A few weeks ago Yahoo sports posted a story that caught my attention (but I am only now getting around to posting it, sorry) about a former world-class speedskater now on a journey to the vowed life as a Franciscan Sister of the Renewal.
A few weeks ago Yahoo sports posted a story that caught my attention (but I am only now getting around to posting it, sorry) about a former world-class speedskater now on a journey to the vowed life as a Franciscan Sister of the Renewal.
In early June, Pope
Benedict XVI travesl to Cyprus, the third largest island in the Mediterranean
and a mixed group of religions. He’s making a pastoral visit where he will give
the Middle East bishops the Instrumentum laboris (the working document focusing
the meeting) of the Synod of Bishops on the Eastern Churches due to be held
next October in the Vatican. This is yet another example of the Pope reaching out to the local Catholic churches and to the Orthodox Christians, Muslims and political leaders. It is hard for me to say this is a strategic visit but it certainly opens the mind that there are significant reasons in the pope’s mind as to why Cyprus and not another mixed culture. A good reason may be that he’s been to the Holy Land already and that neither Lebanon, Egypt nor Syria are willing to host the pope. At any rate, Cyprus is a logical choice because of the confluence of faith and reason.
For those who don’t know, Cyprus has a small
Catholic community of the Maronite and Latin Churches. The Latin Church is
governed by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude, Archbishop Fouad
Twal, and for centuries have been assisted by the Franciscan friars of the
Custody of the Holy Land. Giampiero Sandionigi’s interview with Franciscan Father
Umberto Barato, a parish priest in Nicosia and Vicar General for Cyprus of the
Latin Patriarchate follows in brief.
Father Barato, the Pope receives
invitations from many governments and episcopates but cannot accept them all.
How do you explain his decision to come to Cyprus, an island with, after all, a
fairly small Catholic community?
I don’t know how many invitations the Pope
receives and from how many countries. I only know that he decided to accept the
invitation of the Orthodox Archbishop of Cyprus, Chrysostomos II, and the
President Dimitri Christofias. There had been a precedent and perhaps that also
counted: John Paul II had wanted to visit the island but, due to questions of
time and the Pope’s poor health, he never made the journey. It is true that the
Catholic community in Cyprus is small, but I do not think that this is a
contra-indication. However that may be, I believe that Benedict XVI decided to
make the visit prior to the Synod on the Middle East. In addition, he will also
have thought about the political and religious situation of the island. It’s
not that the Pope can solve the problem of the division of Cyprus or tell the
leaders what they should do, but his presence can give courage and a positive
impulse to relations between the two sides.
When the trip was announced, some
people imagined that it would have particular consequences on ecumenical
dialogue at a European, or even global, level. What do you think about this?
What are the daily relations between Catholics and Orthodox like in Cyprus, and
with the Turkish Muslim minority?
It’s natural that people think like that.
Going to a country with an Orthodox majority, it is obvious that some people
think that the meeting between the Pope and the leaders of the local Church can
be ecumenical in character, that it is like a step ahead in the encounter,
understanding and reciprocal acceptance. However, I do not believe that it can
go further. I expect that after the visit, relations between the Catholic and Orthodox
Churches in Cyprus will become even closer. They are already excellent and at a
level that I do not believe can be found elsewhere in parts of the world where
the two Churches coexist. I’ll pass over the minor difficulties that sometimes
we come up against. In general, these are the fruit of ignorance or prejudice
fuelled by the long separation and reciprocal non-recognition between the two
sides. The positive fact is that the Catholic Church in Cyprus is accepted,
recognized and esteemed for its work of apostolate and education. There are
already some forms of collaboration, but the Pope’s visit will certainly be a
privileged occasion for the bonds to become even closer. With the Muslims, on
the contrary, we have no relations.
