St. Francis: Embracing the Leper


St. Francis Day; October 4, 2012

Gal 6:14-18; Ps 27; Mt 11:25-30

Deacon Jim McFadden; St. Francis High School


            Are there any saints in this assembly?  Does anyone want to be a saint?   The great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner once said that the only regret is not to become a saint.  Well and good, but who is a saint?  The Catholic Church says that a saint is someone who has demonstrated heroic virtue, someone who is a friend of God, someone who is in heaven—and these all amount to the same thing. Saints are those who have allowed Jesus to change them completely from within.            Today, we celebrate the feast day of our patron saint, Francis of Assisi, perhaps the most popular saint, who, unfortunately, has a rather sentimental aura associated with him.   From a safe distance he appears as sort of dopey–a well-meaning hippie who talked to birds.   The domestication of Francis is summed up by the ubiquity of those concrete garden statues with a bird perched on the saint’s shoulder found in everyone’s garden center.   In this conception, Francis was cheerful no doubt, but also a little bland and non-threatening, which is the way we like our saints.  Such an understanding goes hand-in-glove with spirituality lite.

            Francis was anything but a lightweight; he radically lived the Gospel and he was deeply and thoroughly Catholic, who did so much to renew the Church.  Why was he able to do so? He truly allowed Jesus to change him completely from within.  Such transformation was not an easy process.

Like the invitation to embrace the gentle mastery of Christ we head in today’s gospel, Francis was called to make a radical conversion to God.  This conversion didn’t happen overnight.  It began one night in Spoleto, en route to military service, Francis had a dream in which a heavenly voice urged him to “serve the master, not the man” and return to Assisi.    That’s the first necessary stage of conversion: to what or, better, to whom are we going to give our heart and soul?  Will it be God or will it be God-substitutes which make empty promises?  Francis struggled with this invitation, and he began to find his old life of partying, less and less attractive.  Over time, he started living more simply, praying more and giving alms.

The next necessary stage of his conversion occurred riding his horse one day in the plain of Assisi, when he chanced upon a “leper,”  someone suffering from a skin disease.   From childhood, the delicate Francis had a horror of lepers, and his whole being was revolted by the sight of this man.   What Francis was doing was projecting all his interior ugliness, self-absorption, and narcissism onto the leper.  And, it’s not Francis who does this.  We’re repulsed by interior lepers such as body image issues.  We get so fixated on our own faults that we’re unable to recognize the needs of others. Francis had a sense that the God within his dream was changing him.  Grasping the demands of his new call, his mission, Francis dismounted and embraced the leper and, in so doing, embraced his Dark Side.

Sisters and brothers, we are all wounded in some way, which began when we were defenseless children as we absorbed the dysfunction and brokenness of our culture, beginning with our families. We know something is amiss;  life is somehow out of sync; so, we develop strategies to protect ourselves, hoping they will provide us comfort and security.  Our allegiance gravitates toward what St. Thomas Aquinas identified as the Four Ps:  property, prestige, power, and pleasure.  They promise us life and happiness, but they can’t deliver because, as the Psalmist notes, “They have eyes, but see not; they have ears, but hear not.”  Sensing this void within, this disquieting “leper,” we attempt to fill it with some combination of the Four Ps.  But, what Francis understood, is that it is only by emptying ourselves of our obsession with created goods can we make room for God to fill us.   When we try to satisfy the hunger for God with something that is not God, we will be naturally frustrated and, in that frustration we convince ourselves that we need more and more of the Four Ps.  So, we struggle to achieve it, only to find ourselves again, necessarily dissatisfied.   At this point, a sort of spiritual panic sets in.  It happened to Francis when he confronted the leper and it will happen to us.

To whom are we going to give our hearts?  St Francis eventually gave his heart completely to Jesus, the Word Made Flesh—God incarnate.  Jesus is the only One who deserves that kind of total surrender because he is divine: He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  We are faced with a radical choice.  As the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “The Saint is someone whose life is about one thing.”  Troubies, what is your life about?


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