| Franciscan Resources - Be
The major point of interest and excitement
among the Franciscan sisters and friars of the Third Order Regular during the last few
years has been the challenge of the Madrid Document and subsequent rule proposals best
summarized by the statement, "We are Franciscan Penitents.
Michael Scanlan, T.O.R.
Analecta TOR, Rome, 1983.
" When this is
reduced to its pastoral meaning to local Franciscans, it can be stated as: "be
penitents." This exhortation, whether implied or explicit, normally encounters at
least initial resistance on the part of the hearers. This article deals with the nature of
the resistance and the pastoral response needed to overcome it.
The resistance to
"be penitents" comes at two levels: penitential practices and interior
conversion. The Franciscan hearers resist first of all because they identify penitents
with doing penance. Doing penance immediately raises memories of fasts, vigils, Lenten
resolutions, hair shirts, pebbles in shoes, taking the discipline, black drapery, and, in
general, grim living. These practices are remembered frequently as less than successful
attempts at holiness and frequently misguided zealous preoccupation with self. Such
practices are usually said to have very limited relevance in the post Vatican II Church
which, in turn, is identified as emphasizing the works of charity and social justice.
penitents" is clarified as primarily involving continual internal repentance or
conversion (metanoia) normally the hearers again resist. They speak of Church Renewal,
Incarnational Realities, Theology of Hope, and Resurrection people. They challenge the
penitential emphasis with statements asserting that Christ's death redeemed people once
and for all. Therefore, an emphasis on repentance denies the suffering of Jesus as Savior.
Such an emphasis, they say, can only be explained as an expression of masochism or an
extension of Manichaean or Jansenistic heresies.
The hearers consider
"be penitents" as a call to revert to the pre-Vatican II Church and their
inclination is to reject the "penitential" renewal. They frequently end with the
refrain of St. Irenaeus: "The glory of God is man fully alive."
This article will
deal with these two objections: first, with the internal issue of continual conversion and
then with the external issue of penitential practices. The purpose of the article is to
demonstrate the freedom and joy of living as penitents. Such living is based on an
internal reality being expressed in action. To live as penitents is to live fully in the
Church today and in accord with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.
One of the most
successful approaches in counseling in the United States during the past twenty years has
been Reality Therapy. This system emphasizes that the counselor or therapist establish a
loving relationship with the client and then concentrate on reflecting back to the client
the reality of his or her situation. Thus, the counselor would relate to a person
suffering from a persecution complex the truth that people are neither plotting against
nor are they concerned with the client.
A person suffering
from megalomania would similarly hear the true facts of his or her position as being one
among a crowd of unique persons, no one of whom is superior in a significant way.
The call to "be
penitents" is a call to reality living. Our current generation tends to deny, ignore
or minimize sin. One of the foremost experts in psychotherapy in the United States wrote a
best seller entitled Whatever Became of Sin? (Karl Menninger, Dutton, N.Y., 1973).
The reality of our existence is that we are sinners, we struggle with sinful tendencies,
we omit doing the good we know we are called to do, and to various extents we regularly
sin. Thus, religious life has traditionally emphasized daily examination of conscience and
contrition, although this practice is far less prevalent today. Chapters of faults and
penitential disciplines have almost disappeared and few would resurrect
them in their
forms of twenty years ago.
Nevertheless, sin is
intertwined in the reality of our lives. It is a truth about ourselves that needs to be
faced honestly and handled. Occasional recourse to the Sacrament of Penance is not
sufficient to deal with our continuous sinful condition. A commitment to be a penitent is
a commitment to acknowledge our sin daily and to convert. It is a commitment to a life of
continual conversion, a life of living out more and more a fundamental choice of God, a
life of metanoia. It is also a commitment to a therapeutic reality, each day, dealing with
the reality of our sinful condition. It is, therefore, an honest, healthy form of living
which yields peace and freedom. To be penitent means to be free, to experience the freedom
of dealing with our sins and our sinful condition.
