The communal form of life Francis embraced is a life after the disciples living together with Christ, their teacher, listening to him, observing how he lived and lived as he did. It is a life of personal fellowship lived together with other disciples. Francis started to follow Christ when he felt his love for him but he only embraced the communal form of life when God gave him brothers. ‘After the Lord sent me brothers, no one told me what I should do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the Holy Gospel'. The gift of brothers from the Lord was a “clear watershed” in the life of Francis. Francis took the life of the disciples written in the books of the Gospel as the basis of the communal life he wanted for himself and his brothers. He started the communal life with his followers as a family, a real family. They were all different but they were united because they followed the same Christ and shared the same ideal, observed the same Gospel and guided by the same Spirit. It is this kind of communal life that Francis had transmitted to us.
Influences on Francis to Embrace a Communal Form of Life:
Francis was born with a warm nature inherited from his mother, he was gifted with openness of mind and heart. He had an extraordinary capacity for communion with other people. His charming character had drawn other people to his company in his youthful years. Later, these characteristics made him attentive to the prompting of the Spirit, to other people and to creation. Everything led him to seek the Lord of goodness and to bring out the goodness in other people. Francis lived in an epoch of revolution. There was a revolution in social relationship, a strong desire for equality and genuine relationship in the society. The upheaval of the ‘communes' among the merchants was an effort to overthrow dominance in society and to create relationship among the oppressed class, the ‘minores', in society. Francis shared the tension of dominance at home, in the society and in the Church of his time. He was searching for an answer to the sufferings of the poor people under dominance. This prompted him to look for a life in which everybody was loved, respected and cared.
Francis, in his search of God, discovered the humanness and humility of God in Christ, especially in the crucified Christ. He found out that the trancendant God he adored is not a transcendance of domination but a trancendance of communion. This led Francis to look for a new from of life in which no dominance existed. Francis founded a life of Brotherhood.
Life of Brotherhood and Sisterhood:
The life of brotherhood embraced by Francis was Christocentric. It started with his relationship with Christ. Francis was clear that creation was the expression of God's self diffusive love. God created the universe in Christ, for him and through him. Through the Incarnation, Christ became one of humanity. He is one member of the human family, therefore, he became our Brother. We all share his sonship and are made co-heirs with him. All human beings became brothers and sisters with the Lord, and children of the same Father.
This human family is united by bonds of spiritual brotherhood and sisterhood. It is a relationship of members of the same family of God. Being brothers and sisters, Francis saw that all human beings are equal, they are interdependent and solidarity in love. Francis wanted this relationship of brothers and sisters to reach everybody and everything, this will bear witness to God and the reality of his Kingdom where all human beings will be in union with the Triune God, who is love. Franciscan communal life, as viewed by Francis, is founded on persons in relationship as brothers and sisters of Christ. Francis always saw the call to be brothers as his primacy response to the Gospel, therefore, Franciscans are social beings with mutual love for each other.
The essence of Franciscan life is relationship, being brothers and sisters. The primary locus of life is not the community, but the persons and sharings on their experiences of Christ. It is ‘being' more than ‘doing'. Everything flows from brotherhood and sisterhood: structure of life, authority, activities and apostolates. The seamless vision of Francis on communal life specified that everything he and his brothers did in their life was to express brotherhood. It was all about life. As Franciscans, communal life or life in fraternity (though some may not like this expression) is our primary ministry.
Our life and our ministry is to act out that all creatures are joined to Christ and in Christ. Our apostolates or works of charity are prompted by our desire to share with everyone the love of God which we discover through life in brotherhood and sisterhood. Through our services to others, we build up the Kingdom of God by living in loving relationships among ourselves and with those we serve.
Brotherhood/Sisterhood and communal Life:
Viewed from the angle of brotherhood and sisterhood, Francis built communities of love. For Francis, the brothers were to help each other to grow in the love of God through reciprocal love and encouragement, overcoming together difficulties on their way to God. Community is a place for conversion where each one strives for a turning from self-love to love of God and others. For Francis, living together as brothers was a way to actualize the spirit and truth of the Gospel, that is love.