In a recent catechesis, I already illustrated the
providential role that the Order of Friars Minor and the Order of Preachers,
founded respectively by St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic Guzmán, had in
the renewal of the Church of their time. Today I would like to present to you
the figure of Francis, an authentic “giant” of holiness, who
continues to fascinate very many people of every age and every religion.
son is born to the world.” With these words, in the Divine Comedy
(Paradiso, Canto XI), the greatest Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, alludes to
Francis’ birth, which occurred at the end of 1181 or the beginning of 1182, in
Assisi. Belonging to a wealthy family — his father was a textile merchant —
Francis enjoyed a carefree adolescence and youth, cultivating the chivalrous ideals
of the time. When he was 20 he took part in a military campaign, and was taken
prisoner. He became ill and was released. After his return to Assisi, a slow
process of spiritual conversion began in him, which led him to abandon
gradually the worldly lifestyle he had practiced until then.
Striking at this
time are the famous episodes of the meeting with the leper — to whom Francis,
getting off his horse, gave the kiss of peace; and the message of the Crucifix
in the little church of San Damiano. Three times the crucified Christ came to
life and said to him: “Go, Francis, and repair my Church in ruins.”
This simple event of the Word of the Lord heard in the church of San Damiano
hides a profound symbolism. Immediately, St. Francis is called to repair this
little church, but the ruinous state of this building is a symbol of the tragic
and disturbing situation of the Church itself at that time, with a superficial
faith that does not form and transform life, with a clergy lacking in zeal,
with the cooling off of love; an interior destruction of the Church that also
implied a decomposition of unity, with the birth of heretical movements.
at the center of this Church in ruins is the Crucified and he speaks: he calls
to renewal, he calls Francis to manual labor to repair concretely the little
church of San Damiano, symbol of the more profound call to renew the Church of
Christ itself, with his radical faith and his enthusiastic love for Christ.
event, which probably occurred in 1205, makes one think of another similar
event that happened in 1207: the dream of Pope Innocent III. He saw in a dream
that the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Mother Church of all churches, was
collapsing and a small and insignificant religious supported the church with
his shoulders so that it would not collapse. It is interesting to note, on one
hand, that it is not the Pope who helps so that the church will not collapse,
but a small and insignificant religious, whom the Pope recognizes in Francis
who visited him. Innocent III was a powerful Pope, of great theological
learning, as well as of great political power, yet it was not for him to renew
the Church, but for the small and insignificant religious: It is St. Francis,
called by God.
On the other hand, however, it is important to note that St.
Francis does not renew the Church without or against the Pope, but only in
communion with him. The two realities go together: the Successor of Peter, the
bishops, the Church founded on the succession of the Apostles and the new
charism that the Holy Spirit created at this moment to renew the Church. True
renewal grows together.
Let us return to St. Francis’ life. Because his father
Bernardone reproved him for excessive generosity to the poor, Francis, with a
symbolic gesture, and before the bishop of Assisi, stripped himself of his
clothes, thus intending to renounce his paternal inheritance: As at the moment
of creation, Francis had nothing, but only the life that God gave him, and into
whose hands he entrusted himself. Then he lived as a hermit until, in 1208,
another fundamental event took place in the journey of his conversion. Hearing
a passage of the Gospel of Matthew — Jesus’ discourse to the Apostles sent on
mission — Francis feels he is called to live in poverty and to dedicate
himself to preaching. Other companions associated themselves to him and, in
1209, he went to Rome, to submit to the Pope the project of a new form of
Christian life. He was given a paternal reception by the great Pontiff who,
enlightened by the Lord, intuited the divine origin of the movement awakened by
Francis. The Poverello of Assisi had understood that every charism given by the
Holy Spirit is placed at the service of the Body of Christ, which is the
Church; hence, he always acted in full communion with the ecclesiastical
authority. In the life of saints there is no opposition between a prophetic
charism and the charism of government and, if some tension is created, they
must wait patiently for the times of the Holy Spirit.
