The Heart of John
Paul II - On the Saints
Saint Francis' sole boast
was the cross
Homily of John Paul II
On St. Francis of Assisi
September 17, 1993
On the mountain of La Verna close to the feast of the Triumph of
the Cross in the year 1224, Saint Francis of Assisi was marked
with the wounds of Christ's passion. The shrine of La Verna has
become a place of pilgrimage, and Pope John Paul II, "the
pilgrim Pope", went there on 17 September, the feast of the
Stigmatization on the Franciscan liturgical calendar. The Pope
celebrated Mass in the Franciscan shrine and preached the homily
in Italian as follows.
1. Behold the man "in whose time the house of God was renovated
and in whose days the temple was reinforced" (Sir 50:1).
This man is named Francis: a "new man, sent to the world by
heaven" (St. Bonaventure, Legenda maior, XII, 8).
We stand here in his footprints. Here the Poverello of Assisi
walked. Here he revealed the great love burning in his heart,
the love which made him resemble his Beloved, the Crucified: "I
bear the marks of Jesus on my body" (Gal 6:17). Paul's words
were wondrously fulfilled in him, and Umbria was witness to it.
Also witness to it was this mountainous place which I have been
able to visit today: La Verna!
2. Dear brothers and sisters, it was my intention to come and
visit you last year but, as you know, it was not possible at
that time. However, it is with great joy that I am here among
you today. First of all, I greet Cardinal Silvano Piovanelli,
Archbishop of Florence, Bishop Giovanni D'Ascenzi of this
Diocese, the other prelates present, the priests and religious,
the representatives of the various apostolic associations and
movements. I greet the Mayor of Florence, a city which for
centuries has been linked to La Verna for various reasons, and
the representatives of the civil administration of this ancient
mountainous town, which receives special prestige from its name,
Chiusi della Verna.
A particular expression of my pleasure goes to the Order of
Friars Minor in the persons of the Minister General and the
Minister Provincial of Tuscany. I greet and thank for his
welcome Fr. Eugenio Barelli, guardian of this sacred convent, as
well as the other religious, all equally careful "to exercise
hospitality" (Rom 12:13). Dear friars of La Verna, yours is the
task of keeping Saint Francis' presence alive in this place so
that those who come up here can find in its authenticity the
mystery of his configuration to Christ crucified which occurred
right here in September, 1224 through the gift of the stigmata.
Francis embraced whole truth of Gospel paradox
3. The stigmata, the scars of Christ's passion on Francis' body,
were the special sign which revealed the cross that he took up
every day, in the most literal sense of the word. Did not Jesus
say: "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me. Whoever loses his
life for my sake will save it" (Lk 9:23-24)?
Francis embraced the whole truth of this paradox. The Gospel was
his daily bread. He did not confine himself to reading its
words, but through the expressions of the revealed text he set
out to discover the One who is the Gospel itself. In fact, in
Christ the divine economy is revealed in full: "losing" and
"gaining" in their definitive, absolute sense. By his life
Francis proclaimed and continues to proclaim today the saving
word of the Gospel. It is difficult to find a saint whose
message could withstand so deeply "the test of time".
Francis is the saint who is, in a certain sense, universal;
through him Christ wanted to proclaim the Gospel not only to his
era but to others as well, to our own age, to cultures and
civilizations very different from one another.
Behold: he who "lost his life" for Christ "has saved it". He
saved it in a wonderful way.
4. The stigmata which Francis received in this place, La Verna,
are a particular sign. They are the deepest witness of the
See, we are presented with him who authentically and profoundly
"boasted. . . of the cross of Christ". Not of anything else;
solely "of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (cf. Gal 6:14).
A sign of likeness in virtue of love. The Apostle Paul says this
and Francis of Assisi repeats it: through Christ's cross and the
power of love "the world has been crucified to me, and I to the
world" (Gal 6:14).
The world does not want to be crucified: it flees the cross.
People run away from being "crucified to the world". That is how
it was in Francis' day, and it still is today. The struggle
between the "world" and the cross goes on forever; it is a
baffle with the cross of salvation!
