Updated: Oct 9, 2020
On Sunday, October 4, 2020, Brothers Jude and James Nathaniel were invited by Mother Stacey to preach and bless animals at St. Francis Parish in Navato, California on their patronal feast.
+In the Name of the Most High, Omnipotent Good Lord: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s good to be here at St Francis Church, speaking to you all this morning. I want to thank Mother Stacey for inviting me and Brother Jude to share in celebrating today's Mass. As always, the brothers want to thank you for your kindness and charity and for allowing us the privilege to speak with you from time to time.
My name is Brother James Nathaniel and you may remember me from our last meeting over Zoom on August 2. Originally from Indiana, I’ve been with the brothers of the Society of St. Francis here in San Francisco for almost 4 years now. As a brother, I’ve had many opportunities to meet so many new and interesting people. I’ve been able to travel overseas, visiting brothers and sisters throughout all of England. Here in the States, I’ve had the opportunity to preach and lead retreats at several parishes throughout the Bay Area and Northern California. I almost can’t believe that a small-town Indiana boy like me has been so fortunate to experience so much.
But today, myself and Brother Jude are most especially glad to be here with you all, celebrating this Mass and remembering the life, work, and witness of Saint Francis of Assisi. He is, after all, a saint of great importance to us, to you all, and to the entire world. Perhaps no other saint, next to Our Blessed Mother, is more well known and invoked for prayer and intercession. It’s remarkable that a small-town Italian boy could be as ever more popular in death as he was in life. It's even more remarkable given the fact that Francis of Assisi seemed only to desire one thing during his life: to imitate the life of Jesus Christ.
Today, we too--individually, as a parish community, and as a diocese--are called to accomplish the same work which is to imitate and live the Gospel life.
Baptized Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, Saint Francis was born in the late 12th Century to a family who was part of the growing merchant class in central Italy. Like many of his friends, as a young man, Francis was known for his rambunctious behavior, drinking, and partying. At age 21, he served in a war between the towns of Assisi and Perugia. He was captured and held prisoner for a year. After his release, he fell seriously ill. When he recovered, like many young men and women in our own day who have experienced battle or imprisonment, he was never quite the same as he was before he went off to fight. Old ideas he had of being a brave, glorious knight in shining armor no longer interested him. Young Francis began sharing more of his wealth with beggars. He started giving generously to the church. No more did he dance and laugh and drink with his friends in the streets of Assisi. He grew more distant with them. Later, they abandoned him. He distanced himself from his father who wanted him to carry on the family textile trade. Later, he himself would abandon his own father, saying, “Until now, I have called Pietro di Bernardone my father. But, because I have proposed to serve God…[I want] to say from now on: ‘Our Father who art in heaven,’ and not ‘My father, Pietro di Bernardone’ (Augustine Thompson, O.P., Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, p. 16).
In 1205, Francis left his family’s home and took up residence at the abandoned Benedictine church of San Damiano. His life and work consisted of living alongside the lepers while also praying and repairing the dilapidated chapel. It is during this time that, according to one of his earliest biographers, St. Francis heard the crucifix above the altar command him: “‘Francis,’ it said, calling him by name, ‘go rebuild My house; as you see, it is all being destroyed.’” (Thomas of Celano, "Second Life" Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, p. 249)
From then on, Francis embarked on a lifelong journey to rebuild the church of God, inspiring in others the same fervor and fear of the Lord. It was a foundational moment in the life of a man who so closely sought to conform his life and mission to that of his crucified and risen Savior.
Today, over 800 years later, the Franciscan family consists of innumerable brothers and sisters from all walks of life, from various denominations and Christian communities. Although Francis died a devout Catholic and defender of orthodoxy--which must not be forgotten--Saint Francis is no longer just the property of one particular denomination or of one particular time and place. His message is timeless. His mission as relevant to us as it was to the people of the 13th Century. For today, we too face a series of abuses and crimes in our society and in our church. It’s not easy to be a Christian today. Trust in the institutional church I suspect is the lowest its been in decades. We’re lucky if even a small fraction of the Bay Area actually goes to church on a Sunday. And who knows how many or even if folks will return once churches are 100% reopen. Now, more than ever, this is an opportunity for those who remain in the institutional church too, like Francis, heed the call to rebuild the church, which, as we see, is being destroyed. Today, on this holy feast, we have the opportunity to begin again or reaffirm our primary principle as members of Christ’s Body, which to emulate and make known the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In our short time together, let us for a moment look at the opening words of the so-called “Later Rule” of 1223. For Franciscan brothers and sisters, this is the last let of life rules or codes of conduct composed by St. Francis before his death three years later. It was approved by Pope Honorius III and is one of THE foundational documents for Franciscans. It tells us how Francis wanted his followers to live the Gospel. Although in practice most Franciscans do not follow its commands to a T, it continues to inspire us and challenge us to live simple, holy lives for the greater glory of God.