In reality, some
historians in the 19th century and also in the last century tried to create
behind the Francis of tradition, a so-called historical Francis, just as there
is a desire to create behind the Jesus of the Gospels, a so-called historical
Jesus. Such a historical Francis would not have been a man of the Church, but a
man linked immediately only to Christ, a man who wished to create a renewal of
the people of God, without canonical forms and without the hierarchy. The truth
is that St. Francis really had a very immediate relationship with Jesus and
with the Word of God, which he wished to follow sine glossa, exactly as it is,
in all its radicalism and truth. It is also true that initially he did not have
the intention of creating an order with the necessary canonical forms, but,
simply, with the Word of God and the presence of the Lord, he wished to renew
the people of God, to call them again to listening to the Word and to literal
obedience to Christ. Moreover, he knew that Christ never is “mine” but
always is “ours,” that “I” cannot have Christ and
“I” cannot reconstruct against the Church, his will and his teaching
— but only in communion with the Church, built on the succession of the
Apostles, is obedience to the Word of God also renewed.
It is also true that he
did not intend to create a new order, but only to renew the people of God for
the Lord who comes. But he understood with suffering and pain that everything
must have its order, that even the law of the Church is necessary to give shape
to renewal and thus he really inserted himself totally, with the heart, in the
communion of the Church, with the Pope and the bishops. He knew always that the
center of the Church is the Eucharist, where the Body and Blood of Christ are
made present. Through the priesthood, the Eucharist is the Church. Where
priesthood, and Christ and communion of the Church go together, only there does
the Word of God also dwell. The true historical Francis and the Francis of the
Church speaks precisely in this way also to non-believers, to believers of other
confessions and religions.
Francis and his friars, ever more numerous,
established themselves in the Porziuncola, or church of Saint Mary of the
Angels, sacred place par excellence of Franciscan spirituality. Also Clare, a
young lady of Assisi of a noble family, placed herself in Francis’ school. Thus
the Second Franciscan Order originated, that of the Poor Clares, another
experience destined to bear outstanding fruits of sanctity in the Church.
successor of Innocent III, Pope Honorius III, with his bull “Cum
dilecti” of 1218, also upheld the singular development of the first Friars
Minor, who were opening their missions in several countries of Europe, and even
in Morocco. In 1219 Francis obtained permission to go to speak with the Muslim
Sultan Melek-el-Kamel in Egypt, and also to preach the Gospel of Jesus there. I
want to underline this episode of the life of St. Francis, which is very
timely. At a time in which there was under way a clash between Christianity and
Islam, Francis, armed deliberately only with his faith and his personal
meekness, pursued with efficacy the way of dialogue. The chronicles tell us of
a benevolent and cordial reception by the Muslim Sultan. It is a model that
also today should inspire relations between Christians and Muslims: to promote
a dialogue in truth, in reciprocal respect and in mutual understanding (cf. Nostra
It seems, then, that in 1220 Francis visited the Holy Land, thus
sowing a seed that was to bear much fruit: his spiritual sons, in fact, made of
the places in which Jesus lived a privileged realm of their mission. With
gratitude I think today of the great merits of the Franciscan Custody of the
Returning to Italy, Francis entrusted the government of the order to
his vicar, Friar Pietro Cattani, while the Pope entrusted the order, which
continued gathering more followers, to the protection of Cardinal Ugolino, the
future Supreme Pontiff Gregory IX. For his part the founder, totally dedicated
to preaching, which he carried out with great success, wrote a Rule, later
approved by the Pope.
In 1224, in the hermitage of La Verna, Francis saw the
Crucified in the form of a seraphim and from the encounter with the crucified
seraphim, he received the stigmata; he thus became one with the crucified
Christ: a gift, hence, which expresses his profound identification with the
Francis’ death — his transitus — occurred on the evening of Oct. 3,
1226, at the Porziuncola. After blessing his spiritual sons, he died, lying on
the naked earth. Two years later Pope Gregory IX inscribed him in the register
of saints. A short time later, a large basilica was raised in Assisi in his
honor, still today a destination for very many pilgrims, who can venerate the
tomb of the saint and enjoy Giotto’s frescoes, a painter who illustrated in a
magnificent way the life of Francis.
