Pope Francis’ Oct. 4 visit to Assisi, Italy — the birthplace of his papal namesake, St. Francis — was an opportunity for him to highlight several key themes of his pontificate, including mercy, the renunciation of worldliness, discernment and the embrace of Christ in poverty — especially poverty in spirit — to change the world.
The journey to Assisi on il Poverello’s feast day included elements that have become standard for the pope as he proclaims his themes, such as meetings with disabled and sick children and the poor and an audience with young people.
Francis is particularly gifted in gestures and images, and the meeting with the sick and disabled at the sports field of the Serafico Institute of Assisi was filled with poignant moments of mercy, most so as he embraced and kissed young people and their caregivers on the cheek and gave each of them the Sign of the Cross on their foreheads.
He then set aside a prepared talk in favor of a powerful off-the-cuff meditation on the scars of Christ that he compared to the suffering of the sick.
“A Christian adores Jesus, seeks Jesus, knows how to recognize the scars of Jesus. When Jesus rose he was beautiful. He didn’t have his wounds on his body, but he wanted to keep the scars, and he brought them with him to heaven,” he said. “The scars of Jesus are here, and they are in heaven before the Father. We care for the scars of Jesus here, and he from heaven shows us his scars and tells all of us, ‘I am waiting for you.’”
Stripping away worldliness
Pope Francis prayed at the tombs of Sts. Francis and Clare and before the cross of San Damiano, but he also made it a point to pray privately in St. Francis’ hovel and to speak at the archbishop’s residence where 800 years ago St. Francis stripped off his fine clothes, renounced all wealth and embraced the call of radical poverty.
The prayer at the hovel, and his pastoral encounter with the poor at the archbishop’s residence, both stressed the pontiff’s call on the whole Church to strip away all forms of worldliness and emulate il Poverello’s poverty, which itself was rooted in the servant humility of Jesus. Once again, Francis spoke extemporaneously on the cross as the ultimate sign of Christ’s humility.
In recent interviews, the pope has talked about the need for the Church to be engaged with the world, but in Assisi he reminded its members not to succumb to the spirit of the world, described by the pope as “the leprosy, the cancer of society and the cancer of the revelation of God and the enemy of Jesus.” This spirit, he warned, leads to vanity, arrogance and pride and the grave sin of idolatry.
For the Christian, the cross, humility and the rejection of the spirit of the world are vital for authentic progress; otherwise, Francis taught, “we become pastry shop Christians … like nice sweet things but not real Christians.”
Peace of Christ
The imagery of stripping away worldliness and putting on Christ was carried forward in the papal Mass in the piazza before the Basilica of St. Francis. Being a Christian, Pope Francis declared, “means having a living relationship with the person of Jesus; it means putting on Christ, being conformed to him.”
The journey of St. Francis to Christ began with the gaze of the crucified Jesus whose cross “speaks to us of love, the love of God incarnate, a love which does not die, but triumphs over evil and death. When we let the crucified Jesus gaze upon us, we are re-created, we become ‘a new creation.’” To be a follower of Christ, Francis noted, is to find true peace, “the peace that Christ alone can give, a peace which the world cannot give. Many people, when they think of St. Francis, think of peace; very few people, however, go deeper. What is the peace which Francis received, experienced and lived, and which he passes on to us? It is the peace of Christ, which is born of the greatest love of all, the love of the cross.”
The pope then stressed that Franciscan peace is not something saccharine. “Hardly!” the pope proclaimed, “That is not the real St. Francis! Nor is it a kind of pantheistic harmony with forces of the cosmos … That is not Franciscan either! It is not Franciscan, but a notion that some people have invented! The peace of St. Francis is the peace of Christ.”
Message to young people
Pope Francis then held a raucous audience with young people in front of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi. The pope answered questions about marriage, discerning a vocation and justice, and he urged the youth to have the courage to get married and have families. In between moments of laughter, he reminded them that Christian marriage is a “real vocation, just like priesthood and religious life are.
“Two Christians who marry each other have recognized in their love story the Lord’s call, the vocation to form one flesh, one life from the two, male and female,” he said. “It takes courage to start a family.”
He added that they should be open also to the vocations of the priesthood and the religious life and that celibacy or virginity for the kingdom of heaven was the vocation that Jesus lived. He acknowledged that priesthood and the religious life do bring the giving up of marriage and a family, but he assured them that “virginity for the kingdom of God is not a ‘no,’ it’s a ‘yes.” Discerning a vocation requires hearing God’s voice, which can only be accomplished through regular prayer that comes from a familiar relationship with the Lord and is “like keeping the window of our life open so that he can make his voice heard.”
Speaking on justice, Pope Francis called on young people to work for societies that are mutually just and peaceful.
“The Gospel,” he taught, “doesn’t have to do only with religion, but with the human person, the whole person, and with the world, society and human civilization.”
The pope gave the young people and the whole Church one final lesson regarding St. Francis. As we all set out to work for evangelization and authentic justice, we should, he said, “look at St. Francis. … Francis made the Faith grow and renewed the Church; at the same time, he renewed society, making it more fraternal, but always with the Gospel.”
Matthew Bunson is OSV’s senior correspondent.