It is essential to
note that in the Christian life we do not just acknowledge our sins; we do not just engage
in Reality Therapy. We repent; we are forgiven; and we receive the grace and power to
change so that we need not fall into our confessed sins again. The power that raised Jesus
from the dead is given to us so that we can overcome and be the conquerors of the
spiritual death of sin (Romans 8:35-39). In the sixth chapter of Romans, Paul teaches that
by baptism the Christian has come to the Cross and died to sin which formerly ruled his
life. By baptism, the Christian has been born to a new life in the Spirit. Through this
living union with Christ, the Christian can constantly experience being ever more freed
from the power of sin. The source of this magnificent grace is the Cross embraced by Jesus
and completed in His death and resurrection. St. Paul clearly teaches that the Christian
has the power, under grace, to grow constantly in overcoming sin and uniting his life to
God. This is true freedom (Romans 6:6).
This is why St.
James calls the law of God "freedom's ideal law" (James 1, 25). It is a law
which reflects who we are called to be and who we are empowered to be. Therefore, if a
person looks into the law of God and then goes forth and forgets it, he is as foolish and
stupid as one who looks into a mirror and then wanders off forgetting what he looks like.
(James 1:23-24). To be a penitent is to choose this way of freedom in overcoming the sin
in our lives. It is not an expression of suppression or avoidance, nor is it masochistic
or negative in its essence. It is an experience of dying to sin and being born daily to a
religious today suffer from a spiritual schizophrenia, in which they split their thinking
into two levels: the level of vocation - what they ought to be and the level of reality -
what they are. The vocation proclaims the virtues and the reality trumpets the failures
and the sins. The reality seems to deny the vocation to holiness. More than a few
religious have entered a vocation crisis because they experienced being split: the ideal
self and the failing self. They try to deal with these two selves and often conclude they
are hypocrites or hopeless failures. Some faulty psychological practices have urged such
people to be the sinner, accept the sin and actively pursue the sin. This is a self
destructive course of action leading to separation from God and death. The Christian
answer is to acknowledge the sin, repent, receive forgiveness, and the power to live with
"the freedom of the sons of God. " This Christian answer bridges the spiritual
schizophrenia and enables the religious to be a whole, free person who accepts and
integrates the ideal of gospel living. The religious can live personally the kingdom of
God as present but not yet fully present in his or her life. Repenting and converting do
not become failures in living the religious vocation. They become intrinsic to the
vocation, the way to live. The vocation is one of becoming, not one of having arrived.
Being a penitent is truly being a Christian.
This is the truth
that Francis discovered w hen he embraced the penitential life. He decided to do penance
and he announced with his first followers that they were "Penitents from Assisi"
(Legend of the Three Companions, n.34.36.37.in F.F. 1437,4440,4441). He raised being a
penitent to a new level of celebration. He recognized that being a penitent was a vocation
to spiritual poverty. It was impossible for a person to brag about his virtues and
holiness when he was publicly proclaimed as needing to do penance and to convert daily.
Surely, this was the spiritually poor. Francis' directives to preachers in the Rule of
1221 included the statement, we have nothing of our own but vices and sins. Francis
recognized with glee that this spiritual poverty was also spiritual freedom. The daily
conversion, the daily repentance is living the life of the religious poor for God. Such a
penitent experiences the Spirit of God daily freeing him or her, and the fruit of the
Spirit's action is joy (Galatians 5:22). Francis stated that "that which seemed
bitter was changed into sweetness." Francis did not proclaim it as easy living,
rather he called it sweet and joyful (1 Celano, 17). Indeed, he saw the gracious gift of
the penitential life when he stated in his Testament: "The Lord granted to me,
Brother Francis, to do penance. "
Pope John Paul II
addressed a letter to priests on Palm Sunday, 1979, in which he stated that daily
conversion was for everyone in the Church and that being converted has five meanings:
(italics added for emphasis of the five meanings)
We must be converted
anew every day. We know that this is a fundamental exigency of the Gospel, addressed to
everyone and all the more do we have to consider it as addressed to us. If we have the
duty of helping others to be converted we have to do the same continuously in our lives.
