St. Francis as a model for priests (R080122)
A reflection by Fred Schaeffer, SFO

Something caught my eye when reading the book "St. Francis and the Cross" by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap., and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (ret.), Charis/Servant Publications, 2003. Fr. Raniero writes on the subject "This is My Testament," subtitled "Francis Speaks to Priests Today" (Chapter 3) which is a a meditation given at the Monastery of La Verna, February 16, 2000. A part of this meditation is on St. Francis' "Love for Lepers," where Fr. Raniero's meditation describes the emotions on the part of St. Francis as he met a leper for the first time. In another section of this chapter, Fr. Raniero sums up how Francis' first love can be incorporated into the life of a priest. Here's the paragraph that I would like to quote, which made an immense impression on me as I meditated on it myself:

"At every Mass we repeat the words: "Take this and eat it, this is my body." We who utter these words over the bread have also uttered them over the lepers − the hungry the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. For Christ has said, whatever we have done or not done for these, we have done or not done for him (See Mt 25:31-46). This is tantamount to saying, "That naked body, that famished body, that wounded body that you found, was my body. It was I."

St. Francis of Assisi, whom we follow as Franciscans, has told us all along that we should seek to encounter the living and active person of Christ in our brothers and sisters (part of Rule 5) - and the lepers at the time of Francis and the lepers in society now, by creation, represent Christ because we are all made in the image of Christ. A friend of mine, about a dozen years ago, told me a story of a beggar, whom he has invited to come to a restaurant with him. The beggar looked disheveled and unkempt as many street people do to one extent or another. The restauranteur did not want to have this person there, and made attempts to tell him to leave. My friend tried to reverse this callous attitude, but the beggar left anyway. My friend ran after him, but when he came out of the place the beggar was not to be seen, not to the left nor to the right. Only a minute had passed since he left the store. My young friend believed that man had been Jesus Christ, or an angel. So after reading Fr. Raniero's meditation, the conclusion he draws brought this story back into focus, and I understood it better.

Who are the lepers of today? The World Health Organization's website tells us that in 2007 there were almost 225,000 lepers in the world today. Modern medicines have vastly reduced the occurrence of leprosy or Hanson's Disease as it is called in USA, and it is no longer a fatal disease. In the realm of St. Francis' teaching, we should include in the general category of "the naked, the famished, and the wounded," all who suffer life-threatening and communicable diseases, as well as the impoverished, such as people living in the Darfur, and other such areas in the world. These are people who have largely been forgotten, who are a statistic on some chart. There is, however, a danger when grouping such a large mass of people, whether rightly or wrongly into one category - the problem is then so massive that no one does anything to help. Fortunately, there are a number of organization that are helpful in small ways, by bringing in and distributing food, medicines, etc. If we love God, then our love for these lepers of today has to be large enough to feed them, to clothe them, and to treat them as equals. That is the Franciscan way.

In 1996, I spent a year in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was discerning if I wanted to become a Novice with the Order of Friars Minor. In a general orientation concerning services for the poor, in that city, I was introduced to Cookie Vogelpohl, a lady with enormous energy who ran one of the larger soup kitchens, "Our Daily Bread" in the area, particularly in the area known as "Over the Rhine." They were partially funded by an organization called "Catholics United for the Poor" whose first attempt at fundraising was in 1985, more than 20 years later, they are still fundraising. Many hundreds of cities in USA have soup kitchens to service the poor. Even in Vero Beach, Florida, where I am from, we have "The Source" - a facility for the poor. There are poor people, who do not have a bed or a house, all over the place, and with the current housing crisis in USA it is bound to get much worse.

We have an obligation toward people who are wounded, sick, homeless, and famished, not only in the pastoral sense, but by making others aware of the need to do something about these good people. When they are in need, it is not the time to point to the possible causes of their situations, but to act. People react toward the homeless, often in a very negative way. They make it sound as if these people, who are homeless, are somehow at fault for this. No, that's not the case. Do you think they want to be homeless? No one in their right mind would want to be homeless.

Living on a fixed income, there is a limit to what I can do in this respect. But I do something, something that every person can do - I go to Sam's (a warehouse-style discount store) and I pick up about $10's worth of canned goods and/or breakfast cereal, once a month, and this gets donated to our parish's "Neighborhood Apostolate" function, which directly benefits the poor in the area. That's my "widow's mite" if you will, but it is something!

If we all did something, then more people would eat!

Spending $10, 20, 50 dollars a month for food for the poor is something all of us can do!! Go shopping and donate it directly to a church facility that benefits the poor, where nothing is kept for themselves - or to local soup kitchens and similar facilities.

The homeless also need a place to stay. That's a much tougher problem. New York City has big armories which are made available during the coldest times in winter for the homeless, but even that is not enough space. I have slept in a house (actually as monastery in Massachusetts) for a number of years without heat in wintertime, but we did have an electric blanket. I used to get up at 5 AM or 6AM and it was 38˚F., in the room, so I have some idea what cold is ... and there have been occasions when my face was exposed to the elements at 4 or 5˚F but to stay a night without proper clothing in such drastic temperatures I could not fathom. No one, should have to do that. Is there even a concentrated effort to get people off the streets at night?

Jesus Christ told us, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Mt 22:37-39). If we truly love Jesus, we can do no less in regard to the lepers of today, as St. Francis did to the lepers of his time. Amen.

Fred Schaeffer, SFO



A Gift of a New Life
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