It has been said that Francis represents
an alter Christus, he was truly a living icon of Christ. He was even called
“Jesus’ brother.” Indeed, this was his ideal: to be like Jesus; to
contemplate the Christ of the Gospel, to love him intensely and to imitate his
virtues. In particular, he wished to give a fundamental value to interior and
exterior poverty, teaching it also to his spiritual sons. The first Beatitude
of the Sermon on the Mount — blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the
Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:3) — found a luminous fulfillment in the life and
in the words of St. Francis.
Truly, dear friends, the saints are the best
interpreters of the Bible; they, incarnating in their lives the Word of God,
render it more than attractive, so that it really speaks to us. Francis’
witness, who loved poverty to follow Christ with dedication and total liberty,
continues to be also for us an invitation to cultivate interior poverty to grow
in trust of God, uniting also a sober lifestyle and detachment from material
In Francis, love for Christ is expressed in a special way in adoration
of the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. In Franciscan sources one reads
moving expressions, such as this: “The whole of humanity fears, the whole
universe trembles and heaven exults, when on the altar, in the hand of the
priest, there is Christ, the Son of the living God. O wonderful favor! O
sublime humility, that the Lord of the universe, God and Son of God, so humbles
himself as to hide himself for our salvation, under the low form of bread”
(Francis of Assisi, Scritti, Editrici Francescane, Padua, 2002, 401).
Year for Priests, it pleases me also to recall a recommendation addressed by
Francis to priests: “When you wish to celebrate Mass, certainly in a pure
way, carry out with reverence the true sacrifice of the most holy Body and
Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Francis of Assisi, Scritti, 399).
always showed great deference to priests, and recommended that they always be
respected, even in the case when, at the personal level, they are not very
worthy. He cherished, as motivation for this profound respect, the fact that
they have received the gift of consecrating the Eucharist. Dear brothers in the
priesthood, let us never forget this teaching: the holiness of the Eucharist
asks us to be pure, to live in a consistent way with the mystery we celebrate.
the love of Christ is born love of people and also of all God’s creatures. Here
is another characteristic trait of Francis’ spirituality: the sense of
universal fraternity and love for Creation, which inspired his famous Canticle
of Creatures. It is a very timely message. As I reminded in my recent encyclical
Caritas in Veritate, the only sustainable development is one that respects
Creation and does not damage the environment (cf. No. 48-52), and in the
Message for the World Day of Peace of this year I underlined that also the
building of a solid peace is linked to respect for creation. Francis reminds us
that in creation is displayed the wisdom and benevolence of the Creator. In
fact, nature is understood by him as a language in which God speaks with us, in
which reality becomes transparent and we can speak of God and with God.
friends, Francis was a great saint and a joyful man. His simplicity, his
humility, his faith, his love of Christ, his kindness to every man and woman
made him happy in every situation. In fact, between sanctity and joy there
subsists a profound and indissoluble relation. A French writer said that there
is only one sadness in the world: that of not being saints, that is, of not
being close to God. Looking at St. Francis’ witness, we understand that this is
the secret of true happiness: to become saints, close to God!
May the Virgin,
tenderly loved by Francis, obtain this gift for us. We entrust ourselves to her
with the same words of the Poverello of Assisi: “Holy Virgin Mary, there
is no one like you born in the world among women, daughter and handmaid of the
Most High King and heavenly Father, Mother of our Most Holy Lord Jesus Christ,
spouse of the Holy Spirit: pray for us … to your most holy favorite Son, Lord
and Master” (Francis of Assisi, Scritti, 163).
this 800th anniversary year of the founding of the Franciscan Order,
Franciscans throughout the world have remembered the occasion with celebrations
and have also been reflecting on the demands of Franciscans today. Though
Franciscan life is expressed differently depending on one’s state in life, five
basic commitments characterize all Franciscan’s lives. These five commitments
offer a continuing challenge for renewal and recommitment to living the Franciscan
life which this anniversary year has helped to foster.
