Dear brothers, I offer each of you my greetings on this solemnity and as I begin this letter, I hope that your celebration will be beautiful and revitalizing.
As we all know, at this time Pope Francis is offering the world his encyclical on fraternity and social friendship entitled “Fratres omnes”. The title was inspired by the writings of the Seraphic Father: “Let all of us, brothers, consider the Good Shepherd Who bore the suffering of the cross to save His sheep.”(Admonitions VI, 1).
This prompted me to add some reflections to my greeting, to share with you my point of view on a couple of aspects of our charism, aspects which I consider very important for renewing our fidelity to that charism.
Before offering you my reflection, I very much wish to express all the affection, esteem and gratitude I have for you; please be assured of my continuous prayer for each of you. Brothers, I very much appreciate what each community in the Order offers the Church and the world.
Once again, I wish to commiserate with the friars and communities that are suffering because of the virus, or because of adverse socio-political situations, or other reasons.
My reflection is about a major threat to fraternity: the attitude of “taking possession”, or simply “taking power”. However, it also mentions something of great promise: the attitude of giving freely of oneself.
“It Shall Not Be So among the Brothers”
When Power Becomes a Lifestyle: Hermeneutics and Plan
Likewise, let all the brothers not have power or control in this instance, especially among themselves; for, as the Lord says in the Gospel: “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and the great ones make their authority over them felt”(cf. Mt 20:25-26); it shall not be so among the brothers. “Let whoever wishes to be the greater among them be their minister and servant. Let whoever is the greater among them become the least” (cf. Lk 22:26); (Earlier Rule V; FF 19).
Celebrating the life of the Brother from Assisi without questioning our own lives could lead us to a great contradiction. As I often say, our reality as sinful men makes us unintentionally inconsistent. However, here we are talking about the plan for our life and the real principles that guide it. Therefore, it is important that we frequently examine our own lives in the light of Francis of Assisi.
For the Poverello, fraternity was directly proportional to minority, and inversely proportional to dominion or power. Francis simply identified himself with the poor and crucified Jesus Christ, and with the principles of the Gospel. Francis’ admiration for the way the Son of God laid down his life and for the littleness of his Mother, laid the foundations of his radical minority. He is a man faithful to the Gospel who not only admires God’s fatherhood, but sees it as something foundational in his life along with the awareness of universal fraternity that it generates. It was a simple but significant experience, one that triggered a new vision of the reality of the Church, of society and its historical processes, of politics, of economics, of the means of production, etc. For St. Francis, the key was not to be lords, but brothers.
In the Franciscan experience, the word “brothers” not only indicates a sense of family for religious, but also a way to conceive the world, to place oneself in history. This is why it can be an uncomfortable word, as it was for Jesus, who, because of his message and the choice he made, was crucified. He was crucified not so much by the Roman Empire, but by the ecclesiastical system of the leaders of his own people. This was an ecclesiastical system whose leaders, accustomed to power, refused salvation and the newness of the Kingdom.
St. Francis understood the Lord’s decisive words very well: it shall not be so among you (cf. Mt 20:25-26). Fraternity was a constitutive part of the early Church. By offering himself on the cross, Jesus generated a people comprised of brothers and sisters (Eph 2:11-18). The Risen Lord called his disciples “brothers” (Jn 20:17), and invited everyone to be born again from above (Jn 3:3), and gave new content to the relationships between brothers (Mt 5:21-26), including fraternal correction (Mt 18:15-35).
In the image of the Gospel, those who are called to be part of the Franciscan fraternity must love each other reciprocally (Earlier Rule XI; FF 37); consider themselves equal and brothers (Earlier Rule VI; FF 22-23); show respect and honor each other (Earlier Rule VII; FF 26) ); confidently express their needs to each other (Later Rule VI; FF 91); humbly serve one another (Earlier Rule VI; FF 23); avoid disputes, murmuring, anger, and love each other with deeds rather than words (Earlier Rule XI; FF 36-37); and with tenderness (Earlier Rule IX; FF 32; Later Rule VI; FF 91). Furthermore, the Franciscan fraternity creates a space of freedom in which each friar can develop his own personality according to the inspirations of the Spirit and as a consequence of the atmosphere of creative freedom that surrounds him. The friars are also free to disobey their ministers if they order them to do something contrary to our way of life (Earlier Rule IV; FF 13). These elements are also present in the description of our charismatic identity found in the General Constitutions, in particular, articles 1 and 2.
Historians of the Franciscan movement remind us that the life plan St. Francis initiated included some aspirations that were characteristic of medieval society: equality, working in solidarity and in service to others, fraternal life, shared poverty and the rejection of the kind of wealth that alienates people from each other. At the same time, the ecclesiology of Francis of Assisi was an ecclesiology “without power”, for it was clear to him that God’s power was manifested in weakness and minority, and not in superiority or domination.