From the very first words in its very first section, one immediately gathers what being a Franciscan is about. In that sense, it’s a bit like reading the opening to the Gospel according to Mark.
In the 1223 Rule, Francis writes:
“The Rule and Life of the Lesser Brothers is this: to observe the Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ by living in obedience, without anything of one’s own, and in chastity” (Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, p. 100).
To live as a Franciscan means therefore to observe the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ and to live--as all Christians are implored to live--in poverty, chastity, and obedience. Every single one of us is called to live these holy virtues--not just monks and nuns. Every one of us is called to live in poverty, chastity, and obedience. The life that lives these virtues will be like, “a grain of wheat [that] falls into the earth and dies...bear[ing] much fruit” (John 12:24). From the start, a Franciscan is faced with a paradox: Why am I called to die in order that I may live? And yet, this is something all Christians face as well: How is it that I am called to die in order that I may live?
The thought is scary. Abandoning even a small part of your life to God is absolutely frightening. We have no idea what will happen once we make that leap of faith. The grain of wheat does not know, for example, what will happen to it once it falls to the ground, but it must trust that it will become that which God desires it to be.
Renunciation of self, rather than closing off opportunities and love, is instead the most radical act of kindness one can show a brother or sister.
So many of us do this already. This is nothing new. How many of us who are parents know the joy in giving up part of ourselves for our kids? To sacrifice at work, putting up with people we don’t like in order to earn a living to put our kids through school or music classes? Or To give up our free Tuesday and Wednesday evenings to instead watch uncoordinated 7-year-olds play a sport we don’t understand all because it makes them happy and gives them self-confidence?
In another part of our lives, we have the church. By this, I mean this particular parish. This microcosm of the community of faith in our diocese is also another place where we can hone and refine our self-giving practices, living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By giving of our time, talent, and treasure, we are sacrificing part of ourselves in order to make present our prayer to God, “thy kingdom come...on earth as it is in heaven.”
But how? How can I live out the calling of all Christians--living in poverty, chastity, and obedience--in my own parish, in my own life?
Poverty, for instance, is not simply about money. In fact, I can tell you from my own experience, that poverty is so much more than money. Poverty is for us Franciscans, the “desire to escape from the love of the world and the things that are in the world and rather, like [St. Francis]...covet only the unsearchable riches of Christ.” (SSF Principles, Day 5). Most brothers in our society do not live the type of poverty St. Francis lived. We know most of us will be unable to fulfill that ideal. However, our poverty, like that of all Christians calls us to discern what really is important in our life. What do we really need for our life’s journey? Do we also define our lives by the stuff we possess? Have we allowed our possessions to possess us? Are we free to let go of everything in an instant if someone else has a need of it?
At the end of the day, the only thing we have is each other. As a church, how do value and show value to each person? Are we building up the Kingdom of God when we spread lies, demean our brothers and sisters, or fail to recognize the gifts in others and in ourselves?
Every one of us is called to live in poverty. “Whoever serves me must follow me,” says the Lord. “None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions” (John 12:26). During this pandemic, how many of us found ourselves forced to adapt to a new world, where that which we held so close and indispensable was no longer available? How many of us were forced to reshape our identity because that which seemed so important to us was no longer there? In imitation of the Son of Man who “had nowhere to lay his head” Francis is exhorting us, brothers and sisters, to abandon that which we consider so essential, so important, and seek only Christ. It was St. Augustine who said so memorably, “My heart is restless until it rests in Thee.” How has this time impoverished us in somethings yet created opportunities for us to see what true riches we have, and more importantly, what we can share with others?
And chastity? How can we live as a chaste member of Christ’s body? Again, as a brother, I’ve learned chastity is so much more than what we think it includes. Every one of us is called to live in chastity. Rather than seeing this as another restriction, another way for the Church to exert control on the bodies of her sons and daughters, chastity is not meant to be a cause for anxiety, or condemnation, or for blame. Rather instead, chastity is part of the fulfillment of love’s divine law. Each of us is called to give ourselves to our neighbors as Christ so fully gave himself up to his Bride, the Church. “Beloved,” writes the author of 1 John, “if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). Celibacy, which is a particular road of chastity and is always an option open to all people, not just religious and priests, is a particular calling freely embraced by those who are called. Most people are not called to this way of life, and that’s fine. Just as we don’t choose who we are attracted to, some of us don’t choose the celibate life. It is a calling from God, like marriage. Past language used by the church to somehow showcase the superiority of celibacy over marriage is greatly mistaken. Whether celibate or married or in active discernment, love is the center around which these states of life revolve.
