October 4 is a great day not just for us Franciscans and Catholics but also for every person in this world. On this day, we joyfully celebrate the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the man who pursued a dream which, in his life, materialised in a new way of thinking, acting and living.
One of the great writings of the poverello, which, personally talks volumes about his spirituality, is The Testament. Just before his death, in October 1226, Francis felt the need to dictate this document, which came from his innermost being. In The Testament, Francis wished that those who would follow Jesus throughout the centuries, in his footsteps, would adopt this writing not as another rule, but as a loving remembrance, an admonition, and even as an exhortation. Thus, he wrote: And let the brothers not say: This is another Rule; because this is a remembrance, an admonition, an exhortation, and my testament, which I, little Brother Francis, prepare for all of you, my blessed brothers, so that we may observe in a more Catholic manner the Rule which we have promised to the Lord.
A key phrase which is repeated some five times throughout The Testament is the following: The Lord gave me. In itself, this phrase reminds me of the great humility Francis nurtured in his being. Only a humble person can attribute all the gifts which he and she has received to from God to God. It is the humble who, with bold faith and open heart, can say, with John the Baptist: He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30).
In many ways Francis declared this holy attitude in his Testament. First of all, he says: The Lord granted me, Brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way: While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body; and afterward I lingered a little and left the world.
By this interesting confession, Francis is saying that his conversion was not his own invention but, and solely, God’s initiative. It was He who called him to get out of himself, out of his corrupted way of living, in order to meet the poor. Yes! For Francis the poor were his Gospel teachers. The poor helped Francis discover a great gift he had hidden for years in his heart: mercy! Thus, by opening himself up to mercy, Francis was automatically receiving the loving embrace of Christ for him through the needy ones. His experience with the poor filled him with Jesus’ sweetness who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
Francis’ great exodus from his egoistic self helps me value more and more what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in his first encyclical on Christian love, Deus Caritas Est. preciselyin number 6:
Love is indeed “ecstasy”, not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God: “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Lk 17:33), as Jesus says throughout the Gospels (cf. Mt 10:39; 16:25; Mk 8:35; Lk 9:24; Jn 12:25). In these words, Jesus portrays his own path, which leads through the Cross to the Resurrection: the path of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies, and in this way bears much fruit. Starting from the depths of his own sacrifice and of the love that reaches fulfilment therein, he also portrays in these words the essence of love and indeed of human life itself.
The second time Francis uses the phrase The Lord gave me is when he talks about church building. In a time when a good number of people were deserting the Church due to the spiritual decadence in the Body of Christ, Francis had the courage to say:
And the Lord gave me such faith in churches that I would simply pray and speak in this way: “We adore You, Lord Jesus Christ, in all Your churches throughout the world, and we bless You, for through Your holy cross You have redeemed the world.”
It was the Lord who gave him this powerful trust to keep adoring Him in the churches, especially in the Blessed Eucharist and to keep revering the priests, even if their life did not always tally with Christ’s shining example of holiness. Francis admits that it was the Lord Himself who gave him such a big reverential love and respect for priests.
Afterward the Lord gave me and still gives me such faith in priests who live according to the manner of the holy Roman Church because of their order, that if they were to persecute me, I would still have recourse to them. And if I possessed as much wisdom as Solomon had and I came upon pitiful priests of this world, I would not preach contrary to their will in the parishes in which they live. And I desire to fear, love, and honor them and all others as my masters. And I do not wish to consider sin in them because I discern the Son of God in them and they are my masters. And I act in this way since I see nothing corporally of the Most High Son of God in this world except His Most holy Body and Blood which they receive and which they alone administer to others.
Finally, Francis uses the phrase The Lord gave me when he talks about his brothers. In The Testament Francis clearly affirms that it was Jesus who gave them to him.
And after the Lord gave me brothers, no one showed me what I should do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the form of the Holy Gospel. And I had this written down simply and in a few words and the Lord Pope confirmed it for me. And those who came to receive life gave to the poor everything which they were capable of possessing and they were content with one tunic, patched inside and out, with a cord and short trousers. And we had no desire for anything more. We who were clerics used to say the Office as other clerics did; the lay brothers said the Our Father; and we quite willingly stayed in churches. And we were simple and subject to all.
What a profound wisdom the phrase The Lord gave me contains! It can easily be said that the latter phrase is itself a testment of Francis’ loving kindness towards the sick, the christians, the priests, the consecrated persons, above all to the Lord himself! St. Francis’ phrase in The Testament, The Lord gave me, powerfully shows why the poverello is, in fact, vir catholicus et apostolicus, that is, the fully catholic and apostolic man.