454      fax: (302) 798-3360      website:  skdsfo     email: pppgusa@gmail.com

May 2024

Dear Sisters and Brothers in St. Francis of Assisi,

The Lord grant you the gifts of Easter Joy:

The Peace of the Father’s abiding Life

The Paraclete of the Holy Spirit’s Presence

The Pardon of the Incarnate Son’s Mercy

Divine Love within and around you

and

The warmth of Mary’s Motherly Love

Who accepted us as Her children at the foot of the Cross

The month of May continues the joy of the Easter Good News of the Resurrected Savior. This month also celebrates the “Woman” whose total surrender to the Will of the Father allowed what we celebrate in the Sacred Triduum to happen. Simple statement.  Yes.  But true!

Scripture confirms Mary’s response to the Angel’s offer: let it be done to me as you have said (Luke 1: 38). At Mary’s let it be done, God entered the human scene as a distinct human being, a man. The Life-Ministry-Passion-Death-Resurrection-Glorification of the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus, depended on Mary’s “yes”. God sought humanity’s collaboration through Mary. Mary’s response was the beginning of a new experience of God for humanity. She, Mother of the Redeemer, stood at the foot of the Cross of Jesus. The Presentation ritual performed in Jerusalem for the Infant Jesus years before was now the reality, in fact and not in ritual, fulfilled for all humanity and every age on the Altar of the Cross. The Mother confirmed and offered the bone of her bone, flesh of her flesh, blood of her blood (Genesis 2: 23) to the Father, Whose Spirit overshadowed (Luke 1: 35) Mary that the flesh became man and dwelt among us (John 1: 14).

The Cross was a reality that followed Mary every moment of her life with Jesus. The ultimate gift of herself saw the humanity of all God’s children on the Cross in and with Christ. The Cross now signaled the consummation (John 19: 28) of the Father’s Promise to redeem us by One like us Who is also One with the Father. Mary’s life journey with Jesus offered her the time to allow her to enter more deeply into the Father’s Will that she accepted unconditionally years before. The mystery of the Cross prophesied through the prophets was now revealed in fact to Mary at Golgotha and the Empty Tomb.

As in the life of our Blessed Mother, the Mystery of the Cross for St. Francis led him gradually into a knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of the desire of his life:

My Lord Jesus Christ, I beg You to grant me two graces before my death:  first, that for the rest of my life I may experience in my soul and in my body, as much as possible, the same pain that you suffered,  O sweet Jesus, during the time of Your most cruel Passion; and second, that I may feel in my heart, as much as possible, the same love which inflamed You, the Son of God, and led You to suffer Your passion gladly for us sinners.

Eventually Francis became a living expression of the Cross that followed him his entire life. The joy of the journey of discovery was leading to the glory of total union in conformity to Christ. This ultimate gift would be conferred years later on Mount La Verna.

The Incarnation was not a static moment in history. It began a process that God envisioned from all eternity. Human in every way but sin, Jesus, the Son of God, known as son of Mary and Joseph, began a journey of fulfillment through total surrender to the Father’s Will, that was fulfilled 33 years later on the Cross when Jesus said: It is consummated  (John 19: 28). The mystery began at Nazareth in Mary’s womb, was first seen at Bethlehem in a manger, continued preaching-teaching-healing throughout Israel and Judah, and consummated triumphant on Golgotha. The empty tomb confirms the truth of Jesus’ identity and verifies the faith of the disciples in Him.

We are witnesses to that truth. We are ambassadors of the message and messenger through the centuries. The Cross! Even in the joyful periods of our Christian lives, the bright shadow of the Cross is always, and must be, present. The problem is that some portray the Cross without Jesus, and that only promotes pain, suffering, and slavery. Some want only Jesus the Resurrected One without the Cross. That is a lie. We need both together in order to express what the joy of Resurrection morning is all about. Thus, we understand more the depth of the prayer of St. Francis, Lord I beg You to grant me two graces, and so on, that we read above. The stage is now set for Francis Bernardone to encounter Jesus in the Cross of San Damiano.