- Being converted means
returning to the very grace of our vocation; it means meditating on the infinite goodness
and love of Christ who has addressed each one of us and calling us by name has said:
- Being converted means
continually "giving an account" before the Lord of our hearts about our service,
stewards entrusted with the mysteries of God.
- Being converted also
means giving an account of our negligence and sins, of our timidity, of our lack of faith
and hope, of our thinking only in a "human way" and not "in a divine
way." Let us recall in this regard the warning that Christ gave to Simon Peter.
- Being converted means,
for us, seeking again the pardon and strength of God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation
and thus beginning anew. and every day progressing, overcoming ourselves, making spiritual
conquests, giving cheerfully, for "God loves a cheerful giver."'
- Being converted means
continually and never lose heart." In a certain way prayer is the first and last
condition for conversion, spiritual progress and holiness.
(From the letter
addressed to priests: "We Are One. " John Paul II. April 9, 1979,
These five meanings
can be identified as: (1) stirring up the grace of vocation; (2) giving an account of
stewardship; (3) giving an account of personal sin; (4) every day beginning anew; (5)
praying daily without losing heart. The penitent sees these five points, not as a support
system for apostolic service but as, in fact, the essence of his or her vocation. The
penitent takes his or her identity from these elements of conversion. Indeed, the penitent
goes further and identifies with the whole world, with all its struggles and failings.
In addition to
dealing with the internal reality of sin and the need for conversion, the call to be
penitents enables one to deal effectively with the sin in the world around us. Men and
women frequently experience depression when they allow themselves to experience the sinful
atrocities of the contemporary world. Whether it be the ovens of Auschwitz and Dachau, the
charred bodies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the ravages of saturation bombing, the
starvation of Bangladesh and Calcutta, the destruction of family life and morals, the
prevalence of abortion and pornography, the teenage drug addicts and alcoholics, the crime
waves, the imminence of a nuclear holocaust, the practical atheism of pagans and nominal
Christian peoples, or the individual tragedies that touch all our lives, the sin around us
is real and must be faced. Who does not experience powerlessness in the face of all this?
Add to this the division of the Body of Christ into denominations and rivaling factions.
And yet, as St. Paul says, in the resurrected life in the Spirit we are "more than
conquerors" (Romans 8:37) Our conquest is not just in our individual lives but in
winning the world for the Kingdom of God. The penitent is not an isolated figure dealing
only with the need for ongoing personal conversion, he or she is confronting the world
with the power of the Kingdom of God. A penitent mourns and grieves for more than personal
sin, indeed for all sin and infidelity because he or she sees that "Love is not
loved." A penitent does penance through intercessory prayer in order that the world
be converted. The penitent is involved in the process of ongoing universal conversion.
Francis wrote: "I have received more the charism for praying than for speaking"
(Letter to a Minister General 12: 1). The penitent does not experience depression when
experiencing evil in the world for he is equipped to confront it and pray. The penitent
can face it, deal with it, and do so confidently with the same power that raised Jesus
from the dead, the power by which he or she became a conqueror in Jesus Christ.
This article began
with the challenge to deal with the negative response to the call "be penitents.
" The pastoral reality is that being a penitent enables one to confront sin in
oneself and in the world and to emerge in freedom, peace and joy. This confrontation
becomes not a setback in life but a way of life.
