In the last year of his life, St Francis accepted the fact that sister death was drawing near. While the most fundamental human instinct is to search for ‘exit’ strategies in an effort to escape the ultimate frontier of human existence, death, Francis gradually came to understand that death was not his enemy. Despite his premonition that death was rapidly approaching; despite concerns that the Order of lesser brothers, might not continue with the originating dream of a world renewed in Christ as God revealed to him, Francis found in death an opportunity to once again celebrate life, and demonstrate that the life of penance and peace are inescapable passages leading to new life in God.
The early biographers recount that in his last year of life, Francis continued to promote the vision of a reconciled world with all of his energy. The renewed conflicts between the three forces controlling societies in medieval Italy, namely, the Church, the local Governments and the rising Merchant Classes, raised their ugly heads once again as animosities and competition for economic resources broke out between Bishop Guido and the Mayor, Oportulo Bernardo. We know that Francis dedicated the greatest part of his active ministry, and something to which he would return at the end of his life, as highlighted in his final Testament.
All of us deal with anger, an unwillingness to forgive and let people be free, fear of the ‘stranger’ and the foreigner’, and the challenge of living in human societies that seek to co-opt our fundamental Gospel vocation. The invitation of Francis to each of us gathered here tonight is for us to see whether we are living lives reflective of the pardon, reconciliation, justice and peace of God. Francis invites us through his death to become active seekers of life. For this, we must become active believers in the uncompromising forgiveness and love of God for all people and for creation. And we must become active agents of forgiveness, peace, reconciliation and non-violence. We do this because this is what God expects of us as disciples of the Risen Lord Jesus who, according to John’s Gospel narratives of the Resurrection, entered the heavily guarded upper room where the disciples huddled in fear and spoke the message of the Resurrection, namely, peace: “Peace be with you,” proclaims Jesus to his disciples, and to us who are on this Gospel journey. Francis obviously would pick up this insight and turn it into a program for life, the life of penance and peace.
We return to the bishop’s palace in Assisi in 1225. We recall Francis’ call to the brothers to carry him out on his stretcher to the bishop’s court where he could confront the bishop and the mayor, remind them of their fundamental dignity as children of a loving and forgiving God and invite them to take up the way of forgiveness and reconciliation as the way back from a culture of death and towards the renewed culture of life, the life of the new creation in Christ.
It was in that court yard of the bishop, lying between two men who had ‘lost their minds and hearts’ to hatred, jealously and endless competition for power and resources that Francis broke out into song, a song of peace and reconciliation:
Those who are here and who admire the Saint of Assisi, Francesco, cannot escape the challenge to become instruments of peace, hope, reconciliation and love in a world torn by all forms of competition and jealousy. We can bow down and call upon the Spirit of the Living God and ask God to turn our hearts, minds and actions to the way of peace.
May our celebration of the passing of our brother and father Francis provide us the opportunity to open our lives to God’s invitation to become signs of love and hope for our world, a world desperately in need of such witness. And may we find new ways to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ as revealed to Francis to our families, fraternities, Church, society and world. This is the greatest act of gratitude and thanksgiving we might offer – to become the very forgiveness and peace of God to all people.
Francis speaks to us tonight from the place of seeming death and annihilation, the grave. Francis calls out and beckons us to take up this Gospel life of penance and peace with renewed vision and commitment. He sings to us this night the same words and melody that he sung to the bishop and the mayor, to his brothers and sisters of penance and peace, and to the citizens of Assisi, Perugia, a song of peace, forgiveness and blessing.
Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.