Fr. Roger J. Landry
Altar of the Tomb, St. Peter’s Basilica
Mass for Acton Institute Pilgrims
Feast of St. Francis of Assisi
October 4, 1999
Gal 6:14-18; Ps 15/16; Matt 11:25-30
We have the great privilege this morning to celebrate two great saints: St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, whose tomb rests behind us, and St. Francis of Assisi, Patron of Italy, whose feast day the Church universal observes today. We could spend whole retreats meditating upon just one of their lives. On this holy spot, on this holy day, we will meditate briefly on both of them together, comparing and contrasting them, in the hope that we might better comprehend the great things God has done through them, and be brought to wonder about the wonderful possibilities God might also do through us if we respond as they did.
We will focus on three things that they have in common:
(1) Their conversions;
(2) Their configuration to the Lord on the Cross; and
(3) Their crucial and indispensible role in the history of the Church.
First, their conversions. St. Peter’s almost first words to Jesus were “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man!” His sins continued: he denied the Lord three times when arguably he was most needed, on the night before Jesus was killed, after swearing he would never abandoned him. But as we can read in the upstairs basilica in huge mosaics, Jesus told Peter that he had personally prayed for him that after he had converted, he would go out and strengthen his brothers and sisters in the faith, which is what he did, with his words, example, life and ultimately blood, shed just a short distance from here where we will be begin the Scavi tour later this morning. Yes, Peter was a sinful man — but that is precisely why the Lord chose him for his ministry, of reconciling all sinners to himself. Peter personally experienced the mercy of the Lord in his own life and he was able to bring that to others.
St. Francis had a similar conversion. He was, simply speaking, a wild youth, who came from a family of enough means that he had the luxury of extending his childhood well into his twenties in various stunts of irresponsibility. But then he too had a massive conversion at the sight of a leper. He felt within a revulsion that said without words to the leper, “Depart from me, for you are a dirty, sinful man,” but then immediately received a grace to see the Lord in that afflicted brother of his, causing him to kiss the festering wounds out of love. His conversion from his dissolute life to the Lord was total. From that point forward, he dedicated himself entirely to the Lord.
Peter and Francis, secondly, followed the Lord all the Way to the very end, to the Cross, and through the Cross to the resurrection. Twenty-one times in the Gospel Jesus is recorded saying to Peter “Follow me.” Follow-me and I will make you a fisher of men. Take up your cross and follow me. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am my servant will be. And the last time, after the resurrection at the sea of Galilee, he said “Follow me,” after having promised Peter that when he grows old, others would stretch out his hands, fasten a belt around him and take him where he would not wish to go, thereby indicating the kind of death by which he would glorify God, a type of death that would happen right here in Rome, right here in this very Vatican area. Here in Rome Peter continued in the Lord’s footsteps until his own feet were bloodied and hammered to the top of a two-by-four in Nero’s circus, which was located right to the southern side of the present basilica of St. Peter. This 60-something year old man — of retirement age by today’s standards — was still following the Lord, while he stretched out his hands as they were tied by a belt to his definitive papal cathedra, on which he gave his finest and most glorious testimony of all. After that he was buried in a simple poor man’s grave on the Vatican hill, a hill which was leveled to build the first of two basilicas to St. Peter. And his mortal remains are right behind the slab of red marble to the right of the niche of the pallia directly in front of us. You’ll learn more of the details later this morning.
On September 17, 1224, St. Francis, too, became configured to the Cross of Christ, not through crucifixion, but through receiving the Stigmata of the Lord, the first known stigmatist in Christian history. At first he tried to conceal these five wounds out of humility, but then they became his boast, just like St. Paul refers in the first reading, because they were a tangible reminder to him and to others of the great love of the Lord who bore such wounds out of love for us.
Thirdly, Peter and Francis were crucial chosen instruments of the Lord in the history of the Church. Around the dome of St. Peter’s on top of us are the words in Latin, Tu es Petrus, you are Peter and on this rock, on you, I will build my church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. And the Lord did build the Church on St. Peter. This basilica dedicated to the first Pope is designed literally to show that. The entire Vatican hillside was leveled by the emperor Constantine so that two beams of the cross of the Church, the nave and the transept, would intersect right on top of St. Peter’s tomb, so that this particular Church building might symbolize the Church as a whole, which Jesus himself promised he would build right on Peter the Rock. Jesus promised Peter that not even Satan would be able to topple that Church, and the Lord has kept his promise: the Barque of Peter has never capsized, although there have been several times when the Church was in great trouble.
One of those times was in the early 1200s. The Church had become increasingly distant from the Gospel. There were countless scandals of several varieties. Jesus then appeared in a dream to a 25-year old in Assisi, Giovanni Francesco Bernandone, and told him he needed him to rebuild his Church. Francis took him, at first, literalistically, and started repairing the run-down Churches in the Assisi area. But the Lord ultimately meant the Church as a whole. Pope Innocent III saw in a dream St. Francis’ upholding the Lateran Basilica, which has been the Pope’s Cathedral since the early 4th century, and on account of that, approved the order Francis then founded. But the Church God was calling Francis to rebuild was not ultimately made of marble, but of men. Just as Peter wrote from Rome in the early 60s, the Church is comprised of living stones, us, and Francis’ mission was to rebuild the Church from within, by fortifying and renewing the living stones that comprise the Church, by shoring us up inside. In the midst of a world and a Church that had become too materialistic, Francis proclaimed evangelical poverty; in the middle of a ambient that was beginning to regard freedom as license, Francis showed the greatest freedom of all, freedom to freely obey God through his instruments on earth by the vow of obedience; and in a culture in which love was often distorted and people used as instruments of sexual pleasure, Francis lived and proclaimed by his life evangelical chastity. All three of these evangelical virtues reminded his contemporaries of our ultimate vocation to spend eternity in heaven, where we can’t take any material possessions, where there is no longer giving or taking in marriage, and where all freely follow the Lamb completely and joyfully. Francis rebuilt the Church God had founded on Simon Peter by allowing Jesus, the Cornerstone, to shine through him and illuminate their hearts and minds.
This morning, at this holy Mass, let us thank God for the great example of their two lives. Neither of them were the smartest, bravest, strongest, most intelligent men in the world, but when they converted to the Lord and said yes to Him, the Lord was able to do such great things through them. So he too can do through us if we are as generous. There’s no better place to start than here at Mass, where we will receive the Lord within so that he might make us living stones firm in the faith. The Lord we receive here is the very same Lord who gave Peter his body and blood in the Upper Room at the First Mass, when the Lord asked Peter and the others to “do this in memory of him.” As we carry out the Lord’s command, let us ask the Lord to fill us with the graces we need to live out our vocations with the same fervor and love with which Peter and Francis lived theirs. God bless you.