This is a reprint of a sermon given Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, in advance of the Feast of St. Francis, at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, in Enid, Okla.
Like many people, my first exposure to St. Francis of Assisi was one of those small images of Francis surrounded by animals. My mother had a ceramic statue of him that sat on a windowsill in our home. In his hand was a bird. A small fox curled up at his feet. And, until several years ago, when I began to learn about and fall in love with St. Francis, that little brown-robed figurine, and the occasional garden statue, was all I knew of this amazing saint.
There are many reasons to love Francis. But, I’d like to reflect on one theme that stuck out to me when I recently had the chance to visit the relics of one of Francis’ spiritual descendants: Franciscan friar, priest, mystic and saint, Padre Pio. The strength that made them special, and that infuses so many other saints, and the Franciscan order today, is their humility.
Francis’ humility shines through in one of the most famous stories from his ministry.
The village of Gubbio had been terrorized for some time by a large wolf that prowled about, at first picking off livestock, and later developing a taste for people. By the time Francis arrived in Gubbio, the villagers were essentially trapped inside the gates, terrified of the wolf.
Francis determined to visit the wolf in the woods, and make peace between it and the villagers. As recounted in “The Little Flowers,” Francis found the wolf, and addressed it:
“Brother wolf, thou hast done much evil in this land, destroying and killing the creatures of God without his permission; yea, not animals only hast thou destroyed, but thou hast even dared to devour men, made after the image of God; for which thing thou art worthy of being hanged like a robber and a murderer. All men cry out against thee, the dogs pursue thee, and all the inhabitants of this city are thy enemies; but I will make peace between them and thee, O brother wolf, if so be thou no more offend them, and they shall forgive thee all thy past offences, and neither men nor dogs shall pursue thee any more.”
The wolf submitted to Francis, and, according to legend, made peace with the villagers. When the wolf died, tradition holds the villagers gave it a proper burial, and erected the Church of Saint Francis of the Peace over the grave.
This whole story sounds like embellishment. But, during renovations to the church in 1872, workers unearthed the grave of a large wolf – apparently several hundred years old. So, was the story of the wolf legend, or was it history? I like to believe it is true. But, what’s most important here isn’t whether it’s legend or historical account. What’s most important is the truth within the story.
The truth of that wolf lives within each of us. We each have our own wolf, circling, waiting to devour our best intentions, our best laid plans. The wolf in the story of Francis plays the role of the devil, in 1 Peter 5:8: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
How do we tame such a beast? Francis gives us the answer: We must have humility. We must humble ourselves before Christ, surrendering to the knowledge we cannot overcome the wolf on our own. Only when we surrender to Christ within us, and allow Christ to shine forth from our innermost being, as Francis went forth to tame the wolf, can we hope to tame our ego, our pride, and find “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.”
Francis’ emphasis on humility was infused throughout his ministry, and spread to his brothers and spiritual heirs – down to this day. One of his brothers in life, a Pacifico, recorded in “The Little Flowers” a vision of the reward for this humility.
One day Pacifico “…was caught up in an ecstasy. He saw a row of thrones in the sky, one higher and more radiant than the others, studded with precious stones. Wondering for whom it was prepared, he heard a voice say: ‘This was Lucifer’s throne; Francis will occupy it instead.’ It continued: ‘Just as Lucifer was hurled from it because of his pride, Francis will receive it because of his humility.’”
Again, the important thing here isn’t whether or not there’s a literal throne in heaven for Francis. What’s important is the truth behind the story. The ways of Satan – and of this world – feed on and foster pride. The ways of God – and of the Kingdom – grow in a bed of humility, and lay the foundation of God’s Kingdom on Earth. The latter yields the greater reward, the reward that resides in the innermost part of our being, and in the truth of heaven, “where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
Francis fought his entire adult life to perfect this humility. Near the end of that fight, during a retreat at La Verna, one of the brothers observed Francis praying in the woods at night, repeating, over and over, this simple prayer: ‘Who art thou, my dearest Lord, and who am I, a most vile worm and thy most unprofitable servant?”