It could, therefore, seem that Francis has become something of
an irrelevant, useless witness. Whoever says to Christ: "My Lord
are you, apart from you I have no good" (Ps 16:2) seems to
offend the contemporary mentality. Indeed, man often does not
acknowledge the Lord as being over him: he wants to be the
master of himself and the world. This is why Francis' message is
becoming an even greater sign of contradiction. A message of
this kind should be rejected, yet it is increasingly sought
Saint Francis strove to imitate Christ by self-denial
5. It is a message which is a pressing call to return to Christ,
to rediscover in his cross "the path and the flame of truth"
(St. Bonaventure, De triplici via III, 5): the truth which makes
us free because it makes us disciples of the divine Master.
Saint Francis' spiritual journey was marked by this faithful
following of the God-Man, whom he strove to imitate without
reserve in self-denial and total self-emptying (cf. Phil 2:7).
This makes him, as Saint Bonaventure says, "that most Christian
pauper" par excellence (cf. Legenda major VIII, 5). This journey
and following reached its climax on La Verna with the imprinting
of the stigmata. That moment, even in the agony of his flesh,
was his proclamation of victory, similar to what Saint Paul
referred to in the second reading we listened to a little while
ago: "I bear the marks of Jesus on my body" (Gal 6:17).
The stigmatization on La Verna thus represents that visible
conformity to the image of Christ which makes Francis the
example to which every Christian can aspire in the process of
drawing ever nearer to God the Creator and Redeemer. In this
regard the words spoken by the Poverello at the end of his life
are significant: "I have done my duty; may Christ teach you
yours" (St. Bonaventure, Legenda major XIV, 3).
6. These words do not represent a self-satisfied introspection,
but rather an offering of humble gratitude for what the Lord had
done in him. Their meaning is nothing other than this: may
Christ teach you, as he taught me, to be his disciples.
There are two lessons of the divine Master in particular that
Francis followed with complete fidelity: obey the Pope, the
Vicar of Christ on earth, venerate and imitate his most holy
The legitimation of his work in the Church, including the
institution of a new religious order, depends entirely on the
words of the first chapter of his rule: "Brother Francis
promises obedience and reverence to the Lord Pope". In this same
perspective, shortly before dying, he recommended to his
brothers to "keep the faith of the holy Roman Church" (St.
Bonaventure, Legenda major XIV, 5).
Then, too, Saint Francis "embraced the mother of the Lord Jesus
with an indescribable love" for having made "the Lord of Majesty
our brother" and "after Christ he put all his trust in her" (St.
Bonaventure, Legenda major IX, 3).
He imitated Mary in her meditative silence, especially after
having been stamped by Christ, on this mountain, with the signs
of his passion, thus showing that the greater the privileges God
bestows, all the greater is the recipient's duty to conceal
them. "The evangelical man, Francis", Saint Bonaventure tells
us, "came down from the mountain bearing with him the image of
the Crucified. . . engraved in the members of his body by the
finger of the living God"; "aware that he had been given a royal
secret, to the best of his powers he kept the sacred stigmata
hidden" (Legenda major XIII, 5).
Love alone can prevent the failure of humanity
7. "He protected his people against brigands and strengthened
his city against the enemy" (Sir 50:4).
Dear brothers and sisters, this passage from the book of Sirach
which we listened to at the beginning of Mass refers to Christ
himself: in all circumstances he "protects his people". The
cross has rooted him in human history; it has rooted him in
"The world crucified" in Christ is always revealed anew as "the
world loved": "For God so loved the world that he gave his only
Son" (Jn 3:16). Francis bore witness to this boundless love and
continues to do so even in our days.
Love alone can prevent the failure of humanity and the world:
that world by which man is "besieged" and threatened in various
8. Behold, we come to you, O Francis, in this place which was
dear to you. We come to you to be strengthened once again in the
conviction that love is greater than every negative power. We
greet you at the end of the second Christian millennium! The
Church and the whole human family salute you! And we pray to
you, the Poverello of Assisi, "Strengthen the sanctuary in our
day, too! Strengthen the Church! Amen.
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