HOMILY OF THE MINISTER GENERAL FOR THE FEAST OF THE PARDON OF ASSISI
“Praised be You, my Lord, who with all Your creatures,
especially Sir Brother Sun…, through Sister Moon and the stars…
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,…Sister Water,…Brother Fire,…
Sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us…
Praised be you, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulations.”
Two thousand twenty will be remembered as a year of great infirmity and tribulation for the entire world. Every human community on this tiny planet Earth has been affected in one way or another by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Presently, more than 650,000 people worldwide have died, of whom 35,000 in Italy. More than 17 million have tested positive for the virus but scientists tell us that this is probably only a small fraction of the total number of infected. The social, cultural, economic, and spiritual lives of people everywhere – our lives – have been profoundly disrupted. Many have experienced deep psychological disturbances leading some to give up hope and commit suicide. More troubling, we have no idea about how the virus will evolve. This creates profound uncertainty about the future.
These consequences are all too real for those of us gathered here today to celebrate the Feast of the Pardon of Assisi. We cover our faces with masks; we maintain social distance from each other; we walk about in fear of the invisible enemy; fewer pilgrims are gathered in this sacred space this year for our pilgrimage celebration; the annual ‘Franciscan March’which was supposed to celebrate its 40th anniversary will have to be postponed for another time.
The new Coronavirus has also opened the eyes of more people – and I hope it has opened the eyes of those of us gathered here in prayer – to the deep, longstanding, social and ecological wounds simmering just below the surface in most if not all societies. These wounds, symbols of serious social and institutional sin, have in the recent past caught little attention among those who are part of the majority or ‘privileged’ classes. This is not the case for those who are counted among the ‘minority’, who have experienced serious social infirmity and tribulations on a daily basis for most of their lives. This was demonstrated most clearly by the cruel murder of George Floyd, an innocent black man in Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States who was held down by the police in a choke hold. Despite his plea for mercy, for oxygen – eight minutes and forty-six seconds, “I can’t breathe,” no mercy was shown by those entrusted with the duty to save lives. But the plight of George Floyd, his murder, is not limited only to the United States. It is the experience of so many people around the world – in England, France, Italy, India, South Africa, Brazil, to name only a few places – who have systematically been excluded, reduced to a life of poverty, who ‘can’t breathe’ because of the color of their skin, the social class to which they have been assigned, because of their religious convictions, or their sexual orientation. The experience of suffering and tribulations spoken of by St. Francis are not something experienced only at the personal level. The spiritual insight of St. Francis, his cry for mercy, pardon, and reconciliation also has a social dimension that, if embraced and followed, will produce within each of us a profound conversion. This conversion will produce the fruits of an authentic, just, and joy-filled life as disciples and co-missionaries with Christ, with Mary, and with St. Francis.
The new Coronavirus pandemic is allowing us to examine something else that is deeply troubling, which is producing ever-greater suffering and tribulation for the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants. I am speaking about the deep socio-economic divide that is increasing. Those who control the forces of economic production and distribution – the multinational corporations (Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google) – are getting richer at an alarming rate, even in these uncertain times of the pandemic while the poor, the excluded, people of color are becoming poorer, marginalized, pushed to the brink of survival at an alarming rate. It is they who face the greatest risks and bear the worst consequences of the pandemic because they have nothing to fall back on, no reserve resources, no significant social assets to draw upon. At the same time, we also are witnessing a deepening of the environmental crisis, the unrelenting destruction of the natural environment – the rain forests; oceans, seas, and rivers; the atmosphere that provides oxygen for our lungs; the melting of the two ‘Poles’ and an alarming rise in sea levels, which, in turn, is forcing mostly the poor to abandon their homes and become ‘environmental refugees’. All of these destructive social inequalities and abuses of nature create favorable conditions in which deadly pathogens previously held at bay in protected natural environments can make the leap from the animal to the human community, bringing unforeseen danger and suffering. The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has enabled us, perhaps for the first time in our lives, to recognize the deeply interconnected nature of all living things, and the need for us to repent and change our lives.
Brothers and sisters, the call to repentance, conversion, to open our minds, hearts, and lives to a new way of living together on this planet is more urgent now than in any other moment in human history. Conversion requires that we hear “Both the cry of the earth and the cry of the Poor” (cf. Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, par. 49). But is this not also what Francis of Assisi intended when he prayed that all people, and I would add, all of the created universe, might be admitted to paradise, might come to an experience of what St. Matthew calls the “Beatific way of life,” (Mt. 5:1-11) defined by living in just and right relationship with one another and with all of creation?
Today, we come to this sacred place of the Porziuncula, a place of prayer, encounter, pardon, mercy, and love. God has brought us here so that we might enter more fully into the divine drama of Jesus’ redemptive act of liberation from sin and the reconciling power of the cross that invites us to seek the way back towards God, towards one another, towards ourselves, and towards creation. We come as brothers and sisters, carrying in our hearts, our minds, and our bodies every living creature, so that all might participate in the liberating power of God’s reconciling love. As St. Paul tells us: “We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:22-23). The very act of this adoption, this redemptive process, is nothing other than the full reconciliation of all things in Christ Jesus, achieved through Jesus’ death on the cross (Col. 1:20). It is here where the testimony of St. Paul and that of St. Francis converge, offering us a new way forward to experience the graced consequences of a reconciled life.
In his Canticle of the Creatures, Francis offers us a road map for attaining a life of Beatitude, of ‘Paradise’ recovered. In the Canticle Francis celebrates God’s loving presence in all of creation. He looks to nature for guidance on how we are to model our relationships with God, one another, and with the natural world. He recognizes in creation – Brother Sun, Sister Moon and all other elements – the call for us to live in total dependence on the Creator. He invites us to open our lives to an understanding of our authentic identity as members of a ‘cosmic fraternity’ wherein all creatures share the same dignity and vocation given by God from the moment of creation (cf. C. Vaiani, Storia e teologia dell’esperienza spirituale di Francesco di Assisi, Milano, 2013, p. 378). This one fraternity, this common home, has been created by God and given the vocation to love, serve, and honor the Creator by loving, serving and honoring one another. Humans and the creaturely world have as their vocation the duty to support and complete one another, not to compete against and destroy one another. We are co-responsible with and for one another, especially for the poor and excluded. We are co-responsible for the life of the natural environment, showing gratitude and respecting nature’s proper limits, not pushing the planet to the brink of ecological disaster.
“Come to me, all who desire me, and be filled with my fruits. You will remember me as sweeter than honey, better to have than the honeycomb.” (Sir 24:19-20). These words of consolation offer to us the hope that God will always be merciful, will always welcome us back, no matter how far we stray in our lives, and no matter how far our human communities have strayed from the practice of love, care, justice, and mercy to each and every human being, and to the natural world, our common home.
Brothers and sisters, God is calling us through this great celebration of the Pardon of Assisi to abandon all that leads to death, all that robs us of God’s mercy, pardon, peace, and joy. We are invited to live as beloved children of a loving God, destined for freedom, destined for love, destined for God. There is no room for fear, no room for exclusion, no room for apathy or inaction. In God’s paradise, all are welcome, all are forgiven, and all are loved. May Mary, Mother of Jesus, embrace and console us as together we renew our pledge to live in authentic friendship with God, one another, and with our mother earth, our common home.