Jesus brought the Old Testament to perfection, conferring great magnanimity upon brotherly love for the “weak” of history, the poor, and the suffering. A poor and elderly widow, a paralytic, a sinner, children, a blind man, a leper, a non-believer and even a Roman soldier could become privileged subjects of the Kingdom. Thus it is for Franciscans: power is understood as service to others and as a generative source of fraternity.
Dear brothers, fraternity is a lifestyle. It is a crosscutting principle, a message and a method for living. It testifies to the presence of the Lord and his Kingdom of love and justice. Let us flee any temptation to be “princes”, that is, to dominate and to claim possession over our spaces, our brothers and sisters, material goods, knowledge, etc.
I am making a special appeal to the whole Order and in particular to the newest Provinces and Custodies, to recognize the temptation to be seduced by any kind of power, such as, seeking popularity or personal benefit, pursuing offices and goods; and feeding political intrigues and campaigns for the sake of enjoying power. All this threatens the community.
Just because we may hold a ministry, office, administrative position, chair, etc., does not mean we own it. Nor do we own someone else’s culture or knowledge. Instead, we should try to foster listening, gratitude, acceptance and respect, because we are disciples of the Master and the Gospel, and we all live in the same house, our common home.
We do not even own the “sacred”—neither the liturgy, nor our own priesthood. Fairly often in the Church today, it seems that some men wearing liturgical vestments attribute sacred power to themselves instead of the Lord. Rather than “disappear” behind the liturgical symbols, they rely on them to make themselves “stand out”. May such temptation be far removed from us! Pope Francis devoted ample space to this topic, speaking in particular about “spiritual worldliness” (EG 93-104).
Our own religious habit is sometimes used, not as a symbol, but to show we are “invested” with authority. Simple people may perhaps see it that way, but they do it only to venerate the Lord. Instead, if we ourselves think we are “invested” with authority, perhaps we are attacking our charism and the cross itself.
May our joy, as men of the Church, be simplicity. We have no other power than that of being neighbors to the humble; to the persecuted; the simple; the tormented; the sick; the excluded; the pious; the believers; the young; the old; immigrants; those who are dispossessed; all of our brothers and sisters—even the difficult or problematic ones and to the holy people of God. May our witness as men of service contribute to generating an ever more fraternal environment in our world!
Beyond the Quantifiable: Giving Freely of Oneself
Freely Giving Back as a Consequence of Fraternity
and as a Generative Source for the Future
Let us refer all good to the Lord, God Almighty and Most High, acknowledge that every good is His, and thank Him, “from Whom all good comes, for everything.” May He, the Almighty and Most High, the only true God, have, be given, and receive all honor and respect, all praise and blessing, all thanks and glory, to Whom all good belongs, He Who alone is good (cf. Lk 18:19; (Earlier Rule XVII, 17-19; FF 49).
One of the consequences of “fraternity” as a principle of belonging to the world is the attitude of giving freely of oneself. Pope Francis has repeatedly insisted on the need to overcome the very concept of solidarity and justice, with that of superabundance and giving freely of oneself. Justice demands what is “due”, restitution and fairness. Superabundance, on the other hand, requires one’s freely given love, which generates superabundant life, as the Word itself says, without measure, beyond all calculation.
St. Francis invites us to return all goods to the Lord and to live with gratitude. Gratitude evolves into giving freely of oneself: offering the world not only what is right, but also what testifies to the goodness of the Lord. God the Father has shown us how far divine generosity can go: right up giving us his own Son (Rom 8:32). He is the true Charis: grace and charity without measure and generosity without limits. Moreover, if God’s grace is the basis of redemption, it is also the basis of the specific way we ought to exercise charity (cf. Rom 12:6; Eph 6:7).
The practice of giving freely of oneself, and the enthusiasm to do it, are components of the Franciscan tradition. God gives freely of himself: he freely gave us his Son (not only and not primarily as a consequence of sin!). In the Son, he freely provides everything for us. For Franciscans in particular, our call is to be a sacrament of that freely given nature of God’s love and deliver a message to the consumerist system that surrounds us.
In his book “Il Gemito della Creazione” [The Groaning of Creation] our confrere †Giacomo Panteghini, OFM Conv., reminds us of the current crisis (in the sense of failure) of “analytic reasoning”, which “divides reality” to dominate and be compared with “symbolic reasoning.” Symbolic reasoning, on the other hand, “generates unity and meaning”. Symbolic reasoning does not divide, it unites; it sees reality as relationships, communion and integration. Its strength lies in being “sympathetic”, participatory and loving. It creates conviviality, communication between all beings, with the awareness that we are all immersed in the same current of life.
