Every so often the Lord raises up men and women who live their faith in an exceptional way. It usually seems to be at a time when people really need to be inspired and often when the Church is in crisis. At the end of the 13th century God called a man called Francesco or Francis, to live in a radically different way. He was from a town called Assisi in Italy. Francis was from a wealthy family, but he felt that God was calling him to leave everything and follow him and so he did. To the horror of his father who strongly objected, Francis renounced everything and in front of everyone he stripped off all his clothes and any belongings he had and went off to live on his own as a poor man, living only for God. Soon afterwards while he was praying alone in a broken down church he felt God speaking to him from the cross and saying, ‘Francis, rebuild my Church, which as you can see is falling down.’ So Francis started to collect stones and reconstruct that building. However, God had a much bigger project in mind. God was talking about the whole Church. Around the same time pope Innocent III had a dream of a poor man holding up the Church which was collapsing. It was a sign of the role that Francis was going to play.
Not long after Francis began to live in radical poverty others began to see the kind of simple way of life that he was living, one by one they began to join him. They spent their time looking after the sick, the lepers, praying together, preaching the Gospel and most importantly… inspiring people by the way they lived. Eventually when they had been living this way for a while Francis went to Rome to get permission for this new group to officially become a Religious Order. When some of the bishops were discussing this with the pope one of them said, ‘It is not possible to live in this kind of extreme way,’ but one of the others pointed out that if it wasn’t possible to live that way, then it wasn’t possible to live the Gospel, since all he was doing was literally living the Gospel.
Today, over 800 years later, people are still inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, because we still need to be inspired. There have been others like him too, a modern day example being Mother Teresa of Calcutta, soon to be St. Teresa of Calcutta. What is especially important about these people is not so much the work they do as the effect that has on others. They usually become renowned all over the world because they inspire. They preach about God by the way they live more than by anything they could say. St. Francis of Assisi had the lovely saying, ‘Let us go and preach the Gospel and if necessary, use words.’
The Missionaries of Charity in India at least, spend a lot of their time bringing people in off the street who are dying. They clean them up as best they can and allow them to die with dignity. Most of these people would be Hindu or Muslim, but they don’t try to convert them. That is not what they are called to. They are called to bring the love of God where they find themselves among the poorest of the poor. In fact they really say more about their faith in God by what they do than by anything they could say. There is a story of one man they found who was in a particularly bad way. It took them several hours to clean him up and then he said to them:
‘All my life I have lived like an animal in the street, but I am going to die like an angel, loved and cared for.’ Mother Teresa went on to say: ‘It was so wonderful to see the greatness of a man who could speak like that, who could die like that, without blaming anybody, without cursing anybody, without comparing anything. Like an angel - that is the greatness of our people.’
In the first reading today we are called to look out for those around us who are in need and there are always plenty around us in need, often hidden. Some time back I was talking to a man in Sarasota who is homeless. He told me that he had served in the military, he had also done time in prison and now he was homeless. He also said: ‘You know doing time in prison is one thing, but trying to survive on the streets of Sarasota is quite another.’ It’s not what you would expect. While helping the poor materially is really important, respecting the dignity of each person is just as important. The way we look after people and treat people is how we tell the world what we believe in. It is not even about giving great amounts; it is about giving what we can with great love and treating those around us with great respect, whether we like them or not and regardless of what they believe in. That is how we tell others about God.
Let me finish with this prayer which I always find helpful when I find myself getting cynical about the world around us.
From a sign on the wall of
the children’s home in Calcutta.
People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
If you do good people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.
If you are successful you win false friends and true enemies.
The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spent years building, may be destroyed overnight.
People really need help, but may attack you if you help them.
Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway.
(from the book, ‘A Simple Path’)
Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.