In order to give birth to this, Francis needed brothers to live according to the Spirit. Clare saw that a community of love enhanced the growth of her sisters in their love for God and for others. ‘Love one another with the charity of Christ, let the love you have in your hearts be shown outwardly in your deeds, so that compelled by such an example, the sisters may always grow in love of God and charity for one another.' Franciscan communities are to show and secure the gentle loving and caring presence of the Most High. Clare also pointed out that sisterhood lived in love was built on mutual, life-giving relationships.
It is God who gives us brothers and sisters. He makes the initial choice and calls us to live the Gospel together. Therefore, community is a gift from God. He invites us to give our free and responsible response to his call in his family. We are to form a loving family to give a concrete expression of being in the same family of God, belonging to the same body of Christ and live in the same Spirit. Our communal form of life has to reflect the love of the Father, his choice for us to live together and his gift of the Holy Spirit to restore all things in Christ.
Francis was always thankful to God for the gift of brothers. He saw them as precious gifts of God's fatherly love. Indeed, our brothers and sisters are gifts from God and are made in the image of Christ. Each bears the likeness of Christ. Franciscan communal form of life recognizes the dignity of every person as a chosen child of God, redeemed by Christ. Each person has his own unique character and talents gifted by God. It is in faith that we receive our brothers and sisters, accepting our differences and our complementarity in an attitude of listening, of trust and respect for each one's mystery and path and to support each other on our journey to God.
There is no perfect community on earth, communal form of life is a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage of outward journey to oneness with our brothers/sisters and an inward journey to union with God. It is a place to discover both our gifts and limitations. Communal living gives us an opportunity to enter into the Paschal Mystery of Christ, to experience tensions and forgiveness which will lead us to conversion. When brothers/sisters possess one love, united in one spirit and heart, they shine forth the countenance of God's gentleness, they become the sacrament of God's tenderness and witness of God's kind regards.
In the spirit of brotherhood/sisterhood, all members of the family are equals. There is nobody to lord over them. Francis counted himself as a servant of his brothers, following the example of our Lord at the Last Supper to wash the feet of his brothers. Clare did not act as the abbess of her little fraternity at St. Damiano, but a sister among her sisters, caring for them with the love of a mother.
Living out Brotherhood and Sisterhood:
The ideal of brotherhood and sisterhood, living the Gospel together after the example of Christ is beautiful and life-giving. Francis and Clare were aware of the challenges and difficulties of such kind of communal life entailed. Since it came from God, it is only by God's grace that we can live such life in joy. Francis reminded his brothers of the Lord's words in the early Rule: ‘They (the brothers) are to love one another according to the word of the Lord, “this is my commandment, that you love one another as I loved you” and let them show by their deeds the love they owe one another as the Apostles says: “Let us not love in words neither with the tongue, but in deed and in truth.” Francis reminded his brothers the importance of the Eucharist in living their brotherhood. It was from this sacrament of self-giving in love and unity that they would draw strength for their communal life. Francis said that if the brothers truly live the grace they received from the Eucharist in their daily life, they would love one another and honour one another.
Francis also emphasized the dignity of each person and asked his brothers to show respect to one another. ‘And wherever the friars are or meet with other friars anywhere, they must show reverence and honour to one another without murmuring, because the Spirit of the Lord abides in them, because the Almighty Father, Son and Holy Spirit has made a tabernacle and dwelling place in them.
‘Francis reminded his brothers not to speak ill of any brother, especially during his absence. ‘They shall not speak evil of anyone. Let them not judge or condemn, nor should they, as the Lord says, consider even the slightest sins of others, but rather recount their own in bitterness of soul' and ‘Blessed is the servant who would love and reverence his brother as much as when he is far away as when he would be with them, and would say nothing behind his back that he could not say in charity to his face.'
If each one of us will live according to the above admonitions of Francis, the many conflicts and misunderstanding in communal life will be avoided. Each of us will be sure of the affection of our brothers/sisters even when we are away. Such support to one another will surely sustain the members and build up the fraternity.
