Assisi (AsiaNews) – Benedict XVI offered a catechises laden with affection and full of courage for the truth to young people, at the culmination of his pilgrimage to Assisi for celebrations marking the 800th anniversary of the conversion of Saint Francis.
At least 25thousand young people were gathered in the square of Santa Maria degli Angeli, (St. Mary of the Angles) the basilica which surrounds the Porziuncola. Before the pontiff began his address, a teenage boy and girl greeted the pope and posed some questions. His answers were drawn from the life of the saint. The pope spoke of the “aimless wandering”, of the virtual journeys, of the obsession with appearances and ambition, which mark the life of young people today. The pontiff invited the youth to follow Saint Francis in his passionate love for Jesus Christ and for the Church, learning from him to “repair it”. And he asked them to learn how to be open and to dialogue with other religions without falling into the trap of indifference, from the example of the poor man of Assisi. Speaking of the esteem Francis had for priestly vocations, the pope also asked the young people to be ready to say “yes” to a possible call to consecrated life.
He closed with an exhortation: “The time has come for young people, like Francis, to commit themselves and learn how to enter into a personal relationship with Christ. The time has come for us to look upon the history of this third millennium which has just begun, a history that needs more than ever to be lifted by the Good News of the Gospel……You, my dear young people, are my joy”.
Here follows the full unedited version of Benedict XVI’s address to young people at Assisi:
My dear young people,
Thank you for your warm welcome! Thank you for your kind words and for the interesting questions which your two representatives have put to me. I greet all of you young people from this diocese of Assisi-Nocera Umbra-Gualdo Tadino, together with your Bishop, Msgr. Domenico Sorrentino. I greet you, young people of Umbria gathered here today with your pastors. I greet you, young people from other Italian regions, accompanied by your Franciscan guides. I also warmly greet Cardinal Attilio Nicora, my Legate to Assisi’s’ papal Basilicas, and to the General Ministers of the various Franciscan Orders.
We are welcomed here, together with Francis, by the heart of the Mother, the “Virgin made Church”, as he loved to invoke her (Prayer Praising Mary the Mother of God, 1: FF 259). Francis had a special affection for the small chapel of the Porziuncola, custodied by this Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels. It was one of the Churches in which he sought shelter during the firs years of his conversion and where he listened to and meditated on the Gospel of his mission (1 Cel I,9,22: FF 356). Following the first steps taken in Rivotorto, it was here that he based the first “general quarters” of the Order, where his friars could gather, almost as if in the maternal womb, to regenerate themselves and go for the full of apostolic zeal. Here he obtained for all a fountain of mercy in the experience of the “Assisi Pardon”. Finally it was here, that he met with “sister death”. My dear young people, you all know that my motive for being here was my desire to relive the interior journey of Francis, on the occasion of the VIII centenary of his conversion. This moment of my pilgrimage has a significant importance. I think of it almost, as the culmination of the day’s events. Saint Francis speaks to all men and women, but I know that he has a special attraction for young people. Your presence here in great numbers confirms this as do the questions you have put before me. His conversion took place at the prime of his life, of his experiences, of his dreams. He had spent twenty five years without ever having come to understand the meaning of life. A few months before his death, he will remember that period as a time when he was “in sin” (cfr. 2 Test 1: FF 110).
“Aimless wandering”, ambition and truth
What was Francis thinking of when he spoke of sins? According to biographies, each with its own line, it is not easy to determine. A useful account of his way of life is found in the Legend of the Three Companions, where it reads: “Francis was expansive and highly strung, addicted to gaming and song, he wandered aimlessly throughout the city of Assisi by day and by night with friends of his cast, so generous in his spending on luncheons and other delights all that he could have or earn” (3 Comp 1,2: FF 1396). How many young people of today could be described in a similar way? Now there is also the possibility to go beyond our own cities in search of enjoyment. Each weekend recreational events gather the youth in great numbers. Now we can also “wander” virtually “surfing” the net, in search of all kinds of information and contacts. Unfortunately there is no small number – actually there are far too many! - young men and women who search for fatuous and destructive surroundings in the artificial paradise of drugs. How can we deny that there are many young people, and some not so young, who are tempted to follow the lifestyle of the youthful Francis, before his conversion? Deep down, in that way of life there was the desire for happiness which inhabits each heart. But could that life give true joy? Francis certainly did not find it to be so. You, my dear young people can test this from your own experience. The truth is that finite things give the weak impression of joy; only the Infinite can fill the heart. This was said by another great convert Saint Augustine: "for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee" (Confess. 1,1).
