Follow Christ… to the End!
Francis wants to follow Christ. Down to the smallest details, he wants to carry out the instructions Jesus gave his disciples. It is striking to see the similarities between the sending forth of the disciples on their mission and the kind of life that Francis proposes.
Everyone remembers the famous scene where the son of Pietro Bernardone, standing before the bishop of Assisi, put his clothes back on and reclaimed his name. Francis would say from now on, “Our Father who art in heaven.” What we don’t tend to recall so easily is the time of searching and questioning that followed. The humble stonemason didn’t know right away what he was called to do. He hesitated, wondered, tried to understand the kind of life he was to lead. Here are a few Gospel passages that left a profound mark on him.
Sell everything you have and follow me!
Francis of Assisi’s call to poverty is legendary. It has led to numerous discussions – at times very heated ones – among his sons and daughters. Generously, he wants to follow Jesus without any constraints. “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21) Francis applied this teaching rigorously, but certain exceptions help us to understand his specific aims.
It’s not refusing to own any property but all property that weighs us down and prevents us from following Christ. Above all, Francis is looking for availability to answer God’s call, the generous response to love. Poverty is reinterpreted in the light of fraternity. The rich young man, the son of a merchant, the Poverello could measure the fissure caused by the accumulation of wealth. From his point of view, there is imbalance in fraternity, in friendship. This perception necessarily involves an adjustment, where goods simply and clearly serve the relationship with God and with others. Without hesitating, when they get in the way, Francis gets rid of them.
Take no sandals and only one tunic.
Francis is now a hermit and mason. He rebuilds tiny churches. Then he hears the story of the disciples being sent on a mission (Luke 10:3-7). “That is what I want to do!” He takes off his shoes and his belt, then puts on the cord and walks barefoot from then on. He wants to take to the road as the disciples did.
An image illustrates well what he wants to do. Jesus travelled the roads of Galilee and Judea, surrounded by apostles. Francis wished to go with Christ into places of rest, to follow him in his mission and preaching, to go two by two to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom. All he wants is to share the life of Christ the Lord. To do this, he follows word for word the instructions Jesus gives his disciples.
Francis embraces a way of living modelled on the missionary journeys of the disciples of Jesus. He moulds this into a permanent way of life. Simplifying the form of dress is less about asceticism than about lightness. It’s about having only what you need so you can move quickly and go where the Lord calls. From now on, Francis would take to the roads of the world.
I am sending you like sheep among wolves.
A few companions join him; they go out two by two. Soon they discover the rigours of the journey. The “penitents of Assisi” are not always welcome. At first glance, they seem like crackpots, strange travelling salesmen for the Lord.
Francis stands out because of his amiability, courtesy and goodness. He teaches never to render evil for evil. The friars are to “be ‘gentle, showing all mildness toward all men.’ Let them not judge and not condemn” (Rule 1:11) They are to follow the gospel instruction: “When you enter the house, first say, ‘Peace to this house’” (Luke 10:5). They proclaim Peace in the Lord’s name.
The worker deserves his wages.
In what comes next in the gospel, we see the first stirrings of one of the most important discussions in the Franciscan story: the use of money. The ambiguity goes back to the gospel itself, which in verse 4 recommends bringing no money – no purse – and later speaks of workers deserving their wages (v. 7).
Francis settles this problem in two ways. First, he does not let himself accumulate possessions. The “purse” would allow him to keep something in reserve, to accumulate possibilities for trading. Money opens up a certain space of freedom; it grants a certain status that Francis had chosen to leave behind. He asks his brothers to do the same.
But there’s more. Francis wants his brothers to work every day. They have a right to a salary, but this must be paid in kind: food, clothing, and so on. It’s impossible to accumulate anything. As the proverb says, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” and Francis wants his brothers to stay alert, fully trusting the Father, to whom they have entrusted themselves.
To understand the life of the Franciscans, all you need to do is read about Jesus and the disciples going up to Jerusalem, in the second half of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).
Guylain Prince, ofm