St. Bonaventure tells us that when Francis first heard the San Damiano Crucifix say to him three times: “Francis go and repair my house which, as you see, is all falling down,” Francis at first responded by “Repairing the material church,” in which the San Damiano Cross was, but in fact the “Principal intention of the words referred to that which Christ purchased with his own blood” (from The Major Legend of Saint Francis by St. Bonaventure, chapter 2).
Even though the principal intention of those words by Christ to Francis were indeed, as St. Bonaventure and history has shown, to build up The Church, the people of God, I cannot help but wonder if Francis’ first response to build the material church, was not a misinterpretation, but rather a common first step of the long process of building up The Church, the people of God.
We know The Church is not a building, but rather the people of God that make up the Body of Christ on earth. It seems that a rebirth of the people of God in an area, is often preceded by the building of a physical church building. I am reminded of the apparition of Our Blessed Mother to Juan Diego at Tepayac, Mexico, when she first told him that she wanted a church to be built on the hill where she appeared. Soon after the physical building of the small church was built, over six million native people converted to Christianity. To this day, a thriving Church, the people of God, exists in Mexico.
I am reminded of a similar, but less famous story, of how the building of a church preceded the building of The Church, the people of God. My Novice classmate, Br. Anthony Pham OFM Conv., was a refugee from Vietnam to the United States. He died of cancer a few years after our Novitiate. However, before he died, he raised money from the Vietnamese-American population in Southern California to rebuild the church in his ancestral village in the Nam Dinh Province of North Vietnam, that had been burnt to the ground at the time the country was divided into North and South Vietnam. Br. Anthony returned to the village, received permission from the Communist authorities, hired an architect and purchased the building supplies for rebuilding the church, which was then built by local volunteers. Ten months after Brother Anthony was greeted by Sister Death, on the Feast of St. Anthony of Padua on June 13, 2000, the rebuilt church building was dedicated. The event drew Franciscan Friars from the United States, and Japan, and many local people. This became the seed of a new Mission of the Conventual Franciscans in Vietnam. The St. Joseph of Cupertino Province in the United States oversees the Franciscan Vietnam Mission consisting of three friaries in both North and South Vietnam. Today the mission consists of more than forty Franciscan Friars from Vietnam, one of them, Friar Nhuong, was one of the local children present at the June 2000 dedication of the church in Hoang Tu Village. (Learn more about the Franciscan Vietnam Mission at Franciscanfriars.org/vietnam. Read the full story of Br. Anthony Pham OFM Conv., building of a church in North Vietnam, the seeds of the Franciscan Vietnam Mission, click here.)
After St. Francis had rebuilt the small church of San Damiano, he came to the place called the Portiuncula where stood the church of Saint Mary of the Angels that was falling into ruin. He repaired this church also, and came to love this place because of its humility (Portiuncula translates “Little Portion” referring to the small strip of land the church was on) and because it was named after our Most Blessed Mother Mary, the model of humility. This place (pictured on the right) became the beginning of the Franciscan Order. Francis would spend much time in prayer there, and would go into the streets preaching the Kingdom of God as Christ commanded in the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 10:7-13). Soon the Lord gave him brothers, who were attracted to his holiness of life, and wished to join Francis by following the Lord more closely. They all lived together in huts around the church, that they now referred to as “The Portiuncula.” In a short time after these beginnings, started by the building of the physical church, there were thousands of Friars, and the work of the Franciscans rebuilding The Church, the people of God, was well underway.
It seems to me that the building of the Spiritual Church, is often preceded by the physical building of an abode for God. I see a parallel in the life of every Christian. We must make physical changes in our lives, and construct an abode, to invite the indwelling of God through the Holy Spirit. We must repent of sin, and change the habits that keep us from God. We must set aside time for prayer and study. We do the difficult “work” of humbling ourselves before God, and learning about Jesus as we encounter Him in the Gospels and the Sacraments. Over time, these physical changes, make room for the presence of God in our lives. We become “Temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19). We become members of His Church, and share in His Mission of “Rebuilding the Church.”
This physical building in the life of a friar is summarized in the three Vows a Franciscan takes: Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. The vows, known as the Evangelical Counsels, summarize the Gospel life as described by Jesus in Mt 19:16-22 when the Rich Young Man asks Jesus what he must do to be saved. Jesus responds that to be saved, you must follow the law. But if you wish to be perfect, sell all you have, give to the poor, and come follow me. To completely give our life to God, the Franciscan Friar turns from the common worldly enticement of seeking material wealth, and takes the vow of poverty seeking to be dependent only on God. By the vow of Chastity, a Franciscan Friar seeks to detach from all pleasures of the flesh, and additionally, the good of married love and the raising a family, to be singularly dedicated to the God of Love and service to all His family. Finally, the Friar renounces the temptation to promote self-will and the seeking of worldly fame and power over others, and instead takes a vow of Obedience to God’s will, and to the community of friars. For the Franciscan Friar, these vows become the visible building blocks on which God is invited to build His invisible church.
Come and Join us on August 2, 2017, on the Feast of the Portiuncula, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Hermosa Beach, CA (244 Prospect Ave.) at 7 PM when Friar Joseph Martin OFM Conv., Chris Garcia OFM Conv., and Angel Garcia OFM Conv., will take vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. (Friar Joseph’s vows will be for life, while the vows of friars Chris and Angel will be for three years.) Join us at this celebration to learn more about the Portiuncula, Mary the Patroness of the Franciscan Order, the Vows, Franciscan Spirituality, and to meet many of our Friars from the west coast. See the “Upcoming Events” page for more information. (Pictured below: Joseph Martin center left in the first picture, and Angel and Chris Garcia the two rightmost friars in the second picture.)