“St. Francis of Assisi: The Quintessential Italian who shows us the way to happiness with God”
Homily for the Feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis
September 17, 2023; National Shrine of St. Francis
It has been said that St. Francis of Assisi is the saintliest of Italians, and the most Italian of saints. Today’s feast day, which commemorates his receiving the stigmata – the marks of Christ’s Crucifixion in his flesh – bears witness to the rightfulness of this insight.
First of all, though, let us recall the incident itself on that eventful day when, about two years before his death, St. Francis withdrew to Mount La Verna with a small group of his brothers, and then set himself apart in solitude.
This is how his spiritual son St. Bonaventure explains what happened on that fateful day:
On a certain morning about the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross [September 14], while Francis was praying on the mountainside, he saw a Seraph with six fiery and shining wings descend from the height of heaven. And when in swift flight the Seraph had reached a spot in the air near the man of God, there appeared between the wings the figure of a man crucified, with his hands and feet extended in the form of a cross and fastened to a cross. Two of the wings were lifted above his head, two were extended for flight and two covered his whole body. When Francis saw this, he was overwhelmed and his whole body was flooded with a mixture of joy and sorrow. He rejoiced because of the gracious way Christ looked upon him under the appearance of the Seraph, but the fact that he was fastened to a cross pierced his soul with a sword of compassionate sorrow.
Affection and Will
Italians are known for being people of deep affection: they feel their affections very deeply and manifest them very visibly. They are about as far from the school of stoicism as can be imagined! And so, for this most saintly of Italians, his identification to his Beloved Savior was so intense, so complete, that it manifested itself even in his body, and not just in his soul – thus, also the most Italian of saints.
These are the “marks of Jesus” on the body to which St. Paul refers in his Letter to the Galatians. This word, “marks” – stigmata in Greek – refers to the sort of mark that is branded onto an animal to identify it to its owner. These are the “brand marks” to which St. Paul is referring here, which leads some to speculate that he himself bore the marks of Jesus’ Crucifixion in his flesh.
Whether or not that is literally the case, St. Paul certainly bore multiple wounds and infirmities in his body for all that he suffered for his Lord and Savior and the proclamation of his saving Good News. This, too, was the identity of the poverello of Assisi to his Lord: he belonged entirely to him, and to no one else.
The Fire of Passion
This resulted from the perfect alignment of St. Francis’ affection with his will. The great hagiographer Alban Butler describes St. Francis’ experience in this way:
… the saint’s soul remained interiorly burning with ardour, and his body appeared exteriorly to have received the image of the crucifix, as if his flesh had received the marks of a seal impressed upon it…. This wonderful miracle was performed whilst Francis’s understanding was filled with the most vivid ideas of Christ crucified, and his love employed in the utmost strength of its will in directing its affections on that object and assimilating them to his Beloved in that suffering state.
Will directing affections, soul burning with ardor – this points to another quintessential Italian characteristic: passion. Italians are known for being passionate people! Let us be careful, though, in understanding what this really means, as God intends it.
We think of passion as a burning fire within, that “burning ardor” of the soul. It’s a sort of emotional fire which one feels deeply in one’s body. Think about that: is fire a good thing or a bad thing? It depends, right? If fire is uncontrolled, it is horrifyingly destructive. We know that well here in California, subject as we are to raging wildfires, especially at this time of the year. But when fire is contained and controlled, such as, for example, in the hearth, it becomes life-giving: it gives warmth, you can cook with it, it can be used as a source of energy.
The contemporary idea of passion is simply the raging fire, without any sense of needing to control and properly direct it. Passion without restraint, though, leads to destruction: loneliness, boredom, superficiality, broken and destroyed lives. In a word, a banal existence. To be life-giving, passion must be accompanied by restraint. We hear in today’s Gospel Jesus’ oft-repeated teaching, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” This teaching has to be lived out, concretely, in different ways according to each one’s vocation in life; but for everyone it will mean properly directing one’s passion to this higher end of love of God for the attainment of following Christ and arriving at life on high with him.
It would be helpful to recall what this word, passio in Latin, really means. The literal meaning of the word is “suffering,” which is why we speak of the “Passion” of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In English we derive from this the words “patience/patients” – in both senses: the virtue of self-possessed long-suffering in the face of tribulation of any kind, and also those who are suffering illness (that is, the plural of “patient”). True love will always carry with it some form of suffering, but not in a masochistic way, but rather for a greater end: love, leading to communion with the other. Which explains why, when St. Francis received the gift of the stigmata, “his whole body was flooded with a mixture of joy and sorrow.”
Family Here and Beyond
Love leading to communion, the warmth of the hearth, St. Francis’ identity as belonging entirely to Christ and no one else – all this leads us to one final consideration of what qualifies St. Francis as being so utterly Italian: the family. For Italians, family is everything. In a part of the world that has seen warring factions and different occupying foreign powers over millennia, the family has become the source of trust and stability. “Blood is thicker than water” gets to the heart of what it means to be Italian.
The date of St. Francis’ reception of the stigmata is telling. St. Bonaventure says it was “about the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.” From the beginning, the celebration of the feast day of St. Francis receiving the stigmata has been observed on this day, September 17. Notice the sequence of the Church’s observance: on September 14, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross; the next day, September 15, the feast day of Our Lady of Sorrows, the Church’s commemoration of the Blessed Mother’s perfect union with her Son in his Passion and death, her spiritual martyrdom; then, two days later, St. Francis’ perfect identity to Christ crucified.
In an act that could only have been seen as one of radical defiance at the time, St. Francis separated himself from his earthly family, renouncing any claim to its heritage, resources and even ties of blood, in order to be caught up into the family of heaven. We can say that Francis’ experience at La Verna was his adoption into the Holy Family of Nazareth, with all of the sufferings that Jesus, Mary and Joseph endured that lead to the perfect communion of the life of heaven: pure and unending light, love, happiness and peace.
This is the ultimate divine purpose of the communion of the earthly family united in love: to prepare us for the communion of the heavenly family united in the communion of saints, worshipping God face-to-face.
St. Bonaventure places the stigmata within a framework that emphasizes the stigmata as appearing only at the conclusion of the vision, thus highlighting the transformative power of familial love. St. Francis’ experience was a response of divine love to human love through the appearance of the seraph as the intermediary of Christ, who transformed the friend of Christ that was Francis into the likeness of the one whom he loved. And so the stigmatized flesh of St. Francis became the exterior manifestation of the mystical relationship between the human person and God.
The heat of passion contained, controlled and directed for the purpose of divine love, aligning the affections with the will, makes possible the self-sacrificial love that binds us into the communion that is the family of God: the joy arrived at through the sufferings of this life for the sake of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who perfects us and identifies us to himself. This is what we prayed for ourselves in the Collect (Opening Prayer) of this Mass, namely, that through the intercession of St. Francis we may be evermore conformed to Christ in his death, so as to share in his Resurrection.
May God grant us the grace to follow the way of love of St. Francis, who shows us the path to true happiness with God that comes from perfect identity with the person of His Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. To him be all honor and glory, now and ever and forever. Amen.
 Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. and Donald Attwater, edd, Butler’s Lives of the Saints, vol. III (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, Inc., 1981) p. 576.