Posted by: Fr Chris | October 4, 2011

Byzantine Links to St Francis of Assisi

St Francis receives the Stigmata from Jesus

One of the most beloved saints among Catholics both Latin and Eastern, it now turns out that one of the earliest devotions to him were among the Byzantines! A very rare document has been found in the archives of the parish church in Galatone, Lecce, Italy,  of a Greek text honoring the Poverello of Assisi. Apparently once the Latin rite took over the Greek rite parishes in the old Apulia region in the 1600s,  this Greek language devotional service was forgotten, but fortunately not destroyed. The local Franciscans are now incorporating these 800 year old texts in their local productions on the life of St Francis.

And the oldest known fresco – wall painting – of the life of our dear saint is inside a former church in modern Istanbul. Dated at 1250, this shows just how quickly the Franciscan movement was spreading through Europe.  Constantinople was then the capital of the short-lived Latin Empire, but  the frescoes were not damaged when the Byzantines reconquered their capital city.

The Franciscans incorporated icon traditions into their own new art of altar paintings, and after 1254 they began to include the Greek Saints in these works. When the Orthodox recovered their church, they did not remove the Francis cycle. Indeed, this church stands as a reminder of the early Franciscans’ desire to bring the Churches back together and most definitely of a meeting of the minds regarding icon art and Franciscan art.

 My meditation for the parish bulletin: 

His feast is on October 4. He is the founder of the Franciscan Movement for both men and women, and is the patron saint for ecology and environmental issues. This is not because he was some sort of Renaissance-era hippie, nor because he was visited by animals in his lifetime. Rather, Francis was a man who truly appreciated the Divine Presence in creation, the role of God in creating all things, and the role of creation in leading souls closer to God. He was able to summon and interact with animals precisely because he shed himself of all attachment to material things, worked at ordering the passions in his own life, and lived and walked in unity with Christ. His love for Jesus was so enormous that Christ invited him to share in the unique hallmark of Jesus’ beloved: the painful stigmata, living with the five sacred wounds of Jesus’ death. In all of his preaching as a layman anddeacon, and all his apostolic labors, Francis was consumed with a great love for God, and the desire to win souls for Christ.

In September of 1224, Francis withdrew from even his closest companions in order to pray in a remote place, undisturbed, thus imitating our Lord. He did so to prepare for the Lent of Saint Michael, a fasting period which used to exist before the Latin rite feast on September 29. He prayed to experience the Passion of Jesus in order to understand our Lord better, and to thus preach more effectively on the Passion. To his surprise, Jesus appeared to him in the form of a fiery seraphim, and pierced his hands, feet, and side, with the holy wounds. This was done, Christ said, so that Francis could become a living image of Jesus Crucified. He died in 1226, singing Psalm 141, and was canonized in 1228 due to the popular acclaim which sweptEurope.

Pope Benedict XVI writes: to carry one’s cross means to feel crucified with Christ; to be a participant in the Passion of the Lord Jesus; to feel that we are His and no longer belong to ourselves.  In order to bring the work of salvation fully to completion, the Redeemer continues to associate to himself and his mission men and women who are prepared to take up their cross and follow him. Consequently, just as for Christ carrying the cross was not an option but a mission to be embraced for love, so it is for Christians too. In our world today, where the forces that divide and destroy seem to dominate, Christ does not cease to offer to all his clear invitation: anyone who wants to be my disciple must renounce his own selfishness and carry the cross

with me. Francis did so literally and figuratively; surely we can strive to do so figuratively? 


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