St. Francis’s Road: Words about the Word by Gene Ciarlo

“I have not heard a good sermon in a very long time.” I recently heard that lament from a close friend. It is not an uncommon expression even if it is not always voiced.

But then what is a “good sermon”? For starters, I personally don’t like the word sermon to designate the homily. It sounds preachy, which to me and to most people implies that I am being told what to do in order to be a good person, a follower of Christ, a good Christian. It is a moralizing style of preaching—the dos and don’ts of good Christian living. It lectures a mode of conduct rather than a commitment to something or Someone. I am thus told what I must do in order to be saved.

Salvation is not the living and breathing theme of the Christian life. Love and compassion, life lived according to the Spirit of God, is the dominant theme of the Christian life. Salvation, as commonly understood, is perhaps—and only perhaps—a side effect of a life lived in the Christian way. To be saved assumes an awful lot about hell and heaven. It is a theology unto itself.

Moralistic preaching, à la the Ten Commandments, is no longer popular. Ask any millennial or Gen Z-er who no longer attends Eucharist. If that is what Christianity is about, then neither do I want to dedicate my life to it. What I really want is to have in me the mind of Christ Jesus. Mostly I want to possess his selflessness, his compassion and care for people. I’ll wager that most Gen Z folks would want that, too, if only they knew, understood, and asked “How?” A true homily suggests an answer to the “how,” positing the Jesus lifestyle as the way.

Looking at the Christian life from a moral perspective, however, the biggest downer in our time, as I see it, is that people do not care for and about one another. Is it our liberal, democratic, capitalistic style of government and national interest that inclines us toward selfishness and greed? You may answer that in many different ways. We as a nation and a whole people are far too often selfish and unconscious, inconsiderate of each other. Jesus was its opposite; selfless, he was the man for others.

How do we Christians become for others, for each other? Is that not the essence of Christianity? To live our lives not just loving and giving our all for our immediate families, but to be alive and giving for each other, the stranger, the outcast, the immigrant, the refugee. Hearts ought to be broken over what we as a whole people are doing for the refugee, outcast, and stranger. We say it is politics; in fact, it is sin and it is unchristian. But I digress. What must a homily, a breaking open of the Word of God, be about?

When I remember what I have been called to, when I bring myself to the eucharistic table, I want to know that the man—or woman—who is presiding at Eucharist is in touch with the mind and spirit of Jesus, the Christ. And when he or she goes to the place at which the Word is proclaimed in the spoken word (the Word is proclaimed by action at the eucharistic table), I want that person’s spirituality to be transparent. I want to SEE the Spirit of God, of Jesus, alive in the person who is talking to me about his faith. I want to be impassioned to possess what she owns in her life, her belief and conviction about Jesus, his life and work.  

Recently I read what many would consider the definitive work on the life of St. Francis of Assisi. It is entitled Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint, by André Vauchez. According to the extensive research that Vauchez has done, Francis was not a good orator. In fact, he was not even a good theologian. Furthermore, he didn’t write very well, and his schooling evidently was minimal even though he came from an aristocratic family. So what was it that captivated people, that drew them to listen to him in the beautiful hills and valleys of rural Umbrian Italy? He did not spend his time preaching to the birds as so many novelty stories present him. The poor and the not-so-poor flocked to hear him because he made them feel necessary and important in the eyes of God. “Hail, people, the Lord is with you; Blessed are you among all that is.” That might have been Francis’s prayer when he stood before people to tell them about what he discovered of Jesus in God.

It was obvious as soon as he opened his mouth that he was like Jesus, a man for others. He wanted to tell his listeners about Jesus, because one gift that Francis did have was that he knew the gospels and the letters. He knew Jesus, and not solely from reading the Scriptures. He knew Jesus from his encounters with him in nature, in the universe, in poverty which left him undistracted by the things that life could offer to those who put their hopes and dreams in the goods of a cultured society.

