On Saturday 25 January over sixty people from across the Diocese gathered at Wickersley to hear Sisters Catherine, Cecilia and Elizabeth of the Franciscan Sisters of Renewal talk about Franciscan Spirituality. The sisters, all Americans, live and work amongst the poor in a deprived area of Leeds where they bring caring and the gospel message to the community.
First, Sr Elizabeth spoke about St Francis himself. He was from a middle class family and something of a socialite. He became a soldier, went to war and ended up in prison for a year. In prison he was noted for his ‘beautiful spirit.’ On release he went off to war again but fell ill and dreamt that he saw large amounts of armour. He misinterpreted this dream, believing that it indicated he would be victorious in battle, but then he had another dream in which he was asked, “Who do you wish to serve, the master or the servant?”
It was at this point that his conversion began and he went home to Assisi. One day a beggar asked him for ‘alms for the love of God.’
Francis did not respond and later deeply regretted this because he realised the beggar had been Christ. He did not make the same mistake again and, on meeting a leper he embraced and kissed the man even though he was repulsed by leprosy. (Pope Francis did the same recently with a man deformed by terrible tumours). Francis continued his conversion, rejecting all the values of this world and spending three years rebuilding churches. He gathered a group of like minded men and they began to preach the gospel adopting a habit the shape of a cross with a rope belt and sandals.
In about 1209 Francis went to Rome where he gained papal approval for the rule of the Franciscan Society. Francis had an obedient heart. He strove to be humble and fasted seven times a year. He loved and was devoted to the Nativity Story because God had humbled himself to become a man born in poverty. He made the first crib. He also loved the Cross, the sight of which reduced him to tears and the Eucharist which he saw as another sign of God’s humility in that God conceals his glory in bread and wine. Two years before his death, in 1226 at the age of 44, he received the stigmata. He was canonised two years later following many miracles attributed to him.
Sr Catherine then spoke about the spirituality of the Franciscans. She said that it is based on three pillars. These are:
To have the spirit of the Lord within ourselves – Life is a journey towards God the Father in the footprints of Jesus His Son and this journey is made possible for us by the intervention of the Holy Spirit. People who have the Spirit within them will behave like Christ. This is what the Holy Spirit does; it transforms us into being like Christ so that Christ is apparent in everything we do.
To live without owning anything – Franciscans live in obedience, chastity and in the footprints of Our Lord. Everything must be attributed to God – this is ‘true evangelical poverty” and ‘true humility.’ All the good things we have come from God and the most God gives us is Jesus Christ who held nothing back in demonstrating God’s love for us including accepting a horrendous and humiliating death.
Our response – We must be ready to give back to God in praise of thanksgiving and in witnessing to others that Jesus is everything and all-powerful.
Sr Catherine said that only a small number of people are called by God to fully commit their lives to this spirituality. Others are called to equally valid vocations such as marriage and parenthood but Franciscan spirituality is still something that people can strive to follow as far as they can within the context of their own life and vocation. The message of Francis is for all people and not just those with a calling to the religious life.
Sr Elizabeth then talked about how her vocation had developed. How she came from a Catholic family but knew little about St Francis. How she had been a girl guide and developed a love for working with the poor. How, in her education she had become devoted to the Blessed Sacrament and had begun to feel a dissatisfaction with normal student pursuits. A major occurrence in her life was when in a large crowd she had seen a homeless man begging. She had looked at him three times but done nothing. Later she realised that the man was Christ and that, in doing this, like St Peter, she had denied Jesus three times; like Peter, she wept. She did not immediately pursue a religious vocation and developed a close friendship with a young man. Sr Elizabeth, said that although this did not lead to marriage it did help her to appreciate and value the vocation of marriage. She continued to work for the poor but came to realise that God wanted more; God wanted not just her deeds but her heart as well. She now both serves the poor and preaches the gospel.
Finally, the Sisters held a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament in Blessed Trinity Church. This had the beautiful playing and singing of Sr Cecilia who sang hymns that were new to many of those present. In between the hymns were readings about St Francis and his spirituality. These reflected his devotion to the Incarnation, the Cross and Passion of Jesus and the Blessed Sacrament. There was also time for private prayer and devotion.
This was an outstanding event and everyone was deeply moved. Sr Cecilia’s first hymn called on the Holy Spirit (Come Spirit of God. Come breathe on us) and it was possible to feel the Holy Spirit fill the Church and hall in response. The event dealt with the serious issue of our relationship with God but it was not run on serious lines and everyone was impressed by the joy and good humour or the three sisters, who joked and laughed and who made their presentations so entertaining that the audience were spellbound listening to them. As we listened, we thought, this must be what Jesus is like.
Do not miss future events in the Diocesan Assembly Spirituality Series on the following dates at Blessed Trinity Church, Wickersley.
• 31 May – Carmelite Spirituality led by Fr Tony Lester
• 12 July – Benedictine Spirituality led by a monk from Ampleforth
• 27 September – Dominican Spirituality led by Bishop Malcolm McMahon OP of Nottingham Diocese