Traveling through Italy the past couple of weeks on Nashotah House's Archbishop Michael Ramsey Society pilgrimage, we spent a couple of days in Assisi, home to St. Francis. I found myself drawn to return more than once to the church of St. Clare, where, in a side chapel, hangs the large crucifix that once hung in the church in San Damiano. It was before this crucifix, in the summer of the year 1206, that Francis had the experience that sealed his conversion.
Francis had always possessed a heart that was concerned for God and for others, but he began to be increasingly convicted that his father's obsession with money, his mother's concerns for his health, and his own desires for sumptuous foods, lavish clothes, and extravagant parties were something he needed to renounce in response to the call of God for his life.
Francis frequently took walks in the countryside around Assisi, and one of his favorite paths took him past the church of San Damiano, a tumbling down, deserted chapel halfway down a steep hill outside the walls of the city. In this decrepit place hung a large, almost life size painted icon of Jesus on the Cross.
One summer day, in 1206, Francis was walking in the vicinity of San Damiano when he felt an interior tug of the Spirit to go inside to pray. Obeying the inner voice, Francis entered and fell on his knees before the familiar icon, his own spirit alert to what the Lord might wish to convey.
In eager anticipation, Francis looked up into the serene face of the crucified Lord, and prayed this prayer: "Most High, glorious God," he prayed, "cast your light into the darkness of my heart. Give me, Lord, right faith, firm hope, perfect charity, and profound humility, with wisdom and perception, so that I may carry out what is truly Your holy will. Amen." Ever more quietly he repeated the prayer, lost in devotion and wonder before the image of his crucified Lord.
Then, in the quietness, Francis heard Jesus speaking to him from the Cross: "Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you can see, is falling into ruin." Another translation gives these words as, "Francis, don't you see that my house is being destroyed? Go, then, and rebuild it for me." In short, "Rebuild My Church!"
So Francis looked around at the crumbling church of San Damiano, gathered some of his friends together and rebuilt it. Then they went out and began restoring other church buildings in the vicinity of Assisi that were in need of repair. Only gradually did Francis realize that "rebuild my church" meant to reform the institution, to rebuild it by witnessing to the truth of the faith and calling people to renewed faithfulness to Christ and commitment to His mission.
As I spent time in Assisi last week, I had the opportunity to reflect on Jesus' call to Francis and what those words might mean for me today. Certainly as we look around we see a Church that is in need of repair and rebuilding--whether it is the institutional churches of "mainline Christianity" in America, or the Church as it exists in areas of the world that are deemed "post-Christian," or churches of all types in every place that are wracked by materialism, hedonism, apathy, and lack of commitment.
I believe that, in the midst of these circumstances, God is calling faithful Christians to rebuild the Church, (1) by renewing their own witness to the truth of the Christian faith, (2) by reflecting God's holiness and love to each other and especially to those who need to know Jesus as their Savior and Lord, (3) by giving visible expression to the unity of all faithful Christians whenever and wherever possible, and (4) by being the Church even when the institutional churches of which they are a part may fail at that same calling.
Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed
for his disciples that they might be one, as you and he are one:
Grant that your Church, being bound together in love and
obedience to you, may be united in one body by the one Spirit,
that the world may believe in him whom you have sent, your
Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in
the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.