A guiding thread unites the name then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose, once he was raised to the papal throne, and the institution of the Holy Year dedicated to Mercy. It is a thread born along the pebbles of the charming and Medieval Assisi, which unravels, leaving an indelible trail through the history of the Church, of Italy and of the whole of humanity.
Saint Francis, who grew up in the affluence and splendours of a rich family, immersed himself in a new humanity after having received the blessing of the Father of all mercy. An embrace that he received, accepted and loved, and which then extended to his neighbor, recognizing in everyone the face of Christ.
ZENIT invited Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap., Papal Household Preacher, to suggest some reflections to our readers regarding the connection between Saint Francis and mercy. In fact in these days, a volume of Father Cantalamessa has gone on sale in bookstores, co-edited by ZENITBooks and Ancora publishers, entitled “In Love With Christ: The Secret of Saint Francis of Assisi”
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ZENIT: “The Lord himself led me among the lepers and used mercy with them.” Father Raniero, in his Testament, Saint Francis chose a very precise word — mercy — to indicate the beginning of his conversion.
Father Cantalamessa: Mercy was the first fruit of his drawing close to the Lord. Let’s not forget what St. Francis says in the same phrase; ‘the Lord led me among them.” There have been some (for instance, in times close to us, Simone Weil) who came to Christ from love of the poor and there have been others that have come to the poor from the love of Christ. St. Francis belongs to the latter. But this reflects the profound order that exists between works and grace. St. Francis first experienced God’s mercy to him, mercy as a free gift, and it is this that spurred him and gave him the strength to have mercy for the leper and the poor.
ZENIT: In your opinion, is there some episode in Saint Francis’ life in which, mainly, the face of mercy shines?
Father Cantalamessa: I recall in particular what the Poverello wrote to a minister one day (this is how he called the Superiors of his Order, namely, servants): “May there be no friar in the world, who has sinned, as much as it is possible to sin, that, after having seen your eyes, does not go away without your forgiveness, if he asks for it; and if he did not ask for forgiveness, you ask him if he wants to be forgiven. And if afterwards he should sin a thousand times before your eyes, love him more than me for this, so that you are able to attract him to the Lord, and always have mercy for such brothers” (Letter to a Minister – FF nr. 235).
ZENIT: What do mercy and the safeguarding of Creation have in common?
Father Cantalamessa: In his Encyclical on respect for Creation, Pope Francis writes: “The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail’” (Rom 8:22) (“Laudato Si’ “, 2). St. Francis of Assisi, in whom the Encyclical is inspired, had already given a human face to Creation, making of every creature a brother or a sister: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Mother Earth … It’s true, the earth today, in fact, is like that poor man assaulted by brigands and left half dead on the road. Many pass by him and go on, pretending not to see or simply leaving to others, who will come after them, to be concerned with the problem. If it is thus, the Pope, with his courageous criticism, has shown himself a “Good Samaritan” for our “Sister, Mother Earth.” Of course, there is another, more “human” relation between mercy and the care of Creation and it is that to have respect for Creation means to have mercy for those that will come after us, and not leave them without resources for a fitting life on earth. The seven works of corporal mercy must also be read for the future: to give to eat to one that one day is hungry, to drink to one that one day is thirsty …
ZENIT: The Extraordinary Holy Year coincides with the 800 years of the Forgiveness of Assisi. How was the request for this plenary indulgence born in Saint Francis, which he addressed to Pope Honorius III?
Father Cantalamessa: I don’t know enough to respond properly to this question also because it’s known that there are controversial opinions, but I think that such a request could have stemmed only from St. Francis’ desire that the Lord’s Mercy reach every heart.
ZENIT: How can Saint Francis’ experience be a teacher of mercy for us men and women of today?
Father Cantalamessa: In many ways. One is to go to meet the “new lepers”
of today, the people avoided or kept at a distance by all; to go like him to the last, to the “existential fringes,” which also exist close to us. Above all St. Francis points out to us the source from which one can draw the strength to do this, and it is to see Christ in one’s brother, to recall that word of Christ: “You did it to me.”
ZENIT: The Synod of Bishops begins on October 4, Feast of Saint Francis. How can mercy speak to the crisis of today’s family?
Father Cantalamessa: Pope Francis has clearly put the whole discussion on the family and its problems under the sign of the mercy of God and of Christ. It is from the example of Christ, from his conduct towards the “irregular” of the time (Zaccheus, the Samaritan woman, the adulteress, the woman sinner) from which one must begin to resolve the thorny questions that the present crisis of the family presents to the Church. However, on this it is good to wait rather than anticipate the conclusions of the Synod.
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