Another aspect to live out in communal life is the care for each other's needs, both spiritual and material. The love among the brothers/sisters should be so genuine that everyone in the fraternity is free to express his/her needs to the others who will see to them and try their best to give to them what they need. Francis went a step further to sense the unspoken need of his brothers. A good example of his sensitivity is the touching scene of him eating grapes with the novice in pain of hunger during the night due to fasting. He did it in the most charitable way in calling all the brothers to join in so as not to embrace the young brother in need. Clare showed her sisters the love of a mother vividly that her sisters were not afraid to tell her that they lack food. Her love for the sisters called for a miracle from God to multiply the bread when she blessed it.
In view of the spiritual growth of the sisters and the building up of the fraternity, fraternal correction is needed. Respecting the dignity of the person, the correction should be done in a gentle way and with love for the person. It is for the good of the person that the correction is made, so mercy should be shown to those in their weaknesses or in sin and to keep their faults hidden from others. Francis had great compassion for sinners and suffered for them. His Christ-like love sought to heal and to save those who are in wrong, but not to condemn, because Francis knew that Christ came to die for sinners, among whom he was one, so that they will be reconciled with God and have new life in him.
Communal Life Amidst People and Creation:
Francis understood well that nobody could become a brother or sister alone, we need others to do so. Francis was a social person, he loved to be in the company with others since his young days. His desire to be with people came more strongly when he realized that all creatures were created in the image of the Son of God. He saw the image of Christ specially in the people who were suffering. Their suffering reminded Francis of the suffering of Christ and he could see Christ in them. The conversion of Francis started when he embraced the leper, a deliberate act against his human inclination.
This embracing of the leper became a miraculous act of embracing the suffering Christ and ‘what was bitter had become sweetness to him'. Francis, in his compassion for the outcast of his society, the lepers, started his first fraternity among them. He and his brothers' first ministry was to care for the lepers. They lived with them, being brothers among them. The followers of Francis down the ages never have ceased to give humble service to those who are suffering, especially the sick, to show their love for them. The ideal of Francis to be strangers and pilgrims on earth inspired him to have no fixed abode for himself and his brother. They went from one place to another, staying with those they served.
Francis saw creation as the reflection of God's image. He saw God in every creature, simply in everybody he met and everything he saw. Because the whole universe was created in Christ, after his image, they were also brothers and sisters of Francis, in Christ. Each creature has its own uniqueness and resembles God. Creation for Francis was a ladder to God, not an obstacle. Creation was the vestige, the message and the messenger sent by Francis' lover, God. Francis took creatures as gifts from God and each had its special place in the plan of God, by living or keeping their uniqueness, they are mirroring God's goodness.
Francis used to praise and thank God for creatures and things he created, and he invited all creatures to give praise to God in their specificity. The Canticle of Creatures was a song from the heart of Francis to praise the God who is all Good and in his goodness gives everything good to us whom he loves. Francis and his brothers often went to find God in nature. Franciscans are nature lovers, not only because nature is beautiful, because nature is of the same family with them as creatures and is a stepping stone to God, the Creator of everything on earth.
The treasure given to Francis by God, a life of brotherhood, has been soiled during the course of the evolution in the Franciscan family. We were shaken up by the Vatican II Council to return to our root, the living charism of the Franciscan life as founded by Francis. With the effort of those looking for authentic Franciscan way of life, the essence of Franciscan living, that of brotherhood and sisterhood has emerged again. In our time when there is alienation among people; when human rights are not respected: exploitation, oppression, wars, terrorism; destruction of the environment and abuse of resources…
It is the urgent task of we Franciscan to form truly fraternal human communities, to respect and appreciate individual persons with their uniqueness, to show deep regard and respect for nature and to work for peace through our life of love and forgiveness. All of these integrated in our life and apostolate will show to the world our intimate contact with the humanness of God designed in the beginning of creation, for we are truly his children and we are all brothers and sisters. That was the original plan of God when he created the universe. It was the dream of Francis to bring back this beautiful picture of God's creation by living a communal life of brotherhood. Francis had done his part and he wished that God will show us, his followers, who have the same ideal to dream the same dream and make it come true in our lives.
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