For the Feast of St. Francis of Paola: 2 April
Giuseppe Fiorini Morosini
Corrector General of the Minims
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 fearing him".
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 Fathers".
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 of blamelessness".
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 "costs dearly".
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.
Weekly Edition in English
22 March 2006, page 8
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