A little outside of and below the city stood the old church of San Damiano. The word “stood” may be misleading, for the church was literally falling apart. It was, as biographer Johannes Jörgensen describes it, “a little tottering field-chapel.” Its chief material adornment was a large Byzantine crucifix that was hung over the high altar. St. Francis of Assisi was fond of praying before this crucifix.
One day, in the year 1204, while gazing upon the image of Christ on the cross, he uttered the following prayer: “Great and glorious God, my Lord Jesus Christ, I implore thee to enlighten me and to disperse the darkness of my soul! Give me true faith and firm hope and a perfect charity! Grant me, O Lord, to know thee so well that in all things I may act by thy light and in accordance with thy holy will!”
Francis, at this youthful period of his life, had come to find the world empty and his own soul in darkness. He was begging God for enlightenment. And God was responsive.
From the crucifix came a voice that said to him: “Go, Francis, and repair my house, for as you can see, it is falling into ruin (Francesco, va et ripara la mia casa che, come vedi, è tutta in rovina). Francis was amazed at the sound of this astonishing voice, since no one else was in the chapel.
As he embraced the power of these Divine words in his heart, he fell into ecstasy. When he returned to his senses, he vowed to live by them.
This historical event is described by St. Bonaventure in his book Life of Francis. According to this great Franciscan theologian, philosopher and saint, the principle intention of these words of Christ applied to far more than the dilapidated chapel at San Damiano — to the Church that Christ purchased with his own blood. The Holy Spirit, according to Bonaventure, soon enough made Francis realize the broad and timeless implications of God’s command.
There are several lessons we can derive from Francis’ experience at the chapel in San Damiano.
These lessons may be both encouraging and reassuring for Catholics throughout the world who are grieving over the present situation in a Church that also seems to be falling into ruin. The first is that the current crisis, dire as it may be, is not unique to the present world. It has happened before, and the Church has recovered and survived.
Knowledge of history can be a source of both comfort and motivation. The world remains a battleground between the forces of good and the forces of darkness. We have no reason to expect anything else.
Secondly, a renewal in the Church can be inaugurated by a single layman, even one who adopts poverty as his bride. Renewal can spring from the ground level, through the humble and heartfelt acceptance of God’s will. Sincerity can be contagious. Humility can be imitable. St. Francis is the splendid incarnation of all these important virtues.
Thirdly, it is God’s will that his Church be restored. This also means that God, not his fallible creatures, is in charge and that he will not abandon his Church. But, at the same time, he wants us to cooperate with him. He does not want to force his will on us.
St. Francis of Assisi is one of the most admired and beloved in the entire catalogue of saints. No doubt, this is because of his complete dedication to Christ.
Fourthly, Christ spoke to St. Francis from a crucifix. The significance here is that through virtue and not through self-indulgence the Church will be purified. Virtue, especially chastity, may be difficult, but it is demanded if we are to be united with Christ Crucified.
Christ himself told us that we must “enter through the narrow gate — for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). It is not liberal to be broad; it is liberal, in the truest sense of the term, to be freed from the illusion that being broad is the road to spiritual progress.
Fifthly, it is significant that the prayer Francis uttered before hearing God’s words indicated that he promised to live by the three supernatural virtues: faith, hope and charity. This brings out the notion that we are more likely to discern the word of God when we live by these virtues.
Faith, hope and charity align us with God and greatly improve the communication system that exists between man and God. Francis indicated that he was well prepared to receive the word of God.
Finally, the words casa and Chiesa, so similar in structure in the Italian language, suggest a certain intimacy between “home” and “Church.”
This similarity is even more apparent in the Latin words ecclesiola (the home as a little church) and Ecclesia (the Church).
The home, the family and the Church must be intimately united with each other in order for any one of them to be successful.
Both the Church and the family are presently in disarray. Divorce, abortion and domestic violence do not contribute to a healthy Church.
These factors are part of the problem, and it is unrealistic to think that the Church can recover without the assistance of marriage and the family.
An event that took place more than 800 years ago in a rundown church in San Damiano, Italy, is most relevant to our staggering time. The faithful will find hope when their love compares with the divine love that il Poverello of Assisi practiced throughout his life.
Reparation is possible as long as faith, hope and charity are viable.
Don DeMarco is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University.
He is a regular columnist for St. Austin Review and an adjunct professor at
Holy Apostles College. His latest book, Apostles of the Culture of Life, is available at Amazon.com.