The universal church observes the feast of St. Francis of Assisi every year on Oct. 4. Each year, the young and the young at heart gather in prayer with their parish priest or deacon to bless pets and furry friends at a convenient time on or near this great feast. Although this is a lovely custom, there are deeper dimensions of St. Francis to consider for the life of the church and the world today.
Known from birth as Francesco Bernadone, St. Francis was a restless young man searching for his path in life. He dreamed of becoming a heroic warrior, and unfortunately spent time as a prisoner of war. His father, Pietro, envisioned his son taking over the family business, but that too, was not a good fit for Francesco.
Francesco wandered around the outskirts of his hometown as a seeker, climbing the breathtaking hills of Umbria, when one day he came upon a church in need of repair. He entered the church at San Damiano and knelt down under the large wooden crucifix painted in the style of a Byzantine icon.
It was here in the year 1204 that the eyes of Christ on the cross met his eyes, and where Francis prayed for direction in his life. As he prayed the Lord answered him in a clear voice, "Francis, go and rebuild my house which as you see is falling into ruin." As Francis prayed, he experienced great fervor and consolation when he heard the Lord speak to him. One of St. Francis' biographers stated that his eyes were filled with tears as he heard the voice of Jesus.
According to St. Bonaventure's account, Francis trembled with fear at these words and received in his heart the power of Christ's divine words. With his prayer finished, Francis set out with zeal to physically repair the church. During the rebuilding process, he gradually learned that his vocation was to rebuild souls and the human institution of the church.
Over 800 years later, it appears that the Church is falling into ruin again, facing tumultuous times of crisis. From the cross, the crucified and risen Jesus calls out to the faithful, "Go and rebuild my house which as you see is falling into ruin." Through the anguish and anger that characterize or times, can we hear this call and act upon it?
The times in which we live are not unlike the times of St. Francis of Assisi. The distraction and disappointment of ongoing scandal impinge upon us and threaten to take us away from Christ. Now more than ever, we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus who continues to call and challenge his sinful, human and flawed disciples.
We belong to a church that needs repair, and every baptized person is called to the hard work of rebuilding it. When we approach Christ in prayer, let's all listen to his call to rebuild the church and to follow him in moments of sorrow and darkness as well as in moments of joy and light. As Francis listened to Christ, so too, let us listen to what he wishes each one of us to do. The call of St. Francis is our call - are we listening?