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Feast of St Francis of Assisi

Saturday, October 06, 2012

On the 4th October, the feast of St Francis, six of the Dominican friars from Blackfriars set out across Oxford to join our Franciscan brothers at Greyfriars for the celebration of their founder’s feast day. As is traditional, one of the Dominicans preached at the Mass (as a Franciscan does for us on the feast of St Dominic), and afterwards, we joined the Franciscans, as well as members of the Secular Franciscan Order and some parishioners of Greyfriars, for a festal meal in their refectory. This tradition of visiting each other on our respective founders’ feast days dates back to the earliest days of the two orders – indeed, St Francis and St Dominic themselves met during their lifetime – and it is wonderful to be able to continue it here in Oxford.

Below is an extract from the homily:

In the readings the Church has appointed for today’s feast (Ecclus 50:1-6; Gal 6:14-18; Mt 11:25-30), our attention seems to be being drawn to St Francis’s founding of the Friars Minor, to his rebuilding of a ruined church – the Portiuncula – to his bearing the Stigmata, and to his evangelical simplicity.

Of these four, rebuilding a ruined church seems to be on rather a different level from founding an order, bearing the Stigmata, and exemplifying the words of Christ. And yet, in some ways, I think it can tell us quite a lot about St Francis and his significance for the Church. We have to remember, after all, that the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries were a time when many people in different parts of Western Europe were seeking a renewal of Christianity in reaction to the laxity and opulent lifestyle of many of the clergy. For some, this meant a complete rejection of the Church’s institutions, and in its most extreme form, a complete denial of the goodness of material things.

In contrast to these heretical movements, then, one of the first things St Francis did on embracing his life of voluntary poverty was to rebuild the little ruined church which had been given to him by a local Benedictine abbot. In the first place, then, we see how from that early point St Francis’s life bears witness to the true purpose and meaning of poverty: it’s not about denying the goodness of material things – indeed, we see that they can be a way of giving glory to God – but rather a sign of total commitment to God’s kingdom, and a means of avoiding the temptation to which the ownership of material things can subject us. And, of course, those famous stories of St Francis preaching to the birds and his singing of ‘Brother Sun’ and ‘Sister Moon’ all remind us too of the delight which he took in the world around him as God’s creation.

But his rebuilding of that little church doesn’t simply show St Francis’s desire to give glory to God through the things he has created – it’s also symbolic of the significance of his life for the Church of his day, and through her subsequent history. St Francis and the Order he founded were a central part of the renewal of Church in the thirteenth century, a renewal which came about not through political manoeuvring or a dissenting rejection of the authority of the clergy, even if many of them were corrupt, but through a simple-hearted response to the call of Christ.

Gregory Pearson OP


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