Francis was pleading with God to remove anything of himself that stood in the way of perfecting his humility, of achieving perfect surrender. And, he was rewarded shortly afterward with a visit by an angel, who told him: “I am come to admonish and encourage thee, that thou prepare thyself to receive in all patience and humility that which God will give and do to thee.” Francis replied humbly: “I am ready to bear patiently whatsoever my Lord shall be pleased to do to me.”
To perfect his humility, he knew he had to emulate Christ, who humbled himself as God by becoming human, by taking on our suffering and pain. To be perfectly humble, Francis would have to suffer as Christ suffered for us.
He made this passionate prayer:
“O Lord Jesus Christ, two graces do I ask of thee before I die; the first, that in my lifetime I may feel, as far as possible, both in my soul and body, that pain which thou, sweet Lord, didst endure in the hour of thy most bitter Passion; the second, that I may feel in my heart as much as possible of that excess of love by which thou, O Son of God, wast inflamed to suffer so cruel a Passion for us sinners.”
Not long after, again at La Verna, Francis received a divine visitation. A Brother Angelo recounted the episode: “One morning two years before his death, about the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, while he was praying on the side of a mountain in La Verna, there appeared to him a seraph in beautiful figure of a crucified man, having his hands and feet extended as though on a cross, and clearly showing the face of Jesus Christ. Two wings met above his head, two covered the rest of his body to the feet, and two were spread as in flight. When the vision passed, the soul of Francis was afire with love; and on his body there appeared the wonderful impression of the wounds of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Francis received the stigmata – the wounds of Christ – a painful blessing he bore until his death, two years later. And that brings me back to one of his spiritual heirs, St. Padre Pio. In his own words, Padre Pio recounted a scene similar to Francis’ account, from when he received the stigmata in 1918:
“It all happened in a flash. While all this was taking place, I saw before me a mysterious Person, similar to the one I had seen on August 5th, differing only because His hands, feet and side were dripping blood. The sight of Him frightened me: what I felt at that moment is indescribable. ‘I thought I would die, and would have died if the Lord hadn’t intervened and strengthened my heart which was about to burst out of my chest. The Person disappeared and I became aware that my hands, feet and side were pierced and were dripping with blood.”
But, 700 years had passed since St. Francis, and the 20th century world wasn’t sure what to think of a stigmatic friar. Many sought to discredit Padre Pio as a fraud – an effort that continues, sadly, to today. As a result, the Vatican published five decrees warning the public about Padre Pio, and he was restricted from hearing confessions and celebrating Mass for 11 years. For more than a decade, due to bearing the wounds of Christ, Padre Pio was essentially sequestered – imprisoned – in solitude within the walls of his cell.
And it was that 11 years of solitude – or more importantly, Padre Pio’s response to his seclusion – that speaks to the true power he shared with St. Francis.
In his ostracization, Padre Pio could have become indignant. Angry. Frustrated. He could have defied the Church. He could railed against the way he was treated. Those would have been understandable responses. But, instead, Padre Pio – who had no desire for the public to know of his divine wounds – resigned himself to obedience and prayer for the Church, and for others.
Through these prayers, Padre Pio healed many. And, he was known to miraculously bi-locate. But, it was not the miraculous healings, the bi-locations or the stigmata that made Padre Pio – or Francis before him – so remarkable. Those miracles were the work of God. But Francis and Padre Pio offered up something more, that enabled God to work through them.
As Fr. Mike Schmitz, a popular Catholic video blogger, pointed out, the greatest miracle of Padre Pio – and I would say also Francis – wasn’t the stigmata, or the healings or the unexplained miracles, like bi-location or levitation. The greatest miracle was their humility. The greatest miracle – and the one which we all can emulate – was their complete surrender to God.
It is unlikely any of us will bear the stigmata. It is unlikely we will do any of the miracles attributed to Francis and Padre Pio. But, each and every one of us has the power to walk the path of their humility – to completely surrender ourselves to God, to bear the wounds of Christ in our hearts, and allow God to use us to build a more loving, empathetic world. We have the power to surrender, and in that surrender to walk in the footsteps of Francis, and of Padre Pio, and to let God use us as He wills, to build his Kingdom.
Let us pray: Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, and of blessed Padre Pio, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.