By Sister Eloise Rosenblatt
St. Francis of Assisi (1182––1225), a young man from a prosperous Italian family, at an in-between period in his life, had a vision of Jesus at San Damiano, a wayside chapel in northern Italy. There, Jesus urged, “Francis, Francis, go and repair my house, which as you can see, is falling into ruins!”
Francis at first took these words literally. He began a reconstruction process to physically rebuild small shrines and chapels in the countryside that had fallen into disrepair. He sold products from his father’s silk import business to finance the construction projects, employing workers to clear debris, cut stones, pour cement and rebuild walls. When his father discovered what his son was doing, it so angered him that he ended up disowning him; Francis’ response was to counter-renounce his inheritance, his wealth, his ties to his family and his upper-class social status. As a result, Francis did not become the patron saint of those with dysfunctional families, shunned members and long-held grudges!
Instead of trying to patch things up with his father, Francis dedicated himself to the summons of Jesus to “repair my house,” now understood as a spiritual mission to preach the Gospel and serve the Church. It became his life orientation, not merely a discrete physical task to clear trash, reconstruct walls and doors, and restore sanctuaries in wayside pilgrimage chapels.
“Repair” as Change of Personal Ideology
Repairing the house of Christ involved, first, a radical change in his own lifestyle, from one of economic ease and stability to the minimalization of his personal needs. Poverty involved a leave-taking from a comfortable residence to a lifestyle that presumed physical mobility in imitation of the disciples who followed Jesus. “Repair my house” involved preaching the Gospel to ordinary people—unbelievers and heretics alike, in small towns and villages—who felt alienated from the institutional church. “Repair my house” led to the change from dramatic liturgical ritual performed in Latin in ornate churches to simple re-enactments of Gospel narratives such as the Nativity made available to people in their own local dialects. “Repair my house” became an effort to convert the political and economic exploitation exerted by ambitious clerics upon the poor.
“Repair my house” inspired Francis to embrace the whole cosmos, including both heavens and Earth, as the dwelling place of God. God’s presence is not invisible or remote. As a poet and lover of the beauty of the Earth, its sun and moon, its plants and animals, Francis has for centuries served as the timeless patron of the ecological movement.
Our present Pope Francis, the former Argentinian Bishop Jorge Borgoglio, was inspired to write his encyclical Laudato Si’ based on the first words of the Canticle of the Sun—“Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair. …” The feast of St. Francis is traditionally the day for a blessing of family pets in local parishes. I wonder if St. Francis’ charming portrayal of preaching to birds gathered to hear him was really his work of mercy to feed the hungry—pocket full of bread crumbs, liberally and gradually dispensed, along with his appealing homilies.
“Repair my house” involved outreach to non-Christians as mediator and peacemaker, as Francis modeled during his trip to the Muslim Sultan in Egypt in his effort to stave off the violence generated by the Fifth Crusade. Who has not prayed or sung a version of Francis’ composition, “Make me an instrument of your peace” as an appeal for ecumenical toleration and interfaith harmony? The fact that there are Anglican and Lutheran religious orders that call themselves “Franciscans” witnesses to the mysterious, trans-denominational appeal of the Franciscan charism.
Francis’ passionate re-dedication and re-orientation to a life of poverty was attractive to many classes of people who sought to follow Jesus in the Gospels more closely, more simply and more personally. Gradually, “Franciscans” came to refer to various groups—the men in the Order of Friars Minor, women in the Order of St. Clare and laity through the Third Order.
A Personal Visit to Assisi
When I was an undergraduate at Santa Clara University in northern California, I spent my junior year abroad in Rome. We visited the magical city of Assisi one weekend afternoon in autumn. Even the hills emit light and radiance. I think now I felt what I was supposed to feel. If Assisi has a reputation for transcendence, I felt lifted up and carried to a higher plane just by having arrived. I remember the gorgeous frescoes of Giotto on the church walls illustrating the life of St. Francis.
Our student group passed through a chapel dedicated to St. Clare, who established a contemplative community of women who would mirror Francis’ vision. She was the very patron of my undergraduate university, Santa Clara, in California! Striking was one display: a glass-paneled oblong box of about 18” by 12”, with a tarnished silver frame supporting the glass panes. Inside were layers of tresses and curls of very light blond hair—reputedly cut from Clare’s head when she changed from her status as a laywoman to one dedicated to Christ. She must have been a stunning woman!
Identifying a Personal Vocation to ‘Repair My House’
If today we hear the same words of Jesus addressed to us by name—“Go and repair my house, which as you can see, is falling into ruins!”—what would we try to repair? What do we understand as “my house”? Of all the attractions each of us feels, what dedication or aggregate to “repair my house” centralizes our own efforts? What becomes our personal sense of mission on behalf of the Church? Is “my house” understood more broadly to include the world, its suffering people, the physical environment of land, water and air, the very cosmos in which this tiny planetary dot hangs and moves through space? What is the one choice or general direction that, if taken, will fulfull the purpose of my life? If I don’t say “Yes” to this particular urging, what is something important that will not be done for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of the Church, for the sake of suffering women, for the sake of the Earth itself?
Pope Francis’ Efforts to ‘Repair my House’
“Repair my house.” Is this just a call for Franciscans? Or, as we see in the example of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio—a Jesuit who embraced Francis’ name and mission—an invitation to everyone?
We recognize in the actions of Pope Francis, some of which are considered controversial, that he is at work re-building and repairing the Church through such initiatives as:
- Promotion of ecclesial subsidiarity rather than monarchical centralization of governance.
- Vatican curial and episcopal appointments that reflect the broad geographical presence of the Church.
- His faithful, regular reflection on Scripture as published in his daily homilies.
- Reform of canonical processes for annulments in diocesan tribunals.
- Confronting opposition in his decisions to reconcile current liturgical practice with the direction of Vatican II.
- Vigorous enforcement of clerical sex-abuse reforms at the episcopal level.
- Leaving un-ordered the ultimate solutions for sacramental ministry of men and women in the Amazon.
- Invocation of synods on the family, on subsidiarity, on Eucharist.
- His magisterial encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’.
- His continuing call to unity among peoples in Fratelli Tutti.
What does it mean to “repair my house?” St. Francis understood it, partly, as a mission to restore the Church to a simpler, less ostentatious culture, where the poor would be welcomed and served; where the theological emphasis would be on the love of God, rather than the duty of the baptized to manifest obedience to clergy; where sick and suffering people, including lepers and cast-aways, no matter their faith or their allegiance to God, would recognize in the Church, not a building where they professed their faith but, in the words of Pope Francis, a field hospital where their wounds would be tended.
The energy generated by St. Francis remains a gift to the Church and the world, one easily harmonized with the charism and mission of the Sisters of Mercy.
Sister Eloise Rosenblatt, Ph.D., is a theologian and an attorney in private practice in family law. She lives in San Jose, California, and is the editor of The MAST Journal.