The same biographical text tells us that Francis was quite vain. He liked to have sumptuous clothes tailored for him and sought to be original. (Comp 1, 2: FF 1396). In vanity, in the search for originality, there is something which touches us all directly. Today there is much talk about “taking care of one’s image” or “keeping up with appearances”. In order to have the slightest chance of success, we have to strike others with something new, original. In a certain way, this may be expressed in an innocent desire for acceptance. But all too often it is penetrated by a subtle pride, an excessive search for ourselves, egoism and the desire to outdo others. In real terms, a life which revolves around oneself is a death trap: we can only be ourselves if we open up to love, by loving God and others.
Another aspect which left a marked impression on Francis’ contemporaries was his ambition, his thirst for glory and adventure. This was what drew him onto the battle field, and led to him becoming a prisoner for a year in Perugia. This same thirst for glory also brought him to Puglia, in a new military campaign, but it was at this point, in Spoleto, that the Lord made himself known to Francis’ heart, inducing him to retrace his steps and listen seriously to his Word. It’s interesting to note how the Lord took up this trait in Francis, his desire to succeed, to indicate the road to saintly success, stretching out into infinity: “Who can be of more use: the Lord or the servant?” (3 Comp 2,6: FF 1401), this was the question that he heard echo in his heart. As if to say: why content yourself to be dependent on other men, when there is a God ready to welcome you to his home, to his royal service?
Dear young people, you have reminded me of some of the pressing issues for youth today, of your difficulties in building a future for yourselves and above all of your strained efforts to discover the truth. In the account of Christ’s passion we find Pilates question: “What is the truth?” (Jn 18,38). It is a question which resounds widely throughout modern day culture. The Gospel indicates Christ as the truth: God’s truth and man’s truth. We risk spending our entire lives deafened by the chaos of empty voices, we risk losing his voice among the din, the only voice which counts because it is the only voice which saves. We content ourselves with fragments of the truth, we allow ourselves to be seduced by truths that are only such in appearance. Is it really a wonder, then, that we find ourselves surrounded by a world of contradictions, which, despite the many marvellous things, so often deludes us with its banal expressions, its injustices, and its violence? Without God, the world looses its basis and its direction. Do not be afraid my dear friends, to imitate Francis above all in the ability to turn to yourselves. He knew how to make room for silence within himself, to listen to God’s Word. Step by step he allowed himself to be taken by the hand and guided by God towards a full encounter with Christ, to the point of making it the precious treasure and light of his life.
Jesus, the Church, priesthood
His choosing to be with the suffering, placing himself at their service, was also and encounter with Christ. This morning, passing by the Rivotorto, I paused to gaze at the place in which, traditionally, the lepers were gathered: the last, the marginalized, those for whom Francis felt only repulsion. Touched by grace he opened his heart to them. And he did so not only by a pitiful act of charity, but by kissing them and serving them. He himself tells that while before they had provoked only bitterness in him, they became for him “sweetness of body and soul” (2 Test 3: FF 110).
Grace was thus formed in Francis. He became ever more capable of fixing his gaze on Christ’s face and hearing his voice. It was at that point that the Crucifix of Saint Damian spoke to him calling g him to an arduous mission: “Go, Francis and rebuild my Church, for it lies in ruins ". (2 Cel I, 6, 10: FF 593). Pausing this morning in Saint Damien’s, and then in the basilica of St. Clare, where the original cross which spoke to Francis is conserved, I too fixed my gaze on those of Christ. It is the image of the Risen Christ, life of the Church, which continues to speak to us, just as two thousand years ago to its apostles and eight hundred years ago to Francis. The Church continues to live this encounter.
Yes, my dear young people: let us meet Christ! Let us trust in Him, listen to His Word. He is not just a fascinating human being. Indeed, He is fully human and similar to us, except in sin ( Eb 4, 15). But He is also so much more: He is God made man. Therefore He is the only Saviour, as he same name tells us: Jesus that is “God saves”. We come to Assisi to learn from Saint Francis the secret to recognising Christ and to experience Him. This is what Francis felt for Jesus, as his first biography narrates: “Jesus always in his heart. Jesus on his lips, Jesus in his ears, Jesus in his eyes, Jesus in his hands, Jesus in all his other members…..Actually, finding himself often on travels, by meditating and singing to Jesus, he forgot that he was travelling and stopped to invites all creatures to praise Jesus (1 Cel II, 9, 115: FF 115).
