A Saint for Our Times:A Woman RC Priest’s Reflections on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi
Humble St. Francis of Assisi whose Feast day is today is a Saint for our times. If there could be a Saint named to intercede for the Environment, for Sister Mother Earth, all of earth’s creatures, and for a rebuilt and renewed church, it would be Francis of Assisi. Probably Francis and all gentle saints both named and unnamed by the church are already praying for the preservation of God’s beautiful and boundless creation. Perhaps they are praying for each one of us to “do something” to save our planet and all residing in and on it, for action is needed now more than ever even as it was needed in Francis’ 12th Century world of Umbria and Assisi, and all around it. And, surely, they are praying for the conversion and return to God of a church where sexual abuse, inequity, and the abuse of money is becoming better known than the Gospel.
Francis, or Francesco as his well to do merchant father renamed him for his love of France, was a “highborn” and spoiled young man who won the favor of all he knew for his affable and party loving ways. He actively pursued dreams of being a warrior and nobility, not of being a holy saint.Yet, something happened to change Francesco. When he was 25 he had a dream in which he heard God’s voice telling him “it was all wrong” and asking him “Francis, repair my church”. church”. At first he thought God meant the dilapidated building where his village worshiped. So he did that only to learn that was not what the dream meant. This use of money angered his father and he had to pay it back and then he was disinherited. Francis was surprisingly relieved by this and, listening to his call from God,began a life of prayer and letting go of all material goods to share with the poor and infirm, and all of God’s creatures, whom he cared for with the same strong energy he used in dissipation in his former life. The hallmark of his actions was respect and love for all creatures great and small, for animals and birds, the infirm and beggars as well as the highborn and the pope. Equal love and respect. Wow! What a beautiful yet difficult lesson that is for us. Not all who follow the way of Francis will choose radical poverty as he did, but many can try to “give it all away”. And ,as for the conversion of the soul needed to live in simplicity and holiness as the poor and sick and all creatures are served, it can be a life long process. But to follow the Gospel in loving and showing respect to all, ALL- great and small- with equanimity is simply to live the Gospel as Jesus lived and preached it. It is that simple and that difficult. Most of all it is not an ascetic road, but one that demands actual action and hard work. Francis “got” what Jesus taught and lived: to love all of God’s creation and creatures, one must give one’s very self away. Francis ended his life chronically and terminally ill and blind and worn out from serving the poor, the sick and all of God’s creatures. He did not gain material comfort or ascend to nirvana or higher consciousness. He worked hard at serving his beloved God and all of creation until he died at 45. But for Francis, death was welcomed as freedom and unity with his beloved God and Christ.( For more about Francis one might see:
Francis wrote his famous Canticle of the Sun or Laudes Creaturarum- Canticle of Creatures when he was suffering his last illness and facing death. He says “Be praised, my Lord through….Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Fire, Sister Water, Sister Mother Earth and all of God’s creatures,and finally through Sister Death.” He praised God through all life and through its natural ending- called the first death, but advised that the the “second death”, or life cut off from God after death, can not harm God’s beloved who love and serve God and all of creation and will be united with God in dying here. His is an action and love filled spirituality. He also said” it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and in dying that we live”. He urged us to “start by doing what is necessary;then do what is possible;and suddenly you are doing the impossible”. I think of Rev. Judy Beaumont who lived a life of service her entire life, serving and blessing others until the last few days of her life when she could do no more. Her life of selfless service and love was a Francis life although she served 35 of her years as a Benedictine Sister, and the last 6 years as a RC woman priest. And her surrendering finally to Sister Death into Life was what Francis was talking about.
And we need to do the “impossible” now, we are reminded that here and now our earth, our planet, is in peril; wars and conflict rage on; human poverty and senseless illness and death is on the increase; water and resources for life are destroyed; and there is cruelty and abuse to both children and animals that is on a scale that is hard to fathom. And,what should be a powerful vehicle for changing this, the church,is in crisis and shame in the realities of sexual abuse on such a wide scale while married men and women are still not able to “officially” be ordained priests to serve God’s precious people. We have a new Francis, our Pope, whose heart is in the right place to have an impact on all of this, but who is hampered by the realities of the Roman Church itself and its archaic structures and politics. But more than this, he is hampered by us. Each one of us needs to become aware of the threats to our planet and to God’s poor and all creatures, and we each need to “do something” about it, to have an impact on exercising the possible to do the impossible-change the directions tings are moving in. No one Francis , however powerful his or her role, can change anything. All of us need to become a Francis and assist.