The renewal of religious life is also one of Pope Benedict’s priorities. AND boy does it need it. The general state of religious life in this country at least, is circling the drain. Religious life’s sad state is not merely about gaining new recruits, or wearing habits or working with the marginalized, but being faithful to Christ and the Church today, not some fantasy of what one “guru” hopes the Church to be. There are notable exceptions to this evaluation, but even those orders getting vocations there are concerns with the institutional rot in the ranks, and therefore they are fragile. Benedict’s general audience address yesterday shows us the breadth and depth of the work needed to be done AND the desire to see the mendicant life thrive and contribute to the upbuilding of the Kingdom. Being faithful to the charism of the order and to the Magisterium of the Church are essential components to any hope of renewal. The Pope said:
At the beginning of the new year, we look at the history of Christianity, to see how a history develops and how it can be renewed. In it we can see that it is the saints, guided by the light of God, who are the genuine reformers of the life of the Church and of society. Teachers by their word and witnesses with their example, they know how to promote a stable and profound ecclesial renewal, because they themselves are profoundly renewed, they are in contact with the true novelty: the presence of God in the world.
Such a consoling reality — that in every generation saints are born and bear the creativity of renewal — constantly accompanies the history of the Church in the midst of the sorrows and the negative aspects of her journey. We also see come forth, century by century, the forces of reform and of renewal, because the novelty of God is inexorable and always gives new strength to go forward.
This was what happened in the 13th century, with the birth and the extraordinary development of the Mendicant Orders: a model of great renewal in a new historic period. They were called thus because of their characteristic of “begging,” namely, of going to the people humbly for economic support to live the vow of poverty and to carry out their evangelizing mission. Of the Mendicant Orders that arose in that period, the most notable and most important are the Friars Minor and the Preaching Friars, known as Franciscans and Dominicans. They have these names because of their founders, Francis of Assisi and Dominic de Guzmán, respectively. These two great saints had the capacity to wisely read “the signs of the times,” intuiting the challenges that the Church of their time had to face.
A first challenge was represented by the spread of several groups and movements of faithful that, although inspired in a legitimate desire for authentic Christian life, often placed themselves outside of ecclesial communion. They were in profound opposition to the rich and beautiful Church that developed precisely with the flourishing of monasticism. In recent catecheses I reflected on the monastic community of
This brought about the so-called pauper movements of the Medieval Age. They harshly contested the lifestyles of priests and monks of the time, accused of having betrayed the Gospel and of not practicing poverty as the first Christians, and these movements counterpoised to the ministry of the bishops their own “parallel hierarchy.” Moreover, to justify their choices, they spread doctrines that were incompatible with the Catholic faith. For example, the movement of the Cathars or Albigensians proposed again old heresies, such as depreciation and contempt of the material world — opposition to wealth quickly became opposition to material reality as such — the negation of free will, and then dualism, the existence of a second principle of evil equated with God. These movements had success, especially in
With an altogether original choice in the history of consecrated life, the members of these orders not only gave up possession of personal goods, as monks had since antiquity, but even wanted real estate and goods put in the name of the community. In this way they intended to give witness of an extremely sober life, to be in solidarity with the poor and trust only in
And fruits were not lacking: The poor groups that had separated from the Church returned to ecclesial communion or, gradually, were re-dimensioned until they disappeared. Also today, though living in a society in which “having” often prevails over “being,” there is great sensitivity to examples of poverty and solidarity, which believers give with courageous choices. Also today, similar initiatives are not lacking: movements, which really begin from the novelty of the Gospel and live it radically today, putting themselves in God’s hands, to serve their neighbor. The world, as Paul VI recalled in Evangelii Nuntiandi, willingly listens to teachers when they are also witnesses. This is a lesson that must never be forgotten in the endeavor of spreading the Gospel: to live first of all what is proclaimed, to be a mirror of divine charity.
