On September 17 I offered a spiritual workshop to the Sisters of the Third Order of St.Francis at their motherhouse in Peoria, IL. While the universal Church remembers the Jesuit St. Robert Bellarmine in the liturgy that day, Franciscans celebrate a feast in remembrance of their holy founder’s receiving the stigmata. However, there is an interesting connection which Fr. John Hardon, S.J.has noted:
“St. Robert Bellarmine had a great devotion to St. Francis of Assisi, and was especially devoted to honoring Francis' stigmata. Bellarmine urged that there be a special feast in honor of the five stigmata of St. Francis. Bellarmine had an important position in the Vatican and he made sure that the feast was introduced in the Church, despite strong opposition. As Providence arranged, Robert Bellarmine died on the feast of the stigmata of St. Francis, September 17.”
The readings for the Franciscan feast are Galatians 6: 14-18 and Luke 9: 23-26 and the following is the homily that I offered to the Sisters.
As Providence would have it, today, as we reflect on the Jubilee Year of Mercy, we are celebrating a feast in honor of St. Francis of Assisi’s stigmata, a gift that he received in the year 1224. The Year of Mercy and St. Francis’ stigmata go together quite well. For if mercy is the greatest expression and embodiment of God’s love, and if the Church is the Body of Christ, then we are to embody God’s mercy and show it to the world in a visible way. The greatest act of mercy is the Passion—the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
In his Message for the 2015 World Mission Day, Pope Francis wrote: “Mission is a passion for Jesus and at the same time a passion for his people. When we pray before Jesus crucified, we see the depth of his love which gives us dignity and sustains us. At the same time, we realize that the love flowing from Jesus’ pierced heart expands to embrace the People of God and all humanity. We realize once more that he wants to make use of us to draw closer to his beloved people and all those who seek him with a sincere heart.”
Isn’t this what St. Francis did? He prayed before Jesus crucified and experienced the depth of his love. He shared Jesus’ passionate love for his people so much that he received the wounds of Jesus into his body. He embodied the Passion, the mercy of God.
On October 4, 1673, several months before Jesus appeared and revealed his Sacred Heart to her, St. Margaret Mary had a vision. Here is how she described it: “On the feast of St. Francis, our Lord let me see in prayer this great saint, clad in a garment of light and unspeakable brilliance. He had been raised above the other saints to an extraordinarily high degree of glory, because his life was so like that of the suffering Redeemer who is the life of our souls and the love of our hearts. His glory was the reward of his great love for the Passion of our Lord, a love which rendered him worthy of the sacred stigmata and made him one of the great favorites of Jesus’ heart.”
In our first reading, St. Paul wrote that the world had been crucified to him and he to the world. What does this mean? I think it means that he shared Christ’s passionate desire for the salvation of the world. This also describes St. Francis who took up the cross of poverty and labored for the salvation of souls. He even risked his life in 1219 by going to Egypt to speak with the Sultan about Jesus. Christian Crusaders were attacking the Sultan’s city and Francis was concerned as well for them because of their immoral life style. Francis shared Christ’s passionate concern that no one be lost.
The ultimate meaning of St. Francis’ stigmata is that he shared the desires and concerns of Jesus’ Heart so much that his body revealed the merciful wounds of Christ. He was so configured to Christ that he embodied the mercy of God in a visible way.
We too are called to be configured to Christ. When we share his concern for the world and labor with him for the salvation of all, we embody the mercy of God.
We do so, always, with joy. St. Francis once said: “It is not right for a servant of God to show a sad or gloomy face to anyone.” More recently, in “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis said that Christians cannot be “sourpusses.” The mercy which we embody is joyful. Being “merciful like the Father,” as the motto for this Extraordinary Jubilee Year tells us, means sharing God’s joy in being merciful. In the parables of Luke 15, Jesus tells us that there is great joy in heaven when the lost are found, when sinners repent and receive the mercy that God always has in store for them. May our celebration of this feast and our ongoing Jubilee celebration help us to embody the joyful mercy of God.