Francis did not preach the Ten Commandments, per se. Neither did Jesus. Francis preached Jesus, his compassion and his unselfishness, his giving of himself so that others might have a richer life. Our moralizing sermons tell us the right and the wrong, as well as somehow teach the doctrines of the church. That is mere static information. It is not alive and vibrant. It is catechism lessons that tend to leave hearers cold and unmoved to become and grow. I choose to hold up Francis as a model for preaching because he apparently had nothing to offer but his own faith and conviction about Jesus and how all of creation was shot through with the spirit and life of God-in-Christ.

Breaking open the Word of God must lead us to become more than we are because it is a living, moving, growing word. Christians have to become. They, we, are not made whole and sanctified by baptism. We gradually grow into the Word of God who is Jesus. Christianity is a process of becoming, and it is timeless. We ought to be always in flux, on the road, in the path, dark and dangerous as it may be. I immediately think of the words of the poet Robert Frost in his poem “The Road Not Taken”: 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

What was the difference? The crowd does not follow the road taken by Jesus. He chose a road not commonly taken nor preached, which is why, in the end, he became a criminal in the eyes of those who had laid out the guidelines for the road that people OUGHT to take. The becoming of the Christian is to learn about that uncommon road, the one that is not taken by the rest of the world. That is the process of growing into a Christian. The teacher of Christ’s way shows us that the way is not common, not easy, not obvious. The teacher is a good, other-centered, and compassionate person.

What other qualities in the life of Francis made him a teacher and preacher who influenced his listeners and made them give second and third thoughts to their present lifestyle and set of values? One thing that comes through clearly in the life of Francis after he called his brothers together to follow him is the quality of poverty, of always being on the road, of accepting the charity of the people whom he met. He didn’t want things to change as the numbers of brothers increased, but human nature had its way and they were changing. Not everyone could have the mind of Francis; human nature is bound to seek greater comfort. We are like that.

Francis embraced poverty but that is not an attractive lifestyle to the majority of men and women who are inclined toward spirituality, contemplation, if you will, which is a total immersion into the life of the Spirit. Francis suffered because he could see a more worldly approach to what was evolving among his brothers. They were becoming a religious “congregation” or “order,” and that was not what Francis understood by the way of poverty. For Francis, to have nothing was to have everything in the sense that the lush countryside of Umbria sustained him and fed his poverty of spirit.

Jesus was embraced by the world around him; it was his home and a portal to the kingdom as he understood it. Jesus was a panentheist, one who seized the world around him, acknowledging its holiness and godliness as a sacrament of the presence of the Father. So did Francis, and he wanted his brothers to embrace the life of nature as he did. It was the heart of his preaching and teaching about God in Jesus. Where the brothers were going in the final days of Francis’s life was not the road not taken and less traveled, and this was upsetting to him. Jesus’s road was not the road of the leaders of the people who were caught up in the dogma of religion, static and lifeless, having nothing to do with journey or searching, and neither was Francis’s.

Today the scene is not the bucolic countryside of Italy, and every preacher can hardly be expected to emulate St. Francis. Practically speaking, what must today’s homilist, preacher of the Word, be and become? It starts with an evangelizer’s own innate, God-given personality and character merged with a zeal for the Word of God. He must be in an unflinching struggle to know and understand. She must be tenacious and resolute in her zeal to share what she has come to know and appreciate. A good homilist, a charismatic homilist, is never satisfied, and it comes through in what he is saying. He is searching, he reaches out, and even while he is proclaiming the message of Jesus it is obvious that he is still wrestling to appreciate what it is all about. She wants to bring her listeners into the struggle that she is working through. That is with what his hearers engage themselves: the struggle to understand, to continue the search, to try to know who and what Jesus and his message are all about. ♦

Gene Ciarlo is a priest no longer active in the ministry. Ordained from the American College, University of Louvain, Belgium, he spent most of his ministry in parish life. After receiving a master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University he returned to his alma mater in Louvain as director of liturgy and homiletics. Gene lives in Vermont, where everything is gracefully green when it is not solemnly white. 

Image: Manuscript Leaf with Scenes from the Life of Saint Francis of Assisi, Italian, ca. 1320–42.
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