Cardinal Stafford's homily on the feast
of the "Pardon of Assisi" at Rivo Torto
Cardinal James Francis Stafford, Major Penitentiary,
celebrated a Mass at Rivo Torto, Assisi, on the occasion of the feast of
the "Pardon of Assisi", 4 August . His homily spoke of Franciscan
fraternity as well as of the violence stemming from rivalry within
families (a theme of the Mass' First Reading). The following is the text
of Cardinal Stafford's homily.
Each of the founders of Religious Orders had favorite
ways of addressing his followers. St Benedict of Norcia, the founder of
the Benedictines, addressed the followers of his Rule as "sons". In the
Prologue of the Rule, St Benedict writes, "Listen carefully, my son, to
the master's instruction". In fact in the Prologue alone, St Benedict
uses the word for "son" or its plural 10 times in addressing monks. St
Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order, addressed his
followers as "companions". The word "companion" is derived from two
Latin words, "cum" meaning "with", and "panis" which means
i.e., "eating bread with another". He called his Order the "Company of
Jesus". In the earliest days, he also called his followers "preti
St Francis of Assisi had a special form of addressing
his followers, "Fratelli minori". Why did Francis call his followers by
a familial term like "fratello"? What influenced him in choosing this
mode of address? Isn't the family a hot-bed of violence and
competitiveness? Such was his experience with his own father and even
his brother. As a matter of fact, even the Bible casts a light of such
destructive competition between brothers and sisters and between a
husband and a wife that the use by Francis of the term "brothers" may
merit criticism. At best it seems morally ambiguous.
I will cite only a few of many biblical examples. There
is the original competitiveness and destructive relationship first
between Adam and Eve, and then between Cain and Abel, their sons.
Because of envy of his brother, Cain became identified as the first
human being to commit murder. Equally competitive, but not leading to
fratricide, was the relationship between Esau and Jacob, the sons of
Isaac and Rebecca. In the New Testament the competitiveness of two
brothers, James and John, prompted their mother to seek from Jesus the
promise of privileged places for them in the coming Kingdom of God. And
of course there is the conspiracy between Herod Antipas, tetrarch of
Galilee, and his wife Herodias, a divorcee, in alliance with her
daughter Salome that led to the execution of John the Baptist for
denouncing Herod for marrying a divorced woman.
Today's reading offers another biblical example of the
competitiveness among children in the same family: Moses, Miriam and
Aaron, the children Amran and Jochebed. Miriam and Aaron, it seems,
became envious of the leadership of their brother Moses in leading the
Hebrew people from Egypt to the promised land in Canaan. They demanded
equal status with him as prophets. A destructive conflict among the
leadership would have been disastrous for thousands of nomadic people
wandering in a wilderness in search of a permanent home among hostile
and highly suspicious neighbors. Only God's intervention, according to
the reading, saved the exodus from the violence inherent in an envious
and competitive family.
It is important to note that St Francis attached another
word to the address "fratello". The other word is "minores", lesser
brothers. What is the significance of this addition? It made all the
difference in the world. For by choosing the phrase, "lesser brothers"
to describe his community, he was placing it squarely within the mystery
of the kenosis, the self-emptying, of Jesus.
In Francis's time, the people of an Italian city like
Assisi were divided into the "majores" and "minores". The upper class
was known as "majores" the greater ones; the lower class as "minores",
the lesser ones. But it wasn't from this political and economic milieu
that Francis took the word "minori". Arnaldo Fortini asserts that it
would be "a serious error to think that the new Franciscan movement is a
consequence of the revolt of the minori that came in this period
of Assisi history. On the contrary. The new communal society arises...
from a desire for commercial expansion it sees in war a means of
obtaining it. It opposes the pride of merchants to the pride of the
feudal lords.... So, therefore, it was not from the name of a class or
faction in the city that Francis took the name 'minors' for his
brothers. It was an adjective, used in common significance, one that
indicates, even among nobles and religious, the lowest, the inferiors,
those who take orders rather than give them".1
St Francis chose that he and all his followers would be
identified with the humble of the earth as "fratelli minori". "Tutti
erano uguali nella dignità,
nei doveri e nei diritti, come si evince dalla Regola non bollata: 'E
nessuno sia chiamato priore, ma tutti siano chiamati semplicemente frati
According to his first biographer, Thomas of Celano,
being "lesser brothers", for St Francis, meant being "those, being
subject to all, [who] always sought a place that was lowly and sought to
perform a duty that seemed in some way to be burdensome to them so that
they might merit to be founded solidly in true humility and that through
their fruitful disposition a spiritual structure of all virtues might
arise in them".3
We have a noble example of
"being a lesser brother" in an event that took place here in Rivo Torto.
The most notable experience of the Holy Spirit in Christian history was
lived out in this unprepossessing shelter from rain and sun that is
before us. It took place in this cowshed in the year 1209-1210. At one
time it belonged to one of the local leprosaria. It was now owned by no
After their return from
Rome through Orte back to Assisi in the summer of 1209, the small band
of brothers needed a place to sleep and pray. Francis chose this hut
beside a stream bed, which in the springtime became a dangerous torrent
of water. It barely was large enough for the small group of young men.
With his usual humor Francis joked that, as a spring-board to heaven,
this was better than a palace.4 To prevent undue crowding, he
assigned each one a place by name on the beam above for sitting and
One night a voice of one of
the brothers unexpectedly cried out in the darkness, "I'm dying".
Everyone was awakened by the startling cry. How did Francis respond? He
could have admonished the man to grow up and face hunger like an adult
ascetic should. Or with a certain impatience he may have chosen to tell
him to shut up until the dawn so that everyone could get a decent
night's sleep for the next day's round of seeking alms.
But Francis responded
differently. Rather he realized that being a lesser brother meant to
have the gift of love
especially in the awkward darkness of the night. "Francis asked him what
was wrong. 'I'm dying of hunger'. Quick, everyone up. Prepare a meal,
for the whole company. A brother must not die of hunger, but neither
should he be embarrassed by having to eat alone: Francis was always
well-bred. It was no doubt an austere midnight supper that broke their
crusts, turnips found in the fields, perhaps some eggs.... What else?
Water from the stream. Gaiety in lieu of dessert. Francis's charm must
have transformed it all into a feast, touched lightly by the fleeting
memory of old time".5
I conclude by asking you in
this Eucharist to reflect upon your own community life while at Assisi.
You may wish to assess life within your family at home and community
experience here against that measure which Thomas of Celano described as
marking the virtues of the first Franciscans here at Rivo Torto. You may
wish to ask God to help you to grow in these virtues of Franciscan
fraternity. Thomas noted the following virtues of this band of lesser
but radically joyful brothers. "No envy, no malice, no rancor, no
abusive speech, no suspicion, no bitterness found any place in them; but
great concord, continual quiet, thanksgiving, and the voice of praise
were in them".6
1 Arnaldo Fortini, Francis of Assisi,
trans. by Helen Moak, (New York, The Crossroad Publishing Company,
2 Sr M.
Crocifisso Nobnis, F1, "La Vita Comunitaria di Fraternità
secondo San Francesco", in Annales Franciscani: Studi di Storia,
Teologia e Spiritualità
Francescana, a cura dei Francescani nell'Immacolata, (Frigento: Casa
Mariana, 2007), 480.
3 Thomas of
Celano, First Life, § 38.
Julien Green, God's Fool: The Life and
Times of Francis of Assisi, trans. by Peter Heinegg, (San
Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), 126.
6 I Cel. 41.