|Modelling our Life on the Humble "Man of Lent"
Francis of Paola celebrated his 91st birthday on 2 April 1507; it was Good
Friday, the Memorial of the Passion and Death of the Lord. This
coincidence was immediately interpreted as the divine seal upon his
efforts to conform himself to Christ.
Pope Alexander VI had publicly and solemnly emphasized this conformity
when he presented Francis to the Church "as another Francis of Assisi, a
most ardent imitator of the Redeemer".
The Order of Minims (friars, nuns, tertiaries) and all devotees of the
Saint are preparing to celebrate the fifth centenary of the death of their
Founder in 2007. Julius II described him as "a light that illumines
penitents", Pius XII proclaimed him Patron of Italian seafarers, and John
XXIII, Patron of Calabria.
The journey towards this Jubilee has been expressly inserted in the
ecclesial project that John Paul II outlined at the beginning of the third
millennium for a return to following Christ (Starting Afresh from
Christ), looking ahead into the distance towards the great events of
the future (Duc in altum, put out into the deep).
At the heart of this preparation, therefore, is the commitment to
rediscover the figure of St. Francis of Paola as a faithful follower of
Christ and an exponent of his time.
Imitator of the Redeemer
The "sequela Christi" is the basis of Christian holiness, and thus in
no way exclusive to any saint; the differences between saints are due
solely to the way in which they followed Christ.
St. Francis of Paola chose to accept Jesus' recommendation at the
beginning of his preaching: "Repent", the fruit of which he experienced
during his 40 days in the wilderness when he focused through silence,
prayer and fasting on listening to the Father in order to understand his
project of love for humanity.
Thus, he renewed his total availability to the Lord, and this is at the
root of the mystery of the Incarnation itself: "Sacrifice and offering you
did not desire, but a body you have prepared for me.... Then I said: '...I
have come to do your will, O God'" (Heb 10:5-7).
St. Francis of Paola based his penitential approach on this form of the
sequela: total and unconditional availability to God to build his
Kingdom on earth. As a result, his choice of the hermitic life is in
keeping with the aspect of "service to God"; the poor, austere life as
"walking towards God without hindrance"; the acceptance, sometimes with
suffering, of continuous changes and transfers as the "humble acceptance
of God's will"; the commitment to promoting the conversion of others as a
conviction that true human happiness lies in "living according to God and
It was in this plan of "Lenten life", however, that he summed up his
commitment to following Christ and impressed upon his entire existence the
way of life that the Church proposes for Lent.
Thus, for the entire Church, he became the "man of Lent". He started
out on a spiritual journey impressed with this style, along the lines of
those of the ancient Fathers to whose example he turned for direction,
inspired by the Spirit. This was subsequently ratified by the Church, as
seen in a description of him by Alexander VI as "not the first father of
this kind of life, but a faithful follower and innovator of the ancient
The dominant feature of "Lenten life" is the desire to accept the
primacy of God and the need to convert to him, renouncing and ridding
oneself of all that might hinder this relationship.
Ascesis, freely chosen, is a great help in this effort of liberation.
Guided by Galatians 4, St. Francis therefore invited the faithful to "to
crucify their limbs, together with their vices and concupiscence".
In the plan of "Lenten living", the mystery of the humble and patient
Christ, who is obedient to the Father's will and freely embraces the
Cross, is continuously presented for contemplation to the disciple, who
thus feels impelled to imitate Christ and is sustained by his example.
St. Francis summed up his project of "Lenten living" in a few words
that he borrowed from St. John Climacus (The Ladder [Klimax] of Divine
Ascent) on poverty of spirit, which he inserted in Rule I to describe
his proposal of a penitential sequela: "Poverty of spirit is
liberation from the temporal concerns and anxieties of this fleeting life;
it is a rapid journey to God; it is an abstraction of earthly justice,
faithful observance of the divine law; it is the foundation of peace and
It is in this dimension that the Minims are moving towards the Fifth
Centenary of the death of St. Francis, aware that the requirement of
penance should be rediscovered in the Church today, for the desire to
convert to God, recognized as the Supreme Good, can alone bring us back to
the path of following Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life. And this
desire must be sustained by an ascetic effort for liberation, which is
exactly what the Lenten liturgy proposes each year.
A prophet of his time
St. Francis of Paola did not conceive of the project of "Lenten living"
as an end in itself; it fitted into the context of a project for the
reform of the Church, which he saw as playing the lead, in a certain sense
in spite of herself.
