We’ve all heard the story. Francesco Bernadone was a restless young man, unable to find his calling. His dreams of being a heroic knight had turned into a bit of a nightmare after spending time as a prisoner of war. His father, Pietro, wanted his son to follow in the family business, but that didn’t interest Francesco, either. What to do?
He found himself wandering about the outskirts of his home town of Assisi in the hills of Umbria – breathtaking vistas at every turn, but he seemed to hardly notice. Until he came upon San Damiano, a little church in need of a good bit of repair. He entered and knelt down underneath a large wooden crucifix painted in the Byzantine style of an icon.
The open eyes of Jesus on the cross seemed to lock him in a stare that was both intimidating and beckoning at the same time. He couldn’t look away as feelings of doubt and fear, guilt and desire welled up within him. “Lord, what do you want me to do?” he asked. “Show me what you want me to do with my life.”
And the Lord answered! A voice as clear as the day responded: “Francis, go and rebuild my church which, as you see, is falling down.”
That was all he heard. That was all he needed to hear. It took a bit longer, however, to realize that Jesus wasn’t asking him to physically rebuild San Damiano as well as a few other rundown churches near Assisi. He did that, of course, but it gradually dawned on him that his vocation was to rebuild the church, the human institution that was perilously close to falling apart.
Today, some 800 years later, the Church is facing yet more crises and is need of a bit of repair. But amidst all the cries of anguish and anger we’ve been hearing of late, there are also firm statements of faith and resolve from folks who will not let the betrayals and disappointments distract them from their commitment to Jesus Christ.
Yes, the Church is divine, but also very human, and Jesus uses human beings in all their fragility and sinfulness to be the sacrament of his love and mercy in a world that seems to be increasingly unpredictable.
Like Francis kneeling before the cross of San Damiano, we need to keep our gaze focused on Jesus, who beckons us to follow him. Let us continue to do so, in moments of joy as well as sorrow, in the darkness as well as the light.