The Church, marriage, the family, as well as society in general are experiencing a crisis of grave proportions. Many are feeling a sense of hopelessness. What is critically needed, everyone would agree, is hope. But we must put something under our hope to make it realizable. The hope we need is not a mere wish. If we hope the shoe fits, it behooves us first to measure the foot. If we hope to lose weight, it is a good idea to diet and exercise. Hope needs an underpinning. What should we do, then, in order to make our hope more realizable? This essay presents five reasons to support that hope.
More than 800 years ago a poor layman prayed in his dilapidated church. While gazing on the image of Christ on the Cross, he uttered the following prayer: “Great and glorious God, my Lord Jesus Christ! I implore thee to enlighten me and to dispense the darkness of my soul! Give me true faith and firm purpose and a perfect charity. Grant me, O Lord, to know thee so well that in all things I may act by thy light, and in accord with thy holy will!”
From the crucifix came a voice that said to him, “Go Francesco and repair my house, for as you can see, it is falling into ruin (Francesco, va e ripara la mia casa che, come vedi, e tutta in rovina)”. Upon hearing these words, Francis fell into ecstasy.
This verbal exchange derives from a reliable source, from the quill of St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) who wrote The Life of Francis. According to this great Franciscan theologian and philosopher, Christ was applying His words to more than the dilapidated church in San Damiano, but to the Church in general. In the Italian language the words “casa” (house or home) and “chiesa” (church) are similar in structure and suggest a certain intimacy between house and church. That similarity is even more apparent in Latin between the words “ecclesiola” (little church) and “Ecclesia” (the Church). The home, the family, and the Church must be intimately united with each other for any one of them to prosper.
The experience of St. Francis of Assisi in that rundown church offers us five reasons for Hope.
1) The present crisis in the Church is not unique. Crises have happened before and the Church has recovered and flourished. Knowledge of history can be a source of both comfort and motivation. Perspective can save us from giving up.
2) St. Francis, known as the “Poverello,” because of his acceptance of poverty , was a humble layman. Therefore, we can look to the laity to make a significant contribution to the rebuilding of the Church. The Church will be renewed from the ground up. The laity can take the initiative. They do not need to wait for the clergy to take charge.
3) It is evident in the words that God spoke to Francis that He wanted His Church to be repaired. The rest of the solution lies with we human beings finding a way to cooperate with God’s grace. God is in charge and will not fail his faithful servants.
4) God spoke to Francis from the Cross. The way to renewal will not be easy. It will demand many sacrifices as is indicated in Matthew 7: 13-14. The way must pass through a narrow gate, “for small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it”. The Cross stands in direct opposition to the ways of the world.
5) The fact that Francis implored God to give him faith, hope, and charity indicates the importance not only of these supernatural virtues, but also the every day virtues such as courtesy, chastity, compassion, and care. When we behave virtuously, we are living the life of Christ. By imitating Christ, we are contributing to the repair of His Church.
These five reasons that support our hope, as outlined above, provide the underpinning for real hope. Perspective, the role of the laity, God’s pledge to cooperate, valuing the Way of the Cross, and our willingness to live virtuously, provide the solid bricks that pave the road to the renewal of the Church that is currently going through a grave crisis.
We can be both encouraged and inspired by the words and legacy of two great Franciscan saints: Francis of Assisi and the Seraphic Doctor, as St. Bonaventure is called. They lived in the 13th century, but their example continues to nourish us spiritually and provides us with hope.
Now, if only we could pray with the humility of St. Francis!