November 29th is the traditional day on which are celebrated all the Saints of the Seraphic Order. It is with every reason that today the Universal Church celebrates the many Franciscan Saints who faithfully followed Jesus in St Francis’ humble and courageous footsteps, to serve as encouragement for everyone within the Franciscan Family to live as they heroically lived.
This penultimate day of November was chosen, for it was the day when, in 1223, the final Rule of life for Franciscan Brothers was officially approved. Let us not forget that this year, the Feast of All Saints of the Franciscan Family just falls on that very special day when, 800 years ago, Pope Honorius gave its official go ahead to the Order’s Regula Bullata. The Seraphic Missal rightly and precisely explains today’s feast with the following words: His holy sons of the First, Second and Third Orders, belong to every social condition and to every people. There are martyrs, doctors, priests, religious brothers, lay people, virgins, holy women… An immense multitude gathered around the great Poverello-the poor man, ‘bearing the sign of the living God.
It is truly amazing that this vision was lived till these 800 years thanks to the YES given by countless women and men throughout history who accepted to share wholeheartedly St Francis’ project of living the Gospel in obedience, without anything of their own and in chastity. Hence, these silent yet ever present heroes became a living icon of the Good Samaritan who loved unreservedly their neighbour with that much needed generosity that the Holy Gospel rightly demands.
The great Franciscan saint, St Bonaventure, in his Apologia pauperum, gives us some food for thought to encourage us, as Franciscans, to live our vocation with the same commitment St Francis did. He writes: Francis, Patriarch of the Poor, who at the beginning of his Rule proposes the three cornerstones of religious life: The Rule of the Friars Minor consists in putting into practice the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ, living in obedience, poverty and chastity. Then he suggests three other important things which harmonize and, in a certain sense, fulfil the earlier ones: Let the friars reflect that they must desire more than anything else to possess the Spirit of the Lord and to act according to His Holy Will; that they must know how to pray to God with a pure heart and possess humility and patience in tribulations and sicknesses; who must have a special predilection for those who persecute us, despise us and insult us.
Thanks to this admonition, St Francis is suggesting to the us, as the first place, the importance of all our action through God. Moreover, he also suggests that we are to accept joyfully every tribulation as well as effective and perfect charity to everyone. Having lived in this way, the perfect man and woman is, in Pauline terms, crucified himself and herself to the world by the help of the three vows and the three consecutive recommendations the person is finally conformed to God so that the with six seraphic wings he may detach himself once and for all from the things of this fallen world so as to become one with the divine.
Today’s Feast day is a compelling invitation to us to let the Spirit lead us to that perfect union with God through the six stages St Bonaventure gives us in his The Soul’s Journey Into God (Itinerarium Mentis in Deum), namely: stage 1: Contemplate God through his vestiges in the universe; stage 2: Contemplate God through his image stamped upon our natural powers (memory, intelligence, desire); stage 3: Contemplate God in his image reformed by the gifts of grace (faith, hope, love); stage 4: Contemplate the divine unity through its primary name which is being; stage 5: Contemplate the most blessed Trinity in its name which is good; and stage 6: The soul finds rest through spiritual and mystical ecstasy. In all these stages, Bonaventure discerned that the six wings of the Seraph can rightly be taken to symbolize the six levels of illumination by which, as if by steps or stages, the soul can pass over to peace through ecstatic elevations of Christian wisdom. There is no other path but through the burning love of the Crucified.
Within this perspective one can also appreciate wholeheartedly St Francis’ experience on Mount La Verna wherein he became one with Christ Crucified. That mystical experience amply shows how much the Poverello lived what St Paul tells us to live in his famous letter to the Galatians when he envisages for us the way to become one with Christ: I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:20).
As we celebrate the Franciscan Saints who are now in Heaven interceding for you and me, I imagine them telling you and me on this special day what Pope Francis taught us in his apostolic letter on the call to holiness in today’s world, Gaudete et Exsultate, number 15: Let the grace of your baptism bear fruit in a path of holiness. Let everything be open to God; turn to him in every situation. Do not be dismayed, for the power of the Holy Spirit enables you to do this, and holiness, in the end, is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in your life (cf. Gal 5:22-23). When you feel the temptation to dwell on your own weakness, raise your eyes to Christ crucified and say: “Lord, I am a poor sinner, but you can work the miracle of making me a little bit better”. In the Church, holy yet made up of sinners, you will find everything you need to grow towards holiness. The Lord has bestowed on the Church the gifts of scripture, the sacraments, holy places, living communities, the witness of the saints and a multifaceted beauty that proceeds from God’s love, “like a bride bedecked with jewels” (Is 61:10).
By and large this has been the message conveyed by all these brothers and sisters who, in St Francis’ footsteps, put into practice this life-giving words. United with them in Heaven let us turn to Our Father in Heaven and deeply implore him by this beautiful prayer which concludes the Franciscan litany for All Saints:
Almighty everlasting God, we thank You for granting us the joy of honoring our holy Father Francis and his sainted followers and enjoying the protection of their unceasing prayers. Grant us also the grace to imitate their example and so attain their fellowship in eternal glory. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.