One day when Francis went out to meditate in the fields, he walked near the church of San Damiano which was threatening to collapse because of age. Impelled by the Spirit, he went inside to pray. Prostrate before an image of the Crucified, he was filled with no little consolation as he prayed. While his tear-filled eyes were gazing at the Lord’s cross, he heard with his bodily ears a voice coming from that cross, telling him three times: “Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is all being destroyed.” Trembling, Francis was stunned at the sound of such an astonishing voice, since he was alone in the church; and as he absorbed the power of the divine words into his heart, he fell into an ecstasy of mind. At last, coming back to himself, he prepared himself to obey and pulled himself together to carry out the command of repairing the material church, although the principal intention of the words referred to that which Christ purchased with his own blood, as the Holy Spirit taught him and as he himself later disclosed to the brothers. (Legenda Major, chpt. 2, 1)

At San Damiano, the Crucified Christ challenged Saint Francis to Go rebuild My house. That task meant Francis had to transform himself first. The prayer Francis prayed before the Crucifix was from a heart ready and willing to listen and live the mystery of love the Cross conveyed to him:

O most high, glorious God,

Enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me

True faith, certain hope, and perfect charity,

Sense and knowledge, Lord, that I may carry out

Your holy and true command.

At first Francis interpreted his experience in a literal manner, doing all he could to provide the means, with stones and mortar, to rebuild the physical structure of San Damiano, which actually was in ruins. Although this may have been part of the intent of the revelation, Francis quickly realized that the rebuilding process of a building had to include also the transformation of his heart. He would have to rebuild his inner self, and in doing so, discover his true identity. A simultaneous vocation unfolded: rebuilding the place and rebuilding his person. He had to be focused on Christ so that he could rebuild, renew, restore, with the help of God, the person he was created to be. 

The story of every transformation is to rebuild and fix what is missing or broken. In so doing we add a freshness to what seemed old and useless. Thus we restore beauty, pleasure, purpose and give hope, encouragement and joy. This little phrase Francis heard three times, Go rebuild my house, affected the rest of his life and that of those who sought to live the Gospel Life as Francis envisioned.

How did Francis go about rebuilding his life? The process slowly unfolded from his gazing upon the Crucified Savior over time. What were the steps? Saint Clare of Assisi described it best in her Second Letter to Saint Agnes of Prague, when she wrote: Gaze upon Christ, consider Christ, contemplate Christ, imitate Christ. Those four steps – gaze, consider, contemplate, imitate – became the pathway into the discovery of a new heart, a new power and a new self.

Gaze to see, consider to know, contemplate to understand, and imitate as the result of a spiritual process of conviction that leads to a life to be lived. To live Jesus is to be totally conformed to Him that it is no longer I who live but He Who lives in me (Galatians 2: 20).

To imitate Christ is the key to understand what happened to Francis at San Damiano and the key to an effective rebuilding of one’s life. To imitate relates to the word image. In our context here, it means to become the image of the one upon whom I gaze. Francis learned that his self-image, that is, his identity, was to become that of Christ on the cross. Both Francis and Clare must have spent countless hours contemplating this mystery. The change that would take place within Francis’ heart was imaged by what he gazed upon, and this new self would become his tool for renewing the house of God. The key to all this is the Incarnation. The condescension of compassion (St. Leo Great sermon on Nativity of Jesus) presents the sublime humility and humble sublimity of Jesus in being human that we might share in the awesome graces of divinity.

In the Incarnation, God revealed to us Who He is. The Incarnation showed us the face of God. But what does this image portray? What do we see? What Francis and Clare saw in the person of the Incarnate Christ was humility, poverty and charity. The most visible, tangible expression of this was the cross.

In the Incarnation, Francis saw that becoming human was the basis for humility. In embracing our humanness, Jesus did not cling to being God. This choice was the epitome of humility. In so choosing, Jesus could accept everything to which human nature is prone, even death. This image of Christ as seen on the cross became an essential component of Francis’ new self.

Like Jesus, humility for Francis meant not to cling to anything or appropriate any goods, titles, honors or position. It meant to be a servant to all, even to inanimate creatures. Both the Canticle of the Creatures of St. Francis and the Laudato Si’ of Pope Francis remind us of this servanthood It means generosity of spirit and generosity of heart, the willingness to let all others be first. It means obedience to all, being subject to all, just like Jesus, the Word made flesh, who did not cling to honor, status or power. In recognizing himself in this image, Francis embraced the essence of his being and the realization that he needed nothing else to give him worth.

The poverty Francis saw in the Crucified was the poverty of being a human creature. In letting go of divinity, Jesus accepted to be dependent, powerless, helpless and empty, and to “be on his own”. This is the essence of poverty. This true picture of humanity, modeled in the Incarnation, enabled Saint Paul to write that Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness (Philippians 2:6-7). Jesus, as God, chose to become human and poor, in order to reveal God’s self, which is love, and teach us our true identity. This poverty of God was most visible by the fact of God’s Son dying on the cross. Here Jesus embraced powerlessness, emptiness and utter helplessness and opened himself to complete abandonment and trust in his Father. These were, and are, essential components of the human makeup.