Francis in short was truly in love with Christ. He met him in the Word of God, in his fellow man, in nature, but above all in the Eucharist. On this he wrote in his testament: "I see nothing corporally in this age of the Most High Son of God Himself, except His Most Holy Body and Most Holy Blood" (2 Test 10: FF 113). The nativity scene in Greccio expresses his need to contemplate him in the tender humanity of a child (1 Cel I, 30, 85-86: FF 469-470). The experience of Verna, where he received the stigmata, shows the degree of intimacy with which he was arrived in his relationship with Christ crucified. He can say together with Paul: “For me living is Christ " (Fil 1,21). If one strips oneself of everything and chooses poverty, the reason for this is Christ, and only Christ. Jesus is his everything: and He suffices him!
Because he is Christ’s, Francis is also a man of the Church, He had received the call from St Damien’s cross to rebuild Christ’s house, which is of course the Church. Between Christ and the Church there is an intimate and imperishable relationship. Being called to rebuild it certainly implies an original and personal nature to Francis mission. At the same time, that duty is no different to the responsibility which Christ attributes to each and every baptised. The Church grows and rebuilds itself according to the measure with which each one of us converts and sanctifies ourselves. It is edified through the many and different vocations, lay and familial, consecrated life and priestly life.
At this point, I would like to say a few words regarding this last vocation. Francis, who was a deacon, not a priest (1 Cel I,30,86: FF 470), nurtured a deep veneration for priests. Although he knew that there was great poverty and fragility in among God’s ministers, he saw them as the ministers of the Body of Christ, and that was sufficient to provoke a sense of love, reverence and obedience in him ( 2 Test 6-10: FF 112-113). His love for priests is an invitation to rediscover the beauty of this vocation. It is vital for God’s people. Dear young people, surround your priests with love and gratitude. If the Lord should call some of you to this great ministry, as to some form of consecrated life, do not hesitate to say yes. It is a wonderful thing to be the Lord’s minister; it is a beautiful thing to spend one’s life for Him!
The young Francis had a filial love for his Bishop, and it was in his hands that he, stripping himself of everything, made his profession of a life totally consecrated to the Lord (cfr 1 Cel I, 6, 15: FF 344). He felt in a special way the mission of Christ’s Vicar, to whom he presented his Rule and entrusted his Order. If the Popes have shown so much affection for Assisi, down through the centuries, in a certain sense it is in recognition of the affection which Francis had for the Pope. I am happy, my dear young people, to be here, in the footsteps of my Predecessors, and in particular John Paul II.
Peace and Joy
Just like concentric circles, Francis’s love for Christ expands not only throughout the Church but in all things, seen in Christ and for Christ. Here his Canticle for Creation was born, in which ones eye rests on the splendour of creation: from brother son to sister moon, from sister water to brother fire. His interior gaze has become so pure and penetrating that it recognises the beauty of the Creator in the beauty of creation. The Canticle of Brother son, is not just an example of the highest quality in poetry, it is first and foremost an invitation to respect creation, a prayer, a lode to the Lord.
The prayer also highlights Francis’s commitment to peace. This aspect of his life is of great relevance today, in a world deeply in need of peace but unable to find the right path. Francis was a man of peace and a worker for peace. He displayed this in the meekness with which he posed himself to men of other faiths, without ever silencing his own faith, as we see in his encounter with the Sultan (cfr 1 Cel I, 20, 57: FF 422). If today, specially in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, inter –religious dialogue has become the common patrimony of Christian sensibility and one that cannot be renounced, then Francis can help us dialogue authentically, without ever giving way to indifferent behaviour regarding truth or in our announcing of the Christian message. His nature as a man of peace, tolerance, dialogue is born of his experience of God-Love. His greeting of peace, not by chance, is a prayer: “God grant you peace” (2 Test 23: FF 121).
My dear youth, your presence here today in great numbers is a sign of how much the figure of Francis speaks to your heart. I willingly give you once again, his message, but above all his life and his testament. The time has come for young people, like Francis, to commit themselves and learn how to enter into a personal relationship with Christ. The time has come for us to look upon the history of this third millennium which has just begun a history that needs more than ever to be lifted by the Good News of the Gospel.
I once again make my own and invitation my Predecessor, John Paul II’s loved to give the young: “Open you hearts to Christ”. Open them as Francis did, without fear, without calculation, without limits. You, my dear young people, are my joy, as you were for John Paul II- At this Basilica dedicated to Saint Mary of the Angels I give you all an appointment at the Holy House of Loreto, at the beginning of September for the great gathering of young Italians.
I bless you all.