Dear brothers Provincial Ministers and Custods,
dear brother Franciscans in Europe,
brothers and sister,
Our Union – UFME OFM has been talking about its project Europe for two decades already. There has been a lot of undertakings in a variety of aspects within our Provinces and Custodies throughout Europe. In fact, this is true from our graceful beginnings when the Gospel became the forma vitae in our fraternal mission. Let us remind ourselves of our Franciscan past in Europe. How quickly Cis and Transmontania developed into respected Franciscan fraternities even during our Seraphic father’s lifetime, displaying great joy and mutual encouragement (Rb. 6). As early as the 13th century key Franciscans flooded Europe with their work, intellect, spirit, their tried and pure words, for the benefit and building of the people (Rb. 9). The brothers immediately recognized Francis extraordinary love for “God’s written words”, and from that love sprang numerous universities all across Europe, marked by names such as Alexander of Hales, Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, Pietro di Giovanni Olivi, Duns Scott, William Ockham, and many others.
In our Franciscan tradition theology is wisdom. It is in fact that wisdom which helps us turn the experience of grace into the strength for life and transfiguration of the world, especially in its hardships. That is why, when Europe was on its lithostrotos, when it was tied to the pillar and scourged, when it persevered in so many ways of the cross and Calvaries, the Fraticelli was always there. He knelt and prayed for his Europe. The Franciscans, through their sacrifice, have braved cataclysms, given lives, and added themselves to that prophetic number of one hundred forty-four thousand, who washed their robes in the blood of their Savior.
Have we grown weary? Ideals?! Only the Rule or the Rule and life?! Maybe we have given in too much or started to think that everything that has a beginning in history also has a death?! I know many of us have been deeply wounded by the Coronavirus; our fraternities, families, and friends. It is difficult. Fear of the unknown and unfamiliar, fear of loneliness, of death, and of ourselves. Not knowing when we will see our loved ones again, nor even knowing when we will be able to freely shake hands with someone we haven’t seen in a long time. Let us remember that in the small Sienna Testament Francis writes to the brothers living at the time, but also to all the brothers that will exist till the end of time. Even today he offers us his blessing.
The history of our charisma and the blessing of St. Francis teach us the following: if we kneel carefully before the tabernacle or the cross of our Lord, we will see that we have a lot of strength within us. That is because it is His gift (2Tim 1,7). With that strength we can lift ourselves after every fall and start anew.
Perhaps, never before, as in this pandemic, we haven’t stood united – together with the entire world – in prayer. May this become our most important project and guidepost! Let us kneel before the cross of the Lord, show our veneration and honor to the blessed Sacrament, give ourselves to God and pray. Old and young. Those with health conditions and the healthy. Let us direct everything temporal toward the spirit of prayer and adoration.
It was Friday and one man stood alone in prayer on St. Peter’s Square, where no man in history stood alone. On him was fixed the gaze of the world. Behind every window families, huddled one against each other, transfixed their eyes and minds on that one man, into that speck of hope, which he was offering us. Our Pope, Francis! We stood separated from one another, but never in greater solidarity. All of us brothers, all people of the Earth, all of us God’s children. All of us were humble and persevering in the same mind. Like a mustard seed if we had faith, we were told long ago. Now we count and multiply all of our little, life, mustard seeds, all of our silent and petit prayers along with all of our aspirations and desires. Help us, Lord, finally the entire world is praying together. Hear us, O Lord…
How many times have we, in these days, heard the word isolation...? How difficult that can be, to many unbearable… family, friends, neighbors, our religious communities… Our lives are comprised of encounters, but we know and perceive that those encounters can be deadly to us and to another. One religious exclaimed in recent days “and yet Spring is in full swing.” Life grows, despite that fact that ours seems to have stopped. Empty churches, places of prayer, streets and squares, so many places which mean so much to us. It is only now that we see how much we miss them.
Still, isolation has one more peculiarity: the more we are isolated, the closer we become to those we love, to that which we hold to be sacred. For many this may be the only opportunity to realize what it means to go into solitude, to retreat from the world, what it means to be isolated. We have talked so much about “withdrawing from the world” about “solitude” and “seclusion”. We made plans, and they failed before they even started. Why?! Perhaps, it is because we never honestly left the world. We never left it. We never truly isolated. In that isolation we never really knelt before the cross and became one with the Lord, and through him one with everything else with everyone we carry in our hearts and souls, which we have vowed.
