Ordinary Time 20, Year C
- This child is destined ... to be a sign that will be contradicted (Lk. 2:34)
As biographers of St. Francis of Assisi and Giotto's painting have it, Pietro Bernardone’s outrage over his son’s behavior finally led to a public confrontation. Before Assisi’s bishop and onlookers, Pietro disinherited and disowned his son Francesco. The son, in turn, renounced his father and his patrimony, saying (cf.Lawrence Cunningham, ed., Brother Francis: An Anthology of Writings by and about St. Francis of Assisi [Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1977]):
- Listen everyone and understand it well: until now I have
- called Pietro Bernardone my father; but now that I intend to
- serve the Lord I am returning to this man all the money
- which has caused him such a bother and all the clothes that
- were his property; and from now on I shall say Our Father
- which art in Heaven, instead of my father, Pietro Bernardone.
I find in incidents or stories such as this a clear illustration of the truth of Jesus’ saying: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” The division between Pietro and Francesco reveals to me that the peace proclaimed by the angels at the birth of the prince of peace—the peace that Jesus himself is—comes hand in hand with uncompromising fidelity to God’s word. This confrontation between father and son points me to the sovereignty of the claim that God’s word makes on everyone who would truly listen to him. This claim is far greater than any claim that family, national, ethnic or cultural ties have on anyone.
But the sovereignty of God’s word cannot be invoked, I don’t think, to justify violence, not even in the name of the kind of patriotism and national security appealed to by the princes in this Sunday's first reading. For one thing, the same Jesus who alerted his disciples to the hard reality of contradiction and rejection also taught forgiveness, reconciliation and love of enemies (Lk. 6:27-37). There was his rebuke, too, of disciples James and John for suggesting a retaliatory course of action (Lk. 9:51-55). Yet, more importantly, Jesus’ life was an eloquent renunciation of all violence, either of preemption or of resistance, for it was “a life spent until its last hour in bearing the cross of this world” and “in submission to the death of the Cross” (Friedrich Heer, “Saint Francis: The Medieval Man and His Culture,” in Lawrence Cunningham, ed., op. cit.). It was a life that could not have but led to the prayer: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”(Lk. 23:34).
And it looks like Pietro Bernardone and many of his contemporaries did not know either what they were doing. Theirs was a society, according to Heer, “whose daily life was warfare, unrest, tumult, hatred, envy and the lust for power,” a society through which were stalking “all those sinister beasts of prey” Dante wrote about. St. Francis’ contemporaries needed him precisely to preach to them “the good news for what it was: a message of joy and love, God dwelling at peace with men, mediated by Christ to his brother men.” St. Francis’ message speaks of God not being just spirit “but also wholly man, vulnerable, helpless, bleeding flesh, the blood of another men, too precious to be shed in warfare of any kind,” of Christ remaining crucified even in his Transfiguration, of Christ coming to earth to be the servant of all, of men being called to be peacemakers. St. Francis’ message, dissenting from the conventional wisdom—coming from antiquity and subscribed to, as a matter of “realism,” by rulers and government in the Middle Ages—that warns that man is a wolf to other men, protests that all creatures and all human beings were created by God to be brothers and sisters.
But notwithstanding his dissent and protest, St. Francis was no “protestant,” says Heer. “Francis was ‘against’ nothing.” He did not preach against the heretics of his day or the Emperor and the imperial party in Italy. Far from advocating disobedience to the Pope, St. Francis submitted himself to him and also to his own bishop and to all priests. “Francis knew no ‘against,’ no boundaries; he was as ingenuous with the Sultan as with his brethren in Italy.” Even when in his last years he had the “crucifying knowledge that his ideals were being mutilated,” St. Francis had no recriminations even against those responsible for such mutilation. Near death, he said: “I have done what I had to do; may Christ teach you what is your part.”
They will be taught their part, I believe, those who listen to God’s word attentively. And in hearing God’s word and acting on it, they will become Jesus’ mother, brothers and sisters (Lk. 8:21). Then, they themselves a sword will pierce while they submit also to fire and baptism, the death of the Cross, despising its shame, and taste, as did Jesus and prophet Jeremiah as well and so many others who heard the word of God and proclaimed it, using words when necessary, “the bitterest of this world’s fruits.” Those who renounce earthly securities and ground themselves in love and trust of God can be certain that the Lord will come to their aid and that they will never lack what they need even when everything “seems headed for disaster” (cf. Common Rules of the Congregation of the Mission, II, 2).