St. Francis, the cross, and a surprising message


By Kathy Berken

I’ve been thinking about St. Francis ever since I led a Franciscan retreat in Collegeville, Minnesota, recently. Francis stopped at the run-down church at San Damiano near Assisi when he was discerning God’s will and prayed before the now-famous crucifix depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus. He heard this: “Francis, don’t you see that my house is in ruins? Go and rebuild it for me.”
Of course, Francis took the message literally and began to repair a number of local church buildings. Later, he heard God telling him to help the people with their faith, to rebuild God’s church. He gave away his possessions, left the comforts of his wealthy family and took up the life of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Kathy Berken

He didn’t just go live in the forest with the animals. Francis’ deep love of the Incarnate Christ led him to live his deepest desire to be as close to Jesus as possible. The crucifix was central to his life. The San Damiano crucifix was his call to passionate conversion and his life was his response to that call.

Francis did everything he could to bring Jesus to the people. He created the first live Nativity in a cave with animals, straw and a manger, similar to how many poor people lived in 13th-century Italy. “Look,” he’d say, “Jesus was a man, born in humble surroundings, just like you.”
He developed the Stations of the Cross in order to bring an understanding of the suffering and death of Jesus closer to the people’s experiences. He was the first person known to have the Stigmata appear on his hands, feet and side.


When he died two years later in 1226, his followers created another cross, known as the “Blue Cross,” which shows only the death of Jesus because they knew that Francis saw the glorified Christ in every crucified person. Francis’ life was not that of the poets who depict him with butterflies and doves, but one that brought the reality of Jesus to the people, not as a king or nobleman, but as one who walked with the poor, the leper and the rejected.

So, it struck me that the work I did living with people with disabilities at L’Arche in Clinton, and volunteering with the homeless and those at the end of their lives, was the easy part of Francis’ message to find “the glorified Christ in every crucified person.”

The hard part has been finding Christ in everyone else, a message I first heard on college retreats in the late ‘60s when the documents of Vatican II asked us to find Jesus in the poor, the lonely and the rejected. So, I volunteered in the inner city, joined a group that took kids who never saw the forest on camping trips, helped at soup kitchens. I saw ministry like that as radically Christian, what God was calling me to do to serve.

But did I think God was calling me to see the glorified Christ in people who don’t seem to be all that crucified? People who are rude, ornery, liars, criminals, abusers, selfish, haters, deceitful, unloving, violent, demanding, un­merci­ful, greedy, egotistical, gossips, hurtful and on and on and on? You mean, those people?

Yes. Those people.

It’s easier to deny everyday reality when it’s too hard to handle emotionally, so I found that I could more readily care for those on the extreme margins than the people who were just rude to me because, you know, they should know better. But I also know that unacceptable behavior often comes from pain and suffering and I’m slowly working at seeing the glorified Christ in those crucified around me. It does not mean that I condone their behavior. It just means I am trying to be compassionate.

St. Francis, pray for us!

(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)

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