Here is an example of a man, in fact a Jewish man, who made an important choice to live more like Francis. And I am not sure he would ever conceptualize it this way, but I was so impressed by him. He is my Doctor, Paul Yudelman and he has been a wise , compassionate and able Doctor who has saved my life in his discovery of a stomach cancer- now happily removed and giving no trouble for five years. He also ministered to our Judy Beaumont during her illness and passing with the greatest compassion and skill. His compassion made him different as a Doctor. He has reached retirement age and while I feel sad that he will no longer be my Doctor and we also had many great conversations, I am awed by his decision. He is giving up on making money in Medicine and says “he has enough”. He is moving to Washington State to be part of the Environmental Movement and will give his considerable energy, passion and compassion and wisdom to saving our earth. He challenges us and me in particular to do what I can here, where our water is full of red tide, dead fish and sea life and toxic blue green algae. Erin Brokovitch is now here to help local activists champion this cause. I can act politically with my vote and in other small ways to counter this.
I think too of those who serve the poor and homeless here as it seems an endless battle when there are no local or state taxes to assist with housing and finances. I think of the many churches, groups and individuals who share with the poor and help them attain what they need with dignity. I think of Tonya Van Scoy and her family and friends who continue their Saturday night feeding ministry in the park. They, like our Good Shepherd Ministry, have had to slow down some recently due to illness and many changes in their lives. But we have been doing what we could for eleven years. And we could do this because so many good Christ followers have helped us. I think of the faithfulness of Hank and Claire Tessandori and Judy Alves and Jim Pellstring and Rev. Judith McKloskey and Rvda Marina Sanchez and Pearl and Dr. Joe Cudjoe to our ministry and of many others. In our ministry Ellen and Jack McNally still make food for our community gatherings as does Kathy Roddy who knows what it is like to struggle, but more importantly to serve. And also many continue to give us material support that we share with the poorest although we have dissolved our tax exempt status. This is a pure act of love. And when we can no longer do this others replace us. I think of Joe and Cece Irvin and Boot straps Ministry. Fr. Joe is a married priest and we worked together in the Park from 2007-2010. Then we moved separate ways as our ministries evolved. Their Ministry is active now in North Fort Myers. And there are many others who serve, Grace Methodist Church downtown, and several small ministries like Pastor Mandy’s. And I think too of some of our formerly homeless and still poor folks like Brenda Cummings and Harry Gary who give their assistance and support to keep these street ministries alive for the poorest among us. And I think of Mercedes with HEAL who works tirelessly to help abandoned and abused pets to get a new lease on life and a home. I think of my friend Danielle Nisivoccia who cares for the feral cats near her home in Pennsylvania. She feeds them tasty mackerel and wet and dry food and builds them igloos and uses a renovated Green House for shelter for them in the hard winters. Another neighbor, Elaine, who is caring for her terminally ill mother also cares for many of the area’s feral cats. Danielle is also reaching time to retire from this hard work but can not envision selling that property because 2-3 old and weak cats still need her compassionate intervention. And with the help of Dr. Terry Sutton and her lovely Staff I still care for 19 cats here and several outside as does at least one other of her clients. It is hard work but her help makes the difference in so many ways.
And I think of our Roman Catholic women priests who give up the support of the church communities they loved to serve as priests and who serve the poorest and also animals. In this I think of Pastor Gabriela Velardi-Ward who has an Inclusive Catholic church in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and who also feeds and cares for feral cats in her home in Staten Island, and, an architect,she works full time as well. I think of Rev. Marni who cares for the poor and for countless cats and dogs in Arizona where she builds homes for their shelter and comfort even as she struggles with health issues. And I remember our Franciscan Third Order Priest, Adele Decker Jones for her wisdom and love,and Rev. Tish Rawles for her love of God’s little creatures and applaud Rev. Elena Garcia who has spent a life caring for the poor. And there are many more women( and a few men) who do so in our over 260 validly but illicitly ordained priests and deacons world-wide.
And I think of countless ministers to the poor, both clergy and laity and Religious Sisters and Brothers who, like Francis give their whole lives to the poor both in the USA and abroad. All of this makes me feel that it is possible to join St. Francis of Assisi in his dream of “repairing the church” and loving and serving all of God’s creatures and Creation, our planet,-in doing the impossible. May each one of us try a little harder with God’s help.
Rev. Dr. Judy Lee,Pastor
Good Shepherd Ministries, Fort Myers, Florida