Let us just remember La Verna and St. Francis – for days left alone on the edge of the ambis in order to feel “a part of the suffering that He felt on the cross”. That solitude and passionate prayer as well as his constant kneeling bound him to the Lord, with the world, with every brother and every sister, earning him the title Alter Christus. Our founder bound himself to the Lord’s passion so tightly that, having given himself to Christ completely, he himself became the Lord’s work and not his own.
However pungent it may seem, and at first inconceivable, Jesus was left in isolation, separation, loneliness, abandonment, and death. And that is exactly where life happened! New life! The Resurrection! Francis felt that that child from Bethlehem – Greccio, and the one who suffered on Calvary – La Verna was isolated, “segregated”. How isolated and abandoned must have Jesus felt on the cross that he even cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!” He, the Savior of the world, without any contact, socially distanced, nailed to the cross!
How many, even today, plead and cry from their crosses. Surely, you must know them. Alone, scared, deprived of everyone. Our inspiration must come from those suffering on the ventilators, in deep distress and aware that they are dying, cling to their Father, praying that He may not leave them. Filled with fear, with their dying breath they wish to spiritually hug their mother, father, spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend, child, and friend. Respected brothers, they are our true and current opportunity to start a project which will mirror our father, St. Francis. It was precisely his encounter with a man who is suffering, who was abandoned, a man filled with angst, fear and looking death in the eyes – the leper – that started his conversion. Along with his brothers, St. Francis, went into their communities and brought them food, cared for them, and spoke words of comfort, while spending with them their final moments. He longed to be in Christ’s identification with them because “I was sick and you visited me” (Mt 25,36)
In this time let us offer our loneliness, complete isolation, and lack of contact to Jesus! We have heard news that in one of our European regions an older priest arrived at an intensive care unit with a Bible in hand. Knowing that he is terminally ill he went from one dying person to the next, for as long as he could, and read to them verses of the Bible while holding their hand. Medical professionals, long having forgotten, their baptisms, first communions, and confirmations, grew to love their sick and old spiritual father. They say, after his death, they took his, and our, Book of books and continued to read to the dying, so that the words of hope should not perish.
It is in this time of great tragedy that the theological virtue of faith shines forth rays of light. We stand in hope that life shall return to our plazas, that shoe soles will once again ring against our streets, and that once again laughter shall be heard from our parks and street corners. Our churches shall once again be filled, and with joy and adulation we shall once again answer “and with your spirit” and firmly grasp the hands of those sitting next to us while thanking the Lord that we are alive and that we are there.
Before his passion, Jesus, retreated into isolation, and left everything in order to be with the heavenly Father. And if he called his Father, anywhere else except in the Our Father, Abba – Dad it was surely in the garden of Gethsemane, bleeding that night a sweat of blood, along the edge of the brook Cedron. Peter, John and James slept, they were in their own isolation. He kept calling to pray and be vigilant. That isolation in Gethsemane fortified him for everything that took place on that Friday.
We also beseech Mary, advocate and intercessor of our Order, the sorrowful Mother, who watched her Son in tears isolated from everyone, to look with her motherly gaze upon the multitude of her isolated suffering children. History marks a myriad of sorrowful and wounded mothers following the bloodied steps of their children. In Zagreb, Croatia, where the central church was almost completely destroyed, along with the monastery of our brothers from the Province of Zagreb, early in the morning on the 4th Sunday of Lent (March 22nd 2020) we watched an unforgettable scene as mothers ran out of the hospital onto the streets with their newborns in hand. Earthquake! Crying and afraid! Mary is always with those who suffer, especially with mothers. Let us join the Blessed Virgin, and with her meet, on the way of the cross, all those who suffer under their crosses. Let us ascend to the top! To Christ our Savior!
The Christ of our suffering is the Christ of our Resurrection! Let us follow the steps of His life, passion, death and resurrection. May the Easter song of “Alleluia” happen with lots of light, in the full strength of the Resurrection, in spite of all the pain, misery and tragedy of this world!
Brothers, to you, our Franciscan families, and all of those with whom we share space and time, Happy Easter!
Fra Miljenko Šteko, president of UFME