The turbulent social, political and ecclesial situation of his time was
not only perceived by enlightened minds and important people but also by
the simple, who were in some ways more sensitive to certain phenomena of
moral laxity because they were more exposed to its consequences. We cannot
otherwise explain that 15th-century phenomenon known to history as a
"reform from below".
St. Francis of Paola had embarked on the hermitic life with a precise
intention to reform, even if he limited this reform to his own personal
response to the Lord. His "penance" expressed a strong determination to
follow Christ but also to make reparation.
His contemporary biographer commented: "In view of the fact that many
sinners return to crucify the Lord, he lived in total mortification".
Events were later to take the solitary Hermit of Paola to the heart of
escalating social and political events in a continuous crescendo, which
can only be understood on the premise of God's providential presence in
history: his response to the problems of his people in Paola and in
Calabria, and then of the Kingdom of Naples, of the Church, of France and
also, of European politics overall.
From 1470 to 1483, the Calabrian Hermit was an itinerant prophet
wandering throughout the Kingdom of Naples.
In 1483, he moved to France; his sojourn in Naples and in Rome was
crucial for his prophetic role. From April 1483 to April 1507, he was at
the court of the French kings in Tours, and numerous political events that
concerned the European States and the Church passed through his mediation
with Louis XI, Charles VIII and Louis XII.
St. Francis did not turn back; he accepted the challenges of life,
leaving the narrowness of his contemplative solitude to put out into the
deep of history, interpreting the pressing succession of events as a sign
of a mission God had entrusted to him.
The humble and austere hermit became a severe, demanding and courageous
prophet who was not prepared to accept compromises. The chronicler of the
French court noted this transformation, if only from the human viewpoint:
"He always behaved like someone who had been brought up in court life".
Francis was overwhelmed by the problems of the simple people, crushed
by poverty and by the physical and political oppression of the powerful.
He pleaded with the Kings of Naples and France, running the risk of
ending up in jail. He was worried by the threat of the Turkish invasion
that hung over Europe and especially the coasts of his own land. He
therefore wrote to the King of Naples and encouraged the King of France to
do something about it.
He suffered because of the decadence of the Church and warmly supported
Charles VIII's reform movement. He hoped for a pacified Europe and thus
urged Alexander VI to rediscover his vocation to create the conditions for
peace between the princes in strife; he wrote to the King of Spain to
encourage him to resist the advances of the Moors and guaranteeing him
certain victory, not to mention his many appeals to pray for peace which
he defined as "the greatest treasure that peoples can possess", but which
The inspiration of "Lenten life" became once again the main channel for
his intervention. Moreover, he did not come up with practical solutions to
the problems in which he was asked to intervene, but provided the basic
inspiration to solve them; he was truly immersed in "Lenten life", in the
sense that it invited him to act with a view to the primacy of God, whose
demands must be complied with in order to overcome selfishness and to opt
for the objective good for both individuals and groups.
The endeavour to overcome the selfish exploitation that impedes justice
and charity spurred him at all costs to make prophetic gestures, such as
openly facing the King of Naples and the King of France and demanding
justice for their subjects.
The freedom he achieved through penance impelled him to carry out this
mission of liberation. And in the people's eyes it was credible because,
as a penitent, he did not seek personal profit but the good of others.
Reclaiming the charism
In preparation for the Fifth Centenary of the Founder's death, the
Order of Minims has made his daring its own; it has regained the
evangelical force of "Lenten life", a charism it has inherited, presenting
it anew as the theme and leaven of renewal for society and for the Church.
The preaching of John the Baptist ended with an invitation to convert:
Christ's preaching began with the same invitation. In the history of the
Church, whenever they felt the urgent need for reform, the faithful have
had recourse to the strong call of penance, with the evangelical
conviction that true reforms always begin in the depths of the human heart
and in the human desire to convert.
The Minims want to start out afresh in the Church and to present this
conviction anew. Their projects will include expansion on the two great
Continents of Africa and Asia, which they will implement as a gift to the
Church after this Fifth Centenary to express their desire to take the
power of this Gospel truth to those Continents where the springtime of the
Church is blossoming. And they will likewise be the best response to the
invitation to Religious to put out into the deep with the characteristic
Gospel enthusiasm of their own Religious family.