On Saturday, some 3,000 members of the Franciscan family met at Castel Gandalfo with Pope Benedict to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Pope Innocent III approving their founder's first rule. The Holy Father called upon the group to seek personal conversion, and then, cooperating with the pastors of the Church, work to "make her face, as the bride of Christ, ever more beautiful."
The Franciscans meeting with the Pope had just completed the "Chapter of Mats," which celebrated the 800th anniversary of the approval of the first rule. The chapter was held in Assisi, Italy, where St. Francis drew together the first band of his followers to radically follow Christ.
Addressing the Franciscans on Saturday, Pope Benedict pointed out how the original band of 12 friars who first followed St. Francis of Assisi, has over the centuries become "a multitude scattered throughout the world. ... And I, as Pastor of the universal Church, wish to thank [God] for the precious gift you yourselves represent for all Christian people.
"From the brook that sprang up at the base of Mount Subasio, a great river was born which has made a notable contribution to the universal spread of the Gospel."
Francis, the Holy Father continued, "experienced the power of divine grace, as if he had died and been raised again. All his earlier wealth, all his reasons for feeling proud and secure, everything became a 'loss' from the moment he encountered the crucified and risen Christ. At that point abandoning everything became almost a necessity, in order to express the superabundance of the gift he had received."
Pope Benedict then went on to describe the focus of his meeting with the Franciscans as "the Gospel as a rule for life," and he highlighted how St. Francis "viewed himself entirely in the light of the Gospel. This is his appeal. This is his perennial relevance," he said.
"Thus," the Pope said, "the 'Poverello' became a living Gospel, capable of attracting men and women of all times to Christ, especially the young who prefer radical commitment to half measures. Bishop Guido of Assisi, and later Pope Innocent III, recognized evangelical authenticity in the projects of Francis and his companions, and encouraged their efforts, also with a view to the good of the Church."
However, the Pope noted, Francis did not choose to work against the Church or to adopt "a polemical attitude towards the hierarchy" even though this "would certainly have brought Francis many followers."
On the contrary, "his first thought was to place his own and his companions' development in the hands of the Bishop of Rome, Peter's Successor. This fact demonstrates his true ecclesial spirit. From the beginning he saw the little 'us' he had begun with his first friars as being part of the great 'us' of the one universal Church."
"The Pope recognized and appreciated this," added Benedict XVI. "In fact, he too could have failed to approve Francis' plans. And indeed, we may well imagine that among Innocent III's collaborators some advised him to do just that, perhaps fearing that the little group of friars resembled other heretical and pauperist groups of the period. However, the Roman Pontiff, well-informed by the bishop of Assisi and by Cardinal Giovanni di San Paolo, was able to discern the initiative of the Holy Spirit and welcomed, blessed and encouraged the nascent community of 'Friars Minor.'"
"Eight centuries have passed and today you wish to renew your Founder's gesture," the Pope told his audience. "You are all children and heirs of those origins. ... Like Francis and Clare of Assisi, ... always begin again from Christ ... in order to see His face in our brothers and sisters who suffer, and to bring everyone His peace. Be witnesses of the beauty of God, whose praises Francis sang while contemplating the wonders of creation."
"Go forth and continue 'to repair the house' of the Lord Jesus Christ: His Church," urged the Holy Father.
"Yet there is another ruin, an even more serious ruin: that of people and of communities," the Pope remarked.
"Like St. Francis, always begin with yourselves," he encouraged.
"If you prove capable of renewing yourselves in the spirit of the Gospel, you will continue to help the pastors of the Church to make her face, as the bride of Christ, ever more beautiful. Now as at your beginnings, this is what the Pope expects from you."