Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Sunday, September 29, 2013


ON THE FEAST OF SAINT FRANCIS, (October 4) the monks and nuns of the New Skete Orthodox Monastery in Cambridge, N.Y. sing this hymn:

Like Anthony the Great and Paul of Thebes, you re-established harmony between humanity and the beast, recovering the lost intimacy between creation and its creator. For in your presence, the wolf of Gubbio became like a lamb, placing its paw in your hand as a sign of peace, while the birds delighted in your preaching, as you sought to awaken in these creatures devoid of reason a conscious praise for the Lord, a praise in the name of all creatures like themselves. O Holy Father Francis, beg Christ our God to grant us his peace.

This is lovely, seeing in Francis a reconciler and restorer of  blessings lost in the human story (which story is the fall of Adam and Eve.) Remember the Advent reading from the Prophet Isaiah (11:6-9).

Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the cobra' den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder's lair,
There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord,
as water covers the sea.

We might ask: if we can hope that even the wild animals are capable of learning to live peacefully,  as in paradise, why can't we? But for all of the attention we pay to Francis of the animals (and sometimes we reduce Francis and consign him to the birdbath, which is to do him a great injustice) there is a part of the Francis story that is even more telling of who he is and how needed today.

Assisi, the home town of Francis, like so many Italian towns, is built up high on a mountain. An approaching enemy army could be seen that way and floods would remain safely below. And as the son of a comfortable cloth merchant, who apparently stocked very fine and imported fabrics, Francis had a buck in his pocket. I don't know if the Franciscan scholars would say as much, but perhaps we might say of Francis that he was a party boy, a carouser or lounging rich boy. 

At any rate, at some point after his encounter with the Crucifix of San Damiano and the repair of that church, Francis descended from the top of Assisi to Rivortorto, which means Twisted River, to where the leper-outcasts "lived". The descent was of course, much more than just a geographic re-location, it was a descent from his socio-economic ladder, a descent down into love. And at Rivertorto, Francis became friend and brother to the forgotten and despised ones. 

There's an incident in the life of Dorothy Day, a contemporary model of gospel justice, who when a gushing admirer said to her, "Oh Dorothy, you're a living saint," Dorothy responded, "Don't dismiss me so easily." We do that to saints - we make statues and sanitized pictures of them to admire on the wall. But we're supposed to be saints, not admirers of saints. Pope Francis said in his interview that the Church is not a little chapel where only a few can enter or a nest for mediocrity..." The real Francis of Assisi is a threat to that chapel-nest kind of Christian community.

A priest asked me once, "Stephen, who's your favorite saint?" I answered, "St. Benedict Joseph Labre," wanderer-pilgrim saint. The priest answered immediately, "But you wouldn't even go near him, he smelled so badly." I'm sorry to say, the priest was very likely right, though I was indignant at hearing it.

The Crucifix at San Damiano

Having heard the call
of the Risen Christ
in the half ruined church
of San Damiano,
you raised up the place
using mortar and stone.
And rekindling the lamp
that burns through the night
you dropped out of Assisi
as a woman giving birth,
through the rivertorto
among the
rejected and decayed.
O illumimed Francis,
whisper to God for
the brightening of hearts.

Francis with lepers at the Rivertorto


  1. Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
    Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

    Although not the words of Francis himself, it was the message he conveys to us in the way he lived the second half of his life. Pray for us that we may console, understand, love, give, and pardon those who live in our world, side by side with us who we may not normally consider. So that we may too, live eternal life with our Lord.

  2. St. Francis of Assisi is the perfect saint to remind us that we can change our ways and turn towards God and a better led life. There is hope for all of us even when we feel like there is no point in repenting our sins and looking towards a better future. God will see the good in us like he did in Francis. We just have to be able to hear the call.