From small beginningsOn my last full day in Italy we travelled back to Rome from San Giovanni Rotondo – a long coach journey through varied terrain. While passing among the mountains I spotted a ruined chapel in the woods, and it occurred to me that if Francesco Bernadone has not answered his call, such might have been the chapel of San Damiano or the Portiuncula. They would be ruins in the forest, near to the small and unregarded town of Assisi.
Thanks be to God, St. Francis did obey the voice of Christ speaking to him in San Damiano. So now that chapel stands as key place of pilgrimage for the millions who visit Assisi. The Portiuncula, meanwhile, not only remains to welcome pilgrims, but is housed in the middle of a huge basilica. A wise woman, after her first trip to Assisi, remarked that the situation of the Portiuncula – a small, simple chapel enclosed by a grand, ornate basilica – is a parable of the Franciscan charism. And while that was said with a certain amount of sorrow at the lost simplicity of Franciscan beginnings, it helped me to understand some positive implications of the Chapter’s visit to the Portiuncula.
A worldwide brotherhoodThe brothers gathered at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels numbered a little less than two hundred; and yet, although we were less than 2% of the whole Capuchin Order, we could not in any way fit into the chapel of the Portiuncula. We had to gather in front of it for the liturgy celebrated there. But at the key part of the liturgy we did enter the little chapel, filing through only a few at a time, and then moving on out again into the vast space of the basilica. And as we passed through that place where the Order had its beginnings, the General presented each of us with a lighted candle, exhorting us to “Relight the flame of our charism!” Slowly, therefore, the church was filled with these little flames, each one coming from the little chapel at its heart.
I found this ceremony deeply significant. For a start, the very fact that we could not all fit into the Portiuncula was a reminder that we could not, as a whole Order, go back to the lifestyle of St. Francis and his first companions. We have grown beyond that – even in Francis’ lifetime we had grown beyond that. The huge diversity of Capuchin conditions and ministries today, and the developments of the world, cannot be fitted into that original manner of living the Gospel.
On the other hand, as the General’s gesture showed, we not only can, but we must enter somehow into that original experience if we are to renew our Franciscan life. The flame of our 21st-century charism must be lit from the flame of the 13th-century. What is needed is that desire for 'ressourcement', for a return to the sources, which the Second Vatican Council asked of religious orders, lest our life be completely detached from our founder and drift more and more into worldly ways. And this return to the sources cannot be merely an intellectual experience, but needs also to be a lived reality, a true entering-into our beginnings.
Living the dreamJust as the friars at the Chapter had to file through the Portiuncula a few at a time, so we in the British Province have to take turns to revisit the life of St. Francis and his brothers. As we are thus renewed, we take our rekindled spirits back into the wider fraternity. In fact, one such recurrent experience is already written into our Capuchin life. I refer to the annual retreat, which is a chance to enter again the Portiuncula of prayer, that prayer so foundational to Francis’ life and the life of the first Capuchins. We light again the flame of our contemplative life, and bring it back with us into our fraternities.
In our Province we have been blessed with more extended and more communal visits to the Portiuncula. The friaries at Penmaenmawr, Hollington, and Preston were returns – although only partial returns, it is true – to the primitive manner of Franciscan life, each fraternity developing a different take on that life. Those of us who lived in or otherwise experienced those fraternities have been granted a fresh vision of what is possible, and have carried this flame into the next stage of our Capuchin life.
Many friars can name experiences which have reconnected them to the primitive charism. Now, however, we will turn our minds to other possibilities, to new ways in which friars can enter – a few at a time – our humble beginnings. These ways may be quite similar to recent ventures, or they may be more innovative. We might take a cue from Cantalamessa’s talk at the 2009 Chapter of Mats and focus on experiences of prayer, poverty, and preaching – which he identified as foundational elements of the Franciscan charism. Or we might take our inspiration from other elements, such as Francis’ service to the lepers, which he desired to return to at the end of his life.
Our ongoing formation programme during these 3 years is an opportunity to renew our basic understanding of our Franciscan life, as we reflect on the first sentence of the Rule. We will also reflect on what lived responses that understanding calls for, what ways we can revisit the Portiuncula and the flame of our charism.
The Lord is in chargeWe often lack imagination to see the ways forward and are slow to take up the challenges involved. So it may be that Lord in His mercy will place us in the necessary situations, where our only choice will be whether or not to embrace the experience. I am thinking particularly of an inspiring anecdote in the General Minister’s report, with which I will conclude:
“A few days before Easter 2009, Abruzzo (Italy) and in particular the city of Aquila, was struck by a devastating earthquake which claimed many lives. Many parts of our own friary were badly damaged, and it would have been easy enough for our brothers to find hospitality in one of the other friaries of the province. But the friars of Abruzzo decided to stay put, sharing the same conditions as those who had nowhere else to go. I went to visit them! There they were, living in tents or in the compartment of a railway carriage, lining up to get food from the field kitchen, and never once did they cease to make the Lord present by celebrating Mass in the tent they had been assigned.”