On January 26, 2020, the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, the Church will celebrate the first “Sunday of the Word of God” as announced by Pope Francis on September 30, 2019, in his Apostolic Letter Aperuit illis.
Friar Emil KUMKA is a professor of Franciscanism and Church History. We asked him some questions about the role of the Word of God in the life of St. Francis:
Can we point to the moment St. Francis’ life when he discovered the Word of God? How did he discover the Word of God? How was he “converted” to it?
St. Francis’ conversion regarding Sacred Scripture meant passing from the cultural concept to the biblical concept – that is – to understand it as the book of life. Similarly, the link between the Word of God and the sacraments was clearly evident in him, just remember his words and gestures defending and promoting the decrees of the Fourth Council of the Lateran on the Eucharist, penance and the sacraments in general, which were in full and profound harmony with the experience of the Church. In his Second Version of the Letter to the Faithful, where the Word of God is inseparably linked to the persons of Christ and the Holy Spirit, he writes: “To all Christian religious people…Because I am the servant of all, I am obliged to serve all and to administer the fragrant words of my Lord…I decided to offer you in this letter and message the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Word of the Father, and the words of the Holy Spirit, which are spirit and life…And let all of us know for certain that no one can be saved except through the holy words and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which the clergy pronounce, proclaim and minister. And they alone must minister and not others” (2Lf 1-3; 34-35).
We asked you a question about the Word and you answered talking about the Eucharist. Does speaking in this way allow us to grasp something specific about Francis?
Yes, this understanding allows us to grasp St. Francis’ position regarding the Word of God. Generally, it can be said that he placed himself before the Word as much as he did before the Eucharist, and that he served the Word as much as he served the Eucharist. At the heart of this arrangement was one motivation: St. Francis had a sacramental concept of the Word of God. He found the living presence of Christ in the Eucharist and in the Word as well. In his First Letter to the Custodians, he ordered that Sacred Scripture be venerated as the Body of Christ: “With all that is in me and more I beg you that, when it is fitting and you judge it expedient, you humbly beg the clergy to revere above all else the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and His holy names and the written words that sanctify His Body” (1Lcus 2). This passage also reveals the profound spiritual union between the Word of God and the Eucharist, which St. Francis had always felt.
A very modern attitude; it seems to have the flavor of Vatican II.
St. Francis reveals that he had a sublime theological understanding regarding the meaning of the Word in relation to the sacraments: “Many things are made holy by the words of God and the sacrament of the altar is celebrated in the power of the words of Christ” (Lord 37). “Let all of us, clergymen, consider the great sin and the ignorance some have toward the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and His most holy names and written words that consecrate His Body. We know it cannot be His Body without first being consecrated by word. For we have and see nothing bodily of the Most High in this world except His Body and Blood, His names and words through which we have been made and redeemed from ‘death to life’” (1Lch 1-3).
We know the episode where St. Francis opens the Gospel and then puts into practice what he has heard. There seems to be no doubt that he saw the action of God in the Word.
Obviously! For St. Francis, taking refuge in the Lord meant going to his Word which was at the same time the sign of the Body of Christ (Incarnation and Eucharist), as well as the realization of His real presence. The saint’s entire life was marked by his consultations with the Gospel text, which he understood and accepted as the word of the living Christ. His opening of the book of the Gospel is repeated at crucial moments when he had to make decisions.
What can we say about his knowledge of Sacred Scripture? Did St. Francis know Scripture well?
His knowledge of the Holy Scripture, and especially of the Gospel ([His writings contain] 248 quotes from the Old Testament and 426 from the New Testament, including 268 from the Gospels), his discernment of biblical texts, his recognition of their extreme value and his esteem for them led him to the testimony and the command he left in his Testament: “Wherever I find our Lord’s most holy names and written words in unbecoming places, I want to gather them up and I beg that they be gathered up and placed in a becoming place. And we must honor all theologians and those who minister the most holy divine words and respect them as those who minister to us spirit and life” (2Test 12-13).
In Sacred Scripture the Saint of Assisi favors the New Testament, particularly the Gospel, which he always and only mentions in the singular, since it is the same Christ who speaks to us in the different Gospels. St. Francis often uses the term sicut dicit Dominus (as the Lord says), or its synonyms dicit Dominus in evangelio or dicit Dominus [says the Lord in the Gospel, says the Lord] after which he would insert the Gospel quote. He does not use verbs in the past tense, because in the Gospel, the Lord speaks in the present moment; the Lord speaks to Francis and his brothers in their own present time. St. Francis’ approach to Scripture is not intellectual. He is not guided by historical or exegetical interest. His approach is participatory, lived, and this serves to give Christian form to existence. We have no examples of him using allegorical or typological exegesis, which was so widespread in his time. Rather, his interpretation is practical and very much in the moment. This comes from his interpretative criterion: the Word of God is understood by immersing one’s life in it.
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