As a parish, how do we demonstrate our self-giving love to others? Do we appropriately open ourselves up to the people in our parish or do we keep them safely at arm’s length? I don’t think it’s a problem in this parish, but some parishes I’ve been to have no real sense of community. As soon as Mass is over, people leave, having fulfilled their Sunday obligation and have no more interest in building community. As a brother, the hardest part of day-to-day life is community. But, as many other brothers and sisters will tell you, community is also the most rewarding. Opening ourselves up, being able to trust each other, and being able to hold the trust of another is the only way our churches will continue to survive and be relevant in the 21st century. We are social animals. We are not meant to exist within our own little bubbles. Perhaps one reason there’s so much anxiety, fear, depression, and anger in the US today is partly because we’ve been so separated from one another for so long. Only a few among us are really called to live as hermits or in isolation, communing only with God. The rest of us need each other to survive. We cannot exist as an island unto ourselves. And yet, it was by our very contact with others that the virus spread from person to person. If anything, I hope this time away has proven for us the importance of community and desire to work towards building up our parish community, rather than tearing it down and giving in to the hatred and violence and degradation that fills our airwaves and social media. Do not waste your time projecting onto others the hatred you read in the media, on Facebook, on Twitter. Soon you will find yourself consumed with hatred for your brother and sister and will begin projecting onto others someone else’s anger. Do not allow yourselves to be led astray by those whose life’s mission is to exploit others to fulfill their own agenda. This is not the way that builds up communities. I’ve seen it first hand. When suspicion and murmurs and whispers reverberate halls, the well-being of the community is put seriously at risk. Stay far from it. Build up the Kingdom of God. Live the Gospel life. Stay away from those who seek to tear it down and only do the work of the Great Accuser—the devil himself.
And finally, holy obedience. The older and more involved I become involved with the Franciscans, the greater the place obedience seems to have in my life. For us all, as Christian brothers and sisters, our particular call to obedience ought to mirror the obedience of Christ’s who, “became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). We are incredibly fortunate to live in a country where we do not expect we will be silenced or killed for simply practicing our faith. None of us had to cross checkpoints with armed guards as we drove along the highway today. None of us have to register our religious affiliation with some central agency. We don’t have to worship in underground churches for fear of being arrested. This is not the case everywhere of course, but it is less likely we will be killed for practicing our faith as a 2nd or third century Christian might have been. But still, how can we practice our faith by perfecting our observance of holy obedience?
The challenge of practicing obedience, particularly for Americans, is difficult. The very concept of our nation derives from its act of disobedience from its imperial Masters. And yet, the God we profess every Sunday entered willingly into his Passion and succumbed quietly to the death of a cross. As it is written by the prophet Isaiah, “Like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). The Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ is the perfect contradiction to the fast-paced, hyper-individualistic, consumerist society we have in America and throughout much of the developing world today. How are we listening and heeding the word of God in our life today? Where is God inviting us to go and are we listening? What does the future of the church look like that is ready and willing to respond to the voice of the Spirit in our churches? The example of Mary, the Virgin Mother of Our Lord, is the perfect example for all our churches today. It is she whose words ought to reverberate through every church as we slowly approach the end of this pandemic. To the angel Gabriel, she replied, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to your word.” To her cousin, Elizabeth, she sang of God’s mercy to all those who fear the Lord. And to the servants at the wedding feast in Cana, she commanded, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Do whatever he tells you.
Poverty, chastity, and obedience. By living these three virtues, we more closely follow the final will and testament of the great saint whose feast we celebrate today. All that we do in celebration here of St. Francis--remembering his life, asking for his intercession, singing of his love for the world and all of God’s creation--is all for the singular purpose of living out more fully the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
+May our holy father, St. Francis, pray to the Lord that we may have the grace to observe the Gospel with greater devotion. Amen.
Readings for the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi Jeremiah 22:13-16
To learn more about St. Francis Parish in Navato, please visit their website: http://www.stfrancisnovato.org/
Brother James Nathaniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are interested in learning how to invite Br James or one of the Franciscan brothers to your parish for a retreat, mission, quiet day, or to preach on a Sunday, please contact us with the email address provided above.