Franciscans and Dominicans were witnesses, but also teachers. In fact, another widespread need in their time was that of religious instruction. Not a few lay faithful, who lived in greatly expanding cities, wished to practice a spiritually intense Christian life. Hence they sought to deepen their knowledge of the faith and to be guided in the arduous but exciting path of holiness. Happily, the Mendicant Orders were also able to meet this need: the proclamation of the Gospel in simplicity and in its depth and greatness was one objective, perhaps the main objective of this movement. In fact, with great zeal they dedicated themselves to preaching. The faithful were very numerous, often real and veritable crowds, which gathered to hear the preachers in the churches and in places outdoors — let us think of St. Anthony, for example. They dealt with themes close to the life of the people, especially the practice of the theological and moral virtues, with concrete examples, easily understood. Moreover, they taught ways to nourish the life of prayer and piety. For example, the Franciscans greatly spread devotion to the humanity of Christ, with the commitment of imitating the Lord. Hence it is not surprising that the faithful were numerous, women and men, who chose to be supported in their Christian journey by the Franciscan and Dominican friars, sought after and appreciated spiritual directors and confessors.
Thus were born associations of lay faithful that were inspired by the spirituality of Sts. Francis and Dominic, adapted to their state of life. It was the Third Order, whether Franciscan or Dominican. In other words, the proposal of a “lay sanctity” won many people. As the Second Vatican Council recalled, the call to holiness is not reserved to some, but is universal (cf. Lumen Gentium, 40). In every state of life, according to the needs of each, there is the possibility of living the Gospel. Also today every Christian must tend to the “lofty measure of Christian life,” no matter what state of life he belongs to!
The importance of the Mendicant Orders grew so much in the Middle Ages that lay institutions, such as labor organizations, ancient corporations and even civil authorities, often took recourse to the spiritual consultation of members of such orders for the writing of their regulations and, at times, for the solution of internal and external opposition. The Franciscans and Dominicans became the spiritual leaders of the Medieval city. With great intuition, they put into practice a pastoral strategy adapted to the transformation of society. Because many people were moving from the countryside to the cities, they placed their monasteries no longer in rural but in urban areas. Moreover, to carry out their activity for the benefit of souls, it was necessary to move in keeping with pastoral needs.
With another altogether innovative choice, the Mendicant Orders abandoned the principle of stability, a classic of ancient monasticism, to choose another way. Friars and Preachers traveled from one place to another, with missionary zeal. As a consequence, they gave themselves an organization that was different from that of the majority of monastic orders. In place of the traditional autonomy that every monastery enjoyed, they gave greater importance to the order as such and to the superior-general, as well as to the structure of the provinces. Thus the mendicants were in general available for the needs of the universal Church. This flexibility made it possible to send friars more adapted to specific missions and the Mendicant Orders reached
Another great challenge was represented by the cultural transformations taking place at that time. New questions made for lively discussions in the universities, which arose at the end of the 12th century. Friars and Preachers did not hesitate to assume this commitment as well and, as students and professors, they entered the most famous universities of the time, founded centers of study, produced texts of great value, gave life to true and proper schools of thought, were protagonists of scholastic theology in its greatest period, and significantly influenced the development of thought.
The greatest thinkers, Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, were mendicants, operating in fact with this dynamism of the new evangelization, which also renewed the courage of thought, of dialogue between reason and faith. Today also there is a “charity of and in truth,” an “intellectual charity” to exercise, to enlighten intelligences and combine faith with culture. The widespread commitment of the Franciscans and Dominicans in the Medieval universities is an invitation, dear faithful, to make oneself present in places of the elaboration of learning, to propose, with respect and conviction, the light of the Gospel on the fundamental questions that concern man, his dignity, and his eternal destiny. Thinking of the role of the Franciscans and Dominicans in the Middle Ages, of the spiritual renewal they aroused, of the breath of new life that they communicated in the world, a monk says: “At that time the world was growing old. Two orders arose in the Church, from which it renewed its youth, like that of an eagle” (Burchard d’Ursperg, Chronicon).
Dear brothers and sisters, let us indeed invoke at the beginning of this year the Holy Spirit, eternal youth of the Church: May he make each one of us feel the urgency of giving a consistent and courageous witness of the Gospel, so that saints will never be lacking, who make the Church shine as a Bride always pure and beautiful, without stain and without wrinkle, able to attract the world irresistibly to Christ, to his salvation.