A few years ago I was leading a group of young adult pilgrims, on foot, to the town of Assisi, in Italy. The occasion was the annual Marcia Francescana or ‘Franciscan March’ which brings hundreds of young people, friars and sisters, from different parts of Italy to the city of St. Francis for the feast of the Portiuncula (August 2nd). The journey takes a few days, walking through the most picturesque countryside. Our little group from Ireland was tagged onto a much larger group from Rome/Lazio. It was, I recall, a bit of culture shock for the Irish! The Italian youth were typically very well-catechized and they could speak about their faith with confidence and conviction. The Irish youth were, I think, intrigued and maybe a little overwhelmed by this experience. This was a completely new idea of ‘Church’ for most of them.

Each day of the march we would break into small groups for a time of catechesis and sharing. Again, for the Irish group, this was a very new and somewhat intimidating experience! On one occasion, as we tried to reflect together on that great journey of liberation, the Exodus of Israel, one of the group asked me: ‘why would God pick one group from all the peoples on earth? Why them? Why didn’t God just make everybody ‘God’s Holy People’? It is an interesting question, especially in our democratic age. As we sat on the grass, under the shade of a tree, I tried an answer to the question as best as I could. I’m not sure I was very convincing that balmy afternoon in July! But the question has come back to me in different ways down through the years. 

One contemporary theologian has offered an interesting answer to this question. Gerhard Lohfink asks:

‘How can anyone change the world and society at its roots without taking away freedom? It can only be that God begins in a small way, at one single place in the world. There must be a place, visible, tangible, where the salvation of the world can begin: that is, where the world becomes what it is supposed to be according to God’s plan. Beginning at that place, the new thing can spread abroad, but not through persuasion, not through indoctrination, not through violence. Everyone must have the opportunity to come and see. All must have the chance to behold and test this new thing. Then, if they want to, they can allow themselves to be drawn into the history of salvation that God is creating … What drives them to the new thing cannot be force, not even moral pressure, but only the fascination of a world that is changed’.  (Gerhard Lohfink, Does God need the Church? Towards a Theology of the People of God. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999) p. 27)

When we think about God ‘sorting out the world’ we often neglect or ignore the role of human freedom altogether. ‘If only God would do such and such’ we think. But doing ‘such and such’ would almost certainly mean God riding roughshod over human freedom, something God never does. Lohfink invites us to see the vast expanse of salvation history, not from our perspective but from God’s.

Salvation history is God’s loving, determined, and delicate restoration of our broken world, without any coercion or manipulation on God’s part. God is transforming the world from the roots without harming or diminishing our freedom. In this effort God chooses a people, who are not really a people at all, and creates for them a new identity by delivering them from slavery and oppression; by giving them a new hope. They accept God’s invitation to be liberated and in the process become a new kind of people, from the roots up; a nation truly different from the nations around them. This newly formed people freely enter into covenant with God (Exodus 19: 1-9).  Of course, they fall back into their old ways many times, but God’s patient love anticipates this and continues to invite them to remember their covenant. When they get lost God raises up prophets to instruct them and remind them of their new identity. This people gradually come to know the One True God more clearly and they bear witness to God before the nations around them.

From this people comes a man who speaks with a completely new kind of authority about God and God’s purposes; who speaks and acts as God among the people; Jesus of Nazareth. Once again, God invites us, but does not compel us, to encounter God, in Jesus. For those who see God’s promises fulfilled in Jesus the Kingdom of God has come. Even the death of Jesus cannot defeat God’s loving plan.

The individual’s life of faith – like salvation history – is a long journey. On this journey there are days when we cover many miles easily and there are days when we have to sit down and nurse a blistered foot or tired limbs. There are days we take a wrong turn and have to find our way back, and there are days when we may even doubt the value of making the journey!

Being on the Marcia Francescana, journeying every day, gave us time and space to reflect on the questions of faith. We didn’t sort out all the problems of faith and belief. But we entered into the mystery of the faith more deeply as we journeyed along the road. I came away with a greater sense of God’s mysterious, patient love for each one of us and for all creation. This is a love which always works with human freedom and never bullies or cajoles God’s children into accepting His gracious love and promises.

A vocation is always an invitation; it is an instance of God working with someone’s freedom to create something new. A vocation is God calling someone to choose freely to make of their life a positive sign of God’s Kingdom in this world. There are many people trying to change the world from the roots. Only God is doing this in a way which never harms our freedom. It takes a lot longer, but it is the only way love knows.

If you are interested in the Franciscan way of life please contact:

Friar Liam Kelly OFM

Phone:  087 396 0262 

Email: irishfranciscansofm@gmail.com 

Postal address: Franciscan Friary, Ennis, Co Clare.