The other element that the image of Christ on the cross portrayed was that of charity, compassionate love, all-embracing Love. Jesus’ outstretched arms drew in all humanity, welcoming every creature into the embrace of God’s tender love through mercy, forgiveness and acceptance of all. This meant recognizing and accepting the worth and dignity of each person.

The cross is a mirror. In seeing myself in that mirror, I see Christ Crucified, and in seeing Christ Crucified, I see my most authentic self. As I am transformed into that image, I become the person God has always intended me to be. The distinguishing marks that identify me are the same I see in Jesus: poverty, humility and charity, which are identifying marks of the face of God. Then I am my true and genuine self. This reflection is difficult to describe and I’m sure equally difficult to understand or accept. Yet it lies at the heart of Francis’ spirituality and mission.

It also ties in most intimately with his experience before the San Damiano Crucifix and the invitation to rebuild the Church. It was a transformed heart, a transformed self, into the image of Christ that became the tools by which society, the Church and all life could be rebuilt. As we embrace this process, we take a major step towards discovering who we are as a disciple of Christ.  We are also well on the way to rebuilding our inner life and ultimately rebuilding the house of God.

How can we make “God’s Project” real and concrete?  We must come to a moment in life where, like Francis, we say: This is what I want and desire with all my heart. (Words o St. Francis at the Portiuncula after hearing the gospel of the sending out of the disciples)  Once that is clear, then the rhythm of daily prayer is essential. We need to beg God for the kind of transformation of heart needed to have a dwelling place for humility and poverty and charity. We cannot achieve this on our own power. It is God’s project, God’s work, and only grace can make it happen.

The other arena is that of relationships, whether in the family, among friends, community life or one’s workplace. It is here that humility, poverty and compassionate charity are brought to life and nowhere else.

Francis’ biographers point out that, when people met up with Francis or heard him preach, it was not simply a question of listening to words of peace and joy. Nor were people merely persuaded to reflect upon reasons for forgiving each other, doing penance or thanking and praising God. Rather, they were confronted with these realities in the person of Francis. They were in the living presence of forgiveness, peace, faith and love. Francis had integrated these values into his person by taking on the image of Christ on the cross.

Francis became conformed to the Crucified to such a degree that at the end of his life he appeared like the Crucified with the wounds of Christ engraved into his flesh. This would complete what began at San Damiano when the wounds of the sacred Passion were impressed deep in his heart, though not yet on his flesh (Second Life, #10, Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, Volume 2: The Founder),

Francis sought repeatedly for ways to encourage the brothers to give birth to these essentials, to strive for purity of heart, and thus give birth to Christ in their own lives. This is the transformation that must go hand in hand with all other endeavors in proclaiming the Kingdom of God. This is the inner rebuilding that gives life and spirit to any outward effort.

This image of Christ in Francis was very real, as we read in Celano:  The brothers who lived with him know that daily, constantly, talk of Jesus was always on his lips, sweet and pleasant conversations about Him, kind words full of love. Out of the fullness of his heart his mouth spoke. So the spring of radiant love that filled his heart within gushed forth. He was always with Jesus: Jesus in his heart, Jesus in his mouth, Jesus in his ears, Jesus in his eyes, Jesus in his hands, he bore Jesus always in his whole body…. With amazing love he bore in his heart and always held onto Christ Jesus and Him crucified. (Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, Volume 1: The Saint, New City Press, p. 283)

May the Jesus we seek to imitate, truly be in our mouth, ears, lips, our whole being. The Cross that spoke to Francis is for us a reminder of the Jesus Who speaks to our hearts daily inviting us to rebuild, refresh, and restore the Christ that time, circumstance, or whatever may have distorted or covered over. The challenge of San Damiano is an offer and gift as fresh and vibrant today for us as it was for our Seraphic Father 800 years ago.

May the gift of the Holy Spirit, Whose descent into the heart of the Early Church at Pentecost, fill us with the gifts necessary to Live Jesus. We are Heralds of the Great King. In a world so desperately in need of the Good News, Who is a Person, Jesus the Christ, we preach Christ, and Christ Crucified and Risen (1 Corinthians 1: 23).

God bless you; our Lady and good St. Joseph guide, guard, and protect you; and Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi watch over all of us and our loved ones with loving care.

Peace and Blessings

Fr. Francis A. Sariego, OFM Cap

Regional Spiritual Assistant

 

 

(NB – Part of this month’s letter is taken from an article in St. Anthony’s Messenger in 2022. There are deletions, modifications, insertions not by the author, but the substance of the article from Roch Niemier, OFM. In gratitude and recognition for our brother’s article, I offer it for our consideration of the Third Cross of Saint Francis, the Cross of San Damiano, as presented by St. Bonaventure in his Legenda Major of St. Francis.)

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