Dear Brothers and Sisters, I stand before you today as the last obstacle between your academic year of studies and your summer holidays! So, I shall heed the exhortation of Saint Francis to preach “con brevità di discorso, poiche brevi discorsi fece il Signore sulla terra” (Regula Bollata, chapter IX).
Slightly over one year ago, our former Minister General, Marco Tasca, visited my Province of Our Lady of the Angels in the United States. I arranged a unique Franciscan experience for him. We visited the laboratory of manuscript preservation at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. There, we were given the great privilege of viewing and holding the original Missal which Saint Francis opened three times at the Chapel of San Nicolo in Assisi in the year 1209. How that historical Franciscan artifact found its way to Baltimore is a long story, which time does not permit me to relate. Suffice it to say that the convergence of internal textual evidence and external historical factors has allowed the scientific experts to verify the authenticity of the Baltimore manuscript as the Book of the Gospels which Saint Francis consulted at the Chapel of San Nicolo in Assisi.
Today in Assisi, only the excavated ruins of San Nicolo remain – next to the Piazza Commune, or city square. It was to that small chapel in 1209 that St. Francis brought his first two followers, Bernard of Quintavalle and Peter of Catania. You know the story recorded in several Franciscan sources. The friars were seeking Divine guidance about the new way of life that God was calling them to embrace. When the three of them entered the Chapel of San Nicolo, they found a Missal on the Altar. Invoking the Holy Trinity, St. Francis then engaged in the common medieval practice of Sortes Scriptorum – the practice of consulting the Bible by opening it at random three times in a divination of God’s oracles. These three Biblical passages would form the core of the Rule of Life, which St. Francis soon after presented to Pope Innocent III for church approval. That is how our Franciscan Order was born. You can imagine the drama and emotions as I watched Marco Tasca, the 119th successor of St. Francis open the same Missal to the same three passages!
Permit me to elaborate what you already know through your academic studies as Franciscans. The first passage was Mark 10:21 (“Go, sell all that you have, and give to the poor” – Da pauperibus). The second was Luke 9:3 (“Take nothing for the journey” – Nihil in via). The third was Matthew 16:24 (“Let whoever wishes to be my disciple deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” – Tollet crucem). All three Biblical references are about the call to a life of Gospel Itinerancy – becoming beggars on the journey of life, giving up everything for the sake of God’s love and serving God’s people. Over 800 years later, that same dynamic of Gospel itinerancy, rooted in the Scriptures, continues to animate our lives as friars. In my studies of the Assisi Missal in Baltimore, I have noticed something very unique – about which I have never read a commentary. At the top of the very first page which St. Francis opened, the first two words are Dilexit eum – “[Christ] looked with love at him [the rich young man]”. Those words applied to St. Francis and they apply to us. In our vocations as itinerant followers of Francis, Christ has looked at each one of us with love!
Christ challenged St. Francis to be the “Gospel in Miniature.” St. Francis challenges us to be that same “Gospel in Miniature.” St. Francis himself is writing the scripts of our itinerant journeys, with God Himself as the Inspired Author behind all the scripts. All of you have come to the Seraphicum because you want to embody everything which is implied in the three passages of the San Nicolo Missal. Lads, you ARE the San Nicolo Missal of today! You want to live in solidarity with the poor of this world. Da pauperibus – “Give to the poor”: These are the words that leapt off the page as St. Francis opened to the first passage in the Missal. Lads, you want to dispossess yourselves of everything so that you can be free to serve everyone unencumbered. Nihil in via – “Take nothing on the journey”: These are the words that leapt off the page as St. Francis opened to the second passage in the Missal. Lads, you are realistic enough to know that this way of life is not easy, that discipleship means the way of the Cross. Tollet crucem – “Let each take up the Cross”: These are the words that leapt off the page as St. Francis opened to the third passage in the Missal.
We Franciscans of the twenty-first century must be as courageous as Bernard of Quintavalle and Peter of Catania in saying “yes” to God’s invitation that we follow the Franciscan Rule and become with Saint Francis a “Gospel in Miniature.” As we say our “yes” to God, the Divine Lord looks at each one of us with the same love that He had for the rich young man in the Gospel [Dilexit eum]. He recognizes how unique each friar is, and how different each friar is, how unique and different we all are, one from the other.
In our lives of itinerancy, modeled upon St. Francis, we need two supernatural gifts of grace: The Word of God, and the Holy Eucharist. Together, the Word and the Eucharist, are our “food for the journey.” Here at the Seraphicum, you have been nourished by both. Your academic studies have served towards the sanctification of your intellects, the motivation of your wills, and the formation of your mission in the Church – the mission of evangelization. As itinerants – the “gospel in miniature” – you have been inspired at the Seraphicum to radiate the Gospel which you have digested.
Just as Melchizedek, the king of Salem, in today’s first reading, stood before Abraham with bread and wine, and blessed our God most High, so too the professors of this Pontifical Faculty have fed your hungry minds and souls with a wisdom that leads you to the praise of God. This extraordinary Faculty at the Seraphicum has labored with love for the Franciscan sanctification of your intellects. They have given authentic Franciscan witness to the exhortation of our patron Saint Bonaventure: lest perchance any student “should believe that it suffices to read without unction, speculate without devotion, investigate without wonder, examine without exultation, work without piety, know without love, understand without humility, be zealous without divine grace, see without wisdom divinely inspired” (Itinerarium Mentis ad Deum, prol. 4).
The divinely inspired Providence of God has allowed today’s liturgy for the conclusion of the academic year to coincide with the Vigil of the great Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ. The Eucharist is the second supernatural gift of grace that has been nourishing your daily lives of itinerancy at the Seraphicum – a gift that will continue to sustain you for the entirely of your consecrated lives. Here at the Seraphicum, the Faculty, the Administration, the team of Formators, and the spiritual directors have repeatedly echoed the inspired words of St. Paul to Corinthians: “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread… took the cup… For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
In all of his original letters, extant in the early manuscripts, St. Francis of Assisi makes reference to the Holy Body and Blood of Christ. He never uses the Greek term “Eucharist,” emphasizing instead the concrete reality of Jesus’s sacred humanity, which nourishes us friars and the faithful – thus, transforming our weak, lazy, sinful humanity into something holy – making us fit to be bearers of the Gospel. Today’s Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ assures and emboldens humble little minores like us to radiate Christ to the world.
We know in faith that Jesus in the Holy Eucharist is “bread for the world.” He comes through us to the world as Real Presence, Sacrificial Victim, and Sacramental Food. Dear brothers and sisters, itinerants, Jesus has nourished you in the Seraphicum at his Sacred Banquet for a purpose – to transform us all into holy instruments for the transformation of the world into His Kingdom. He wants us, like the early disciples of today’s Gospel, to assist his continuing “multiplication of the loaves and fishes” (Lk. 9:11-17). When we let Jesus be our “bread for the journey,” He lets us be His “Gospel in miniature” for a world that is having difficulty recognizing Him.
Finally, with a touch of honest realism, permit me to say that I know your journey through this past academic year at the Seraphicum has not been easy – even with the great supernatural gifts of God’s Word and God’s Eucharist. Someone, however, has quietly and gently held your hands as step by step you have walked the path of knowledge and love. That “someone” has been Jesus’s Mother Mary. Saint Francis asked her to accompany him and Bernard and Peter and all of the early friars as their Mother, Queen, and Advocate. Invisibly, but powerfully, she still accompanies the friars of today.
With Mary’s maternal accompaniment, and Saint Francis’s intercession, the words of the English poet T.S. Eliot find a renewed application today, as together we give thanks to God for the academic year now concluded: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” (Four Quartets).