Division, domination, aggression, slavery and exploitation: all of this results from “analytic reasoning”, which led man to confront nature in order to subjugate it for his own benefit, rather than immerse himself in it with the awareness of being one of its creatures. “Symbolic reasoning,” says Panteghini, “works in the opposite direction. It initiates relationships based on communication and communion. This holds true whether the relationships are between individuals, peoples or cultures. “Analytic reasoning” establishes relationships based on superiority. “Symbolic reasoning” opens us up to contemplate the other; it moves us to accept and integrate him, to establish a relationship with him. It presents us with a superabundance of possibilities, because it recognizes that reality is not one-directional but inclusive and open to different interpretations.
Brothers, giving freely of oneself is a principle of God. It invites us to adopt an attitude of adoration, veneration, communion, fraternity and unity— not one of domination or exploitation. In general, the members of our ancestral cultures lived in harmony with creation and not in opposition to it (in the sense of ruthless exploitation). Giving freely of oneself “confuses” all systems that seek only to possess, accumulate and consume.
Of course, giving freely of oneself can be uncomfortable for the world. For us, however, it is a source of joy. I am sure that all of you, my brothers, take more joy in giving than in receiving. The mission, to leave one’s comfort zone and “go forth”, is one of the most beautiful gestures of generosity or self-giving. Even before a missionary starts doing good for others, his life is made meaningful by the simple fact that he gives of it freely, that he offers it, and that it is given without expecting anything in return.
Because it generates fraternity in the world, giving freely of oneself is a sign of our Franciscan charismatic health. Glancing at the history of our Order, we see outstanding examples of this self-giving. It has led many brothers, living under certain regimes, to go into hiding or spend decades in prison, like a seed, until a time of freedom finally arrived. It has led others living under dictatorships to give their lives as martyrs. It has led the great majority of us to be faithful in our dedication to the vocation we have received. This feast calls us to rekindle the passion of charity in ourselves, and to express this passion through imaginative, creative and generative self-giving.
As we know, St. Francis used the words “brother” and “sister” in a wide variety of ways. Not only is each person a brother or a sister, but so is every living creature. The Poor Man of Assisi discovered God’s glory throughout the world and nature, and thus he proclaimed universal brotherhood and reconciliation. Creatures are traces of the Creator and though they are at the service of human beings, they are not to be the merciless service of profit-making. Unfortunately, we have become so accustomed to the mercantilist vision that we run the risk of ignoring our responsibility, which is so well described in Laudato Si‘, the encyclical Pope Francis gave us five years ago. The mercantilist conception, the subjugation of Mother Earth for profit, exploitation and technological domination, should concern all Franciscans. We should ask ourselves if our lifestyle and commitment promote Pope Francis’ prophetic voice in the call to venerate God’s work, respect his creatures and promote ecological justice.
We all know that some of our presences in the Order need to be restructured. Moreover, we are tempted to “restructure” with a view toward “preserving and protecting” ourselves. That is perfectly understandable, but I consider it insufficient. Now is not the time to think only of “preserving ourselves”. It is time for us to open up and give from our poverty as well, in the hope of generating new ways of doing things, new presences and new ways of life, which are ever more faithful to the Gospel and full of love and creativity.
We are all called to give freely of ourselves. The new Provinces or Custodies must grow with an orientation toward self-giving; they must grow with the attitude of “giving of oneself” for the good of others. The Lord will surely bless such a disposition.
As a Franciscan and Conventual family, we have a privileged space where we can grow in generosity and self-giving, namely, the community. If cared for with fidelity, every Conventual community in every Custody and Province will generate newness of life. I invite you to give thanks to God for the gift of our charism, and for the brothers who, believing, live it and offer their riches to the Church and to the world.
Brothers, once again I express my deep affection and gratitude for what each of you is and does.
At the same time, I encourage you to rejoice every day in our charism, which is showing itself to be more and more relevant. Fraternity and self-giving are part of our heritage. We are welcoming toward our brothers and generous in everything. May a superabundance of self-giving love be the mindset of our conscience and the rhythm of our heart. May our communities live according to Eucharistic principles: blessing the Lord God for the “bread” that is our concrete life, but also returning it to him and to our brothers and sisters through the gift of our “yes”; that is, by “breaking ourselves” so that the world may have life in Jesus Christ.
At this point, I wish you all the best and encourage you to joyfully and eagerly follow the way of the Lord, according to the way of Franciscan fraternity. May St. Francis, the Poor Man of Assisi, be with you and guide you for the good of our society and the Church. May the Lord bless you abundantly.
Rome, October 4, 2020, the Solemnity of St. Francis of Assisi
Friar Carlos A. TROVARELLI