What then of
penitential practices? What should be said of penitential dress, fasting and vigils,
sackcloth and ashes, pilgrimages and not bearing arms? What about all these practices? Are
they but heritages of a medieval Church? The true penitent desires to express the internal
reality in external behavior. The penitent manifests the internal conversion in signs of
external converting from sin to God, from the world to the Kingdom of God. The penitent
converts not just within but with all that his or her life encompasses. Does this mean
embracing the traditional penitential practices? Maybe, but not necessarily. It depends on
the leading of the Spirit which is renewing the internal life, leading to a deeper and
deeper reality of the fundamental choice for God. The Holy spirit may lead to traditional
penitential external expressions and external witnessing to the world. When God is calling
for it, the practices will bear the fruit of the Spirit: "love, joy, peace, patient
endurance, kindness, generosity, faith, mildness and chastity. Against such there is no
law" (Galatians 5:22). Penitential practices should be primarily a matter of the
spirit and not the law, and they. should be tested by their fruits. Where the fruit is
good, they should be embraced with joy. Francis expressed his love through numerous fasts,
vigils, and bodily deprivations; the followers of Francis are called to do likewise so
long as it is in the same spirit.
What, then, is the
Spirit of God calling today's Franciscan penitents to do and manifest? This is always a
challenging question since the calls can be as diverse as the different groupings of
Franciscans and, indeed, as diverse as the individual members of these groups. Yet, there
are some general guidelines which appear evident. Francis and his followers were
counter-culture in their way of life. Francis intended to stand out in contrast to the
patterns of his society. He intentionally refused to incorporate a hierarchy within his
followers. There were to be no lords and servants, no "majores" and
"minores"; all were to be "minores." Francis refused to dress as
belonging to any group but the "minores. " He refused money and property so as
to stand out as living for the Kingdom of God and not living for the kingdom of money and
worldly success. Isn't the Spirit, at least, calling the Franciscan penitents of today to
stand out as a counter-culture to the values of the predominant society of today?
One special note of
emphasis by Francis was his insistence that all his followers, including the married, not
bear arms, Francis knew from his own life the need to break from the warring and rivaling
lords and armies of his day. He knew that to serve the Great King and to proclaim a
Kingdom of Peace, his followers had to break from the warring kingdoms of their own day
and from their means of conflict. This is a challenge to the Franciscan penitents of
today. How do we break from the nuclear warring nations of the day? How do we stand as a
counter-culture based on the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ? To do nothing and to appear
no different is in some way to support the current race to nuclear holocaust. Aren't we
called to preach the gospel and witness to the gospel life in a manner which is an
apparent break from the value systems of secular powers? Shouldn't this preaching and
witnessing be in season and out of season, when convenient and inconvenient, when popular
Francis responded to
the Crusades by passing through the warring lines and preaching the gospel to the Sultan
at his headquarters in Egypt. Somehow the Franciscan penitent must also be seen as
representing an alternative life of living for and in the Kingdom of God and not the
Kingdom of nations. We live in an apocalyptic hour when the solutions of the flesh are
exhausted and grossly inadequate. No treaty, league, or balance of power is equal to the
task of preserving world peace. More than ever the Kingdom of God is the "now"
and lasting answer. The Franciscan penitents proclaim loudly, "reform your lives, the
Kingdom of God is at hand," and the witness of their lives makes that proclamation
The secret, again,
is in embracing the penitential life as our vocation. This may mean that we appear
unreasonable or impractical to those about us. "The message of the Cross is complete
absurdity to those headed for ruin but, to us who are experiencing salvation, it is the
power of God" (1 Cor. 1: 18-20).
penitents" is to embrace an honest, relevant gospel life for today. Once the
penitential charism flows through our lives, we become so convinced of the rightness of
this life that we begin to wonder how we could live any other way. We rejoice in sharing
life with our brothers and sisters on fire with the same charism and gospel view of the
world. We struggle daily, know failure, know opposition, and wonder when and how the
Kingdom will be realized. We identify with the words of Francis as penned by Nikos
conflagration, Brother Leo. He burns and we burn with Him." (nikos kazantzakis, St.
Francis, Simon & Schuster 1962, p.25)
Fr. Michael Scanlan,
Analecta TOR, Rome, 1983.
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