On 26 November 2023 members of the Franciscans Family - friars, Poor Clares, Sisters and Brothers, and Secular Franciscans - gathered from around Ireland in the College Chapel in Maynooth. They came together to celebrate the Eight Centenary of the Confirmation of the Franciscan Rule by Pope Honorius III on 29 November 1223.
He confirmed the oral approval given to St Francis and his first brothers by Pope Innocent III for their new Gospel way of life in the Church.
During the prayer service at which he presided, the Archbishop of Dublin, Dermot, gave the following adddress.
My friends, as we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the approval of the Franciscan Rule by Pope Honorius III in late November 1223, I would like to give the first word to Minister General, Massimo Fusarelli OFM, who prays that “this centenary may nourish a generous recommitment to walk in the footsteps of Christ so we [Franciscans] rediscover the form of the gospel lived as brothers and sisters … We must learn to always start anew, like Francis, who at the end of his life said to the friars: ‘I have done my part, may Christ teach you yours.’ Let’s start again, brothers and sisters.” (Homily, Feast of St Francis of Assisi, 2023)
“Let us start again!” “Let us start anew!” (Homily, Feast of St Francis, 2023)
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.
So the late Brendan Kennelly ended his poem, “Begin.” The Christian faith is radically bound with beginnings: “In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God and the Word was God.” says St John in the opening words of his Gospel. “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ,” says St Mark. “I will arise, and I will go to my Father, and I will say …” is the new beginning for the Prodigal Son … “My son was dead and is alive again….” says his Father, “he was lost and is found.” Life begins again. “Has no one condemned you?” “No one, Lord.” “Neither do I condemn you; go and do not sin again!” (John 8:10–11) Life begins again.
Christ comes to offer us a new beginning. Not a beginning in a vacuum, not a beginning as if we had no past, but a beginning out of where we are. We all need this beginning. Every person—at some point in their lives—needs to embrace that new start.
Where did Francis’ journey after Christ begin? Perhaps it began when he began to see that there were those with greater needs than his. You know the story of his running after the beggar. Something cracked, something gave way, something new broke through. You know how it unfolded … So began his circuitous journey of “keeping the Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, of living in obedience, without anything of his own, and in chastity” as it says in the “extreme synthesis” at the beginning of the Rule.
So overflowing with the gospel was his first Rule, that when Francis brought it to Pope Innocent III for approval (in 1209), the Pope looked at it and said, “This is no Rule. This is just the gospel.” History does not record Francis reply. But for Francis, we do not need any other Rule except the gospel. This centrality of the gospel in the life of Francis cannot be overstated. In the words of Pope Francis, “St Francis is in love with Jesus Christ and, in order to follow him, he is not afraid to make a fool of himself but goes forward. The source of his whole experience is gospel faith” (31st October 2022). Francis radically follows the example of Christ by his abandoning of everything, and embracing the poorest and the abandoned. Because the “marrow of the gospel” had entered his life, Francis could see Christ in the sick and the poverty-stricken who were ostracised from society. His love for God in working for God. His life was love in action. His was a faith that did justice. Generations of Franciscan women and men have breathed new life into Francis’s way.
The key to Francis’s transformation from self-absorption to self-giving, his secret of making wholes out of the scattered fragments of life, was compassion. He learned compassion as the art of healing broken hearts by collecting the tears of the forgotten, the frightened, and the lonely in his hands and holding the wounded as his family. From the myriad of stories, it is clear that God’s compassion moved in Francis’ life and brought healing and comfort to those he encountered. In freedom he chose to be there for others in their suffering and pain. He was able to leave his own desires aside which allowed him to enter into lives lessened by suffering. Francis entered the world of the stranger and made the stranger into a sister and brother. He learned to love what was weak and fragile, and he learned to care for what the world discarded. In a world where cries of harshness and self-interest seem to grow louder and louder, the gentleness and compassion of Francis offers a vital counter-witness. Peace will come by being with people, not by shutting them out. Like Francis, we too must discover for ourselves how “mercy and faithfulness” can meet, how “justice and peace [can] embrace” (see Psalm 84). Only then can we authentically propose to our world, the mystery of peace. May compassion be the force that drives our intercession.
The mystery of peace brings into the view the very mystery of Francis’s life. I say this, because when we consider what has been wrought through the Poverello, and its fruitfulness, we begin to see mystery of God at work. Think of his boldness—his parrhēsia (see 2Cor 3:12–18)—his confidence in Christ, his embrace of Christ’s way, and his closeness to the Crucified One and his woundedness. Think of what he has inspired! Think of what he has inspired in you! Who brought you into the Franciscan family, and who animates your Franciscan life but Francis? And not just for Franciscans: who would have thought that eight hundred years after his death, the Church’s first Jesuit pope would choose the name Francis? Or that this Jesuit pope, in Laudato Sì, his very first encyclical, would give Francis’s oneness with all creation, a horizon and a profile no-one could ever have imagined. Our future—and the future of this planet, our common home—depends on facing up to our ecological responsibility both globally and locally.
None of this is St Francis’s doing! Francis would not have sought such a profile. No! It is Another who is at work. And the One who was at work in Francis, is at work in the Church, and is at work among us and within us. The Spirit, the Lord of Life, is at work in our hearts, and at work in our work, and at work in our world. Here, St Francis witnesses to a profound mystery: that God works in us and through us for the sake of his little ones in ways we can never imagine. “Blessed are the meek…” In our time, when the Church must discover anew the weakness and poverty of Christ (see 1Cor 1:25 and 2Cor 8:9), may the mystery of what God is doing through Francis, console us, inspire us, and give us strength for our mission.
There is one final aspect of Francis I wish to put before you: his youth. When his call to poverty and to a radical following of Christ began to manifest itself (around 1205 AD), Francis was about 24. He was a young man. Let us not forget that important things can happen in the lives of the young. These are different important things to the important things that happen to us when we’re in our 60s and 70s, but they are important nonetheless. Young adults, in their idealism and energy, need to hear the gospel in its freshness and in it radicalness. And they need people who embody the freshness and power of the gospel in healthy ways. They need big saints, not strange, fear-filled piety. “The world will always need those who, with a humble, beautiful, and joyful life, know how to bring a word that reaches the heart,” said the Patriarch of Jerusalem, your confrere, Cardinal Pizzaballa in a recent interview (see OFM Fraternitas, 4 October 2023: page 4). Young people need today’s Francises and Clares to put flesh on God’s future for us in all its paradox and possibility. Let us not be naïve—this is hard but vital work! May we be courageous in this!
May the Most High glorious God, enlighten the darkness of our hearts. Give us right faith, sure hope and perfect charity. Fill us with understanding and knowledge that we may fulfil the Lord’s command.” (Prayer of Saint Francis before the Crucifix)
Archbishop of Dublin